Travel Greece: Guided food tour - culinary safari through Athens

Updated: August 2023. Reading time: ten minutes.

This article is about a food tour in Athens that tells about the history and culture of Greek food through the eyes of an Athenian. Find scented trees, try middle eastern honey pies, find out what Greeks eat for breakfast, learn about the importance of cheese, olives, and Mastiha, and spoon sweets while wandering the streets of Athens, visiting small independent shops, markets, and cafés.

One summer years and years ago as I stepped out of a plane and into the sunshine on a Greek Island, I decided that Greece is a seriously beautiful place, and whenever I am back in the country, I see I am right. People often ask what my very favourite cuisine is. Next to the great taste of food, I am equally fascinated by its history. Food connects people from all over the world, no matter their background. Who would have thought that there are so many details I didn’t know about Greek food and Greek traditions? Today there are dishes that are still as firmly anchored in the Greek diet as they were thousands of years ago. Centuries ago, Greeks cooked with grain products, vegetables, fruits, and olives. The Persians later added yogurt, rice, nuts, honey, and sesame seeds. Arabs spiced things up with for example cumin, cinnamon, and cloves. The Greeks then started enthusiastically using potatoes and tomatoes in their cooking when these food staples were first brought from the Americas.


Travel Greece: Guided food tour - culinary safari through Athens

History and Culture of Greek Food through the eyes of an Athenian

We meet on a sunny morning in the centre of town. When I arrive I become part of a group of ten people from all walks of life and from all over the world. We will be taken around the streets of Athens by the beautiful character Despina, who in the beginning tells us about this tour and how she had the idea for the first-ever guided food safari through Athens. She was sure tourists would want to hear and learn about the history of Greek food, and she knew that she wanted to guide people through her town. She created several tours from scratch and with that had all the ingredients in the proper proportion. Her vision became a reality when she founded Athens Walking Tours.

Despina believes that since we are going to share food, we all have to know each other, and before we start everybody introduces themselves. Joining a tour like this gives you the headspace to truly enjoy the day. You wouldn't need to check a map, and you can fully embrace every moment as you will get lost. We learn about the history and culture of Greek food from Despina’s perspective while she guides us with ease through the streets of Psiri. Discovering this part of Athens is an adventure. It is not Plaka or Syntagma Square but a neighbourhood that is pretty much off the beaten track for most day visitors.

Athens and its Heavenly Scented Trees

Close your eyes and imagine the smell of blossoming bitter orange trees. Thinking of Athens, the first thing that springs to mind is a heavy smog cloud hovering over the town, but how could I be so wrong? The spring air is pregnant with this very sweet smell. The orange fruit looks striking against the blue sky. Greeks use the peel for making marmalade, and they add lots of sugar to it. If the product tastes half as good as the scent of the trees, one is certainly in for a treat. As we talk about this fruit a priest walks by (carrying a ZARA paper shopping bag) and Despina changes the topic and gets us interested in the history of the Greek Orthodox church.

Brightly coloured oranges on a lush green tree in front of a brown-red byzantine-style church.

A Sesame Koulouri A Day

I don't know about your morning habits, but as a start to the day I drink Cappuccino, I sometimes eat croissants, and deeply ingrained in my morning routine is a bowl of porridge plus fruit. For (many) Greek people breakfast means a coffee and a cigarette, whereas a big breakfast means coffee and four cigarettes (I beg you to not try this at home). As utterly hair-raising as this is for non-smokers, eating food for breakfast, just thinking of beans on toast, is a concept that on the other hand will freak out most Greeks.

On nearly every third street corner in town, you'd find a street vendor with a small stall selling Koulouria. And after the Greeks had their early morning coffee, they would later eat one of these. And that is exactly what we do. And I can assure you they taste heavenly fresh. The Turks are just as crazy about this delicacy made from wheat flour, yeast, sugar, salt, and water, plus sesame seeds.

A bright yellow stall beneath a faded white-yellow striped umbrella of a street vendor.

Two large baked rings of white wheat flour covered in sesame, on a dark brown wooden board.

Middle Eastern Honey Pie at a Former Drug Store

We all look at the honey dripping from the loukoumades. After combining wheat flour, salt, yeast, warm water, and honey they have just been fried in vegetable oil moments earlier. They are surely a straight-to-the-hips type of food, but honestly, the moment they are offered to us I decide the cinnamon-sprinkled “mouth fulls” are too good to resist.

A golden-baked donut covered in honey and cinnamon served on a silver plate.

Markets – Greeks Love to Eat Vegetarian

There is this massive fish and meat market in Athens. We browse along the spotlessly clean kept stalls while we try not to fall on the slippery floor. Despina gives several warnings; everyone in the group is prepared to walk cautiously. There are butchered animal pieces literally everywhere. The hall doesn’t smell, that surely must be a good sign. We pass several hanging upside-down cow halves, their heads thoughtfully placed next to the corpse. The skinned sheep heads on the butcher’s blocks stare at me out of dead and almost black eyes. And then there are boxes and boxes of fish, big and small. I wonder where they kill these massive amounts of animals, I don't dare imagine it. Greek people are into meat but overall, they prefer to eat seafood, and they also love to cook vegetarian, and that especially when it involves beans.

The Boom of Independant Stores – All for One and One for All

People in Athens really stick together, to get through the crisis. It was expected that many small stores would shut their doors when the financial crisis hit but the exact opposite happened. With the crisis in its full force people from the rest of town started to buy goods at all the small stores in town and store owners are doing accordingly well. Despina shows us where to best buy dried lavender, mountain tea (dried leaves of ironwort), and a variety of herbs and spices that are used in Greek cooking.

At the Delicatessen: From Olives to Mastiha

In this country, there has to be olive oil in everything you eat. Greek food is cooked with olive oil. Full stop. If you fry goods you do this with sunflower oil and after that (immediately) drizzle live-enhancing olive oil on top. The concept of cooking with anything other than olive oil is sort of unheard of, and Greeks can't imagine what else one would want to use. Butter. What? Shaking of heads plus rolling of eyes.

Greece is after Spain and Italy the third biggest producer of olive oil. The olives grow particularly well in this pure mountainous climate in Greece. That Italy buys olives from Greece and sells it as their 'best oil' tells everything about the high quality of Greek olives. Olives are harvested, pressed, and bottled without preservatives.

I wonder why Greeks are so humble when it comes to their products and not marketing them more. The same goes for Greek cheese. There are 120 different types of cheese produced in Greece, and it seems that the only one people know is Feta, OK, one or another person might know Haloumi too. Despina encourages us to ask for regionally produced cheese every time we travel to Greece to also get to know the other 118 kinds of cheese. There are roughly 300 cheese varieties in France, and I am sure everybody can name many of them. Say cheese and people will think of France. Did you know that Greeks eat more cheese than the people of France per capita?

We sample huge chunks of Feta cheese with fresh farmhouse bread, thyme honey, and olive oil.

I'm in foodie heaven, totally inspired by all the smells and flavours, hungry to absorb every detail, and Despina happily reveals another Greek foodie secret. She mixes the leftover bread, honey, cheese, and olive oil in a bowl. Popara is simple, yet these few ingredients combined are another winner altogether.

After we sample our way through Black Olive Paste, a hot Capsicum Dip, Mustard, and chewy Spoon Sweets we finish our visit at the delicatessen with liquor made from the resin of the Mastiha tree. It smells like an unusual wild mix of herbs, and it tastes soft and lingers warmly in my mouth. With Mastiha the Greeks always had their very own version of chewing gum until someone introduced the convenient stuff from the US. The resin is popular for its health benefits and now it is fast becoming the new Greek super food. Despina later shows us a café where to best try Mastiha ice cream.

A glass bottle of Liqueur Mastiha Spirit, Mastic Tears Classic, decorated with white ornaments, on a green chequered tablecloth.

A glass of honey and a dark green bottle of olive oil on a dark wooden table.

The lids of 25 glasses with olive paste neatly organized in four rows.

Mandarins and Halva at the Fruit and Veg Market

The tahini-based Halva is from India originally, but it has forever been very popular in Greece. There are different varieties to choose from. And since the mandarins at the neighbouring stall are smiling at us too, we eat one of them as well. 

A bunch of dried red chillies and cinnamon sticks.

Let us eat pie

Pies are a true Greek food staple. The chef preparing the dough for the pies does this with very fast hands. He swirls the dough sheet several times around and high up into the air before he lays it out on the counter to fill the savoury ones with spinach and cheese and the sweet ones with semiola. We eat both varieties hot from the oven. They taste delectable. As we leave I look over my shoulder to wave the chef goodbye and he manages to wave back while swirling around the next dough sheet.

A baker dressed in a white t-shirt, a white apron, and a white head cover throws a large, thinly rolled-out piece of dough into the air. A baked piece of pie covered in cinnamon cut into pieces, served with three wooden small forks.

The end of the food tour through Athens

In the end we all sit down to eat a surprise dish. It was amazing to be around people who truly enjoy food and are passionate about it. My research adventure was supported by Athens Walking Tours. The four hours were hours exceptionally well spent, I learned so very much about the history of Greek food and left the tour hugely inspired to explore more of Athens.

A white small sized notebook with a drawing of a lush green tree in front of a temple under a light blue sky on the cover.

About Athens Walking Tours

The company launched in 2004 to provide small walking tours. The Culinary Tours range from 2.5 hours to four hours. Prices are between EUR 40 and EUR 80. Top Tip: Book in advance and go hungry. Please also note that during heat waves, Athens Walking Tours can only offer tours in the mornings.

The company offers many more specialised tours, for details on all tours please visit the website. Athens City Tour & Acropolis, Just the Acropolis tour, Acropolis, Ancient Agora & the Attalos Museum, Acropolis, City Tour & Acropolis Museum Tour, Sweet Bites and Sights (Acropolis & Plaka), Athens Wine Tasting Tour, Athens Cooking Lesson and Dinner. Find Athens Walking Tours also on Twitter and Instagram.

What you need to know to travel to Athens


Visa requirements for Greece

You can apply for the Greek Schengen Visa, as a Member State of the EU Greece is a member state of the Schengen Area. Visitors from the Schengen countries do not need a passport or visa, only a valid an ID-card or passport. Visit this website to see whether you need a Visa to visit Greece.


How to get to Athens

You can reach Athens directly by plane from most capital cities in Europe. Visit the website of Athens International Airport (ATH) for more information. The airport is 35 kilometres from the Old Town of Athens. There is a train service to town, the ride is approx. 45 minutes. Taxis are metered. 


Wi-fi in Athens

Wi-Fi is available in most cafes and restaurants and hotels. 


Best time to visit Athens

Athens is a year-round travel destination. Summers are hot and dry. Temperatures can easily rise above 40 degrees Celsius in summer. If you aren’t a fan of hot weather, it is probably best to visit in spring (March to May) or autumn (September to November) when temperatures are mild, and days are sunny. In winter, mountainous regions around Athens get snow and you can even go skiing.

Please note: As a result of the climate crisis, Athens experiences heat waves more frequently. Athens has an officially appointed Chief Heat Officer who ensures that the residents of Athens can survive despite the severe heat.

There are heat warnings which are categorized into three levels, dangerous, very dangerous, and extremely dangerous. The city's mobile app Novoville informs locals directly via text message. And via the mobile app Extrema-Global, one can find out where it's particularly hot in the city and search for cooler places, such as air-conditioned spaces. The app also tells users where to find fresh/drinking water.


Weather forecast for Athens, with temperatures around 40 degrees Celsius from Friday to the following week Sunday.

Weather forecast Athens 14-23 July 2023

Greece – Currency and how to pay

Greece is a member of the European Union. The official currency in Greece is the Euro. Exchange money on arrival at the airport, or get some cash at an ATM. You can pay in cash still almost everywhere in town (some shops/restaurants/cafes only accept cash though). Credit cards are widely accepted.

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