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Athenscity by the sea

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Destinations with Andrew Zimmern// Athens

Athens Monastiraki Square Sky August 2010

Photo by Vangelis Beltzenitis

Whether it's markets or Michelin-rated restaurants, Athens has many hidden gems among its world-famous attractions.

Headlines be damned. Greece is still open for business. For many, Athens represents nothing more than a fling prior to hitting the gorgeous Greek Islands, but you’d be making a mistake if you didn’t spend more than a few days in the capital city to sample the jaw-dropping fare.

When it comes to culinary street cred, the French, Italian and Spanish get all the press, but Greek fare belongs in the conversation. Athens offers some of the best fish and meat in the world—all of which can be found at the agora, or central market. Locals stock up on insanely fresh seafood from loudmouthed fish vendors, cuts of meat from fifth-generation butchers and gorgeous produce. If you’re without a kitchen, pick up half a kilo of olives to stash in your hotel room. The market offers a stunning array of varieties and sampling is encouraged, so you’re bound to find something you’ll love. Ipiros, one of the few restaurants within the market, is a local favorite for rustic soups (try the magiritsa, a lemony tripe soup) and the deep-fried, fresh anchovies make for a perfect snack.

Athens does casual food well, the staple being souvlaki of all types: skewered beef, lamb, chicken or pork served on pita bread with onions, tzatziki and—if you order right—grilled peppers and scorched tomatoes. This dish is to Greece what the hamburger is to the United States, and Monastiraki Square, near the Plaka a half-block from Hadrian’s Library, is the best place to get your souvlaki on. Though many restaurants specialize in the dish, two legendary (and always packed) spots vie for top honors: Bairaktaris, run by the same family for more than a century, offers a full menu in its dining room as well as a quick-service takeaway for folks on the go. Thanassis boasts essentially the same menu. So which one is the best? Hard to say—eat at both and decide for yourself.

The Greeks created the word paraia to define a meal offering amazing food plus atmosphere, view, vibe and conversation to match. If your dining companions can deliver on discussion topics, Michelin-starred Varoulko has you covered on everything else. Chef Lefteris Lazarous meets with fisherman at the Piraeus market daily, creating a menu based on the freshest seafood he finds. The Greeks do a lot with eight-legged creatures, and his simple cuttlefish, octopus and squid preparations are out of this world. Try the ethereal twice-cooked octopus and the simple layered demitasse cups filled with layered shellfish, fin fish and saffron essences. The restaurant’s rooftop patio, with its unparalleled view of the Acropolis, may be the best place to watch the sun set over this ancient-meets-modern city.

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