Is it always sunny in Athens? With nearly 300 days of sunshine in a year, it certainly feels that way. The consistently nice weather makes the city (and its suburbs) an ideal place for outdoor activities and picnics almost year-round.
During the hottest months of July and August, however, most Athenians escape from the city center and choose to do an all-day picnic at one of the many nearby beaches around Attica, the region that encompasses Athens. Others head to the hills surrounding the city, which boasts several quiet, shaded spots with stunning views.
But if you can’t escape the city center, there are still several ideal places to picnic at – even during the height of summer. But it’s best to go either early in the morning for an al fresco breakfast or in the evening close to sunset – that way you can enjoy a light snack or meal while admiring the purple-pink sky.
One of my favorite central picnic spots is Athens’ National Garden, a rare example of 19th-century landscape architecture. The park, which covers 38 acres and is open daily from sunrise to sunset, used to be called the Royal Garden and was commissioned by Amalia of Oldenburg, the wife of King Otto and the queen consort of Greece, in 1838. Since she was particularly fond of gardens, no expense was spared – several plant species from around the world as well as animals, including peacocks, turtles and ducks, were imported and installed in the garden.
But its history goes back even further – in ancient times, this garden (or part of it) was offered as a gift to Theophrastus (c. 371-287 BC), the student and successor of Aristotle, who is often considered as the father of botany for his written works on plants.
Nowadays, there are seven entrance gates around the park, but when I go there to picnic, I tend to use the one by the Parliament (formerly the Royal Palace) on Syntagma Square, right near the exit of the metro station on Leoforos Vasilisis Amalias (Queen Amalia Avenue). Mainly because it’s closer to the shops that I need to visit to fill up my picnic basket!
One of my favorite central picnic spots is Athens’ National Garden, a rare example of 19th-century landscape architecture.
As soon as you enter from this gate, you’ll lay your eyes on the soaring palm trees (Washingtonia robustas) that are almost two centuries old – some say that the queen, who was so personally involved in the making and caring of the garden, planted them herself. All across the garden there are signs on the trees stating their species; it also boasts six ponds, where you can watch turtles swimming or feed the ducks, a playground and a charming café on the northeast side.
I love going to the park for an early breakfast picnic either with my son or with him and some friends. The kids have plenty of space to play, and there’s enough shade and quiet for the adults to relax.
Before this morning picnics, I fill my basket with goodies from nearby shops. First and foremost, I buy savory pies from Harry’s Kitchen off Voulis Street, usually a mix to please all taste buds. But two mainstays on my list are the pie filled with three cheeses (feta, anthotyro and graviera), mint and spring onions, and the vegan pie with eggplant.
I swing by the Pnyka bakery on Petraki Street for some breadsticks, carob rusks and koulouri (the ring-shaped bread covered with sesame or other seeds). I also stock up on some dips like melitzanosalata (eggplant salad) and taramosalata (fish roe salad), and their handmade pasteli, the traditional sesame and honey snack bar, to please our sweet tooth (in a somewhat healthy way).
My next stop is the deli Ergon for olives, cheese and cold cuts. I love their meaty damaskinoelies (plum olives), which are extra large in size and full of flavor, the delicious throubes, dried black olives from the island of Thasos, and the tangy green tsakistes. It can be difficult to choose from their large selection of Greek cheeses and cold cuts, so always ask to taste different things before making your decision. You can also find a great selection of Greek wines and beers as well as soft drinks here.
For fresh fruits and veggies, I head to 4 Seasons, an organic store on Nikis Street. They also sell the Greek-made Troo Food kombucha, which both my son and I love; it comes in different flavors, but we both find the lemon and ginger to be very refreshing. I also go for cheesy flavored kale chips made by the same company.
An iced coffee is always a good idea if you’re going for a breakfast picnic. I grab a freddo, the iced version of either an espresso or cappuccino, from Wild Souls on Voulis – the same shop also offers a selection of tahini halvas and different nut spreads.
Don’t forget cold water and drinks, and maybe a newspaper or magazine from the kiosk near the gate. With this jam-packed basket, you’re all set to enjoy a relaxing day in the National Garden, escaping both the heat and the noise of the city.
Editor’s note: As summer heats up, we’re looking to get outside. So we asked our contributors to write about their favorite spots to eat outdoors as well as nearby shops to fill a picnic basket for Picnic Week 2020.
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