The week leading to Easter Sunday is full of festivities. The Holy Week, Megali Evdomada, is hectic, and life gets busier as Greeks browse the shops for gifts for godchildren and family members or simply to get ready for the big celebration ahead. Many traditions are faithfully followed, such as Lent (a perfect time if you are a vegetarian as even fast food chains come up with veggie options). Easter also marks the start of warmer days, leading up to summer, and just like nature awakes from its winter break, so does the country. It is an ideal time to experience Greece like the locals do.
Lent is a highly regarded tradition. Though not everyone follows it, restaurants, tavernas and bakeries have a special Lent menu and items you should try. The delicious Easter bread, called tsoureki, is quite similar to brioche and is eaten throughout the week and Easter weekend. Christopsomo, a savoury bread, is another highlight in bakeries.
The Easter candle, or lambada, is lit during the Holy Saturday service. Traditionally, children receive a highly decorated lambada from their godparents, but you can find plain ones as well. If you stroll around Athinas Street, you will find many icon stores selling them, but if you forget, you can also buy them at the church.
If you happen to be in Greece during Lent, it is the perfect opportunity to get your seafood fix and discover how creative Greeks can be when it comes to cooking. There are some excellent seafood restaurants in the centre of town, but if the weather permits it, head to the Piraeus port area and find a taverna by the water in Mikrolimano. You can also opt to venture further down the coast of the Athenian Riviera and enjoy lunch in Glyfada or even Voula.
Good Friday is when things start to get serious. Pick a church (Agia Eirini on Aiolou Street, Kapnikarea Chapel on Ermou Street or Metropolitan Cathedral on Metropoleos Street, near Monastiraki) and attend the Epitafios service, which involves a procession with an elaborate and flower-decorated canopy carrying an icon of Jesus after the crucifixion. Church officiants carry the canopy, with the priests and congregation in tow, each with a brown candle in hand. The procession, which usually starts around seven or eight in the evening, depending on the church, usually circles the church or street block and then returns to the church where a mass takes place. You can, of course, skip the service afterwards and head to a taverna for a late dinner.
This service is the main event. Grab a white candle and head to your local church. While you could return to the church you picked yesterday, you could also try to aim for a smaller one, as the solemn event loses a bit of its charm in a large crowd. A great suggestion is to head to the church of Saint George, perched atop Lycabettus Hill. Held a bit before midnight (plan to arrive around 10:30 p.m. or 11 p.m. if you’ve chosen a popular church), the service peaks when all of the lights inside the church are turned off, and the priest holds the Holy Light, which lights everyone’s candle. At midnight, the priest announces the resurrection of Christ, bells ring and the congregation chimes in with a roar of Christos Anesti (Christ has risen).
Traditionally, Greeks head home or to a restaurant after the Holy Saturday service to eat the infamous magiritsa soup, made with the parts of the lamb not used for spit-roasting. Greeks hate waste when it comes to food; therefore, they have developed recipes to use everything that is not going to be used the next day during the big Easter feast, when an entire lamb is roasted on a spit. Depending on where you eat, you may also get red-dyed hard-boiled eggs to use for the game of tsougrisma, or the egg cracking game.
If you are staying in a hotel, chances are there is going to be an Easter-inspired breakfast buffet, where you will get to sample tsoureki and red-dyed eggs. If you opt for an Airbnb accommodation, then make sure you do some shopping a few days before as stores will be closed until the following Tuesday.
Easter Sunday is usually a quiet day in Athens. The city feels abandoned as locals flock to their home villages or islands. The star of the meal is lamb, which is spit-roasted for hours, making it tender and delicious. If you do not know anyone in Greece, don’t worry – a few tavernas are open. Ask the staff at your hotel for a recommendation and get ready to enjoy a true feast.