In ancient times Piraeus was the naval port of Athens, and the modern city lies in the same conurbation, only a Metro ride away from the capital. On the water Piraeus has two circular natural harbours with narrow openings and bowls of modern buildings behind. At the Bay of Zea the ruins of ancient shipyards rest next to the luxury yachts in the water.
If you want to know more, the Archaeological Museum is as good as they come, and has the ruins of an ancient theatre and dazzling bronze statues recovered from the water off Piraeus in 1959. Piraeus has always been the main port for the Aegean Islands, and if you’re up for a day trip you can set sail on a high speed hydrofoil for close-range destinations like Aphaia, Hydra and Seriphos.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Piraeus:
1. Archaeological Museum
Just in from the western shore of the Bay of Zea, Piraeus’ Archaeological Museum has artefacts from Mycenaean times to the Roman period, retrieved from across the city and along the coastline of Attica.
Right beside the museum are the ruins of the Hellenistic Theatre of Zea, built in the 2nd century BC and excavated in the 1880s.
Back inside, the galleries dip into topics like the commercial and military port, domestic life in the Mycenaean and Hellenistic years, religious life, the development funerary carvings and painted art in the Roman period.
The marquee exhibition is in rooms three and four, where you’ll come face- to-face with bronze statues recovered from near Piraeus’ harbour in 1959. These are the Piraeus Athena and Piraeus Artemis, cast in the 4th century BC, and the much older, High Archaic Piraeus Apollo, from the 6th century BC.
2. Bay of Zea (Paşalimanı)
This bay and natural harbour is the second largest of Piraeus’ three ports.
If you have time to spare, you could walk from one side of the harbour entrance to the other, under swaying palm fronds and with lots of interesting little things to look out for.
At the narrow entrance you can spot the remains of Piraeus ancient walls and the foundations of shipyards where Athens’ triremes ships would have been assembled.
Continue up towards the inner part of the harbour you can take in Piraeus’ modern cityscape and get an eyeful of the swanky yachts on the water.
In Ottoman times the Bay of Zea was where Athens’ pashas would come to bathe with their harems, which is the origin of the name Paşalimanı.
The harbour at Mikrolimano is an almost perfect oval, with just a small opening on its east side.
In ancient times Mikrolimano was Athens’ main naval port, dedicated to the goddess Artemis (Mounichia) and with more than 80 ship sheds where posh fish restaurants sit today.
Later, in Byzantine times it was known as Fanari for a lighthouse (fanos) at the harbour mouth and that has name has stuck to the 21st century.
Over the water, like tiers of an amphitheatre are rows of houses climbing up the hill in Kastella, while down below luxury yachts bob in the water.
Mikrolimano is an upscale seafood destination for tourists and affluent Athens residents.
They’ll dine on the wooden quays with views of those luxury yachts and the bowl of houses up the hillside.
Although Piraeus is a separate city, Line 1 of the Athens Metro will take you to the heart of the capital in no time at all.
For some ancient sightseeing, the Acropolis, Ancient Agora and their catalogue of monuments are spaced fairly tightly together.
All you need is some comfy, sensible shoes, because you’ll be doing a lot of climbing, up some slippery marble surfaces.
You may have to pinch yourself at the Acropolis Museum to remind yourself that you’re really looking at the friezes of the Parthenon or the famous caryatids of the Erechtheion.
Down in the Agora you’ll be where democracy took root in the 5th century BC, and may get chills to know that you’re walking the same ground as Plato and Socrates.
And the frissons continue at the Theatre of Dionysus where works by Sophocles and Euripides were first performed at the ancient Dionysia theatre competition.
Piraeus’ traffic-clogged streets seem a world far away in the Kastella neighbourhood just north and west of Mikrolimano.
By far the prettiest part of the city, Kastella is a hillside quarter of mansions going back to the 19th century, witnesses to a prosperous past.
As you labour up streets like Falireos, Irakleous, Vasileos Pavlou and Foskolou you can look back for restorative vistas of the sea and the city.
From the olive trees and pines around the Church of the Prophet Elias you can see as far as the coastal town of Vouliagmeni, almost 30 kilometres to the southeast.
In 1821 fighters under the command of the famed revolutionary figure Georgios Karaiskakis were besieged on this hill by the Ottomans.
6. Electric Railway Museum of Piraeus
Opened in 2005, this museum was the labour of love of Manolis Fotopoulos, a former employee of Athens–Piraeus Electric Railways.
From his retirement in 1995 he spent a decade trawling through antiques shops, warehouses and even in rubbish tips for memorabilia relating to the brand.
He assembled uniforms, photographs, newspaper cuttings and books, and the railway company soon caught on, contributing wagons, other rolling stock and control and signalling equipment for the museum.
The attraction soon found a home in Piraeus Station and has more than 2,000 objects to examine, accompanied by some 3,000 books, posters and photographs.
7. Agia Triada (Church of the Holy Trinity)
Piraeus’ first Church of the Holy Trinity was founded in 1839 but was completely wiped out in the bombing in 1944. After the war its successor was built on V. Georgios and Ethnikis Antistaseos streets and would eventually be consecrated in the mid-1960s.
Although the Agia Triada is a modern construction it still warrants your time for its immense size.
Using concrete the architects made it possible to see the dome and its image of Christ Pantocrator from any part of the church floor.
This mosaic is ringed by the 12 apostles, while bright icons, ornamentation and episodes from the bible are rendered in other mosaics that cover the walls.
Piraeus’ favourite place for fun when the sun goes down is the portside quarter of Trouba, which has had a very colourful past.
Trouba was a red light district of cabarets and brothels from the 1940s to the 1970s and it was here that the 1960 Greek-American film Never on Sunday (about a prostitute) was filmed.
Its star Melina Mercouri won the best actress award at Cannes that year and the movie won the Academy Award for Best Song.
Trouba eventually cleaned up its act and was forgotten, but has returned to the fore with a more innocent slew of cafes, bars and nightclubs all in the space of a few blocks.
9. Hellenic Maritime Museum
By Zea harbour is the largest maritime museum in Greece.
The Hellenic Maritime Museum was established in 1949 by the city’s preeminent citizens and naval officers.
The exhibition gives an account of maritime activity in Greece going back to prehistory, and bringing you up to the Balkan Wars and the Second World War in the 20th century.
Among the exciting discoveries to be made are big chunks of the sea wall erected by the Athenian commander Conon at the end of the 5th century BC. There are also vestiges of the Neosokoi, ancient ship sheds in which the mighty triremes were constructed and repaired.
One of the museum’s ten rooms is also set aside for seascapes from the 19th and 20th centuries, and you can view genuine maps for Greek waters and all over the world, from the 1500s to the 1800s.
10. Olympiacos F.C.
Piraeus has the most successful football club in Greek history.
Since the “Thrylos” (Legend) was founded in 1925, Olympiacos have won 44 league titles, 27 Greek Cups and four Greek Super Cups.
Just to sum up this team’s dominance, all other clubs in the country have managed a combined total of 37 league titles.
Olympiacos play at the 32,115-seater Karaiskakis Stadium, built as the velodrome for the 1896 Olympics and last refurbished in 2004 when it also started hosting home matches for the Greek national team.
If you’re in town in summer and can’t get to a match you can take a peek inside the museum filled with memorabilia.
You can catch up on the history of the team and get to know some of the accomplished players to have worn the red and white, like Rivaldo, Giovanni and Darko Kovačević.
11. Sotiros Dios
In a canyon of high rise blocks the pedestrianised Sotiros Dios cuts through Piraeus’ main commercial area.
On Sotiros Dios and its connecting streets is a selection of familiar international brands like Zara, Accessorize, Replay, Nike, Marks & Spencer, Super Dry and many more.
These are interspersed with local businesses and no lack of cafes, bakeries, bars and restaurants.
The parallel Vasileos Georgiou Avenue is has a long row of jewellers, while Tsamadou street, one block along, has a mix of family-run bookshops, arcades and upmarket shopping malls.
12. Island Trips
There are regular ferry services to more than 20 Greek islands from the Port of Piraeus, but if you want to keep things local and just spend one night or even come back on the same day there are some picks.
The nearest major island to Piraeus is Aegina, which has enthralling ancient architecture like the Temple of Aphaia from the 6th century BC and Kolona with a Temple of Apollo from the same period.
Aegina has shallow, family friendly beaches, as well as the ghost village of Paleochora to hunt down.
Ferries run throughout the day and take only half an hour on the hydrofoil.
A little further are the Cycladic Island of Serifos at two and a half hours and beautiful Hydra, as little as 90 minutes away, and where all car traffic is banned.
13. Museum Battleship Averof
If you can beat the traffic you won’t need more than 15 minutes to reach this museum ship moored around the harbour in Faliro.
The Georgios Averof is an armoured cruiser, the last of its kind still afloat.
The ship was launched in 1910 and became the flagship of admiral Pavlos Kountouriotis and the Greek Navy in the First Balkan War from 1912 to 1913. At this time the ship helped establish Greek naval supremacy over the Ottoman Empire in the Aegean and was involved in the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922, then again in the Second World War when it escaped with the Greek fleet to Egypt after the German invasion.
Four decks are open, and you’ll duck through the engine room, officers’ quarters, crew quarters, mess, kitchen and chapel, with weapons, charts, uniforms, medals and archive photography to check out.
14. Fish and Seafood
When Athenians get peckish for fish and seafood Piraeus is usually the first place that springs to mind, even if it doesn’t come cheap.
The daily catch from all over Greece is landed at the port and doesn’t have to travel far to the many eateries in the city.
The prime destination is Mikrolimano, where restaurants are packed into continuous lines and where touts vie for your attention.
Prices can be exorbitant here and if you need your Euros to stretch further, try Chatzikiriakio, a small quarter to the southeast of the port by the naval academy, or Kastella on the hill over the harbour.
Some dishes to keep in mind are fried red mullet (barbounia), fried anchovies (gavros tiganitos), sardines on grilled Greek sourdough (as an appetiser)or grilled whole bass (lavraki) marinated in lemon.
Between Zea and Mikrolimano is the largest beach in Piraeus.
As a place to bathe Votsalakia is a little jagged, but you can amble beside the water and look west towards Athens’ southern suburbs backed by mountains.
The rock and gravel shore is cleaned regularly in summer and fills up quickly as it’s right in front of Kastella.
A few metres out in the sea is a small island, and there are five-a-side football and beach volleyball courts behind chain-link fences next to the water.
Votsalakia is also walking distance from a clutch of bars and restaurants.