Travel guide to visiting the Acropolis of Athens

A glorious site of Ancient Greece

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Acropolis of Athens, Athens, Greece

GPS: 37.978010132792, 23.735391436885

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The Acropolis of Athens is one of the greatest ancient sites in the European and Western world. Meaning “upper city” or “top of the city”, this white marble sanctuary was built on a rocky plateau by the former Athenian leader, Pericles, about five centuries ago who was assisted in his task by several artisans of the first Greek classicism including the sculptor Phidias and the architects Ictinus and Callicrates. The fabulous vestiges of the Acropolis of Athens symbolizes the golden age of Ancient Greece. This reflects in the history of the people and great navigators of the Aegean Sea to the civilizations of the Cyclades (-3000 years), Minoan (-1500 years) and Mycenaean (-1000 years). 

From the top of its sacred rock dominating the Agora (ancient main square of the city of Athens), the Acropolis is made up of a collection of eminent archaeological sites visible from the four corners of the Greek capital. The three most remarkable monuments are the Propylaea (the monumental entrance to the site), the Parthenon (the Doric jewel of the Acropolis) and the Erechtheum (the temple with refined architecture). They are erected from tens of thousands of tonnes of marble, imported from the island of Delos, in the Cyclades archipelago. Formerly decorated with bright colours, the architectural ensemble of the Acropolis of Athens retains superb sculptural richness as it is enclosed and protected by a wall. 

The Acropolis of Athens is a great place of worship dedicated to the goddess Athena Nike (embodying warfare, handicraft and wisdom) described as both an attribute and attendant to the gods Zeus and Athena as well as many other gods of Greek mythology. It represents not only a sanctuary but also a religious and cultural centre. The Acropolis site is known to be the cradle of Athenian democracy, as imagined by Pericles, and of philosophy (represented by the writings of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and several schools of Greek thoughts). It is also a place of emergence of art, of a model based on the equality of citizens and the notion of the free individual, concepts on which the societies of the modern era are largely based. According to archaeologists, this fortified site includes even older temples that have served as a foundation for millennial temples still in place. A large museum exhibits objects from excavations carried out at the scene. The oldest artefacts go back to Prehistory, proof that this high plateau of Athens has been inhabited since the time of the Neolithic 12,000 years ago.

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  • The many treasures of the Acropolis Museum (the 4,000 objects exhibited cover the period of Prehistory at the beginning of the 8th century AD)
  • The Parthenon colonnades (architectural masterpiece by its size and proportions, this Doric-style building combines 70,000 construction elements); the massive stones of the temple weigh up to 13 tonnes each; friezes paying tribute to the Athenian people
  • The Ionic Temple of Athena Nike (built in the 5th century BC in honour of the goddess of victory) and the Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus (which could accommodate up to 17,000 spectators)
  • The Caryatids (columns of female figure statues carved in the southern part of the Erechtheum or Erechtheion); Odeon of Herodes Atticus (1st century AD) and its white marble scene; remains of the Propylaea (large vestibule leading to the sanctuary)
  • The Areopagus (rock hill) overlooking the Agora (former gathering place of the city); old walls and fortification systems; foundations of the Brauroneion (sanctuary of Artemis Brauronia) and the Old Temple of Athena
  • Illumination at nightfall from the site to the heights of Athens
  • Dominant view of the Greek capital from the belvedere to the eastern end of the Acropolis; different points of view of ancient monuments from the various districts of the city of Athens
  • Free entry on the first Sunday of the month (from November to March)
  • Ideal position of the Acropolis in downtown Athens; the neo-classical architecture of monuments and buildings in Athens
  • According to legend, the god Poseidon and the goddess Athena opposed being chosen by the residents of the Acropolis of Athens. The latter are said to have designated Athena Polias as protector of their city. In Greek mythology, she is the goddess of wisdom and military strategy but also the patron of craft and weaving.
  • The Parthenon is one of the best preserved monuments of the Classical Period, together with the Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae, in the Peloponnese. These two monumental temples of ancient Greece were probably built by the same architect, Ictinus, in collaboration with Callicrates.
  • The hill of the Acropolis was first used as a refuge for the inhabitants of Athens to retreat to in case of an external attack (which is why the site was fortified). According to Karl Reber, professor of classical archaeology, the Parthenon was built in only ten years, between 447 and 438 BC (the sculptures and decoration of the monument were completed in 432 BC). To finance this colossal and extremely costly project, the strategos (military general) Pericles used the mines of Laurion (located 50 kilometres south of Athens in Attica) and the treasury of the Delian League (a common war chest supplied by the Greek cities to prepare for a new Persian attack), which he had transferred from Delos to Athens.
  • Dedicated to Athena, the Parthenon was not a temple in the strict sense of the word. According to Karl Reber, the main function of this sacred monument was to store the wealth of the city of Athens (the equivalent of a depository bank). A majestic statue of the goddess Athena, 11 metres high and covered in gold was erected within the Parthenon (the creation of this statue would have cost more than the entire building). The statue was later stripped of its gold and transferred to Constantinople by the Romans in the 5th century AD, after which historians lost all trace of its existence.
  • All specialists agree that the Parthenon is a monument with perfect lines measuring 69 metres long and 30 metres wide. Its construction required thousands of tons of marble from quarries located at Mount Pentelicus, a mountain in Attica some ten kilometres north-east of Athens (the quarry is still being used today for the restoration of the monument). The trapezoidal structure of the Parthenon has no straight lines or rectangular corners. It was perfected using optical correction technology.
  • The Parthenon was converted into a Christian church around the 6th century and then transformed into a mosque by the Turks in the 15th century. It was heavily damaged during the Morean War at the end of the 17th century, a conflict involving the Republic of Venice and the Ottoman Empire. In a state of ruin, the monument was partially rebuilt but was the object of extensive looting and clandestine excavations.
  • The Parthenon frieze is the subject of a dispute between Greece and England. It is stored at the British Museum in London (this is a relief carved frieze of marble sculptures about 75 meters long). It was acquired and repatriated in 1801 with a set of sculptures, marble metopes (sculpted panels) by Thomas Bruce, known as Lord Elgin, the British ambassador in Constantinople during the Ottoman Empire. These cultural goods have been the subject of a request for compensation by Greece since 1832, only a few years after the country’s independence (proclaimed in 1822 and ending almost 4 centuries of Ottoman rule).
  • The original Caryatid statues are exhibited in the Acropolis Museum (the six statues of women who support the upper part of the Erechtheum have been replaced by copies to protect them from pollution).
  • The word “democracy” can be translated as “power to the people” in ancient Greek. It was in the 6th and 5th centuries BC that a new idea of governance emerged and developed in Athens. At that time, ancient Greece was not unified, so only the Athenian city was affected by this bold step. From the seventh century BC, a chief magistrate called the eponymous archon (a kind of governor or mayor at the head of the city of Athens) was appointed and changed every year. The democratic experience was carried out by inhabitants on the site of the Agora and then on the Pnyx hill overlooking the city. Almost every day, thousands of men went to the ecclesia (the assembly of citizens) to meet, make speeches, debate and take important political decisions. This system of immediate democracy excluded women, slaves and foreigners. Laws were passed to govern the daily life of Athens (approving the budget, deciding whether or not to naturalise a new citizen, making legal decisions through the supreme court of the Heliaia, or deciding whether to go to war…). It was in this context that the famous Greek philosopher Socrates was sentenced to death on charges of sin. He was accused of corrupting young minds and not honouring the gods of Athens. Accepting the decision, he swallowed a poison (prepared from a plant called hemlock) to kill himself.
  • The iconic view of the Acropolis of Athens could be threatened in the future by the construction of several skyscrapers in the trendy districts of Makrygianni and Koukaki. Similar projects are considered in the historic port of Piraeus, owned by the Chinese giant Cosco.
  • To escape the crowd of tourists in high season, the best time to get to the Acropolis of Athens is around 5 pm or very early in the morning – the site opens at 8 am.
  • Once there, start by visiting the Acropolis Museum before exploring the many temples and archaeological remains. This very modern building, designed by architect Bernard Tschumi, has glass floors that allows you to see the ruins of the ancient city lying just below.
  • The small and rocky hill of the Pnyx, where most of the parliamentary debates were held under Pericles, has a superb view of the city of Athens and the monuments of the Acropolis.
  • Other museums in the Greek capital are full of major cultural treasures such as the National Archaeological Museum, the Byzantine and Christian Museum, the Museum of the Ancient Agora, the Kerameikos Archaeological Museum and the Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art.

Where to eat

  • Kostas
    (souvlakis are excellent)
  • Epirus Tavern
    (popular atmosphere)
  • Dio Dekares I Oka
    (traditional taverna)

Where to go

  • National Archaeological Museum
    (full of richness)
  • Pláka and Anafiotika
    (picturesque districts of Athens)
  • Lake Vouliagmeni
    (swimming and relaxation area)

Where to stay

  • Plaka Hotel
    (quiet hotel well located)
  • AVA Hotel Athens
    (ideal to visit Athens)
  • Hermes Hotel
    (good value for money)