You might be tempted to race through Piraeus, bound for the docks and the fast ferry that will carry you off to an Aegean island paradise, but it’s well worth stopping, even for a day.
Take a trip up to Kastella. This steep hill has been inhabited since the 26th century BC, when it was known as Munichia. At the time Piraeus was a rocky island called Halipedon, or salt field, because of the boggy, often submerged, salt field which connected it to the mainland. In 511 BC Hippias fortified the hill and four years later it became an outpost of Athens. During the boom times in the early 2oth century, the hill was developed as a prime residential area and its elegant neo-classical mansions were built. Today Kastella is one of the most prosperous and attractive neighbourhoods of the city, with a panoramic view over Athens and the Saronic Gulf.
Take a look at the ports. By the 5th century BC, silt had obliterated the salt field, Piraeus was now part of Athens and, with its three deep water harbours, it was highly desirable. In 493 BC, Themistocles began to fortify Piraeus and in 483 BC, the Athenian fleet moved in to build the ships which snatched victory from the Persians at the Battle of Salamis three years later. Next Themistocles constructed the port, created the ship sheds (neosoikoi), and started work on his famous walls. By 471 BC, Piraeus was a great military and commercial harbour, serving the mighty Athenian fleet as a permanent base. Although the Themistoclean Walls and neosoikoi were largely destroyed by the Spartans in 404 BC, some remains can still be seen, along with the Skeotheke (an ancient storehouse for shipping gear) and the Eetionia, a mole in the entrance to the harbour.
Explore the ruins of the ancient city in the basement of the cathedral of Agia Triada and the ancient Theater of Zea next to the Archaeological Museum. Step inside the Archeological Museum, to see the four bronze statues which were unearthed at a construction site near the Tinaneios Gardens and the hand which was discovered by workmen laying pipes.
Take a stroll around the Piraeus town, through streets laid out by the architect Hippodemus on his famous “Hippodamian” grid plan in the 4th century BC. Browse in the shops along the central avenues of Piraeus, Iroon Polytechneiou and Grigoriou Labraki. Marvel at the grand 19th century Neo-Classical public buildings.
Stop for a break in one of the tavernas or seafood restaurants along the waterfront at Mikrolimano or Piraiki. Sample a local beverage, a Mythos, a Restsina or a Mastiha perhaps (more of Mastiha in my next post)
Take in a movie at Village Park, the largest cinema complex in Greece. Browse in the shops, dine and drink in the restaurants and cafes.
Drop into Allou Fun Park, the latest and largest amusement theme park in Athens, for rides and attractions, restaurants and pastry shops.
If you’re passing through in late February, you might catch the Ecocinema International Film Festival, which starts with the Three Kings’ Way Festival, a riot of costumes and entertainment. In summer, you could catch a concert (Greek dancers, folk music and bands) at the open air Veakeio Theater in Kastella, or any time of the year see a variety show at the Menandreio Theater, or as Delfinario
Finally, check out the giant 21st century vessels as you sail out of Piraeus, the largest seaport in Greece, one of the largest in the Mediterranean and one of the top ten container ports in Europe. It’s impressive!