Named after Athena, the goddess of wisdom, Athens is one of the oldest cities in the world -- built around its namesake deity's temple, the Parthenon, which still stands today.
But Athens feels far from an ancient city. While it has done an excellent job at preserving sites like the Acropolis (where the Parthenon is located) and Greek Orthodox churches, it has evolved into a hip and modern metropolis and homeport for ships sailing the Greek Islands. The city's recently overhauled Metro system also provides a cheap, safe and easy way to get around for sightseeing if you have extra time before or after your cruise.
Aside from major landmarks, even once-dingy neighborhoods like Plaka and Thissio have been restored, boasting fresh pastel-colored painted facades and chic restaurants, bars and shops.
Syntagma Square -- Athens' central square -- also 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.
On Foot: Athens' city center and its major attractions aren't accessible from Piraeus by foot. If you're looking for something to do within walking distance of the port, however, you're only a few steps from the Archaeological Museum of Piraeus containing bronzes of Apollo and Athena from the Archaic and Classical periods of Greek art, as well as the Greek Orthodox churches of Saint Nicholas, Saint Spyridon and Holy Trinity. For eats, visit the picturesque Mikrolimano marina, which is lined with alfresco restaurants.
By Metro: The Metro is the easiest method of public transportation to the city center. Cruise passengers can take the Athens Metro Line 1 (Green Line) from Piraeus station to either Monastiraki Station or Omonia Station. From Monastiraki Station, you can walk to the charming neighborhoods of Monastiraki and Plaka and even the Acropolis. From Omonia Station, you can jump on Line 2 (Red Line) and go to Syntagma Square. As of late 2017, Athens utilizes an electronic ticket system, similar to London's Oyster cards. Prices range from 1.40 euros for a single ticket to 4.50 euros for a 24-hour pass and 9 euros for a five-day pass. The travel time is about one hour.
By Taxi: Taxis are prevalent around Piraeus and throughout the city, and therefore tend to be the quickest way to get around, even during rush hour. A taxi from the port to downtown Athens can take anywhere from roughly 20 to 40 minutes, depending on the traffic, but will cost you a bit more -- generally around 25 euros (based on a four-seat taxi).
Note: Rideshare services like Lyft or Uber are currently banned in the city.
Steep sales tax can tack on 25 percent to the cost of your purchases. The value-added tax is 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 and 5:30 p.m.; after that, the city comes to life again.
The euro is the currency in Greece. 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.
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: efcharisto
Do you speak English?: Milate Anglika?
How much is this?: Posa kostizi 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.
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.
Fisherman's Taverna: 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; daily 11 a.m. to midnight)
Melilotos: 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)
Couleur Locale: For a handcrafted cocktail paired with tasty comfort foods (pizza, burgers, etc.) and fabulous views of the Parthenon, head to Couleur Locale. This rooftop bar and restaurant is literally a hidden gem -- accessible by entering a quirky antique shop in a semi-abandoned building and taking the elevator to the third floor. The space itself boasts a stylish industrial design, a plethora of tables and a bar lined with fresh ingredients like herbs and dried citrus wheels. It also has a glass awning with retractable shades to shield the sun without obstructing the views. (Normanou 3, Monastiraki; open 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily)