Athens (Piraeus) (Photo:Anastasios71/Shutterstock)
4.0 / 5.0
Cruise Critic Editor Rating

By Maria Harding
Cruise Critic Contributor

Port of Athens (Piraeus)

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.

About Athens (Piraeus)


Pro

Extraordinary ancient history, World Heritage monuments, excellent museums, stunning setting

Con

Polluted, traffic-choked; the city center can take over an hour to reach from the port; stiflingly hot in August

Bottom Line

Athens is an absolute must-see on any Western Med itinerary, but crowds, fumes and heat can spoil the experience in high season


Find a Cruise to the Eastern Mediterranean



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.

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.

Good to Know

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.

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.

Language

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.

Shopping

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.