My last name is Greek. Whenever I tell someone this, they usually tilt their head slightly, squint their eyes, and ask, “So…you’re Greek?”
The answer is no—more likely the product of a long colonial history. But even so, my first ever trip to Greece last month somehow felt like a homecoming. Maybe it was the idea of being in a place my name wouldn’t be strange, foreign, or stuttered out (as it often is.) Maybe it was the joy of reuniting with some of my oldest friends in celebration: of new jobs, starting school, finishing school, new loves, old loves, and our undying love of food and drink. Maybe it was the genuine hospitality we encountered, unexpectedly, gratefully, at every turn. More than any other place I’ve traveled to, Greece felt the most like home.
We couldn't be more thankful for our gracious hosts. Homer, our Airbnb host in Athens, was quick to provide a detailed list of places to eat and drink after my friend Kaartikaiy and I settled into his charming apartment (with citrus trees in the backyard!) Having done approximately zero research about Athens before arrival, Kaartikaiy and I spent our first day strolling around this dreamy, gritty city from one recommendation to another in a jet-lagged haze. The next day, we met our friends Jackie, Josie, and Sara at the airport and flew to Chania, Crete, where Nikos and Maria greeted us in their beautiful Airbnb home with fresh fruit, pound cake, welcome shots of rakomelo (honey liquor), and a handmade city guide that kept us happy and full throughout the week. Passing through Athens on the way home, I revisited Homer’s list, practically feeling like a local as I settled in for one last frappe on a rooftop cafe.
These are some of my favorite spots from the trip—unsurprisingly, all food-related—thanks in large part to the knowledge and hospitality of Homer, Nikos, Maria, and all of the other warm and wonderful people we met throughout our time in Greece:
Before I left, friends had warned me to enter Athens with low expectations following the economic downturn. Don't let its rougher sides dissuade you. This city is breathtaking.
A for Athens - Miaouli 2
The Acropolis is an obvious must-see to any visitor to Athens. Likewise, a rooftop view of the Acropolis is a must-do. It’s hard to imagine that view gets much better than at A for Athens. A tiny elevator in an unassuming hotel lobby takes you far above the tourist crowds in Monastiraki Square and opens up into a bar with fun cocktails and a stunning city view. Kaartikaiy and I arrived about an hour before sunset and snagged one of the best (non-reserved) tables.
Ergon - Mitropoleos 26
This fancy little restaurant and gourmet store reminded me of many other little fancy restaurants and gourmet stores here in Brooklyn. But this one was home to one of the best lentil salads I’ve ever tried, speckled with charred octopus and sun-dried tomatoes. I'll have to try recreating it one day.
O Kostas - Pentelis 5
I am now convinced that the secret to delicious souvlaki is fresh ingredients and a healthy sprinkling of sea salt at the end. The souvlaki is on the small side (with a price to match) so get two, or stick to one and spend the rest of your day eating your way through the city.
Vryssaki - Vrisakiou 17
I didn’t study abroad while in college, but the romanticized version of it I’ve built up in my head involves reading on the rooftop of an artsy local cafe. This place may as well have been plucked straight from my imagination. The frothy cappuccino freddo I had here was the best of the trip, with a charming balcony to match.
Crete seemed like a random vacation destination, even to us, after having fantasized about whitewashed houses in Santorini and Mykonos for years. But a number of our friends recommended we visit, and the draw of its unique beaches and nature was undeniable, even if we didn't get to enjoy it fully in the rain. (We ate instead.)
Chrisostomos - Defkalionos ke Ikarou, Chania
I may be biased as the owner of this restaurant and I share a name (his first name, my last.) But of the many complimentary carbs our group was gifted throughout the trip, these were some of the best. The fresh wood-oven baked bread was actual heaven and I ate approximately 75% of the two giant plates of loukoumades (fried dough puffs drizzled with honey) even though there were five of us at the table.
Bougatsa Iordanis - Apokoronou 24, Chania
In Crete, I learned that I’m a big fan of Greek desserts and pastries, as many of them involve some combination of fried dough, honey or sugar, and a mild or savory cheese. Open since 1924, this is apparently the place for bougatsa—a flaky pastry stuffed with mizithra (cheese) and optionally sprinkled with sugar—in Chania. It reminds me a lot of Filipino ensaymada, similarly sweet and cheesy and good enough to get seconds (and thirds) after finishing the first.
Cretan traditional cooking class with Balos Travel - Metochi Farmhouse, Kissamos
Rainy days in Crete left us seeking alternatives to the beach trips and hikes we had planned. Sara had called a bunch of cooking classes around Chania in hopes that one would accommodate us at the last minute. Thankfully, the lovely Eleni from Balos Travel was able to move the group scheduled for the day, so we joined her and her mother at their beautiful family farmhouse after driving up to see Balos Bay. The rain eventually cleared, just in time for us to explore the farm, enjoy some freshly tapped 20-year-old wine, and start preparing our meal under a vine-tangled pergola with the sun poking through. You’ll have to visit Eleni to find out what we made!
Dounias - Drakona
You know you’re in good company when it’s yet another rainy day and your friends agree to go with you to a mountainside restaurant on a single road without much context beyond “I saw it in a YouTube video from this famous London chef one time.” The first indication this place was going to be good were the pots over an open fire outside, working away in the rain. Then there was the incredibly cute puppy that came out of its hiding place to greet us upon arrival. Then, inside, a chubby baby rolling around on the floor (the chef’s.) Then, the six courses the chef usually serves up (his choice) including an incredibly tasty cauliflower stew (cauliflower with xinohontros, or cracked wheat.) Then, the chef asked us if we were still hungry and of course, we said yes, so he came out with a plate of tender lamb ribs. And then a plate of shell-on snails swimming in wine. And then a plate of “fruit” which turned out to be braised liver. And then TWO more veggie dishes and dessert. At this point we started to fear for our wallets, having inadvertently eaten a twelve-course meal. But by some miracle, the bill came out to 10 Euro each, leading me to only one possible conclusion: Dounias is magic. Don’t ask questions, just go.
I'd say the same about Greece. If you've been dreaming about visiting for as long as I had, just go!