I awoke on my second day in Athens absolutely famished, but skimped on my hotel’s breakfast buffet, opting for just a simple dollop of berry yogurt. Although I looked longingly toward the sizzling bacon and fluffy made-to-order omelets at the restaurant’s frying station, I was preparing my palate for something much more delectable.
About an hour later, I got my fill — literally. With a group of about six other travelers, I set off on a walking tour of the city’s foodie hot spots with local operator Athens Insiders.
Our guide was Vasilis Lemonis, a local Ph.D. candidate in Athens who has worked in several of the city’s most renowned restaurants. His student research in the tourism industry focuses on the “geography of meaningful experiences” — that is, he works to identify the conditions needed for a traveler to have the most authentic, memorable experience possible within a destination.
One of these ways is, of course, through said traveler’s taste buds, which is why the tour operator makes an effort to customize each of its tours with a client’s unique preferences in mind.
“Since every person is different, so is every tour,” Lemonis said. “I always adjust my tours according to what my guests are interested in. At the risk of sounding cliche, my favorite place during a tour is the one that surprises my guests — the sweet spot that blends the familiar with the new.”
We began our tasting tour on Evripidou Street just north of Athen’s bustling Monastiraki Square, winding back toward the square through the city’s ancient streets while also weaving through crowds of late-morning commuters. After eating a few brine-soaked purple and green olives from a neighborhood olive shop, we arrived at Miran, a family-owned deli that has been an Athens staple since 1922.
It was at this point — when I was a couple hours past my dainty breakfast and suddenly overcome with a seemingly insatiable hunger — that I was slammed with a sensory overload.
The space itself is a feast for the eyes, featuring rows of plastic pastourma (seasoned, air-dried cured beef) replicas hanging from the ceiling. My nose perked at the sharp smell of cheese and the (real) dried meats behind the glass deli counter, and we were soon led to the adjoining restaurant’s back table, where a giant antipasti platter — featuring rice-filled dolmas, salami, three types of cheese (including feta), fresh bread and the deli’s famous pastourma — awaited. We ate ravenously while sipping on shots of ouzo, a dry aperitif that tastes of licorice.
As I stabbed a cube of tangy feta with my fork, Lemonis explained the cheese’s legacy in Greece: Apparently, if a bowl of the crumbly stuff doesn’t appear on the table, some locals don't consider the experience to be a proper meal.
We moved on from Miran to a few street-facing spice stands, then quickly transitioned from inhaling the spices’ aromatic odor to plugging our noses as we entered Varvakeios, the adjacent meat and fish market. The indoor-outdoor space is a far cry from a U.S. butcher shop, and most of our group walked with their eyes down, trying to avoid direct eye contact with, er, someone’s future dinner. (Note: If clients have a squeamish stomach, there’s the option to sit at a nearby coffee shop during this part of the tour.)
Greek residents incorporate meat heavily into their diets, and although gyros are most commonly served at U.S. restaurants selling Greek food, another fast food staple is souvlaki (grilled meat, usually pork, on a skewer). For this, we headed down to Monastiraki Square and the bustling O Thanasis restaurant, which was overflowing with tables of tourists and locals. Our waiter set down piles of meat skewers and pita bread, which we garnished with a squeeze of fresh lemon.
These meaty snacks disappeared within minutes, which turned out to be a good thing — a large Greek family was angling for our table the very moment we stood.
With our bellies full, we left O Thanasis for the tour’s final stop: Bougatsadiko Thessaloniki, a cafe to top off our meal with a cup of classic Greek coffee (sugar is added directly to the coffee as it brews) and a slice of savory, cheese-filled pie.
I sipped on my steaming cup and conversed with members of my group, many of whom had been complete strangers to me just hours before. We rehashed our favorite parts of the tour, and Lemonis told me that Athens Insiders does not take its guests to places that “locals go,” but rather to places that the tour leaders believe the clients themselves would go to if they were locals, rather than visitors.
I turned around in my chair and looked around the quaint cafe. In that moment, it wasn’t so difficult to imagine living in Athens and stopping at Bougatsadiko Thessaloniki each morning for my daily cup of joe.
But, feeling a slight discomfort with this turning motion, another thought crossed my mind: I realized just how full — and satisfied — I really was.