If I lived here, I’d be tempted to buy a few shopping bags’ worth of goodies. We’re seeing dozens of nut varieties, different nut butters grinded in front of us, 30 kinds of olives, 20 kinds of cheeses, 30 varieties of teas, beautiful fruits and vegetables, fresh fish, coffee coming out of a roaster, and on it goes. Fortunately, we’re on a walking tour of the Athens Central Market (Varvakios Agora) so we’re getting to nibble a lot along the way.
I’ve long wanted to book an experience with the international experiences company Eatwith but I always seem to have the time in a city where they don’t have much of a presence or the schedule isn’t right. So when they got in touch with me before my trip to Greece this year (I’m an affiliate partner), I knew Athens would be a great place to check out the local food scene with someone who lives there.
What sets Eatwith apart from other tour companies is that they’re food-focused through and through. Their signature experience is a big meal in someone’s home, giving you an opportunity to see what local life is like in the home instead of just seeing the food and customs through restaurant meals. We did one of those meals in a home—there’s a link to that at the end—but since I’m always focused on local prices on this Cheapest Destinations Blog, I wanted to go on their guided Athens market tour to really get some intel on grocery items.
The experience I went on is billed as the Greek Tasting Workshop & Food Market Tour. It’s listed as two hours, but our guide was in no hurry and it went a bit longer. The two other people on our tour were chefs from Barcelona who were in the city taking cooking classes, so we got to see it all through their eyes as well.
Kicking Things Off in a Greek Deli
The walking tour started at Zarkadian Delicatessen, one of the city’s famous delicatessens near the market. Most of the Greek delis in Athens are takeaway affairs where you come for your one-stop stocking up of cheese, olives, sausages, yogurt, olive oil, spreads, and wine—all the essentials for a perfect afternoon on the patio.
Some of them have seating, however, and if so that means you can order what you want and eat it there or have the Greek equivalent of a charcuterie platter with some different items to graze on over conversation.
After tasting some extra virgin olive oil neat, we dove into a mezze platter of meats and cheeses, along with samples of both local red and white table wines. You can buy proper bottles of wine in Greece that range anywhere from 3 to 20 euros all over, but for everyday drinking, it’s more common to get table wine from a jug, a box, or a plastic bottle. Ours was from the latter and you can commonly buy these for a few euros. The ones pictured here are €4.20 for 1.5 liters.
What’s inside won’t win any international tasting awards, but it’s decent and is usually available in dry and sweet versions of red, white, and rose. This is what you typically get in a restaurant if you order wine by the glass, in a 200 ml carafe, or in a 500 ml carafe. This is one of the best restaurant bargains in Greece: it’s usually cheaper to order wine with your meal, at just a few euros, than it is to order a Coca-cola or sparkling water.
We sampled the different sausages, pastorma, and cheeses at a leisurely pace, with our guide explaining what they were made from and how they’re typically enjoyed. Although Greece is best known for kebabs (souvlaki), feta cheese, and gyros, the delis and grocery stores actually stock a wide variety of different cheeses and cured meats to enjoy at home. We tasted a cured veal with garlic on the edges, a beef salami with cumin, a salami with spices, and a yellow cheese that was a mix of goat and sheep cheese.
I also learned about the hard bread toasts that you see all over in bakeries. They’re baked with olive oil and tomato, chopped, and then baked again. They’ll last for six months to a year, like crackers that don’t go stale.
We had a sampling of the Greek spirit tsipouro, a local hooch that’s not as well-known as the anise-flavored ouzo and for a good reason. You have to be hard-core to drink that straight for any length of time. We ended things on a sweet note with the always-tasty thick Greek yogurt with local honey.
Walking the Athens Central Market
Phase two of our Athens walking tour was the central market area, which is similar to other big city markets with a section for meat, fish, spices, nuts, produce, and more. I’ll spare you photos of the meat section as even this carnivore was a little squeamish about all the entrails, sheep heads, whole lamb carcasses, and the like. There’s quick turnover with all of it though in this busy place.
Next up was the seafood section, the Athens fish market, obviously an important shopping spot for a country of islands and coasts like Greece. Some of the items (like salmon) are imported, but most of what’s on offer is from the seas surrounding the country.
We weren’t sampling anything here, but then we headed out to the nut stands and picked up a few things to nibble on. Although they’re historic enemies, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Greece share one thing in common that’s a welcome site for budget travelers and nut lovers: a big stand where they sell you what you want by weight.
No matter what your favorite nut or dried fruit is, you’ll probably find it here in the Athens Central Market, with great prices on items that grow around the Mediterranean like pistachios, peanuts, almonds, hazelnuts, chickpeas, dates, and figs. You can also pick up candied fruits that are quite tasty and dried citrus slices like you would use in cocktails.
We had lots of questions, of course, and our patient guide filled in the gaps. He also explained what we were looking at sometimes and which items were culturally important, such as the “mountain tea” sold at all the tea stands, along with a staggering variety of other herbal teas made from local plants.
Other stands specialized in different items, such as spices, soaps made from olive oil, and loukoumi, better known to us as Turkish Delight. Our guide would regularly purchase a little bit of this and a little bit of that as we walked so we could get a wide sampling of what was on offer. I kept making mental notes of what I wanted to pick up for us later since we were renting an apartment for a while.
Our last stop was on the edge of the Athens Central Market to visit someone our guide knew well. We walked up to Sofos Olives to find an array of olives from all over Greece in a wide array of shapes and sizes. Some were large and fleshy, others green and tiny, some stuffed with peppers, garlic, or feta. We tried a few different varieties, all delicious, and noticed that the prices here were much better than we had seen in supermarkets. Most of the varieties were just €3 to €5 for a whole kilo.
Liquer Tastings at Polykala
Our last stop on the tour was a few blocks away from Varvakios Market at the tasting room of an Athens distillery with a long history. Polykala’s Distillery showroom is the retail outlet of a distillery that has been around for 125 years and 4 generations. The original owner’s great-granddaughter was there the day we attended and she provided background on the company, explained their distilling process, and offered tastes and smells of their varieties of liqueurs.
Polykala produces a wide variety of liquers, so you’re almost sure to find one that you like. Some are delicate, some are bold, but all are refined and make with care. They come in fancy bottles in different sizes too, so they’re a good gift to bring home if you know someone’s tastes.
I ended up buying the coffee one, but there were a few I liked a lot, including one made with sour cherries and one that’s hyper-local: mastika. It’s made from the resin of a tree that only grows on the Greek island of Chios. It’s an interesting, quite pleasant taste with hints of evergreen, one that’s hard to explain. Other flavors include cinnamon, hazelnut, lemon, and sage.
If you want to go on this Eatwith tour on your visit to Athens, visit this link to learn more about the tour and make your reservations. It is currently priced at €34 per person or you can book a private tour for your group. They also offer a variety of other experiences in Athens, including one we did that was a seafood dinner on a balcony with a view of the Acropolis.
Local food tours are a great window into the culture and they offer an opportunity to ask a lot of questions of someone who probably has the answers and gets paid to give them. This was one I would highly recommend.