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Athens (Piraeus) Overview
Athens wowed the world as host to the 2004 Olympic Games. While Olympic sports venues have languished in disuse since, the Games sparked the transformation of Central Athens and brought enhancements to transportation and infrastructure that have improved Greece's capital.
Cruise passengers flying in to board ships in Athens -- once a tortuous process of driving through dreary, traffic-clogged streets -- will notice how speedy the transit from airport to port is now, courtesy of a fast freeway straight to the port of Piraeus.
And the city's Metro underground system, which was extensively overhauled before the Games hit town, now provides a cheap, safe and efficient way of getting around for sightseeing if you have the luxury of a few pre- or post-cruise days in the city.
The most spectacular sites -- which include the Parthenon, Acropolis, Odeon and Temple of Athena -- are now more easily accessible, thanks to an Olympics-linked project that created a network of pretty, shop- and restaurant-lined pedestrian-friendly streets linking the city's major monuments and sites of historic interest.
Many monuments also have received facelifts, and some fine neoclassical architecture in the city's Plaka and Thissio districts was restored, with once-dingy frontages repainted in soft shades of lemon, pistachio and ochre.
Syntagma Square has been reborn as a tree-filled haven from which to take in the city's gorgeous neoclassical Parliament building and catch the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. (Yes, that means you get to watch those men in frilly skirts, elaborate waistcoats and bobbled shoes do their high-kicking thing.)
Athens, once (in some parts, still) one of the most frenetic and traffic-polluted cities in the world, now owns a real buzz and is well worth spending a few days in if your cruise starts or ends there.
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Other Eastern Mediterranean Cruise Ports:
Athens (Piraeus) • Bari • Bodrum • Corfu • Crete (Heraklion) • Dubrovnik • Gythion • Haifa • Istanbul • Izmir • Jerusalem (Ashdod) • Katakolon (Olympia) • Kotor • Kusadasi • Limassol • Mykonos • Rhodes • Santorini • Split • Varna • Venice • Volos • Yalta • Zadar
Hand-painted Byzantine icons will appeal to your artistic friends, while foodies will enjoy tucking into pastel-tinted sugared almonds (a must for Greek weddings and christenings) or pistachio nuts from the island of Aegina, which claims to produce the best in the world.
Organic Greek honey, juicy fat olives and ouzo (the famous anise-flavored Greek falling-down-water) also make great presents. Check out the food stalls in Athens' Central Market (on Athinas Street, between Omonia Square and Monastiraki Square) for the best variety of cheeses and other goodies. It's open every day but particularly lively on Sundays.
The old saying "It's all Greek to me" can ring all too true in Athens. The Greek capital is not quite as tourist-aware as the islands, and English is less commonly spoken. So, if you're staying in the city, it's a good idea to take a good phrasebook or language app along. Here are a few basics to help.
Good morning/Good day: Kalimera /Kalispera
My name is: Me lene
Thank you: efharisto
Do you speak English?: Milate Anglika?
How much is this?: Posa kostízi afto?
Where's the bathroom?: pu ine i tualetta?
In an emergency, dial 112 for toll-free, English-speaking assistance, or 171 to contact the (English-speaking) tourist police. Other emergency numbers worth knowing: 100 for police, 199 for fire and 166 for ambulance.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The euro is the currency in Greece. For the latest exchange rates, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com.
ATMs are easy to find. They are located in banks, on the streets and in some hotels and restaurants. Currency can be exchanged in most banks and at currency-exchange services.
ATMs can sometimes run out of cash on weekends. Carry enough cash for emergencies.
Where You're Docked
Your cruise ship will dock at the Port of Piraeus, a large seafront area about seven miles outside Athens, which, with its three natural harbors (Megas Limani, Zea Limani and Mikrolimano) has been an important Mediterranean port since the 4th Century B.C.
Cruise ships dock at Megas Limani, which has 11 berths and two cruise terminals. Terminal A (Miaoulis) sits near Gate E11 in the center of the harbor and handles small to medium cruise vessels, while Terminal B (Themistocles) is located closer to the harbor entrance and gate E12, where bigger ships berth.
Terminal B was extensively expanded in 2013, and further expansion is planned following a $220 million investment in Piraeus by the European Union and Greek government.
Both cruise terminals are close to the center of Piraeus, and there are easy train and bus links both to downtown Athens and the airport.
Piraeus is not just the gateway to Athens but a city in its own right, with decent shops, a beach, a pretty harbor area at Mikrolimano (little harbour, the "yachtie" area of the port) and even its own soccer team, Olympiakos.
Watch Out For
Steep sales tax can tack on 25 percent to the cost of your purchases. The value-added tax, called FPA in Greece. Non-EU citizens may be able to reclaim some of this when you leave the country; the bad news is that this takes ages and is barely worth the bother unless you've bought something mega-expensive. Look for shop window signs saying "VAT Refund" or "Tax Free Shopping Network," and be prepared to produce your passport to get a VAT refund form.
Afternoon siestas affect both shop and museum opening hours. Might as well do as the locals do and head for a snooze between 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m., when the city comes to life again.
A stroll along the multicolored marble pathway, which leads to the Acropolis, the ancient "hill city," which is the capital's historic heart and home to the 24-centuries-old Parthenon, the spectacular semi-circular Theatre of Dionysus and the Erechtheion, which is famous for the six "maiden" pillars that support its frontage.
Many other historic artifacts also are in the Acropolis Museum. (Dionysiou Areopagitou Street; open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday to Thursday and 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, April 1 to Oct. 31, entrance 5 euros)
The Acropolis is the must-see Athens attraction. Get there early (or if your ship's schedule allows, go late) if you want to explore this fabulous site without excessive heat and crowds. You should stock up on snacks and drinks at the entrance to the site, as they are not available inside (though you can buy books and postcards). Entrance costs about 12 euros. (Open 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday and 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday, April 1 to Oct. 31)
Stroll around the Central Market to get a real flavor of Greek food and drink. Be warned though, some of the food stalls -- featuring slaughtered whole lambs and skinned rabbits -- are not for the squeamish. You'll also find decent flea market stalls near the food market if the sight of all that meat gets too much.
Stop into at least one of Athens' many fabulous museums. They include the Numismatic Museum, former home of archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, the man who unearthed the ruins of Ancient Troy and declared "I have looked on the face of Agamemnon." (Iliou Melathron 12, on Panepistimiou Street; open 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday, closed Mondays) And when you've had enough of peering at ancient artifacts, you can bring yourself up to date at the Museum of Contemporary Art. (17-19 Vas. Georgiou B. and Rigilis Street; open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday, closed Mondays)
Explore Central Athens and its neighborhoods. These include Plaka, one of the city's oldest districts, which lies near the Acropolis and is famed for its lively cafes and well-stocked antique shops. Use Plateia Syntagma (Constitution Square), which has a Metro station, as your guidepost. Plaka lies south of this square, while Kolonaki -- an upmarket district with classy boutiques, galleries and restaurants -- is at its northeast corner. Monastiraki and Thissio (charming historic districts with fine 19th Century neoclassical buildings and a good array of shops and restaurants) lie to the west of Syntagma.
If you head north from Monastiraki, you'll find yourself in Psiri, a former industrial zone that has been transformed into a haven for the trendy and avant-garde, with lots of alternative restaurants and offbeat shops. Artsy types will also love Bohemian Metaxourgeio (northwest of Psiri), which is home to Athens' Municipal Gallery on Avdi Square.
Been There, Done That
Corinth, about 55 miles from Athens, is worth a visit to explore the narrow streets of its old city, view its fine Temple of Apollo and Roman Agora, and sail along the high-sided Corinth Canal. Most ships offer tours there.
Delphi, spiritual heart of the Ancient Greek world, makes another good day trip. Home to the Oracle at Delphi, this site on the slopes of Mount Parnassus is one of the most famous of the ancient world -- and certainly the most mystical. Don't miss the Springs of Castalia -- where supplicants to the Oracle purified themselves before entering the sanctuary. Make sure you walk "The Sacred Way," which leads to the Temple of Apollo, the ancient Treasuries and the 5,000-seat Theatre of Delphi. The latter dates from the 4th Century B.C. and offers magnificent views and amazing acoustics (have a holler to try them out).
Take a fast ferry from Piraeus to Aegina, the second largest island in the Saronic Gulf, which lies 16 nautical miles away (a 35-minute journey each way). You'll find excellent beaches at Souvala and Marathon as well as the classic Greek monastery of Saint Nektarios and several ancient temples dedicated to Athena, Zeus and Apollo. Don't forget to buy some delicious pistachios to nibble on the way back.
If you need of a lazy day ashore, you could stay in Piraeus. The Archaeological Museum of Piraeus contains bronzes of Apollo and Athena from the Archaic and Classical periods of Greek art, as well as a fine collection of funerary stelae. Other attractions include the fine Greek Orthodox churches of Saint Nicholas, Saint Spyridon and Holy Trinity. For eats, visit the picturesque Mikrolimano marina, which is lined with attractive alfresco restaurants.
Like most great cities, Athens features a wide range of downtown restaurants suited to a variety of tastes and budgets, although you can always find Greek favorites and seafood.
The lively Plaka district, though a bit touristy, is home to charming eateries, included the highly recommended Fisherman's Taverna. A favorite with locals as well as visitors, this restaurant apparently counts Brigitte Bardot among its many fans and offers a fine taste of old-style Greek hospitality, a cozy open fire and alfresco dining in a pretty courtyard. It serves fish dishes alongside Greek classics, and offers live music every evening day except Tuesday. It's advisable to book ahead. (Erechtheous 16 and Erotokritou 12, Plaka; open 11 a.m. to midnight daily)
Less traditional in appearance but equally renowned for its food is Melilotos, which has a central location (only five minutes' walk from Syntagma Square) and serves up fresh and colorful salads alongside Greek favorites like barbecue pork and phyllo-wrapped cheese and leek pastries. (Kalamiotou 19, Syntagma; opens at noon on weekdays, 2 p.m. on Sundays)
For a sophisticated taste of old Athens, you can't beat the city's oldest restaurant, Ideal, which sits just off Omonia Square, near the Central Market. Drink in its charming Art Deco interior while tucking into Greek classics like moussaka and veal kebabs, or international dishes including chicken a la Milanese. (Panepistimiou 46; open noon until late, Monday to Saturday)
Best on a Budget: The Hotel Cecil is a renovated neoclassical hotel. It's clean and pleasant, easy on the pocket and scores highly on location, as it's right at the heart of old Athens. The hotel is near Monastiraki Metro station, close to the Ancient Agora, flea market, Syntagma Square and a short walk away from the shops and restaurants of the Plaka and Psirri districts.
Best for the Buzz: The AVA Hotelis an affordable, boutique-style hotel with a great location in the vibrant Plaka district, only a five minutes' walk from the Greek Parliament, National Gardens, Syntagma Square and the upmarket shopping areas of Ermou and Kolonaki. Book a room at the front and you can also enjoy great views of the Acropolis.
Best to Chill Out: The Athens Hilton. Bland and predictable perhaps, but you know where you are with a Hilton, and this one has a great pool and a central location on Vassilissis Sofias Avenue, near the National Gallery of Art.
Best for Luxury: The Hotel Grande Bretagne, a legendary Belle Epoque hotel right at the heart of Athens in Syntagma Square, with views of the Acropolis and Parthenon. Even if you can't afford to stay there, visit for a drink on the glorious rooftop terrace. You'll need to dress smartly, and cocktails cost upwards of 14 euros, but it's worth it for the view and the atmosphere.
Staying in Touch
Wi-Fi hotspots are widely available at cafes and restaurants in Athens and out at the port.
Best for Those With Limited Mobility: The 3.5-hour Athens Panorama outing is a good choice for travelers who can't manage the steep climb and stairs to the Acropolis. Although it means only seeing the ancient site from a distance, it's a relatively effortless way to take in Athens' main sites, including Hadrian's Arch, the statue of Lord Byron, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the National Gardens, Presidential Palace, Academy and the University Library. Plus, you visit a hotel for traditional Greek cakes and a drink, and you'll make a shopping stop near the Acropolis to pick up souvenirs.
Best for Boozers: A seven-hour Taste of Athens tour is a good way to "do Athens in a day."This tour visits the Acropolis and Ancient Agora, gives you about an hour to browse the shops of the Plaka district and includes lunch with ouzo, wine, Metaxa brandy and entertainment -- though drink too much, and that could turn out to be you! You'll travel mainly by bus, but the tour involves about two hours of walking.
Best for Repeat Visitors: The five-hour Corinth Canal Transit takes you by boat along the high-sided Corinth Canal, which was forged through the narrow causeway that joins mainland Greece to the Peloponnese. It's a great chance to see an excellent feat of engineering up close, but this excursion involves a dreary 75-minute motorway drive there and back. Wear comfy and sensible shoes to negotiate uneven paths and steps around the canal.
Best for Mystics: The nine-hour Discovery Delphi tour involves a 2.5-hour coach journey to and from Delphi but takes in spectacular mountain scenery and the Gulf of Corinth. The tour also includes a visit to the Delphi Museum -- one of the most important in Greece -- and a traditional Greek lunch followed by free time in the village of Delphi. Note: Because this trip involves uphill walking and many steps, it's advisable to take a sun hat, sunscreen and lots of water. Lunch is not served until 2 p.m., so fill up at breakfast.
For More Information
On the Web: Greek National Tourism Organization and Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Europe
IndependentTraveler.com: Europe Travel Guide
--Updated by Maria Harding, Cruise Critic contributor