I handed over my ticket to the security guard who succeed to rip one side off and pointed me to a dusty well-worn trail in the hazy, humid afternoon sun. I began my ascent up the hill to one of the world’s most famous ancient ruins set high above the scrawling modern city of Athens. As I climbed higher and higher up the rocky hillside, I could soon hear the chattering of excited tourists in multiple languages from around the globe. I turned the corner and there she was… the Temple of Athena Nike sitting high on her perch overlooking Athens in her warm marble glory.
The Acropolis of Athens sits high above the city upon a rocky cliff and is Athens’ most famous historical site and perhaps the most visited in Greece. In fact, the Acropolis is so important that in March 2007 the Acropolis was declared as the preeminent monument on the European Cultural Heritage list of monuments. The Acropolis is not one building, but a group of building, including the infamous Parthenon.
The word “acropolis” comes from an ancient Greek word meaning highest city. There are many acropoleis throughout Greece, but the Acropolis of Athens is commonly referred to as “The Acropolis.” The Acropolis hillside is believed to have been inhabited since the 4th millennium BC. However, the Acropolis buildings didn’t begin construction until the 5th millennium when Pericles coordinated the construction process.
The Parthenon is the most prominent building of the Acropolis and is generally always under restoration. Construction of the temple dedicated to the goddess Athena began in 447 BC. The Parthenon is archeoastronomically aligned to the star cluster, Hyades. While the building was primarily built as a temple to the city’s namesake, it was actually used as the treasury. In the final decade of the 6th century AD, the Greek temple became a Christian church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. And later after the Ottomans invaded the city, it became a Mosque.
On September 26, 1687, an Ottoman ammunition storage site in the temple was ignited by the Venetian bombardment of the city of Athens. Much of the Parthenon and its surrounding buildings were damaged. In 1806, Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, removed some of the surviving sculptures and marble and sold it to the British Museum in London where it lives today.
The Parthenon is a peripteral octastyle Doric temple with Ionic columns. The front and back of the temple has 8 columns, hence the “octostyle” and 17 columns on the sides. Perhaps one of the best features of the Parthenon are the metopes. There were originally 92 metopes, or marble panels, on the outside walls of the Parthenon each depicting a different story. Many of the metopes have been destroyed or removed to live in the British Museum. However, several can still be seen around the perimeter of the temple or in the Acropolis Museum nearby.
Personally my favorite building is the Temple of Athena Nike that sits high above Athens. The Temple was built around 420 BC and is one earliest fully Ionic temple of the Athens’ Acropolis. Although you can’t get very close to the Temple, it is one of the only temples not covered in scaffolding and undergoing major restoration at the moment. The temple is located right next to the Propylaea, the monumental gateway to the Acropolis. From the Propylaea you get great views of the Temple of Athena Nike and the city of Athens below. On a clear day you can see all the way to the Mediterranean Sea.
On the north side of the Parthenon is the Erechtheion and its famous Caryatids. The ancient temple was built between 421 and 406 BC and dedicated to both Athena and Poseidon. Legend has it that Athena and Poseidon fought for the right to be the Patron of the city on that exact spot. I think we can deduce that Athena won. The temple was built completely from marble mined from Mount Pentelicus, located northeast of Athens, and its frieze was made of black limestone. Much of the temple is in ruins, but has undergone major restoration over the years. The infamous “porch of the Caryatids” is a large porch on the north side with six draped female sculptures as supporting columns. One of the original sculptures was sold to the British Museum by Lord Elgin and the remaining five live in the Acropolis Museum. The current five sculptures in the Caryatids are replicas.
While you can’t get too close to any of the buildings and monuments, you can certainly get a feel of what they may have looked like in their prime centuries ago. Many of the Acropolis’ employees and guards are in plain clothes so you won’t know who they are until they blow a whistle telling you or another tourist to stay off the ancient ruins. Throughout the rocky outcrop of a hill there are several old columns and ruins not protected by a fence. It’s common to see tourists stepping on top of these for a picture. Please don’t do it! You’ll also see lots of stray dogs and cats calling the Acropolis area home. They all seemed friendly, but you really never know.
Practical Details of Visiting the Acropolis
- Hours: Open daily from 8:00 am to 6:30 pm (8:00 pm in the summer)
- Cost: €12, includes the ancient agora, theatre of Dionysos, the Temple of Olympian Zeus and more. Additionally the ticket is valid for 4 days. (Admission is free for EU students so bring your student ID)
- Metro Stop: Akropoli (red line)
- Carry with You: Water, hat, camera
- Best Time to Visit: Early morning or late afternoon (My favorite is the “golden hour”)
- Tours: Tour guides are always around and prices vary. Athens Walking Tours offers several Acropolis tour options.
- Don’t Miss: The Acropolis Museum located just down the hill on Dionysiou Areopagitou. Admission is €5.