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Where to stay

A calm oasis ideally located in the heart of Athens, this eco-friendly hotel in one of the most exclusive districts in the capital, overlooks one of the liveliest paths in Kolonaki, in the foothills of Mount Lycabettus. From here, you’re just minutes from designer boutique stores, gourmet delis and local cafés and a 20-minute stroll downhill to the Acropolis. Doubles from £140. 36 Patriarchou Loakim, 00 30 210 723 0000,

Electra Metropolis
Central, modern hotel where the past, too, is appreciated: the restored, 16th-century Agia Dynamis church is literally squeezed between two columns of the building. Just a stone’s throw from the main shopping streets, Syntagma Square and Plaka, and a pleasant 15-minute walk from the Acropolis. Choose west-facing rooms for the best views. Doubles from £310. 15 Mitropoleos Street, 00 30 214 100 6200,

Hotel Grande Bretagne
Long-established as a stylish meeting place for Athens high society, this elegant 19th-century building commands a prime corner of Syntagma Square, opposite the Greek Parliament and the beautifully maintained National Gardens. Close also to Kolonaki’s designer shops and all the main museums, with breathtaking views of Mount Lycabettus and the Acropolis. Doubles from £320. 1 Vasileos Georgiou A Street, Syntagma Square, 00 30 210 333 0000,

The Zillers
Created by Ernest Ziller, a major designer of royal and municipal buildings in Athens in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this classic townhouse has been converted into a smart ten-room hotel. High, painted ceilings, enormous windows and elegant wooden staircases have all been carefully preserved. Marble bathrooms enhance the historical grandeur. Doubles from £150.
54 Mitropoleos, 00 30 210 322 2277,

Travel Information

Athens is the capital of Greece and lies at the heart of the ancient region of Attica. Flights from London take around three and a half hours and time is two hours ahead of GMT. Currency is the euro and the language, Greek. English is widely spoken, though a few words of Greek are always appreciated by locals. August and September are hot, with an average high temperature of 30C.

Aegean Air flies from London Heathrow to Athens International Airport three times a day, from £240.
easyJet also flies daily to Athens from London Gatwick, from £84 return.

Discover Greece
has a wealth of information for travelling to Greece and its islands. Explore destination information, lodgings and tours available for booking.

Wines of Athens has information on the history of wine-making in ancient Attica and listings of wineries to visit.

Athens: An Eater’s Guide to the City edited by Carolina Doriti (Agyra Publications, £15) is an excellent guide to eating your way round Athens, courtesy of the Culinary Backstreets tours team.

Where to eat

Prices are per person for three courses, including half a carafe of wine, unless otherwise specified

Chef Alexandros Kardasis delights in regional ingredients. First courses include fish salad with tarama (fish roe) cream, cuttlefish ‘gnocchi’, gigantes (lima beans) in red sauce; mains of lamb leg with trahanas, grilled liver with green apple purée and orange. A well-priced wine list includes some wines by the glass, and craft beers, too. From £38. 15 Plataion Street, Keameikos, 00 30 210 346 2983,

Man-at-the-helm Alexandros Tsiotinis had no firm plan when he started as a chef, ‘it just happened’. After working in France, Denmark and Belgium, he has returned home to meld local ingredients with his knowledge of urban gastronomy. Seasonal menus, à la carte or tasting, change frequently; dishes like charcoal macaron with smoked eel, lobster bisque and milk-fed lamb with artichoke purée are to be expected. From £70. 14 Oumplianis Street and 27 Diocharous Street, 00 30 210 722 8812,

Electra Metropolis Roof Garden
Sourcing regional ingredients and preparing traditional dishes with a light, imaginative touch is what chef Theodosios Venetis does best. Try tuna tartare, lamb with anthotiro (‘blossom’ cheese), grouper with sun-dried Santorini tomatoes and round it all off with ekmek (pistachio cream and mastic-flavoured custard). From £34. 15 Mitropoleos, 00 30 214 100 6200,

Grande Bretagne Roof Garden
Popular rooftop restaurant and bar with an unrivalled view of the Acropolis. Chef Asterios Koustoudis uses technical skill and well-sourced ingredients to prepare deceptively simple dishes: carré and leg duet of lamb with artichoke cream, black garlic and herb-stuffed pitta; kakavia (fish soup) with ravioli and grilled scallops with cauliflower, raisins and almonds. Extensive wine list, with many Greek wines. From £52. 1 Vasiteos Georgious, 00 30 210 333 0000,

I Kriti (‘Crete’)
Small taverna hidden in one of Athens’ many arcades. No printed menu – dishes depend on what’s good in the market. They may include honey-marinated lambs’ liver, rabbit stifado, fennel pies, horta (wild greens) or tiny fried fish. Leave room for the spoon sweets that come with the bill. From £17. 5 Veranzerou, Kanigos Square, 00 30 210 382 6998

I Stani
Iannis and Thanasis Karagiorgos are the fourth generation to
run this galaktopoleio (literally, ‘milk shop’). Eat in or buy to enjoy later thick, creamy yoghurt, rice puddings, galaktoboureko (a syrup-drenched filo pie), loucoumathes, anthogalo (‘blossom’ milk) with honey. 10 Marikos Kotopouli, Omonia Square, 00 30 210 523 3637,

Café close to the entrance to the Central Market. Owner Nikos Psomas makes his coffee the traditional way – in a briki (brass coffee pot) over hot sand (hovli) – and serves it in tiny cups along with loucoum (like Turkish delight). 44 Athinas Street, 00 30 210 321 6892,

Souvlaki ‘O Kostas’
Costas Lavivas (motto: Oxi Agxos, ‘no stress’), grandson of another legendary souvlaki cook, works wonders in his small, busy shop. The souvlaki comes with yoghurt (not the more usual tsatsiki), parsley and onion wrapped in thick and chewy pitta bread. 5 Pentelis Street, Syntagma, 00 30 210 322 8502

Michelin-starred restaurant set amid an elegant house and tranquil garden. Angelos Lantos’s dishes include smoked eel with beetroot, yoghurt and dill, sea bass with celery mousseline, milk-fed lamb, pea and lemon, and patisserie. Good international and Greek wine list. From £97. 5 Pirronos Street, Pagrati, 00 30 210 756 4021,

To Laini
Michalis Psomadakis serves Cretan country food with flair in this small café. Try the sfakia pie (‘sour’ fresh cheese in a pancake), snails with rosemary, wild artichokes in olive oil, and rabbit with hilopittes (pasta). From £15. 40 Artemisiou Street, Kerameikos, 00 30 211 402 1485

In his light-filled waterfront restaurant, chef Lefteris Lazarou (who received Greece’s first Michelin star, in 2002) prepares fish mezes of grilled cephalopods (octopus, squid, cuttlefish), marinated anchovies, proper taramosalata and barbounia (red mullet). From £30. 52 Akti Koumoundourou, Piraeus, 00 30 210 522 8400,

This Greek bistro near the National Gallery uses traditional wood- fire ovens for its modern take on regional dishes. Try octopus drizzled in olive oil with spiced lemon and black garlic and goat neck with wild greens. A late-night hotspot, the last food orders are taken at 1am. From £66. 11 Vrassida Street, 00 30 210 723 2002,

Food Glossary

Vine leaves stuffed with rice and herbs, and sometimes meat, raisins, pine nuts. Cabbage leaves and courgette flowers are also prepared in the same way
Syrup-drenched filo pie filled with semolina custard flavoured with vanilla
Literally, ‘stuffed’; on a menu it means stuffed vegetables
Large lima beans; also the name of the finished dish when they are cooked
Glyko tou koutaliou
Fruits – grapes, morello cherries, orange peel – citrus blossom, green walnuts, tiny vegetables traditionally preserved in honey, today in sugar syrup
Fish soup. Ingredients change with the regions and depending on the catch of the day
Small, deep-fried doughnuts doused in honey and often sprinkled with cinnamon
The name of a small frying pan which gives its name to a dish of cheese, shrimps, mussels which are fried in it
Refreshing drink made from almonds
Popular street food of chunks of pork grilled on a stick (souvla) served with pitta bread, yoghurt, tomatoes, onions
Rabbit or hare stew, with an equal quantity of small onions and meat in a sauce of olive oil, tomatoes, vinegar and cinnamon
Made properly, with salted fish roe (tarama, the broken pieces of avgotaracho, a whole salted, dried mullet roe), slow-fermented bread and quality olive oil, it’s a very different dish from the fluorescent pink, salty glop on our supermarket shelves
Wheat soaked in yoghurt or soured/fermented milk and dried in the sun. Used in soups, stews, pastries or eaten like porridge

Food and Travel Review

From my café chair, the greenery cascading from the high stone walls of Athens’ Roman Forum resembles draped curtains. Closer, I see large, pink and mauve flowers, already shrivelling in the noon heat, and many tight buds. Capers. Searching further, the nearby remains of the Ancient Agora (marketplace), reveal a carob tree, sprawling fig trees and dark green pomegranate bushes. I’m stung by a nettle (tsouknides), which makes me notice dandelions (askolymbros) growing among the ruins, purple-flowering mallow (molocha), bitter chicory (radiki), purslane (glystritha), Spanish oyster plant (skolimvros) and stamnagthis, or ‘the water jug thorn’, named for its use as a stopper in the clay pots of antiquity. I’m walking among the fruits of the past, and horta, or wild greens, that would have been traded on this very spot over two millennia ago.

Looking up towards the 156m-high Acropolis – the dramatic rock that supports the Parthenon – I see the outline of a path tracking out of the agora – the route taken by hundreds of cows when they were led up for ritualistic slaughter. It is a reminder, right in the centre of modern Athens, of just how important the market was to the ancients. Agora means ‘philosophy school’, too, and it was here the great philosophers chatted, ate, drank and came up with their theories, many of which still provide insights today. While theories of that calibre mostly elude my daily thoughts, it does occur to me that we’ve corrupted the meaning of other Greek food-related words, too. For the ancients, diet meant ‘way of life’, not calorie counting, and gastronomia (gastronomy), ‘the art and science of good eating’.

Today’s Athenian agora, the Central Market, lies a 15-minute walk to the north. Even in the 1970s this huge, block-long market was the beating heart of Athens, right at the centre of its daily life. Then, the city’s restaurants and tavernas relied for their offerings on whatever was being sold: lamb in spring, small game in winter, for there was little refrigeration and fresh food quickly perished; time and money wasn’t wasted on scribing menus. Modern life has since intervened; city land has gained value, work hours have changed, supermarkets infiltrated and the market has shrunk, but it hasn’t disappeared. It’s still the go-to place when an Athenian cook needs some special local product or utensil. A new breed of chefs, however, has found another source of food. ‘One interesting effect of the recent economic catastrophe is the growth in the number of good small producers,’ explains Asterios Koustoudis, chef at the Grande Bretagne Hotel. ‘We have a lot of salted ingredients because of our need to preserve. These flavours of the past, which we naturally turn to, can be very dominant.’ Koustoudis cooks with seasonal ingredients from the market, and high-quality regional products: ‘You need to know your ingredients – paximathia (rusks) from Kythera (an island south of the Peloponnese), for instance, are unique in flavour, and also not so tooth-breaking as Cretan paximathia.’ A native of Thessaloniki, he loves citrus flavours and sees virtue in the bitter nerantze (similar to the Seville orange, inedible when raw), whose trees line the streets and fruits are turned into a sumptuous spoon sweet, glyko tou koutaliou, along with other citrus such as bergamot, lemon blossom and tiny green oranges. ‘I use Greece’s many native herbs to give my food balance, and I have very good olive oils to choose from. I keep four or five in my kitchen, an oil with low acidity is right for pies, for instance, as its flavour doesn’t overwhelm.’ Greece is the third-largest olive oil-producing country in the world and produces most of the world’s extra virgin olive oil.

Greek cuisine has its roots in family. Koustoudis’s understanding of food comes from his mother. ‘When I was a child, I once asked her what was for lunch. She said “go to the garden and tell me what to cook”. I found tomatoes and green beans and I came back and told her fasolada (bean stew). She asked me how I was going to make sure we could eat fasolada again. That was when I learnt that you have to keep something back “for tomorrow”.’

Ingredients are on the mind of chef Alexandros Kardasis of Athiri restaurant, too. He seeks out those with PDO status such as Santorini capers and fava and Kozani saffron. Together with the regional cheeses he sources – kasseri from Xanthi, Cretan graviera – he’s able to bring the true tastes of the regions to his restaurant. Why cook? I ask. ‘I woke up one morning and thought I’d like to.’ Like many other good chefs working in Athens today, Kardasis has worked in kitchens abroad. These chefs know they are very fortunate in the quality of the ingredients they can get here; they are also happy that Greek wines have undergone a renaissance.

It was the resin of the Aleppo pine (native to Attica, the region surrounding Athens) that enabled the traders of antiquity to seal amphorae (large clay pots) and export wine. Athens became the centre of the ancient wine trade, as well as the centre for drinking it. ‘Retsina is an acquired taste and only the Greeks seem to have acquired it,’ explains Anne Kokotos, of the estate Ktima Kokotou, with a smile. For, in the past, all the wines of the ancient Mediterranean world would have tasted of resin. Those of us with wonderful memories of the Greek islands in the Sixties and Seventies also remember with a little less affection the ferries that took us there, and the cheap retsina with which many of us fuelled our trip.

Modern retsina, fresh-tasting, and made from the local savatiano grape varietal, is a very different drink, Kokotos continues. ‘All Attica wineries are close to the sea. The land, dry with a whiff of sulphur, nutrient-poor but mineral-rich, has been farmed for millennia. Savatiano is robust, with an ancient pedigree, and has always benefitted from the sea breezes. It’s still a popular “base grape” for many blends, but that’s to ignore its own character, which is one of good drinking with many of the flavours of antiquity such as salted and dried fish and meat, vegetables in olive oil and goat’s cheese.’ Attica vineyards are family owned, some by many generations. The grandfather of oenologist Stamatis Mylonas used to make his wines in amphorae. Stamatis makes his retsina with the assyrtiko varietal (native to Santorini), which grows well in the limestone soil.

The modern world has brought changes to a distinctive Athenian food life as well as to the market. There used to be hundreds of milk shops (galaktopoleio) as recently as the 1960: now only a few remain. Just off central Omonia Square I sample foods surely fit for the gods: anthogalo (anthos: flower, or blossom, gala: milk) with thyme mountain honey and sheep’s-milk yoghurt I can cut with a knife. I’m on a culinary walk in downtown Athens with local guide Carolina Doriti. At another of our stops, my usually absent sweet tooth comes back to life when we sample pistachio marzipans. Glorious green, and made-for-christenings quince jellies, prune sweetmeats, syrup-soaked, tiny green oranges, and baklava to rival the best on Lesvos (well-known the delicacy), made by a master zacharoplastis (sugar sculptor) from the island.

Neither do I need much encouragement to try the crusty brown bread Dionysos Kotsaris offers me in his family-run bakery. ‘My mother had to walk two hours to the water mill, to have her emmer (zia) wheat ground. She kneaded the bread for three hours and lit the oven only when the dough was ready. I learnt the whole process of bread-making with her, from planting the seeds to baking. We had no thermometers in those days and I still judge temperature by checking the bricks lining the oven: the right moment is when they become shiny.’ Tasting a bread with myzithra (fresh) cheese and tomatoes it’s a joy as old as Athens itself.

These traditional food shops that remain, along with old places to eat and drink, mezedopoleio (for mezes, or small bites), psitaria (grill houses), oinomageirion (classic cooking, with daily dishes), ouzeri or tsipouradiko (serving meze with ouzo or tsipouro, like schnapps), are popular, proving perhaps that many appreciate the food of generations past. Even the traditional kafenion (café) is making a comeback. Our walk takes us through Central Market, with its splendid displays of fish, seafoods, meat and offal, some not for the squeamish. Then it’s time for coffee. Just outside the main market entrance, we sit down to a divine aroma of coffee beans roasting a blond roast which leaves them almost raw on the inside, retaining the natural oils. Greek coffee is made the same way as it is throughout the old Ottoman lands. In an appropriate-size briki (long-handled brass pot, tapering towards the rim), the proprietor spoons in measured, freshly ground coffee, then adds cold water and sugar. He places the briki on hot sand and covers the open pot close to the rim; when the coffee bubbles, or ‘eyes’ as they are called (the more eyes, the more luck), he serves it hot. Connoisseurs are familiar with many variations, but mostly three are offered – sketos (without sugar), metrio (a little sugar), glyko (sweet). In keeping too with ‘the Ottoman way’, the coffee comes served with a small dish of loucoum (similar to Turkish delight).

Chef Lefteris Lazarou, has brought his restaurant Varoulko close to the harbour. ‘My thoughts on the evolution of gastronomy all trace back to the sea.’ He, too, searches for the best flavours throughout Greece: ‘The olive oil I use comes from Sparta (Laconia); it gives a spicy kick that’s good with fish. A producer in Argos grows fine, plump olives for me.’ Increasing demand has made fish less plentiful and more expensive, but the fine fish that were once known to the chefs of classicism are still here: barbounia (red mullet), christopsaro (John Dory), fagri (bream), synagritha (dentex), zargana (garfish) and achinoi (sea urchins),

xtopothi (octopus) and soupia (cuttlefish). Lazarou, like the chefs ofold, flavours simply with tomatoes, wine, garlic and parsley and never neglects the liver and cheeks of his fish.

The skills of the city’s good chefs today are firmly rooted in the country’s food story. ‘The economic crisis of nine years ago has brought changes in the way guests view and enjoy food. Now, people want good ingredients with fewer distractions,’ chef Angelos Lantos says. He’s happy: ‘I’ve been able to take control of the menu in a different way. I put on the table the good food that is produced on the farm. Of course, a producer may have to invest to meet my requirements. But I know my responsibility. The menu today is led by the guest wanting simplicity, but it’s the chef who realises their desire.’ Just as they did in ancient times.

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