Let’s begin with Athens’ first market. From the bed of the Eridanus River to Areopagus hill, just below the Acropolis, spread the ruins of the Agora, whose history began in the 6th century BC. It boasted four hectares of markets and shops, although today its limits have been lost amidst recent construction.
The Agora was not just a shopping bazaar, it was the centre of public life, the main meeting point for citizens to exchange views on key political and social issues. Today’s markets don’t have the same function, but they are still fascinating and well worth a visit.
Food Markets in Athens
In Athens, the central covered Varvakios market has been in operation on Athinas Street, a few hundred metres from Omonia Square, since 1886. It is the heart of the commercial centre, from dawn to dusk, where you’ll find all kinds of traditional Greek products from various regions, butchers, greengrocers, fishmongers and shops with spices and herbs, sold both in bulk and pre-packaged.
The hubbub of the shopkeepers hawking their products can be deafening but it’s certainly colourful. In some ways it has changed little since the 1950s and you may well be reminded of a Middle Eastern souk. All the stalls have similar displays with no concessions to modern allures, letting the produce speak for itself.
Among the plethora of choices, inside and on the fringes of the market, you can buy cheese, wonderful preserved meats and spices. The vast selection of olives, sometimes floating in large buckets of brine, is impressive. Thousands of people swarm this market daily, while several tavernas are open all night long, welcoming those seeking the warmth found in a dish of well-cooked food. Savour a steaming bowl of tripe soup after a night on the town or, in summer, try perennial favourites like stuffed tomatoes and peppers or moussaka, made with fresh ingredients supplied by the surrounding shops.
Food Markets in Thessaloniki
In Northern Greece, one of the crown jewels of Thessaloniki is the covered Modiano market. At a time when the city was trying to recover and reorganise after the devastating fire of 1917, its multicultural commercial activity became concentrated in the new indoor market, an arcade in the shape of a cross, similar to those found in France, designed by the architect Eli Modiano.
It spreads along the cross-streets surrounding Aristotelos Square. From 1922 to the present it housed more than 150 shops, representing the food traditions of its very varied population, with a strong Jewish component. You’ll find butchers and grocers, bars and restaurants. Here you’ll buy farm-fresh eggs, homemade sausages, and salted fish to accompany Macedonian raki.
Greece and Open-Air Markets
There are many local open-air markets throughout Greece. There’s a laiki agora – as they are known – somewhere on an island or the mainland every day of the week, with many vendors selling their own produce. There are even separate, exclusively organic farmers’ markets. They are a sensory experience: an explosion of colours, the aroma of fruits and vegetables, the sounds of producers hawking their goods and the sight of wooden stands laden with the day’s harvest.
Ask the locals to give you directions to the nearest one – they operate from 7am to 2pm. Early in the morning you’ll have the opportunity to select the best, while as the time goes by the prices fall as the vendor tries to empty his stall. Let your sense of taste and touch, combined with your culinary instincts, guide you to the most attractive seasonal fruits and vegetables. These are good places to shop for your picnic.