There’s an art to whiling away a morning or afternoon in the kafenion, the traditional Greek café. Read our beginner’s guide to blend in with the locals.
By Stavros Dioskouridis
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Traditional cafés, or kafenia, have been an essential feature of Athenian social life since the 1830s. Men still spend hours at their neighbourhood kafenion, talking politics or playing backgammon with a coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Though cappuccino culture and gentrification have driven many of these old-school establishments out of business, you’ll still find plenty of classic cafés in Athens. Most of them are no longer men-only and full of smoke. As well as a chance to taste Greek coffee and traditional spirits like ouzo and raki (always served with simple meze), these neighbourhood hang-outs offer a delicious immersion into everyday life in Athens.
Oraia Ellas is one of the most historic cafés in Athens.
Photo: Thomas Gravanis
One of the most historic cafés in Athens, Oraia Ellas is where the most influential public figures used to socialise in the 19th century. Living up to its name, which means ‘Beautiful Greece’, this resolutely traditional café serves coffee, ouzo and small sharing dishes with hints of Asia Minor, from early in the morning until 6 pm. The fact that it’s hidden away in a shop that sells Greek crafts makes it a popular spot with the city’s visitors. Don’t miss the views from the secret rooftop.
Friendly and peaceful, To Kafeneio is a throwback to old Athens. One of the most authentic places to eat in Plaka, this establishment has been housed in the same building since 1836. The tables on the pedestrian street are in high demand, but the cosy, antique-filled interior is a lovely spot for a long lunch, too. Ask for their daily specials, and if the pork in orange sauce is on the menu, be sure to order it. Also worth trying: aromatic meatballs in tomato sauce.
Louis is fairly new, but you shouldn't miss it on your kafeneio tour of Athens.
Photo: Manos Chatzikonstantis
Relatively new on the Athenian scene, Louis keeps the traditional kafenio alive in the increasingly hip area of Keramikos. The star of the show here is ouzo. Sip your way (slowly) through the 14 varieties, or select just one or two. (We suggest Babajim or Pitsiladi.) After a couple of glasses, you may even join in some of the animated conversations among the patrons.
This iconic kafenio was and is the meeting place of the Athenian literati. In the foothills of Lycabettus, Dexameni serves mouth-watering mezedes to accompany ice-cold beers or carafes of ouzo and tsipouro. We recommend the dakos (barley rusk topped with grated tomato, feta and olives), fava (pureed split peas) and lentil and goat’s cheese salad. This is a great place to bring your kids; they can run around in the square and playground right below the cafe.
Located on one of Athens' most picturesque streets in postcard-pretty Plaka, Klepsidra—which means hourglass—offers quite the opposite of what its name suggests. Time slows almost to a standstill in the beautiful outdoor seating area, which has wonderful views of the ancient Roman Agora. If you’re in the mood for something sweet, try their apple pie.
On the main square of Plaka, Kydathinaion opens early in the morning for coffee and homemade sweets, moving onto meze, ouzo, and rakomelo (warm raki with honey and cinnamon) as night falls. They even do cocktails after hours. Must-try: the slow-cooked pork dish from Mani in the Peloponnese.
Once a meeting point for the Athenian intelligentsia, this old-time kafenio is still going strong in its fifth decade. It’s not much more than a hole-in-the-wall. The owner, who is Cretan, named his humble joint after a novel by the great Cretan writer, Nikos Kazantzakis. Coffee, tsipouro and tasty little dishes of cuttlefish stewed in wine, scrambled eggs and baked cod are all served without much formality, but with plenty of personality. The prices don’t seem to have changed much since the place opened and neither have the family recipes.
Order a Greek coffee and prepare to spend hours at this idyllic spot.
Photo: Thomas Gravanis
Glykis is how you ask for Greek coffee when you want it sweet. The coffee at this hidden-away time warp is served with meraki (love and care), slowly roasted in a briki (a tiny copper pot). Sit at one of the tin tables on a peaceful Plaka side street and treat yourself to one of their home-made pies.
If you're looking for an authentic kafenio, look no further than beneath the mouria (mulberry tree). The painted green interior is unchanged for decades and the incredibly well-priced Greek coffee, rakomelo, and meze are sometimes accompanied with live Greek music. This place usually only closes for two hours a day, between 5 am to 7 am. A good spot for a coffee break after trawling the Saturday farmer’s market on Kallidromiou Street.
Make sure to check out the specials of the day, displayed as you walk in.
Photo: Manos Chatzikonstantis
A melting pot of people from all walks of life and all corners of the city, this café-cum-ouzeri’s biggest fans are the artsy locals in Mets, who use it as their weeknight canteen. Taxi drivers love it, too. As you walk in, check out the daily dishes on display, from baked aubergines to stuffed courgettes. The décor, the drinks menu and the atmosphere is genuinely old-school, but that’s the magic of this place, which is just down the street from the evocative First Cemetery of Athens.
Long philosophical discussions may as well be on the menu at this café named after the first institution of higher education in the Western world. Accompany your topic of passion with affordable, organic and mostly vegetarian dishes. And, of course, a strong Greek coffee.
Just a few blocks from Apostolou Pavlou, the pedestrian promenade that runs below the Acropolis, this calm sanctuary is located in a gorgeous 19th-century residence. Sit in the interior courtyard and order delicious sharing plates made with ingredients from small Greek producers. Keep an eye out for occasional live music and art events.