Many consider Piraeus nothing more than a gateway to the great archaeological sites and museums of adjacent Athens. On its surface, Greece's largest port city can seem congested and chaotic, and there is no denying that sections of its industrial waterfront are an eyesore. But there is another side to this fascinating place, which has its fair share of charming eateries and often overlooked attractions.
Any given morning, especially during the peak summer season, the shipping movements in Piraeus Harbor are mind-boggling. Ferries of every shape and size keep its waters in a constant swirl of motion, impatiently maneuvering to discharge and reload their complements of cars and passengers. Quite typically, in addition to the colorful parade of ferries, there are plenty of visiting cruise ships.
On a visit in October aboard Saga Holidays' Saga Rose, there were no less than six others, including the combination diesel/sailing vessels Star Flyer and Wind Spirit, the yacht-like Sea Dream I, Louis Cruise Line's Calypso, the Costa Romantica and Seabourn's deluxe Seabourn Odyssey.
Most of these ships offer prepackaged excursions to Athens and sites in the vicinity. However, on full-day visits, passengers can venture into Athens on their own.
The Piraeus Metro Station is a mile or so from the passenger terminal via Akti Miaouli, the bustling boulevard encircling the harbor. En route, there are plenty of kiosks and cafes offering chilled water, fresh juices, a deliciously flaky tyropita (cheese pie) or an espresso to fortify the walking experience. Once at the station, the green line train stops at Thissio or Monastiraki, the exits for the Acropolis and its nearby attractions. (Always allow a little extra time for the return journey in case of delays or full trains at rush hour.)
On the road less traveled and offering a bit of local Piraeus flavor, there is charming Zea Marina (also known as Passalimani), some five or six blocks from the central port via Charliaou Trikoupi Street. Originally the ancient port of Piraeus, it is now a busy yacht harbor brimming with restaurants, boutiques, cafes and a maritime museum. Farther along is the picturesque Mikrolimano, a tiny fishing harbor dotted with seafood restaurants; if stopping here for a meal or snack, don't be shy about asking to see the menu and prices first.
For reasonably priced, fresh Greek food, nothing beats a local chain of restaurants called Drosopita. No trip to Piraeus is complete without people-watching over a fresh village salad and a chicken gyro at a rickety sidewalk table in its Zea Marina locale.
After dark, visitors can also enjoy a stunning view of the brilliantly lit Acropolis and the twinkling lights of Athens from the Bowling Center Cafe atop Profitis Ilias, the highest hill in Piraeus.
What it lacks in terms of an appealing name, this venue makes up for with tasty Greek cuisine and a dramatic setting.
Piraeus may not have the cosmopolitan cachet and renown of Athens, but for those seeking a slice of genuine, informal Greek atmosphere, it is well worth exploring. And for ship aficionados, Piraeus is practically paradise.
Peter Knego is an ocean liner historian and cruise ship writer who documents his experiences at www.maritimematters.com.