A guide to Athens Central Market
The best way to immerse yourself in the traditional colors and flavors of Athens is to get up early and head for Varvakeios Market. Located in a large building in the heart of Athens, the market is a mixture of traditional shops and stalls with the wonderful aromas of fresh herbs and spices. When you need to catch your breath, enjoy a cup of Greek coffee and eat something tasty, there are also several popular tavernas and ouzeries in the market, and Mokka, the coffee specialist is located by the main entrance.
Before the market was built in 1886, traders sold their goods from small shacks built around the Roman Agora. Wealthy Athenian businessman, Ioannis Varvakeios paid for the construction of the huge market place which is situated in the block between Evripidou, Sophocleous, and Aiolou streets with the main entrance in Athinas Street. The market is not only impressive in size, but it was also built with a basement for storage and a huge glass roof. Varvakeios Market was named after its founder and has run continually since it opened.
It has long been the tradition for Athenians to head there once a week to buy locally grown seasonal fruit, vegetables, cheese, meat and fish as well as local herbs and spices. Today there are market stalls and specialist shops in the adjacent streets too.
The market is divided into several areas such as fish, meat, fruit, and vegetables. It is fun just to stroll around admiring the beautiful fresh fruit that has been picked from the trees the day before and is sold complete with leaves! The vegetables look awesome with shiny purple aubergine (eggplants), the largest cabbages you have ever seen, and (when it is the season) boxes of okra (known as ‘ladies’ fingers’) that tastes delicious cooked with tomato.
The fruit stalls are equally laden with seasonal produce including gleaming cherries, apricots, the largest watermelons you have ever seen, and- in early autumn- green and purple figs. If you are staying in Athens a while, it is important to understand that the seasons for some of the fruits are short so you really need to enjoy them – cherries, for example, come and go within a couple of weeks!
A number of the traditional meat stalls date from the 1970s The most abundant meat is pork and the taste of Greek pork is really good and prices are surprisingly cheap. The cuts available are slightly different from other European countries, but who cares? Cooked over charcoal and marinated with lemon juice, you just can’t beat the flavour! Arkas Batanian is one of the oldest stalls and specializes in cured meats and delicious homemade sausages.
Pause and admire the numerous fish counters (there are nearly 100!), you are looking at the largest fish market in Europe and every day more than five tonnes of fresh fish are delivered there.
Fresh fish is very popular in Greece and is always simply prepared and cooked. There is a great choice of fish including mackerel (skoumpri), red mullet (barbouni), grey mullet (cephalos) and bream (fangri). Small Atlantic tuna (palamida) are delicious oven-baked and swordfish steaks (xiphias) a really treat! Squid (kalamari) and cuttlefish (soupies) are both popular and of course, battered kalamari is a popular Greek dish that has now found its way to many other European countries!
There is even a stall called ‘Kontos’ that sells frozen Scottish lobster and salmon. There are huge imported prawns (garides) on sale too. The oldest fish stall is Korakis that was opened by the current stallholder’s grandfather and amongst other specialties, it sells delicious salted fish roe (avgotaraho). Like everything in the market, fish is sold by the kilo and the fishmongers are happy to clean fish for customers.
Evripidou Street has a wonderful array of shops and stalls selling dried pulses, nuts, and seeds. There are stalls selling a colorful choice of dried fruits including dates, mangoes, raisins, pineapple, and prunes. There are stalls with sacks of different herbal teas that smell gorgeous.
There are well-known ones including camomile and peppermint and more unusual teas such as Spadja (sage) and you will find these stalls are always popular as many Athenians use herbal teas to cure minor health problems. One of the specialist shops is Bahar which has been trading since the 1940s. There are several honey stalls too, selling gorgeous light fragrant honey made by bees that have fed on wildflowers and dark gold honey from bees that live in the mountain areas.
Whilst you are in Evripidou Street, watch out fot Miran and Arapian – two shops that sell the traditional snack pastourmas. This is a real local delicacy made from dried meat (usually beef, lamb or goat) that is highly spiced and is a recipe originally from Armenia.
There are wonderful cheese shops to visit including Arcadia – one of the oldest in Athens. There are pieces of crumbly white Feta on sale and also Kasseri which is a low fat yellow cheese that is perfect with freshly baked bread or cut into cubes and popped in a Greek salad (horiatiki).
By now, you will have no room left in your shopping bags, but you will find yourself drawn to this wonderful market again – very soon!
Key information for Varvakeios Market.
- The nearest Metro stations are Monastiraki (Line 1 &3) and Omonia (Line 2). Both are just a few minute’s walk.
- Varvakeios Market is open Monday- Saturday 07.00 until 18.00 all year round. The market is closed on 1 January, 25 March, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, 1 May and 25/ 26 December.
- It is advisable to wear flat shoes with soles that grip as the market floor – especially in the fish area can be wet and slippery.