While the grilled skewers of lamb, chicken, beef, and pork are perhaps the most widely known staple of Greek cuisine, there’s a whole range of dishes on offer when looking for what food to try in Greece. With Middle Eastern, Italian, and Ottoman influences, Greek food is diverse combining an array of cultures.
Lemon, thyme, oregano, and olives are just some of the prominent flavours that you can expect to find in Greek dishes. Don’t expect to find too much in the way of foreign food outside of major tourist areas like Athens, Mykonos and Santorini. Chinese, Indian, and Thai restaurants aren’t common, but luckily Greek cuisine is so varied that you will find meals to suit every taste and diet.
Eating in a local taverna is the best way to experience Greek cuisine. Find a good one, and it’s hard not to return every night. Appetisers, known as meze or mezethes, come as they are ready and as the focus is on sharing. There’s no need to wait for everything to be served before you start your meal. Home-cooked bread drizzled with olive oil is often added to the table and is usually free of charge.
Although tipping is not expected outside of very touristy areas, it is appreciated and seen as a sign that you enjoyed your evening meal (tipping for drinks isn’t necessary). Alcohol is a normal part of evening meals with families sharing wine with younger members of the family, it’s probably why there isn’t a culture of binge drinking in Greece. Carafes of wine are usually accompanied by large meals and alcohol is not generally drunk to excess.
A psarotaverna is dedicated to seafood and the best place to try some Greek specialities, but it can be expensive as fish is often charged by the kilo. Traditional tavernas often have a much wider choice of starters and mains, including vegetarian and vegan dishes. Though allergens are not usually listed on the menu, the owners will often also be the ones cooking or serving so if you learn the Greek name for a certain food it’s easy to check if it’s in the dish.
Meals aren’t rushed in Greece, expect to take around an hour for lunch and two to three hours for evening meals. It’s a social time for families, friends and coworkers to come together and discuss the day. Long lunches are spent taking a break from the hottest part of the day, and evening meals usually start from around 8pm onwards.
Most dining options are casual and friendly in Greece. In the cities people get more dressed up for evening meals, but on the islands, pretty much anything goes (although wearing a bathing suit to a meal is not acceptable).
Greek bakeries are an essential part of Greek life, and a great way to save money on lunches if you are happy eating on the go. Cafes, restaurants and tavernas run on a casual timetable rather than having strict opening times, but food is generally always available somewhere. Souvlatzidiko are reliable places to find gyros or souvlaki both day and at night, if you’re looking for smaller meals to accompany a drink head to a mezedopolio - much like a tapas bar in Spain.
The best word to describe food in Greece is fresh. Greek salad or Horiatiki is a mainstay with plump Kalamata olives, crumbly feta, green peppers, vine-ripe tomatoes, cucumber, red onions, salt, and oregano. Every ingredient is flavoursome and it’s all infused with a healthy drizzle of Greek olive oil.
For a quick lunch, pita bread comes stuffed with all kinds of delicious grilled meats, salad, and chips - a traditional gyros or souvlaki is a must in Greece. Another lunchtime favourite is the Greek cheese pie tiropita, or spanakopita - spinach and feta wrapped in phyllo pastry.
Aubergines feature heavily in some of Greeces best dishes like the indulgent Moussaka or the lighter papoutsakia - a Greek stuffed eggplant with meat sauce and bechamel which translates to 'little shoes'. Then there’s pastitsio, a hearty Greek take on lasagna with thick hollow bucatini pasta.
For a meat-free meal, gemista is a summer staple in Greece consisting of stuffed grilled vegetables (often peppers) filled with rice, onion, and herbs.
Lemon and herb potatoes accompany many meals with grilled meats and seafood. Much more interesting than a simple chip, Greek potatoes are infused with olive oil, thyme and oregano.
For a real taste of homemade Greek food at its best, try Giouvetsi. This Greek stew is traditionally made with beef, but the lamb alternative that is slowly baked in a tomato sauce with orzo pasta is divine.
Meze can be eaten on its own (often with drinks) or as a starter before the main meal. Items on the menu vary regionally but often consist of delicious crispy fried tomatokeftedes, aubergine dip (melitzanosalata), tzatziki, taramasalata (fish roe dip), deep fried cheese (saganaki), and dolmades - vine leaves that have been stuffed with rice and herbs. Simply order a selection and try a bit of everything.
Greeks generally prefer to buy desserts from bakeries than in restaurants, but you will find a small selection on taverna menus.
One of the best-known is phyllo-layered baklava, a sweet explosion with roots dating back to the Ottoman Empire. There’s also bougatsa, a custard pie with phyllo that’s dusted with icing sugar and cinnamon.
But one of the real family favourites is deep-fried loukoumades, similar to donuts but smaller in size and often doused in honey. It’s not uncommon to be served some complimentary sweet treats and even ouzo after asking for the bill, especially in more traditional areas like Crete.
The frappe, freddo espresso or Greek iced coffee, is a staple in just about every corner of Greece. Order it with or without milk, sweet or no sugar. For example, a black sweet iced coffee would be; ‘Ena freddo espresso gliko parakaló.’
Beer came to Greece with its first King, ‘Frederic Othon’, who brought with him Bavarian brewers and began changing Greece from a wine-drinking nation. One of the most popular Greek beers to try is Mythos, a mild and sweet blond lager. Other popular brands are Fix, the oldest brewery in the country, Santorini Brewing Company and Zeos.
Greece’s best known liquors are Ouzo, Tsipouro, and Metaxa. They are often drunk after meals as digestifs, but be prepared for the strength of these alcohol-rich shots.
Another interesting drink to try in Greece is Mastiha, a unique liquor flavoured with resin from the mastic tree found on the Greek island of Chios. Trees are sustainably harvested by making small cuts at certain times of year, letting the resin slowly ooze out.
Gyros for lunch and a soft drink - 5 Euro.
Greek pastries for breakfast or lunch (bougatsa, tiropita and spanakopita) - 2 Euro.
An evening meal for two with mezze and a main - 30/40 Euro.
A two-person fish meal at a restaurant - 60 Euro.
A carafe of wine with a meal - 8 Euro.
A beer - 3.50 Euro.
A bottle of cow's milk - 1.15 Euro.
Greece’s ancient history, culture and prime location in the Mediterranean have led it to be one of the best places in the world for foodies.
It also has one of the oldest wine-producing regions, and although you won’t find Greek wine on many international shelves it’s hard to find a bad ‘house’ wine in a local taverna.
For inspiration, as well as some amazing recipes to recreate when you get home, have a look at the website of the prominent Greek food blogger (and winner of ‘Masterchef’ in 2008), Akis Petretzikis.
Planning a trip to Greece? Read our Greece travel guides