The central Athens food market occupies a large block between Athinas, Sofokleous, Euripidou and Aiolou Streets. Plans for construction began in 1876. Back then, the market was mostly open-air and vendors sold their goods from shacks around the Roman Agora nearby. The cost of construction was covered by a donation from benefactor (and caviar importer) Ioannis Varvakis, who gave the market its Greek name: Varvakios Agora. After several delays, the Varvakios was inaugurated in 1884. The glass roof and basements were added in 1886.
The centre of the building houses the fish market—the largest fresh fish market in Europe. About five to 10 tons of fresh fish arrive here daily, most of it from islands like Naxos, Paros, Skyros, Kalymnos and Symi. The seafood available varies with the seasons, but there are always plenty of choices for all budgets. The most common fish you come across are sardines, anchovies, and mackerel—the oily fish that Greeks love to eat and wash down with ouzo. You’ll also typically find locally sourced fish, shellfish, cuttlefish, octopus and calamari here. But you’ll also spot imported Scottish king crab and lobster, scallops from Denmark, royal crab from the Atlantic, large prawns from Argentina and salmon from Norway. (Try Kontos if you’re looking for frozen imported seafood). For shrimp and crayfish of all types and sizes, try Hatziantoniou.
One of the oldest stalls in the fish market belongs to its president, Spyros Korakis, whose grandfather set up shop here in 1926. Korakis is the most reliable source for the freshest sea bream, grouper, hake, sea bass and red mullet. All prices are per kilo and once purchased your fish can be perfectly cleaned to save you the hassle. Korakis is also the place to go for bottarga (salted, cured fish roe, called avgotaraho in Greek) straight from Messolongi, a town on the west coast of Greece famous for this speciality.
Right across from Korakis, Karayiannis is a great spot for your midday ouzo and meze—the Greek version of tapas. Karayiannis’ tasty repertoire of little sharing dishes includes marinated anchovies, smoked mackerel and mussels. Do try his spicy lamb meatballs and pork sausages. Heading towards Sofokleous Street, you’ll come across Aris, another small, family-run eatery in the market serving a few basic starters, salads and grilled meat or fish, sourced straight from the market. You can even buy fish at the market and ask Aris to grill it for you on the spot. He will only charge you a symbolic amount for the grilling, as long as you order a couple of dishes from his menu.
Inside the meat market, look for Lefkaditis. This 50-year-old butcher shop specialises in cheap nose-to-tail animal parts, like oxtail, tongue, cheeks, intestines, giblets, tripe and feet (the latter are essential ingredients for patsas, or tripe soup, sold after hours in the meat market. This fortifying soup, comforting for the stomach, is a popular hangover remedy. Back in the day, patsas was traditionally consumed for breakfast by blue collar workers before their early morning shifts, or by party animals before they staggered off to bed at dawn.
The best place to try patsas is Epirus, a famous magirio (basic workers’ canteen) specialising in soups, casseroles and other daily specials. To taste patsas the right way, you must add chilli flakes and either vinegar or skordostoubi, vinegar marinated with garlic cloves. Epirus stays open 24 hours on Fridays and Saturdays, from October until Easter, and has been tracked down by many celebrity chefs, including Anthony Bourdain and Jamie Oliver.
Across from Epirus, on the small aisle leading to Aiolou Street, is Aggelis, the “king of butchers” in the market. One of the favourite suppliers of local chefs, Thanos Agelis dry ages his steaks just the way each of his customers prefers. The quality of his meat is superb and everything comes straight from farms in Kerkini, northern Greece. For game go to Valia Kalda, who bring free-range quail, partridge, pheasant, rabbit, wild boar and deer all the way from Pindus National Park in northern Greece. Tsironis, the president of the meat market, has a reputation for excellent goat, lamb and mutton, most of which comes from the island of Naxos.
Coffee, Spice and Everything Nice
Next to the main market entrance on Athinas Street is Mokka, an historic coffee specialist and roastery housed in this 19th century building since 1922. This is one of the best places to enjoy a classic Greek coffee prepared on the hovoli (brewed on warm sand), along with some loukoumi (Turkish delight) or a “spoon sweet” (fruits preserved in a sugary syrup). I highly recommend all of their coffees, from cold brew to iced cappuccino, AKA “freddo”.
The blocks surrounding the central market are lined with stalls and speciality food shops, selling a variety of nuts, dried fruit, spices. Krokos, which means yolk, sells every kind of fresh egg imaginable, from quail to ostrich, free range and organic, as well as pasteurised egg yolks or whites for professional use.
Limnia Gi next door is a grocery store specialising in produce from the islands of Limnos and Ai Stratis. Apart from the famous Limnos flour, here you’ll also find fresh egg pasta (flomaria and aftoudia, among others), artisan cheese like melichloro and kalathaki, cured fish and meat, honey, sea salt, wines and distillates, samsades (filo pastry rolls stuffed with chopped almonds, sesame seeds, and thyme honey) and home-made preserves. Nearby, on narrow Streit Street, I Folia tou Meliou, is a small honey shop. The shopkeepers produce their own excellent honey from 500 beehives scattered around Attica, Evia and Pelion. You’ll also find royal jelly, bee pollen, honeycomb and beeswax.
Opposite the main market on Athinas Street is the vegetable and fruit market. In the old-fashioned groceries and open-air stalls, you can pick up all kinds of olives, pickled and sun-dried vegetables, cheeses, yoghurt, pastry, rice and pulses, salted cod and snails. Most products are priced by the kilo and you can pick up plenty of bargains. Among the oldest and most popular greengrocers is Tsoupakis, a family-run business that’s been around for over 50 years. Georgia Tsoupakis, who has been working there since she was 15, still greets her regular customers every day from 5 am to 6 pm.
A few steps away is Arkas Batanian, a family owned business specialising in Anatolian-style cured meats, sausages and other charcuterie. Try their pastourma, soutzouki and kebabs. Right next door, they operate another shop that sells food and drink from Russia and eastern Europe, like smoked salmon, cured pork and svetlana (sour cream).
The Athens Central Market is open daily from 8am to 6pm. Closed on Sundays.