Piraeus City

Piraeus (Ancient Greek: Peiraiefs) is a city of Attica and the most important port of Greece and the East Mediterranean coast. The municipality of Piraeus constitutes the third biggest municipality and settlement in Greece having a population of 175.697 according to the census of 2001 while its extent reaches to 10.9 square metres. The wider area of Piraeus includes the homonymous municipality and six more municipalities-suburbs with a total population of 466.065 and an extent of 50.4 square metres. It constitutes the southwest urban part of the Athens, part of the capital-city region. The centre of Piraeus is 12 kilometres far from the centre of Athens being the historic seaport of the capital of Attica while the municipality constitutes the centre of the Piraeus Prefecture that is part of the Hyper-Prefecture of Athens and Piraeus

The area of Piraeus seems to have been inhabited since the Neolithic Era reaching its peak during the Classical Era when it was first declared as a municipality, more specifically being one of the municipalities of Ancient Athens, chosen to be the seaport of the Athens city-state. A long period of decay followed when Piraeus was occasionally deserted reaching the 19th century when Athens became the capital of the newly formed country of Greece and Piraeus started developing again. Its population steadily grew following the premium urban design of the city based on the system that Ippodamus from Miletus initially applied when designing Ancient Piraeus, a system that remains a prototype of urban design. Actually, in 1832, Piraeus was nominated by Gutensohn, the architect of Ludwig I of Bavaria, to become the capital of Greece progressively extending to Athens but eventually the reverse happened since Athens was the city chosen to become the capital of Greece and after a while Piraeus integrated in the capital region.

Nowadays, Piraeus is the biggest industrial centre of the country while on the same time the biggest port in Europe and the third biggest port in the whole world based on travelling records, a fact that makes the municipality of Piraeus the largest commercial centre of the Greek Economy. Piraeus is the link of mainland Greece with the islands of the Aegean Sea. As part of the Athenian urban complex, there are plenty of transportation means in service i.e. buses, trolleys, suburban railway, tram, metro (for the time being the old line of the underground railway is the one available but in the future there is going to be a new extended line of the metro) while it is also connected to the central railway network of the country.

A number of signs, ancient tomb findings, foundations of temples, houses, buildings, walls and ancient port structures, in combination with texts from ancient authors referring to Piraeus (such as Thucydides, Xenophon, Aristotle, Plutarch, Isocrates, Plato, Lycurgus, Demosthenes, Herodotus and Polydeukis) constitute direct sources for studying the history and the topography of the city. The first to write about Attica was Diodoros the ‘traveller’ (4th century BC) followed by Iliodoros who wrote about 15 books referring to the monuments of Athens.

Since antiquity the names that both the city and the port have been given at times are as follows:

1. City Names:

“Peiraiefs” (during ancient times and also the last official name of the city).


“Piraeus” (given by Stefanos Vizantios and also the last Modern Greek name of the city)

“Pireas”, “Peréas”, or “Pereás” (folk names of the city).

2. Port Names:

“Port of Piraeus” or simply “the Port” (during ancient times and also the last archaeological record).

“Kantharos” or “Port of Kantharos” (during ancient times as well).

“Kofos Port” (after the Peloponnesean War and also the last archaeological record).

“Port of Athens”.

“Port of the Lion” or more widely known as “Porto Leone”(during the 17th century a marble lion decorated the port being the first thing that the travellers could see when entering the port. The original lion was stolen by Francesco Morozini and it can now be found in Venice. Today an imitation of this lion made by the sculptor Georgio Megoula is placed at the entrance of the port.)

“Porto Drako” or “Porto Drakone”.

“Porto of Athens” (name given by Meletius).

Moreover during the Roman Era, the Middle Ages, the Venetian and the Turkish Occupation the port has taken the following names:

“Athenarum portus”.

“Portus de Sithines”, or “Sithines”.

“Porto Leone”, or “Porto Draco”, ή “Porto Dracone”.

“Aslan Port” (before and during 1821)

Many ancient writers in an attempt to reinforce the insularity of Piraeus trace the origins of the city name to the word ‘Peiraiefs’ coming from the word ‘peraiefs’ (by changing the first ‘e’ vowel into ‘ei’ <i>). Peiraiefs means ‘ferryman’ (coming from the verb ‘peraió’ that is ‘ferry someone to the other side’) referring to the person that is responsible for ferrying people from the Falirean coast to the opposite banks of the Piraeus island. According to Dragatsis and Hatzis the name was turned from a common noun into a proper one (by combining the -efs suffix occuring in words such as pharmakefs = pharmacist, vafefs = painter, implying the person carrying out a specific task/job). Following that line, Pireaus as a word states a profession just like the proper nouns Galatas (= milkman) etc. In ancient Greek the ‘ferryman’ was not only called ‘peiraiefs’ but also ‘peiraios’ (S. Byzantions). J. Schmidt and K. Wahrmann (1929) both seem to agree on this etymology. Finally, this claim is reinforced by the name ‘Peiraiós’ which was given to the port of ancient Korinthos that also meant ‘ferryman’.

According to others, the name ‘Peiraiefs’ comes from the word ‘peran’ (which means the ‘other side’) because in ancient times there was a marshy area in between the two lands (the so called ‘alipedon’), the same name being also used to describe opposite banks, for example:

Peraia of Palestine, the land opposite Jordan river.

Peraia, the land opposite Tenedos and Misia.

Peraia of Korinthos (known as Peraxora)

Peraia of Siria, whose inhabitants are called Peiraieis.

Peraia of Smirni (a suburb of Smirni)

Following this line, A. Hatzis claims that in Modern Greek dialect the names ‘Peréas’ or ‘Peraiás’ or ‘Peraias’ do not hold any kind of lexical differentiation supporting his argument by referring to the entry ‘Peiraiefs’ found in the Pape-Benseler dictionary.

Prehistoric years

As it is known, Piraeus was an island during prehistoric years. It was separated from the remainder of Attica with a sea area which started from the region of the Falirian bay and more specifically from New Faliro past through the current district of Kaminia and part of the municipality of St. John Renti and ended in the port of Alon, in front of the Railway station of Athens-Piraeus. Later on this zone was covered with alluviums to be initially transformed into a shallow marine strip, then into a ‘swampy region’ (swamp) and finally into a ‘muddy region’ (mud flat). It then became what everyone knows as Alipedo which linked Piraeus with the remainder of Attica. The origin of the place name of Piraeus is attributed to this island form of the place in ancient times. Most people attribute its origin to a word meaning ‘ferryman’, from the anonymous ferryman who likely ferried with his boat the residence of Attica to the opposite Piraeus coast and vice versa. The word for ferryman evolved into a place name and after a vowel change we ended up with Piraeus in its current from. In everyday communication the initial form of the place name has also survived to date. Others believe that the place name comes from the word ‘beyond’ since Piraeus either as an island detached from the remainder of Attica or after they were linked due to the marsh of Alipedo standing in between, was ‘beyond the coast’ and thus referred to as ‘island-like’. Piraeus was inhabited around the middle of the 3rd millennium BC. This opinion is reinforced by the residues of Protohellenic settlements revealed in old Kokinia and Keratsini that are temporally placed between 2600 and 1900 BC in correlation with other findings of the same era (ruins of buildings, tools) in the region of Mounichia and Stalida.

The first residents of Piraeus were reported to be Pelasgi and other familiar prehistoric residents of the Hellenic space (Karres, Leleges, Cretes, Thaces, Foinicians) but mostly Minians which were the most advanced of all with many skills and technical knowledge, far ahead of their time. The last ones, potentially of Ionian origin, emanated from Orchomeno in Viotia and settled in Piraeus in the end of the 13th or the beginning of the 12th century BC, after the Thracian invasion in their land. Being experienced seamen, they found in the natural small port of Mounichia (currently called Mikrolimano) a suitable base for their operations while their settlement was developed in the hill carrying their name (the currently known hill of Profitis Ilias). According to traditions, this hill was ceded to them by the king of Athens, Mounichio that is why it was called Mounichia, while other attribute the place name to a Minian leader or hero. At the top of the hill, or at a small height on the left side of the small port of Mounichia where the lounge of the ‘Hellenic Marine Society’ has been erected, the Minians founded the temple of ‘Mounichian Artemis’. The Minians who had been experts in the constructions of underground passages (tunnels), sewers and other technical works have left their mark in the area of Piraeus. Apart from the levelling of the hill of Mounichia and the carved artefacts found inside caves and rocks which the people used to call ‘Theospita’, two important technical works testify the Minian passage though Piraeus: the cave known as ‘cave of Aretousa’ in the hill of Mounichia and the ‘Siraggio’ formerly known as ‘cave of Paraskevas’.

Apart from the prehistoric settlement of the Minians in the hill of Mounichia in the prehistoric years and later on, there was another ‘contact’ or ‘union’ of communities in Piraeus of mainly religious character sharing a common temple: the so called ‘Tetrakomon (four cities) Iraklion’. The four ‘komes’ (cities) that constituted this peculiar communal ‘union’ were: Piraeus, Faliro – the most important city at the time that the Athenians used as a port city and whose name came from one local hero which according to the tradition was one of the Argonauts, the city currently called Keratsini and Xipeti which is placed between Old Kokkinia and Korydallos probably at the place of Nikaia. The worship of Hercules was the connecting link of this peculiar, communal union that survived for many centuries and the common temple of the ‘Tetrakomon’ was found, based on prevailing opinions, in the current district called Kaminia.


The archaeological sites of particular interest are:

The underground constructions in rocks, such as “Sirangio” (commonly known as the “Cave of the Paraskeua”), in Kastella and the “Cave of Aretousa, at the hill of Mounichia (Prophet Elias), projects of advanced prehistoric inhabitants of Piraeus of Minion, but remain unexploited

The first is the most important. Discovered by Cristos Panagos in 1897, and by Gianni Zanneto in 1894. The natural “cavity” of Sirangio already existed but utilized with the execution of certain works by Minions.

The “stoa” (cave) penetrates 12 meters into the rock, below Falirou Avenue (Vas Pavlou). Although there are no positive information on the purpose for which constructed, is likely to be a sanctuary, dedicated to local hero Sirago.

In ancient times can be assumed that was used as “Asklipieio” and as “Porfyreio”, for processing the abundant red-colored shells of the Piraiki coast. Later, during the Roman times in Sirangio operated “Valaneio” (public bath) and built two mosaics, in a suspicious way, disappeared during the period of dictatorship (1967 – 1974).

The “Cave of Aretousa” is a natural cavity used for the water supply of the inhabitants of the hill. The entrance is on the west side of Mounichia Hill, at the corners of Riga Ferraiou and Tsamadou streets, fenced for a long period of time for safety reasons.

According to expert opinions, and resulting from the excavation findings, this stoa is an artificial cave with 165 degrees, carved in rock – a project for water supply purposes.

The Ancient Theater of Zea built during Macedonian time (late 4th or early 3rd century BC) located next to the Archaeological Museum, between the roads of Ch. Trikoupi and Filellinon (the old theater Mounichia no remnants survived toour days).

The ruins of the ancient city’s buildings, located at the basement of the Cathedral of Holy Trinity.

Ruins of the main gate of the ancient wall of Piraeus in the district “Gouva of Vavoula”, with plans for the creation of an archaeological park – and remnants of buildings of the Roman times, discovered in the block between the streets Polytexneiou – Skouze – Leosthenous – Filellinon.

The ruins of ancient Piraeus Wall – incorrectly related with the Long Walls – preserved in the Piraeus peninsula and along the Piraeus coast, especially in Ietioneia outskirts.

For the protection, management, promotion of the remnants of the ancient wall efforts are made by the Ministry of Culture and the City of Piraeus, and from the Administration of PPA. Additionally the Ministry of Culture has taken responsibility for the rescue and promotion of the archaeological site of Kinosouras (Salamina).

Unfortunately, few remnants of the ship sheds (neosikon) have survived. The neosika were seaside sheds, where ships anchored, during the peak of the Piraeus port (5th century BC) the total number of neosikon reached 372. 196 were in Zea (Pasalimani), 82 in Mounichia (Mikrolimano) and 94 in the military naval base of Kantharou, in the central port.

Grave columns and other burial findings, near the Piraeus peninsula and the area that is believed that Themistocles was buried.

In 1988, accidently, during test excavations, at the end of the road “2nd Division Merarxias)” (Pasalimani) for the construction of underground parking lot, from YPEXODE, unearthed a very important archaeological discovery: the foundation of the famous “Arsenal (Skeuothikis)” of Philonos.

As it is known the “Arsenal”, the work of the architect Philonos, built between 346 to 328 BC, according to an inscribed plaque entitled “specification” of the project, that found the last century at the corner of the streets Sotiris Dios and Voulgari – and published in 1882 by Alexander Meletopoulos – has a length of 123 meters, width of 17 meters, height of 30 meters and 36 windows that could store military equipment for 150 or, according to others, 400 ships.

It was located to the ancient port of Zea and according to recent “prediction” at Sotiros Street, behind Kanari square, a distance of approximately 200 meters from the latest findings.

Unfortunately, for purely practical reasons, the creation of an archaeological site at the location of the remnants of the “Arsenal” was impossible – and after imprinting by the Archaeological Service, the section of the road 2nd Merarchia Division was restored in its previous form. Few of the ruins of ‘Arsenal’ preserved in an underground building, at Ypsilanti street.

Source: “Municipality of Piraeus”

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