Abstract Background The continuous monitoring and future prediction of the growing epidemic of diabetes mellitus worldwide presuppose consistent information about the extent of the problem. The aim of this study was to determine the prevalence of diagnosed diabetes and to identify associated risk factors in a sample of adult urban Greek population. Methods A cross-sectional population-based survey was conducted in municipality of Salamis, Greece, during an election day (2002). The study sample consisted of 2805 participants, aged 20–94 years. Data were collected using a standardized short questionnaire that was completed by a face-to-face interview. Multiple regression analyses were performed to evaluate the association of diabetes with potential risk factors. Results The overall prevalence of diagnosed diabetes was 8.7% (95% CI 7.7–9.8%). After age adjustment for the current adult population (2001 census) of Greece, the projection prevalence was calculated to 8.2%. Multivariate logistic regression analysis identified as independent risk factors: increasing age (odds ratio, OR = 1.07, 95% CI 1.06–1.08), male sex (OR = 1.43, 95% CI 1.04–1.95), overweight and obesity (OR = 1.97, 95% CI 1.29–3.01 and OR = 3.76, 95% CI 2.41–5.86, respectively), family history of diabetes (OR = 6.91, 95% CI 5.11–9.34), hypertension (OR = 2.19, 95% CI 1.60–2.99) and, among women, lower educational level (OR = 2.62, 95% CI 1.22–5.63). The prevalence of overweight and obesity, based on self-reported BMI, were 44.2% and 18.4%, respectively. Moreover, the odds for diabetes in obese subjects with family history were 25-fold higher than those with normal weight and without family history of diabetes, while the odds in overweight subjects with family history of diabetes were 15-fold higher. Conclusions Our findings indicated that the prevalence of diabetes is high in Greek population. It is suggested that the main modifiable contributing factor is obesity, whose effect is extremely increased upon positive heredity presence.