Most vacationers view Piraeus, the biggest port in Greece and Athens’s maritime base, as just a stopover on the way to the islands. But it’s much bigger than that. Administratively, Piraeus extends all the way down to the island of Kythera half-way to Crete. The port itself has some interesting aspects, too.
Not many people know that Piraeus was the first city in the world to be laid out on an efficient, Manhattan-type grid plan – back in the 5th century BC. That’s when Athens was entering its golden age thanks to trade and wealth flowing in through the port. Themistocles, the great Athenian statesman, fortified Piraeus and connected it with Athens by a pair of thick walls called the Long Walls.
Under the layers of the modern city you can still see some of the ruins of these fortifications, and the ancient quayside from which great fleets set out to stamp Athens’ influence on the Mediterranean world. Piraeus is still an influential entrepot. International bankers, shipping tycoons and banana-sellers all jostle cheek-by-jowl in the busy streets in the shade of high-rise office blocks and the hulls of ships crowding the main port area.
In the Middle Ages the Venetians called the city Porto Leone, after a marble statue of a lion that graced the waterfront. When modern Greece won its independence in 1829, Piraeus again developed into a hive of trading activity, with industrial areas growing on the outskirts.
A commuter railway connects Piraeus with central Athens, running approximately along the line of the now-vanished Long Walls. There are also plenty of bus connections, including a direct express line to Athens international airport. But Piraeus is, and always has been, famous for its boat and ship schedules. Barely a half-hour passes without some sleek fast ferry or island-hopper or local boat hooting its departure from the bustling quayside or nosing in from some island paradise.
The narrow streets of Piraeus pulsate with local colour, from souvlaki joints to cafes and bars and tavernas open for most of the day and night. You can stroll along the big shopping streets and marvel at the sheer variety of goods in the shop windows. Above all, Piraeus is populated by 175,000 vigorous, expressive and helpful people going about their business at all hours.
The best museums in Piraeus centre on the city’s trading and industrial history. The Maritime Museum, on the Marina Zeas waterfront, will satisfy any nautical enthusiast. Train buffs should enjoy the Athens-Piraeus Electric Railway Museum, open at the Piraeus commuter train terminus since 2005 and containing hundreds of exhibits, from old wooden carriages to railwaymen’s uniforms and machinery.
On summer evenings few pleasures can beat a table at Paslamani, the yacht harbour, where half a dozen tavernas maintain waterfront tables and serve the best of Greek and island cuisine. If you venture into the industrial suburbs, there are several unspoiled and simple eateries with excellent fare hidden among the factories and humble dwellings.
Due to its geographical position, Piraeus has been an important trade, financial and cultural centre since ancient times. It was the base of great economic factors and the starting point for international trade, and has always remained a centre for development. Originally, it was an islet hence one had to ferry to go there and from the ancient Greek verb “Περαιώ” (Pereo) to ‘go across’ derives Piraeus. However, the gap between the mainland and the island was gradually covered with silt, which initially created a marshy region and later a mudflat, and thus Piraeus joined up with the rest of Attica. Themistocles, who understood its strategic significance, asked the Athenians to fortify the region. Cimon began to build the Long Walls which joined Piraeus to Athens in 461 BC. Pericles completed the walls, building the South Wall which was later demolished by the Romans.
Piraeus prospered again during the modern period, after liberation from the Turkish yoke, when it was rebuilt with contemporary neoclassical public buildings. The Customs Office and a range of warehouses (1835), the first Greek school in Korais Square (1845), the Ralleion Girls’ School (1856), the Public Market (1863) and the Stock Exchange (1869) were built during this period. During the second half of the 19th Century, the town developed industrially, and the re-opening of the Corinth Isthmus turned it into the most important shipping and trade centre in the country. This also transformed the town into a large urban centre, the population of which was increased by the exchange of populations from Asia Minor (1922) following the Asia Minor Catastrophe. Industry was developed in the area, mainly in the sectors of textiles, the chemical industry and ship building. However, this economic development was interrupted by the Second World War, only to resume from the 1950s onwards.
The Archaeological Museum of Piraeus is situated on Harilaou Trikoupi St., next to the Hellenistic theatre of Zeas. The building was constructed in 1966 and renovated in 1981. It is a two-storey exhibition hall, with storerooms and workshops in the basement. It was constructed in a style similar to that of the older Museum (which was built in 1935 and is now a listed building). The latter opens onto Filellinon St., and is now used as a storeroom for sculptures. The Museum building was constructed at the northern point of the archaeological area which surrounds the Theatre of Zeas, and the area around the theatre is used to display findings (such as tombstones and epitaphs) outdoors.
Hellenic Maritime Museum
The Museum was established in 1949, and since 1971 it has been housed in a building in Marina Zeas, in Freattida, which was specially built for this purpose. It is the largest Maritime Museum in Greece, with a large number of exhibits related to the nautical tradition and history of the Greek nation. There are separate halls showcasing exhibits from various periods: particularly concerning antiquity and ancient Piraeus; the 1821 Revolution, modern history of naval warfare (1912-1955); and Greek mercantile shipping.
Athens Piraeus Electric Railways Museum (ISAP)
This museum was created thanks to the vision and valuable attempt of M. Fotopoulos, a retired ISAP worker.He began by searching antique shops and machine works, as well ascollecting objects (old uniforms, photographs, books, and newspaper and magazine cuttings) from employees and the administration of ISAP, which made up the original exhibition. The search continued with collections of carriages, auxiliary vehicles and rails. An area within the Piraeus station, where the museum is now housed, was provided to exhibit the objects, and was opened in November 2005. Today, the museum showcases more than 2000 objects and more than 3000 books, documents and photographs. Plans to create a library are also underway.
Theatrical Museum of Painting and Stage Design
The Panos Aravantinos Theatrical Museum of Painting and Stage Design is housed in the Municipal Theatre.
The closest of the Argo-saronic islands to the port, Salamina is separated from the mainland by a narrow channel famous as the site of the 480BC naval battle of Salamis which put paid to a Persian conquest. A Greek Navy base – a restricted area – guards the strait now. The island itself is dotted with the modest homes of shipyard workers and shopkeepers.
Aigina: the nearest holiday
Aigina is the closest of the real Argo-saronic island holiday destinations, less than an hour away by fast hydrofoil or catamaran. A considerable power in ancient times, Aigina is visited now by more than a million people a year. Many are there for the perfect weekend getaway. The port town retains its traditional flavour. Worth seeing is the Temple of Aphaia on the mountain. Offshore lies the islet of Angistri, a favourite destination for party-minded young people, while Moni has a good organized campsite.
Trizina: the mainland link
Trizina is the coastal mainland area opposite the islands of Poros and Hydra. It includes the healthy and uncrowded resort of Methana, situated on a peninsula that could just as well be another island, containing a health spa and plenty of hiking paths.
Poros: back to the womb
Henry Miller, an American writer, once described arriving at Poros as something like being born again. There is an intimacy and closeness about Poros, clustered on a height just a few metres off the mainland, that makes it ideal for those who want to savour the real island experience while staying close to Athens.
Hydra: haunt of the stars
The quaint port of this long and barren island comes at you suddenly, as you nose in from the sea. Perhaps nowhere else do such old houses clinging to the rock side evoke more mystery and romance. Actors, poets, artists and composers have bought houses here, and don’t intend to leave.
Spetses: always in vogue
The farthest island from Piraeus in terms of distance, Spetses is the greenest and perhaps the most popular with holidaymakers. The bars and tavernas along the Dapia waterfront are the façade for a bustling and hospitable town. Down the coast are several holiday homes communities popular with yuppies.
Kythera: really getting away from it
Kythera is way down south off the eastern corner of the Peloponnese, reachable from Piraeus by a fast ferry trip of several hours. It’s one of those islands not yet overrun by mass tourism, keeping its old Venetian flavour. Offshore lies Antikythera, a tiny fishing community offering utter seclusion.
Piraeus is about 10 km from the centre of Athens and is accessible from here, as well as almost all areas of Attica, by many buses routes, trolley-buses and the electric railway.
The tram also runs as far as Neo Faliro.
From Eleftherios Venizelos airport:
Bus route: X96 (PIRAEUS – ATHENS AIRPORT).
Electric railway: Line 1 (PIRAEUS – KIFISSIA).
From the centre of Athens:
040 (PIRAEUS – SYNTAGMA)
049 (PIRAEUS – OMONIA).
Suburban railway from Piraeus to the Airport and from Piraeus to Kiato (Corinth).
Official website: www.nomarhiapeiraia.gr