Our third port was one I was extremely excited about, and I knew there would be a lot to see and do here–more than we could cram in a day. But we would certainly try!
The Port of Piraeus
This is a big port, quite unlike Nafplio and Katakolon. The MS Zuiderdam docked shortly after 5 AM, though of course David and I only exited the ship around 8. There are several docking areas, similar to airport gates. We were at E11–this will become relevant very shortly. However, unlike airports, the port is not in a closed environment. The perimeter has busy roads, sidewalks, office buildings, stores… so once you’ve managed to exit the wire fencing, you’re pretty much in the city of Piraeus.
There are many aggressive taxi drivers here. Some offered to take us straight to Athens, some wanted to play tour guide. Prices varied from 15 Euro up. We knew we could take a bus, and asked a couple people where to find it, but no one was interested in giving those directions. Signage was not clear. We actually ended up walking to the Metro stop (which was better marked), between E5 and E6–definitely not a short walk. It took us maybe 20 minutes. Irritatingly, on our way back we did come across the bus stop not too far from the Metro station. You’ll want Bus #843 or #040, both stop at Apheteria… right by E12.
At the Metro stop, we made a beeline for the ticket machines, which are fairly easy to use and have instructions in English. There were children begging around there, and they got aggressive. When we refused to give them anything, they quickly hit the “Cancel” button on our transaction, then stuffed their hands into the coin slot to grab the money that got returned. Go to the counter and buy your tickets there.
Most of what you can’t miss in Athens are near each other, around the Acropolis. These neighborhoods are the Plaka, Anafiotika, Syntagma, and Monastiraki. The Acropolis deserves its own post, but I’ll describe our walk around Athens starting with where we got off the train–Syntagma Square. (To get there on Metro, take the green line from Piraeus to Monastiraki and then transfer to the blue line for the Syntagma stop.)
Syntagma Square and Ermou Street
This is modern Athens. You’ll can’t miss the gleaming white Parliament Building, the massive Hotel Grande Bretagne, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, all surrounding a roomy square with trees and benches to rest on.
Across the way is Ermou Street, is a pedestrian-only shopping road. It was very crowded when we strolled along, checking out famous brands. Seems like every major city has one (Rome and Venice spring to mind.) We didn’t spend a lot of time here though–I can shop anywhere if I want to, but I’m not often surrounded by the remnants of the oldest civilizations in the world!
The Church of Kapnikarea
At the other end of Ermou, this old Byzantine church (built in the 11th century) marks the neighborhood of Monastiraki and the start of old Athens. South of here is the Cathedral Square, where you’ll find the Mitropolis Cathedral and the “patchwork” Church of Agios Eleftherios, which is so called due to having been added onto through the centuries using blocks and stones from other sites.
This neighborhood is the oldest in Athens. It’s right under the Acropolis, so it’s quite a touristy area… in some spots maybe even kitschy. But it’s certainly lively and there are all kinds of restaurants and shops among well-maintained old buildings. The main drag is Adrainou. Along it is a small Byzantine church dedicated to Agia Aikaterini… in its courtyard you can check out a small excavated area showing the old Athens street level and building materials. Pretty cool.
The Arch of Hadrian and Temple of Olympian Zeus
The Roman Emperor Hadrian, after conquering Greece, built this arch and finished the gargantuan temple beyond it as a mark of his success. The arch is similar to a triumphal arch and was once thought to mark the division between the old city and Hadrian’s new city.
Construction of the Temple of Olympian Zeus started in the 6th century BC but wasn’t completed until 2nd century AD. When it was completed, it had 104 columns and a massive statue of Zeus. However, it was destroyed in a barbarian invasion a century later, and many of its building elements were used for other construction in the city, leaving only the ruin we see today. I can only imagine how amazing it must have looked as a whole, given the massive dozen or so columns still standing.
The Roman Forum and Ancient Agora
We visited these in passing after we came down the Acropolis. The Ancient Agora was the downtown area in ancient (pre-Roman) times: a marketplace, political arena, and social gathering for locals and visitors. The Roman Forum was the commercial area of Athens in Roman times, and when the Ottomans conquered Greece, they turned this area into a grand bazaar as well.
Delicious food in Monastiraki, perfect after a long walk around Athens! There are tons of restaurants here serving souvlaki: meat on a stick! David and I shared a heaping plate with pork, chicken, and lamb, served over some pita bread. We could barely finish. If I recall correctly, we paid under 20 Euros for our meal. Not to be missed.
As for how to decide which restaurant to go with–they’re all very similar, so just pick the one that feels most comfortable for you.
National Archaeological Museum
If you only have a day in Athens, I’d recommend the Acropolis Museum instead, unfortunately. The National Archaeological Museum did have some interesting artifacts from all over Greece. It was slightly underwhelming though and many artifacts were in bad shape or badly preserved. I’m left to wonder if many of the other countries around the world have taken the best of the Greek artifacts for their own exhibits, which is a sad thought.
If you do have more time and would like to go, the museum is to the north, by the Viktoria stop on the green line. Entrance is 7 Euros.
Next up, the Acropolis! Throughout our walk, it was hard to miss the sight of this hill, with the Parthenon gleaming at the top. I was so excited to see it!