Remember that video I posted on Instagram last week which featured a baker making fresh phyllo dough? Well, that was in Athens, Greece! I took a 10 day trip to Athens and Santorini toward the end of April and just got back last week. The trip was fantastic; I learned about Greek history, culture, food, and thoroughly enjoyed the warm weather and absolutely gorgeous Mediterranean waters. I have so much to tell you, so get comfy 🙂
My trip started in Athens, where I stayed in a neighborhood called Kolonaki, for 4 nights. We stayed in a beautiful loft-style apartment which had a great view of the entire neighborhood as it was on the top floor of the building. This was the perfect place to stay because we were away from the touristy part of town, but just a metro ride away if we wanted to be in the center of town. On our first day in Athens, we explored the historical sites: the National Archeological Museum and the Acropolis. We didn’t have a tour guide, but we downloaded the Rick Steves app on our phones which did a really good job at explaining the history to us.
The best part of our stay in Athens was the food tour (done on the second day), which lasted about half a day. I booked the tour through Viator (you can find it here), and our tour guide’s name was Despina. She integrated a lot of history in her explanations of all the food which really helped us understand how Greek food came to be what it is today. Here are some fun facts that I remember from the tour:
- The olive oil produced in Greece is the best in Europe, even surpassing that of Italy. In fact, olive oil producers in Italy and other European countries purchase olive oil from Greece, and mix it with their own second class oil, and label it the “best of Italy.” There are over 110 million olive trees in Greece, the highest in any country!
- Greek food is heavily influenced by the countries it is surrounded by. There are heavy Turkish and African influences. Many of the foods in Greece today came to be what they are because of trade; for example, vegetables and spices like eggplant, tomatoes or cinnamon were never in the early Greek diet, but now are a main part of Greek cuisine because of trade.
- Greek people don’t really have a “breakfast.” Most people just grab some kind of bread and/or coffee and eat it on the go. A popular bread is called “koulouri” which is shaped like a ring and covered in sesame seeds. It’s pretty plain, but sold everywhere around town. Given its simplicity, the bread is even eaten when one is feeling unwell, after church, and then of course, in the mornings.
- Lunch and dinner are huge meals though. Dinner is eaten later than usual because families wait for everyone to be ready for dinner since it is eaten together. For this reason, restaurants are open super late (this worked in our favor because we took naps around 6 or 7 till about 9pm due to our jet lag!).
- Drinks are never consumed in a rush. If Greek people drink together, it will be in a relaxed setting where drinks are enjoyed and never guzzled down. This is one of the reasons Greece has the lowest alcoholism rate.
- Coffee more popular than tea in Greece. There is only one kind of tea that is largely consumed in Greece, and it’s called “mountain tea.” It’s made up of dried flowers that grow in the mountainous regions in Greece.
- The most popular (and inexpensive) fast food in Greece is known as “souvlaki” which essentially means skewers. They’re not technically Greek because souvlakis are consumed in many countries surrounding Greece. Souvlakis consist of some kind of skewered meat, served with pita bread, lettuce/tomato/onion, a yogurt dressing, pita bread, and fries.
- Greece has a dessert that’s inspired from India, and guess what it’s called? Halwa! While Indians eat halwa warmed up and in a mush, the Greek serve it cold, in cubes. It’s traditionally made from semolina, but it’s also made from other flours and flavored with all sorts of ingredients in Greece. I was so surprised to learn of this. It’s super cool how one place can adapt another country’s food and make it its own.
During the food tour, we tried olive oils, feta cheese, and a Greek aperitif called ouzo. We also visited the meat market (a little traumatic for me!), the fruit and vegetable market, the spice market, a pharmacy-turned-bakery where we tasted delicious Greek donuts, and my favorite stop was at a restaurant where we tried a delicious pea dish made simply from peas, onions, tomatoes, potatoes and carrots, all cooked in olive oil and to be eaten with crusty bread:
Now back to the phyllo dough: did you guys see that video I linked at the beginning of this blog post? That was one of our last stops during the food tour. Along with making spinach pies, the Greek also make sweet pies and fill the dough with custard and sprinkle the cooked pie with powdered sugar. I don’t remember what it was called but this tasted so decadent:
Our mornings in Athens started with something called a spinach pie, which is essentially a breakfast pastry made of phyllo dough and stuffed with feta cheese, spinach, onions, and dill. We got really tired of eating this every morning because we’re so used to eggs/cereal for breakfast! So eventually, we ended up going to the store to buy breakfast ingredients and made our own breakfast in the mornings. However, the spinach pies are pretty cheap, so if you don’t mind eating them every morning, they’re a perfectly good way to start your day.
My favorite part about Athens was a neighborhood called Plaka. Granted, it’s a little touristy, it’s still a great way to spend an afternoon just getting lost, shopping, and admiring the architecture of the buildings. The streets are the most European you’ll find in Athens.
On our third day in Athens, we left the city for a quick day trip to Nafplio, which used to be the capital of Greece in the 1800s. This was one of my most favorite spots. It’s a tiny little town, located near the water. We spent the day roaming the streets, going up to the Palamidi castle (via taxi!) and then climbing the 999 steps down, and taking a walk near the waters.
We also tried greek coffee and beer in a very cute coffee shop called Mavros Gatos. My favorite type of coffee drink quickly became the cappuccino freddo! It’s made up of a couple of shots of espresso topped with a super creamy foamed milk. Every coffee shop you go to has this drink and they even sweeten it for you. It was perfect given the warm weather. I found the Greek coffee (I wonder how this is different than Turkish coffee) had a suuuuper earthy flavor. So much so that I thought there was definitely some amount of mud mixed in! I know, sounds gross, but it was actually delicious.
While in Nafplio, we ate lunch at Greece’s first restaurant (supposedly), called Ellas Restaurant. Here, we lunched on a traditional Greek salad, tzaziki, gemista (which are stuffed tomatoes), and green beans. The gemista and green beans had a good amount of olive oil in them, making them quite rich but very yummy.
One of my most favorite things to eat in Greece was tzaziki. I’m addicted! Tzaziki is a really simple yogurt dip made from thick, fresh, Greek yogurt, cucumber, garlic, dill, lemon juice, and olive oil. We ate this almost everywhere we went with warm pita bread. It tasted pretty similar across the board, but I distinctly remember eating it in Santorini, at Lucky’s Souvlaki, where we had an AMAZING falafel sandwich (see pic below!). Souvlakis are perfect to eat in Greece when you’re on a budget. Two people can easily eat a lunch for 5 euros or less!
Our last day in Athens was spent lazying around the University of Athens, trying different coffee shops, and exploring Ermou street, where all the major shopping is. That evening, we were off the Santorini, the most awaited part of our trip. Santorini is a quick, 45 minute (gate to gate) plane ride from Athens. We stayed in Oia (pronounced ee-ya), a very picturesque town on the northwest side of the island, perched on the cliffs, right next to the water. Take a look:
Our agenda for Santorini was just to relax, enjoy the view from our apartment (which was a white cave house overlooking the water!) and explore Oia and the nearby towns. While roaming the streets of Oia, we came across a tiny coffee shop that served beer made on the island, from the Santorini Brewing Company. I’m really not a beer person, but I tried the Red Donkey beer, an IPA, and I was hooked! I haven’t tasted beer like this in the states (I’m sure I can find it, though), but there was just something about it…so I had it three times, once each day we were there. We also did some wine tasting in Oia at a place called Vineyart. The server explained the different varietals that are grown in Santorini and served cheese and bread along with the tastings.
By this point in our trip, we were really tired of eating Greek food, and luckily, Oia had a fantastic Thai restaurant, called Paradox. Maybe it tasted good because we hadn’t had real spicy food in a while, or maybe it WAS actually a good restaurant (I’m going to go with the latter), but we enjoyed it very much and ended up going there two nights for dinner.
It was in Oia where we got to try the traditional feta cheese wrapped in phyllo dough, which has then been fried and drizzled with honey and topped with sesame seeds. We tried this at a restaurant called Karma, located in the back streets of Oia. Look at how beautiful:
We also tried the Kolokithokeftedes, which are basically zucchini fritters, from the island of Crete. They are really crispy on the outside, but very soft on the inside. Here they are:
On the second day in Oia, we spent an afternoon in Ammoudi, a town located about 200 steps down from Oia, where I got to take a quick swim in the bay. I was hoping to jump off a cliff into the water nearby but the water in that area was a little choppy that day, so I decided not to risk it. Nevertheless, the quick swim was refreshing and the waters were beautiful! After the swim, we stopped for a light lunch at a restaurant near the water (if you’re a seafood lover, you’ll love the restaurants here!). We tasted a dish called ntakos (pronounced dah-cose), again from the island of Crete, a kind of Greek bruschetta, if you will. It’s made of crusty bread, called rusk, topped with fresh tomatoes, capers, olives, feta cheese, and in the plate we had, there were also some kind of leaves that had been pickled. This dish was very filling and flavorful. We paired it with fried zucchini and of course, tzaziki.
After 4 nights in Santorini, we went back to Athens for one last night and spent the day just taking it all in, feeling extremely grateful for the chance to visit such a stunning and vibrant country. Athens gave us history and charm, Nafplio showed us sky-blue waters and romantic streets, and Santorini let us experience small slice of paradise. We left with heavy hearts, knowing that if given the chance, we would be back instantly.
If you go to Athens and/or Santorini, I hope you find this post helpful! Plus, here are some other restaurants I ate at, when I got a little tired of the Greek cuisine: