Exploring Greek food: five food tours of Athens reveal their secrets

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I still remember the first time I showed my non-Greek friends from university around Athens and their reactions to the quality and quantity of Greek nightlife and food. Athens was nothing like what they had expected and I was pleased that at least a few people I knew would leave this country having avoided all the tourist traps, with fond memories of the time spent in the Greek capital.

That was almost 20 years ago and much has changed since then. Athens is better than ever, despite the deteriorating economic conditions of the country and offers so many opportunities for a good time to visitors of every style and budget. Deciphering where to go and what to see needs very good planning and reading of guides, bloggers etc., as Athens is big and most tourists do not spend more than 1-2 days in the city, before leaving for a prettier island with sandy beaches and a less hurried life.

spice-streetIf you are planning to visit Athens and can afford not to be bothered with all the preparation, there a many tours offered on every aspect of Greek life, culture and history. Since my interests lie with food, I decided to check out five of the many food tours of Athens down town. Most of them have been given a Certificate of Excellence by TripAdvisor, if you consider such things of importance, and they all cover the Central Market (aka Varvakeios) and the surrounding areas. My intention was to see how my beloved city is shown to visitors and what one should expect when taking a food tour.  I also wanted to represent all budgets, so the food tours are shown starting from the cheapest (36 euros pp.) to the most expensive (135$ pp).

Before I continue, I would like to thank all companies who agreed to have me on their mokka-coffee-placetours for free, without knowing me personally and who trusted that I would present their tours honestly and without revealing their stops. This is something I believe is very important, as each tour has been designed with care and effort and could easily be copied.

I had a great time in every tour and learned so much about the history of my city and the foods I love. I also discovered new shops I didn’t know and eateries I had not imagined existed, small companies who make remarkable products and flavors I hadn’t explored as yet. I also realised something we all Greeks know deep inside, but refuse to accept: how much in common we have with our neighbouring Turkey in terms of food and culture and how much of this past still remains intact in the neighbourhoods covered by the tours.

Of course these neighbourhoods, like Plaka, are not what Athens is truly like and many Athenians I know very seldomly shop in the central market (they find it as intimidating as you will), or on “Spice Street”. They have their own trusted butchers and vegetable markets that happen every week around Athens (called the la-ee-ki), their local spice shops and of course the supermarkets. They also do not drink Greek coffee as much as they used to, and most people now prefer frappe or freddo, because they are cold, which is a plus during the hot months of May-October.

If you venture to the areas of Kolonaki, Exarheia, Pagrati or Kypseli and I hope that you will, you will see a very different Athens from what tours of any style and budget, cover. But that is not strange, because in every city in the world, central areas do not necessarily reflect the reality of everyday life.

So lets start our culinary adventure and see what each food tour has to offer!

Eating Athens

greek-olivesEating Athens is only a year old,  but it has already won its Certificate of Excellence by TripAdvisor. They only give food tours and for 36 euros they offer good value for money. George (Giorgos in Greek), founder of Eating Athens,  is young and full of energy. His love of the historical center started at a young age. At the beginning the walks were for Greek friends and foodies who wanted to know more about the market area and soon and the whole idea of the food tours was born.

George gives the tours himself and will take you to many small shops to savour goodies from around Greece. With the aid of a tablet you will also be given visual information about production procedures for each product you try.

All businesses on the tour were of good quality, mostly old shops that are already established. They actual food is not much, but everything was tasty. The tour lasts 3,5 hours and there are 6 stops in total where food is sampled, two of which are done sitting around a table: one for sampling traditional charcuterie and one at the end to taste an array of delicious desserts.  I had a tour in Greek, so I cannot tell you much about George’s knowledge of English. What I can tell you for sure is that sampling of Greek coffee, koulouri and souvlaki are not part of the tours (at least for Greeks), as they are considered rather basic.

Alternative Athens

lamp-streetAlternative Athens was founded four years ago by Tina Kyriakis and is now one of the leading walking tour companies in Athens. They offer many different types of tours (gay, nightlife, mythhological etc.) covering a wide variety of interests.

Christina, our tour guide for the day,  is a lovely woman with excellent English and a friendly demeanor.  Her previous connection to the tourist industry is a plus and she is very knowledgeable as far as Athens and its history are concerned.  This was the first tour I took and it was still the beginning of the season, so we were only two (three if you include the guide) in the group, which gave us the opportunity to chat and know each other better, making the whole experience friendlier and more laid back.

The total stops of the tour are seven, four of which are done sitting around a table: one for a Greek coffee, one for cheese and charcuterie tasting, one for traditional product tasting and one for souvlaki. I felt there was no real hurry and the pace was very leisurely, giving us enough time to savour the experience. The tour costs 45 euros per person and lasts approximately 3 hours.

Athens Walking Tours

athens-notebookAthens Walking Tours was founded in 2004 and it was the first company in Athens to have introduced alternative tours.  A few years later, in 2008, the Athens Food tour was born out of the experience of Despina Savvidou, a licensed tour guide herself, and our tour guide for the day. Today they run the Athens Food tour every day in groups of maximum 14 people. All of their tours have been designed from scratch by a very experienced team of licensed tour guides, because they like their guests to not only have a nice experience, but also correct and accurate information. Even for the food tour they use professional licensed tour guides.

The whole experience with Athens Walking Tours has a very professional feel: upon arrival we were given a pretty little notebook and a detailed map with all the stops we would make, while after the end of the tour a kind reminder was emailed to us to leave feedback.

The stops where you savour food are six (out of nine in total). Three of the stops takefish-market place around a table: one for loukoumades (the lovely syrupy donuts), one for a traditional dish (in our case meat-free, as it was Lent), and one for souvlaki. For the 3.5 hour tour the price is 49 euros.

The only downside I found in this tour was the large number of people (maximum of 14, that day we were 12) attending, which felt a little bit impersonal at times. However, Despina helped us all mingle and relax, proving just how important the tour guide is in the overall experience.

Big Olive

greek-coffeeBig Olive was founded in 2014 by Yiannis Zaras as a response to the general disintegration of many parts of central Athens and the effort made by certain groups to revive them. Big Olive has a more academic profile than other companies of its kind and very quickly has won international acclaim collaborating with institutes and universities around the world. Today their team is comprised of 20 specialists (historians, architects, archaeologists, photographers) and are active in Athens, Thessaloniki and Piraeus.
They offer tours with titles such as “Modernist Athens”, “The Orientalists’s Walk”, “Refugee and Social Housing”,  “The Honey of Mt. Hymettus”, etc. most of which are private (max. 2-3 people). Everyone giving their tours has a university degree and I was surprised to read that 40% of their clients are Greek.

Their tour is one of the longest in terms of ground covered, starting in Syntagma Square and ending in Omonoia. However, they still make 6 stops in total and the overall time is similar to the other tours (3.5 hours). Three of the stops take place around a table: one for sampling of traditional charcuterie, one for middle eastern street food, and the final one for dessert.

Our tour guide for the day was Elias, a soft spoken young man with excellent English, who has been born and bred in downtown Athens. His degree in History was the reason he gave us such detailed information not only about the food, but also about Athens and its political and historical past. The small group size contributed to the friendly atmosphere, while most of the places we visited have been the favourites among Athenians for generations. Big Olive’s “Athens Food and Heritage Walk” costs 55 euros per person.

Culinary Backstreets

culinary-backstreets-athens-guideFor those of you that haven’t heard of them, Culinary Backstreets was founded in 2009 by Yigal Schleifer and Ansel Mullins, two Americans living in Istanbul.  It originally started off as a blog called “Istanbul Eats”. After a year of writing about local and traditional places to eat in Istanbul, they also started offering small group food walks that incorporated many of the spots they had written about. As Istanbul Eats grew, the thought of applying the same model to other cities around the world. So, in 2012 Culinary Backstreets was launched, adding Athens, Barcelona, Shanghai and Mexico City to the lineup. Today their food tours take place in elven destinations.

The design of our Athens food tours were a collaborative effort between the founders of CB and members of the local Athens team, as well as academics, who helped refine the walks with extensive on the ground research. They really believe in telling the story of a city through its food and food culture.

In Athens there are three more food tours to choose from: “Backstreet Plaka: Exploring the Culinary Heart of Athens”, “Greek Wine’s Rebirth, Uncorked” and “The Moveable Sunday Feast”.

staniThe Downtown Athens tour starts in Omonoia and has a total of 10 stops. You not only get to eat a lot of real food, but you will also be given a small pocket-sized guide with interesting places to eat around Athens, in case you want to continue your culinary adventures.

The tour costs 135$ per person and lasts 5.5 hours, while many of the stops (a total of 6) involve a sit-down meal.  The other four also include tastings of local delicacies. The businesses chosen for the tour are mostly old and established with an interesting history. The walk is a long one and takes you through neighbourhoods that are off the beaten track, not necessarily “pretty”, but definitely interesting.

Our tour guide was Carolina, a young chef and history lover with impeccable English. She made us feel comfortable with each other and it was like having a friend take you around town! I liked the fact that we were asked whether we wanted to have the scheduled souvlaki stop, or try something else instead (we opted for the second option). The tour ends with a very tasty meal of fish and seafood in a traditional tavern near Syntagma square and you will probably not need to eat anything else until the next day! A couple of days later I was send a detailed questionnaire about the quality of the tour and of the guide.

Note: I was in a bit of a dilemma as to whether I would include Culinary Backstreets in this article, because I contribute to their Athens site now and again. However, it would be unfair not to, as it represents the high-end of the food tours and has, in my opinion, no real competition.

Final note:  there are food tours to cover every style and budget and I am sure that you will find the one suitable for you. The amount of food in every tour is proportionate to the price you pay, so the more you spend the more you will eat! Most of the eating is really sampling of goods and the only tour offering true, sit-down food is also the most expensive one, that of Culinary Backstreets. That said, you will probably feel comfortably full by the end of any of the tours and will not require another meal until early in the evening. And don’t be afraid to ask your guide for eating recommendations, they are always eager to give you extra tips!

I do hope that you will visit Athens and that you will have an enjoyable stay. Also, please feel free to email me with any questions regarding your trip, I would be more than happy to help.

 

 

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