Athens, unofficially known as the Big Olive, has many delightful spots for a picnic in all seasons. Okay, in summer perhaps you’d rather be on the beach – and that can be arranged if you hop on a bus or tram for the southern coastal suburbs of Voula, Vouliagmeni and Varkiza – but in the city proper you can spread your meal on a hillside with a view of the Acropolis.
With the weather often sunny and mild even in February, all you need is a little DIY initiative and the ability to resist the temptation of a snack at one of the many “fastfoodadika” or a sit-down meal in an air-conditioned taverna.
Your appetite will be whetted as you walk along Athinas Street in the Central Market district, about equidistant from Monastiraki and Omonia squares. On the west side of Athinas, you’ll find lots of shops selling hardware and potted plants to distract you, and you’ll also probably stop to look in the bakery window where a white-suited man stands tossing pastry for mini pizzas and cheese pies all day every day. You may be tempted by the falafel stand, too, or by the souvlaki souk at the bottom of Ermou Street, where it joins Monastiraki.
But if you’re serious about preparing a classic picnic with bread, cheese, cold cuts, fruit, veg, wine and maybe even some red caviar, then we suggest you head straight for Evripidou Street. Here you will be able to buy a picnic basket or bag, disposable plates and glasses and even a tablecloth should you so desire from the kitchen equipment shops that share the street with spice emporia that look as though they’ve been imported from Istanbul.
Our favorite deli in this area has actually become two: Arapian, a hole in the wall so narrow there’s only room for the showcase and perhaps three customers, and its new (two-year-old), much larger store-cum-all-day-restaurant, Ta Karamanlidika tou Fani, on the corner opposite. They specialize in the preserved meats of Central Turkey, delicacies like pastourma, kavourmas, soutzoukia (piquant Anatolian beef salami) and cheeses from all over Greece. The forefathers of Fanis, the present owner, brought the recipes with them from Cappadocia when they were resettled in the Macedonian town of Drama after the population exchange of the 1920s.
Their pastourma, made with camel, lamb or two cuts of beef, is always seasoned with a potent red paste called çemin, very redolent of fenugreek, garlic, cumin and paprika. One doesn’t normally eat this, but it flavors the pastourma and keeps it surprisingly delicate and tender. Kavourmas is a confit of chicken or beef rolled into a large cylinder like mortadella and scented with spices and herbs; its consistency is similar to the rillettes of France. Besides these distinctive specialties, you’ll find the more familiar dried sausage, exquisite smoked hams and roast pork to add to the picnic basket.
As for cheeses, given the enormous variety, you may have trouble choosing between hard and soft – aged gravieras, smoked or studded with peppercorns, medium-soft kasseri, goat cheeses flavored with different herbs and spices…
To awaken the appetite and seduce customers, Arapian often has a little grill outside the shop where sausages may be roasting. They have also been known to offer a shot of tsipouro to complement the spicy flavors. The selection is even larger at Ta Karamanlidika, so take your time, don’t be afraid to ask about any of the products on display, and by all means taste before you buy.
From Ta Karamanlidika head north on Sokratous Street for two blocks, and if olives are your passion, turn left onto the first side street, where there’s a rather startling sight: dozens of open bins of olives of every description as well as pickles, worth a photo at least.
Moving back to Sokratous, turn right onto Armodiou for a whole block of fresh fruit and veg vendors, a Lucullan spectacle of everything that’s in season, from glistening black cherries from the north of Greece to apricots, peaches, grapes, tomatoes of varying types and sizes, crunchy small cucumbers, crisp green peppers – anything you fancy, even watermelon, though that would be cumbersome to say the least.
Further up this street, on the left (north side), on the corner in fact, is a shop called Avra that specializes in delicacies from Russia and the Baltic states. This is where we go when we have a craving for smoked or pickled herring and especially for brik, or red caviar. They also sell Russian bubbly, but we don’t recommend it; it’s too sweet. They will love it if you say spasibo – “thank you” in Russian.
Now walk back on Athinas towards Monastiraki. There are two old-fashioned bakeries on the west side of the street; both are equally good and offer a wide range of loaves, bread sticks and rusks that will go well with whatever you’ve put in the picnic basket. They will slice the bread if you ask them to. In addition you might wish to pick up that bit of sweet that makes a meal complete, either pasteli (sesame bars) or halva (sesame paste sometimes studded with almonds or streaked with chocolate).
Your last stop will be Peri Lesvou, for something to drink. This welcoming, open space stocks products from the North Aegean, and with Lesvos famous for its ouzo, Chios for mastiha liqueur and Limnos for excellent dry white wine, you can’t go wrong. You may purchase a bottle – and they have an amazing selection of rare ouzos – but they also have bulk wine and will fill a container for you. Cheeses are on offer here as well, including a nice goat feta, not to mention Lesvos’s trademark sardines.
Now for the picnic site. Here you have a choice, but you’ll have to be prepared for a short walk. Philopappos Hill, southwest of the Acropolis, is the Athenians’ favorite spot for a picnic. Half the city flocks here on Clean Monday, the beginning of Lent, to fly kites and feast on meat-less, dairy-free appetizers like taramosalata, steamed or raw shellfish and lots of salads.
To get there, make your way from Monastiraki Square along the train tracks and the Ancient Agora to Theseion and then continue on the broad, carless boulevard past the entrance to the Acropolis. Philopappos Hill (the Classical-era Hill of the Muses) rises gently in front of you and you will find paths to follow once you’re on it. The monument that crowns the hill and gave it its new name contains the tomb of a well-loved 2nd-century Syrian prince and Roman consul Caius Iulius Antiochus Philopappos, while the landscaping and paths by a 20th-century architect, Dimitris Pikionis, have been designated a protected cultural heritage monument by UNESCO. Pick your spot, perhaps near the post-Byzantine chapel there, restored by Pikionis, or in a more remote shaded place where you can pretend you’re in the countryside, but still have an unsurpassed view of the Acropolis and the theaters on its flanks. The park is open day and night without charge.
Another possibility would be the Kerameikos Ancient Cemetery, straight down Ermou Street. This lovely park, home to all sorts of plants and animals, especially in winter, when the Iridanos River trickles through it, is filled with facsimiles of grave stele and free-standing statues commemorating wealthy Athenians of the Classical era. The site is open all day in summer with a small entry fee. Picnics may not be officially sanctioned, but it’s doubtful that any guard would tell you to buzz off. Be careful not to leave anything behind but your footprints.
In the Kolonaki area, Lycabettus (Lykavittos) Hill, the highest in Athens, is another spectacular place for a picnic. You can get there the lazy way, by taking the funicular from the top of Ploutarchou (where it meets Aristippou street), just a short climb from Patriarchou Ioakeim, where you’ll be buying your food and drink. Up here you’ll find benches as well as trees to sit under and a 360-degree view of the city.
In this area we would do all our shopping at Kostarelos, which has a huge selection of the best products from artisanal companies all over Greece, as well as a deli counter of regional cheeses, including their own fetas, and cold cuts. If you’re feeling indecisive or want a less complicated picnic, let them make sandwiches for you. You won’t find better anywhere in Athens. You can also pick up some wine or beer here, while just a few doors closer to Kolonaki Square is a fine greengrocer with all the fruit and veg you could wish for.
Then if you want a simpler place to picnic, walk the few blocks up to Deinokratous, turn right and continue until you see a small green area. Here at Plateia Kitsiki, just behind the Gennadius library, is a municipal park that a few people in the neighborhood have transformed from a pathetic wasteland of trash, dead pines and bare earth into a remarkable garden. It’s a well-kept secret; you won’t see it mentioned in any guide.
Editor’s note: It’s Picnic Week at Culinary Backstreets, and in this week’s stories, our contributors write about their favorite spots to eat outdoors as well as nearby shops to fill a picnic basket.