The Acropolis of Athens
The Acropolis in Athens is a hill 156 meters high with a temple complex built on it that protected the citizens from enemy raids. The upper city, which occupies an area of 300 by 130 meters, was built over the centuries, from the ancient Greek archaic period to the era of Roman Greece. Today, the Acropolis in Athens is the most visited attraction in the Greek capital: history buffs will not mind the scaffolding that surrounds the ancient temples, nor the continuous excavations, nor the blazing sun. Nor are they embarrassed by the fact that much of the decor is the work of modern masters who made copies instead of the originals stored in the halls of European museums.
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Video: View of the Acropolis of Athens from above
History of the Acropolis
According to legend, the founder of Athens and the Upper City was half-man-half-snake Cecrops. It was he who chose the goddess of wisdom as his patroness and erected the first temples in her honor. In the following centuries, more magnificent buildings were erected on their ruins until all the Acropolis buildings, with the exception of the fragmentally preserved temple of Hecatompedon, were destroyed by the Persians in the fifth century. In the time of Pericles and immediately after his death, the best works of ancient architecture – Parthenon and Erechtheion – decorated the hill.
In the era of early Hellenism and the submission of Greece to Rome, several theaters appeared at the foot of the hill. The Christians converted the pagan temples into Christian ones, not reconstructing them, but partially changing the interiors. The Turks, who came to the Balkans in the 15th century, used the buildings of the Acropolis of Athens as mosques. There were no significant changes on the hill until the Venetians shelled the city with cannons in the 17th century. Many of the temples were destroyed and their costly reconstruction has not yet been completed.
In the XIX century, some of the sculptures decorating the facades of the temples were taken to France and Great Britain, the dispute about their belonging is still going on today.
Panorama of the Acropolis in Athens
Architectural features of the Acropolis in Athens
The territory of the hill was built up gradually, new buildings were erected on the ruins or unfinished foundations of the former ones. The works were frozen for decades due to lack of funds. In general, even in ancient times the hill was almost always a construction site. The oldest surviving sites on the Acropolis, such as the Parthenon, were built at the end of the reign of the strict Doric order with massive columns. The buildings close to them, like the Propylaeum, exhibit elements of the more decorative Ionic style along with the Doric. The later Erechtheion is an example of Ionic architectural order.
Video: Chronology of the Acropolis in Athens
Parthenon – the most important temple of ancient Athens
The central, upper point of the Acropolis panorama is the Parthenon temple, dedicated to Athena, the patroness of the city. It is the pinnacle of the work of the architect Ictinus, who, however, did not act alone, but with a team of like-minded people. The material for the temple was white marble quarried nearby, which took on a golden glow in the sunlight. These features of the stone are noticeable now, while in ancient times the temple and all the statues were painted in bright colors – red, blue, yellow.
All the work, from the creation of the project to the decoration of the Parthenon, was carried out under Pericles, from 447 to 432 B.C. According to the architects’ plan, the temple on the Acropolis of Athens was to surpass all that had existed before. Formally a rectangular building in plan it rested on three marble steps and was surrounded on the perimeter by a colonnade more than 10 m high. People entered the temple through the western entrance with low steps. What tourists see today are the columned steps.
The credit of the architects is that they put the laws of optics at the service of the architecture. The columns widen in the center, the corner columns and the floor are situated at an angle – all this creates a feeling of rigorous straightness. In addition, thanks to the tricks of the architects, the Parthenon looks strictly proportional from any vantage point – both from the Lower City and when approaching it.
Sculptures of Phidias
A giant, 13-meter statue of Athena, which has not survived to this day, was prepared for the temple by Phidias, the author of one of the wonders of the world – the statue of Zeus the Olympic. The wooden figure of the armed warrior-goddess, according to the speculations of historians, was decorated with precious stones, ivory and gold. This is indirectly confirmed by the records found containing the builders’ reports on the purchased materials – in total the statue took about a ton of metal. The approximate appearance of the warrior was reconstructed thanks to copies made in ancient times, one of which is preserved in the National Museum of Athens. The goddess, clad in a long robe and wearing a helmet, was leaning on a shield with her left hand and holding the figure of the winged Nike in her right hand extended to the audience.
In addition to Athena Parthenos, the master and his pupils produced the relief plates-metopes for the Parthenon frieze. Some of these were taken by Lord Elgin to Britain in the nineteenth century and are now on display in the British Museum, in a huge separate room, adorning the marble walls at visitors’ eye level. More recently, there was a traveling exhibition of the collection at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg – an unprecedented occasion, since the Parthenon sculptures have never been exported. Greece is suing Britain in the hope of returning the artifacts to their homeland, since it was the Turks, under whose oppression the country was, and not the Greeks, who gave permission for their export. However, in Greece, too, there is something to see: there are more than 40 original plates. The sculptures in the pediment, unlike the reliefs, are almost completely intact and have survived only in fragments.
Equestrian frieze of the Parthenon, West Part II, 2-3, British Museum Procession on the south side of the frieze, X XI, 26-28, British Museum
Further history of the Parthenon
The temple was partially damaged by fire as early as antiquity, then became a Christian church dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the 6th century, after the final decline of Athens. The statues and the interior of the Parthenon suffered during the remodeling for the needs of the cult, the former decorations were replaced by paintings on the walls. Under the Turks, starting from the 15th century the building served as a mosque. All this time the temple was in relative safety, until in 1687 the Venetians in another conflict with the Turks shelled it, provoking the destruction. Decorative details were partly exported outside the country. At the end of the nineteenth century, restoration work began, incomplete to this day.
The Erechtheion – the memory of the legendary king
The temples were erected not only in honor of the gods, but also in memory of mortals. Such an honor was bestowed on King Erechtheus, who, according to legend, was buried at this site. According to another opinion, it was at this point in the Acropolis of Athens, where the Erechtheion appeared in 421-406 BC, that Athena and Poseidon argued for supremacy in the region. It was Athena who whitewashed the temple, but the temple was dedicated to both of them just in case. Erechtheus, who ruled Athens, was no stranger to the gods either: he died at the behest of an enraged Poseidon. The picturesque, multilevel ruins of the Erechtheion lie to the north of the Parthenon. The building is made of several varieties of marble – snow-white Parosian, golden-white Pentelian and grayish Eleusinian.
Unlike the outwardly straight, majestic Parthenon, the Erechtheion is composed of parts of different heights. The reason lies in the unevenness of the ground – the architect had to overcome the peculiarities of the relief. Mnesicles had already justified his confidence in Pericles by constructing the entrance gate to the Acropolis, the Propylaeum. Not to offend the gods, the architect divided the temple’s space cleverly: Athena had the eastern part, Poseidon and Erechtheus the western part. The southern portico of the Erechtheion is supported by caryatids – female figures replacing columns. Today there are copies of the statues on the site of the ancient sculptors, the originals are preserved in the Acropolis Museum and in the British Museum.
The history of the Erechtheion follows the path of the Parthenon: the building survived Christianization and the invasion of the Turks, but was destroyed in the struggle with the Venetians. Subsequently, the Italians tried to put the parts together like a construction set, so that the general outline of the temple was restored, but the impression of ruin still remained.
Propylaeum – the main gate of the complex.
Tourists enter the Acropolis of Athens through the western gate, the Propylaeum. The six massive Doric columns of the central entrance resemble the Parthenon, the main part of which was completed by the time of construction. The side Ionic columns, lighter and more decorative, relieve the sense of tension. Once there was an art gallery and a library adjoining the gate – archeologists managed to find traces of them and recreate their outlines in volumetric models. Now the general complex of the gate is basically restored, the ruined columns were replaced by copies.
The Temple of Nika Apteros
In front of the main gate there is a small temple with four Ionic columns with spirals scrolls on top, at the edges of the porticoes. The sanctuary was intended to guard the entrance to the Acropolis. Once inside was a statue of Athena, whose usual companion was Nika, the goddess of victory. Usually she was depicted winged, but this temple was an exception; it was not by chance that its patroness was named Apteros – “wingless”. The reason for this deviation from the canons, according to legend, is considered a small cunning of the Athenians. They deprived Victory of her wings so that she would never fly away from the city.
The temple was erected during the Peloponnesian War, so the building was decorated with reliefs depicting the victories of the people of Attica over the Persians and Spartans for further inspiration. The Turks dismantled the temple for building materials to erect fortifications against the Venetians. Today’s temple was restored much later, the original sculptures were given to the New Museum. The active phase of work has not passed, so the temple of Nika is often closed to visitors.
Several other sites remain in the Acropolis in the form of foundation remnants or shapeless ruins. In the eastern part of the complex is the sanctuary of Pandion, named presumably after the legendary king of Attica. Between the Parthenon and the Erechtheion is the Hecatompedon, the oldest temple of the Acropolis of Athens. A hundred years before the Parthenon it was the main sanctuary of the patroness of the city of Athens. What remains of it are the foundations of the columns and the limestone sculptures, preserved in remnants of paint, discovered during the excavations. On the right side of the Propylaeum are the modest ruins of the sanctuary of Artemis and the armory. Behind the Erechtheion was the sanctuary of Pandrosa with the altar of Zeus and the olive tree planted by Athena herself. Nearby was a tiny building where noble girls worked weaving peplos, outer women’s clothing, for the statue of Athena for the Panathenaic Games, Attica’s largest competition.
Acropolis Tourist Trails
Not sophisticated in archaeology and architecture tourist is difficult to understand the ancient Greek ruins: at first glance, all the ruins are similar to each other, mixed periods and styles. In order not to get lost, you can choose simple landmarks. The main gate from the west is the Propylaeum, the modest temple in front of it is the sanctuary of Nike. The largest rectangular cluster of columns, visible in all directions, is the Parthenon. A smaller building, harmoniously combining columns of different height and porticoes decorated with female figures – the Erechtheion. Walking around the Acropolis in Athens is also possible at night – the objects are illuminated by powerful floodlights.
New Acropolis Museum
The Acropolis Museum of Athens, which housed decorative fragments of the buildings of the Upper City, was opened in 1874. Over time, the collection grew so large that the existing halls and storerooms were insufficient to store the objects. The new building, much larger than the old one, needed to be located near the Acropolis. The troubles with the project began in the 1970s, and lasted until the end of the century: either the Greek authorities could not find suitable architects, or the land could not withstand any criticism. Finally, the builders began to dig under the foundations and discovered new archaeological finds. Work at the site was frozen until the architects proposed a project that did not affect the ground layer.
The three-level complex opened in 2009, 300 meters south of the complex, next to the Acropolis metro station. Its basement is supported by a hundred columns, and its glass floor allows visitors to admire the excavations passing beneath their feet. The glass walls offer a fantastic view of the Acropolis. There is a cafe on the lower floor and a souvenir shop and bookstore on two levels. In tourist season the museum welcomes visitors from 8 am to 8 pm, on Friday – until 10 pm, on Monday – until 4 pm, in winter works on a reduced schedule. Tickets for adults cost 5 euros.
New Acropolis Museum
The greatest number of tourists come to Athens from April to October, although the Acropolis welcomes visitors all year round. The tour of the complex will take about two hours and should be planned for early morning, around 8 o’clock, until the marble is warm under the rays of the sun. In the evening before 6 o’clock is still hot, the main flow of organized tourists goes to 15 hours. Be sure to take drinking water, choose slip-resistant shoes without heels.
A ticket to the Acropolis of Athens with the theaters on the slopes of the hill and the nearby Agora and the Temple of Zeus costs 12 euros. It is difficult to see all the sights at once, so the ticket for a single visit to each site is valid for 4 days. There is usually a queue at the Acropolis ticket office, but you can avoid it if you buy a ticket near another historical monument from the list. During the Night of Museums in May and European Heritage Days in September, you can get free entrance to the complex.
View of Athens from the Acropolis
How to get there
There are several public transportation stops close to the Acropolis. The most convenient way is to get off at the metro station of the same name on the M2 branch, next to which there is a streetcar and bus interchange. A little further south is the stop of streetcars 1, 5, 15. From the south there is a bus number 230. From the subway and from the Acropolis Museum, an electric tram takes guests to the ticket office.
Holidays and Festivals at the Acropolis
Taking over the summer and part of the fall, the Athens Festival has chosen the Odeon of Herodes as one of its main venues – a perfectly preserved theater built in 165 AD. It is permanently closed and visitors can only get in during concert events with tickets. The capacity of the theater is about 5000 spectators.
The same fate was destined for the Dionysus Theatre, located on the eastern side of the southern slope of the Acropolis. In the heyday of Attica it was the venue for comedy and tragedy writing competitions, and under the Romans it was used for gladiatorial fights. During the reconstruction it is planned to reinforce the stone tiers and add a few rows of spectators.
Hotels near the Acropolis
Hotels in the Acropolis area are expensive but you need to book well in advance due to the high demand. Next to the New Museum is the 4-star Herodion Hotel, and to the southeast is The Athens Gate Hotel, which has earned excellent reviews from guests. The 4-star aparthotel AVA Hotel and Suites to the east of the hill will cost tourists about one and a half times as much as a hotel with rooms.
View of the Acropolis from the restaurant of the Herodion Hotel The Athens Gate Hotel
Restaurants and cafes near the Acropolis
In addition to the museum cafe, you can eat at several restaurants around the perimeter of the hill. Southwest of the Propylaeum, at the foot of the semi-wild “Hill of Muses” Park, next to the bus stop of bus line 230, is the Dionysos Restaurant with its magnificent views of the Acropolis from the summer veranda. A little to the east is the national cuisine restaurant Strofi. On the north side of the hill is Stamatopoulos Taverna, opened back in 1882. The cramped Klepsidra Café is located in a narrow street with graffiti on the walls. Nearby is Anafiotika with live music.
Attractions around the Acropolis
The Acropolis area concentrates the main historical landmarks of Athens. To the east are the ruins of the temple of Zeus the Olympic, or rather one corner of it, the perfectly preserved temple of Hephaestus and the remains of the market square-agora to the north-west. To the west is the Areopagus, the rocky hill where the authorities of Athens met.
The Acropolis, one of the legendary ancient sites of Greece
Even the most sophisticated travelers will not be able to routinely visit this iconic ancient Greek landmark. Definitely they will be stunned.
The Acropolis looms majestically over Athens atop an impressive limestone cliff. It has become a symbol of the city’s former glory and the embodiment of the culture that flourished here more than two thousand years ago. It must be said that the Acropolis is a whole complex of ancient Greek buildings.
In the evening the Acropolis is beautifully illuminated, which makes it even more mysterious This is how the Acropolis looks from above
By the way, notice that the Acropolis from above resembles the legendary Masada fortress in Israel. And also a bit like the famous Lion Rock Sigiriya in Sri Lanka.
Among these legendary ancient ruins you will see many interesting things. Just think – you can walk along the roads that famous scholars and philosophers like Sophocles, Pericles or Socrates once walked.
The main attraction of the Acropolis is the Parthenon. However, other places of interest are also worth remembering. After passing through the main gate, you will see the ancient theater, which is called the Odeon of Herodes the Attic. Through the Bull’s Gate you will reach the Propylaea. This is the main entrance to the Acropolis. If you look to your right as you ascend the Propylaea, you will see the temple of Athena Nika, high on the mountain.
At the top, as you exit the Propylaeum, you can see the Parthenon on the right and the Erechtheion complex on the left. It is famous for its statues of the Caryatids.
Perhaps in ancient times the Acropolis looked exactly as it is represented in this reconstruction
Consider the main landmarks of the Acropolis.
Odeon of Herodes Atticus
Right from the entrance to the Acropolis grounds you will see the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. There is a side path from the main tourist path to the Acropolis overlooking this theater.
It was named after Herodes Atticus of the city of Marathon. In 161 A.D. he built the theater as a memorial to his wife Regilla. The Odeon was situated in a natural mountain depression.
The theater could seat up to 5,000 people. The main stage was originally in the center. There was also another, so-called low stage.
Even today, plays and productions take place here in the summer. Traditional Greek operas are staged in the theater, and various festivals are held. Tourists will be able to see the original performances in the setting of a real ancient Greek theater.
Different plays are still staged here and various cultural events are still held.
After the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, you enter the Acropolis through the Bull’s Gate (or Boule Gate). This Roman passage was named after the French historian and archaeologist who discovered the gate in the 19th century.
The Gates of Boullée are located below the western part of the Propylaeum, the famous entrance to the Acropolis. The gate itself was built around 280 BC and has two towers on each side. It is believed that the Bull Gate was originally connected to the Propylaia by a massive marble staircase built during the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus. At this time, only the lower section of the staircase has survived.
The Bull’s Gate of the Acropolis actually looks quite ordinary
Monument to Agrippa
Behind the Bull Gate, on the road to Propylaea, you will see the monument to Agrippa. It is a rectangular marble pedestal. Perhaps it was built in the 2nd century BC for the ruler of the ancient city of Pergamon.
However, the monument was named after Marcus Agrippa, son-in-law of Emperor Octavian Augustus. A bronze sculpture of his chariot with four horses was installed on the pedestal in 27 BC.
A monument to Agrippa, but without the chariot
This is the name of the main entrance to the Acropolis. The standard gateway proved too small for the mighty city. That’s why they created such a grand entrance, which immediately sets up and prepares visitors to contemplate the amazing Parthenon and other ancient temples at the top. By evening, crowds of tourists are eager to climb the stairs to see the sunset. Propylaea was built between 437 and 432 B.C.
According to historians, Propylaea must have looked like this
Massive marble steps lead up to the vestibule where there are five gates. On the west you will see a portico with six Doric columns. They supported the pediment in the past. To the east there is also a portico, also with the same columns.
Nowadays the Propylaeum looks like this
The Temple of Athena Nika
It is probably the most elegant and well-preserved of all the structures of the Acropolis, which were restored in the 19th and 20th centuries. The temple is situated on a rock south of the Propylaeum. It is dedicated to Athena in the form of the goddess of victory (Nika). This is why it is called the Temple of Athena of Nike.
The temple was built from 432 to 421 BC, after the Parthenon and Propylaeum were built. In it you will see four Ionic columns to the north and south. The style and shape of the foundations of the columns and capitelles was considered old-fashioned even for those times. Therefore, historians suggest that the architecture was influenced by the early style of Callicrates.
The balustrade, which formerly decorated the temple platform, is now on display at the Acropolis Museum. Sculptures of Athena and several statues of the Goddess of Victory are also on display there.
It is the one that is firmly associated with the name Acropolis. The Parthenon stands at the very top of the hill. At one time it was the most impressive temple of ancient Greece. From the hill of Philopappus you have a great view of the Parthenon.
It is the Parthenon that is usually associated with the Acropolis.
The temple was built from 447 to 338 B.C. It was the legendary work of the architect Iktinos and the famous sculptor Phidias. The Parthenon glorified the Virgin Athena (or Athena Parthenos) patroness of the city.
The Parthenon exemplifies the traditional Greek style with 136 Doric columns. They stand in rows of 8 to 17 and create the impression of complete harmony and absolute order. Look – the columns are wider at the base than at the top. The columns are 10.5 meters high. The diameter at the base is 1.9 meters and the diameter at the top is 1.5 meters. This technology creates the impression of a perfectly balanced structure.
The Parthenon is perhaps the most impressive building of the Acropolis.
The inside of the Parthenon is closed to the public. But you can walk around outside and admire this massive building from all sides. Its monumentality is astounding. The pediment on the east side depicts the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus. On the west side shows Athena’s battle with Poseidon over Attica.
In ancient times the roof of the temple was covered with marble tiles. In the 5th century, the Parthenon housed a Christian church that lasted for more than 950 years. Then, in 1456, it became a Turkish mosque.
However, the temple, which had stood for 2,000 years, was blown up in the 17th century during the battles between the Venetians and the Turks. Now the Parthenon is a silent witness to past glories.
Erechtheion and its sights
Separately worth mentioning is the complex of buildings, which is commonly called the Erechtheion. It is named after King Erechtheion. The complex was built in 421-395 BC and its ancient sanctuaries will amaze you. In the eastern part you will see the temple of Athena Polias. And in the western part you will see the tomb of King Erechtheus. You should also pay attention to the sculptures of the caryatids and the modern olive tree.
The Porch of the Caryatids is a famous landmark of the Erechtheion. These are six columns created in the form of female figures.
Under the porch of the Caryatids was the tomb of the Cecrops dynasty, the founders of the royal family of the city of Athens. A side passage from the north portico takes you to the iconic Athenian district of the Pandroseion.
The Old Temple of Athena Polyas
South of the main temples of the Erechtheion you will see the Old Temple of Athena. It dates back to the 6th century B.C. The temple was built on the foundations of an ancient Mycenaean palace (which dates back to the 14th century B.C.). The only evidence of the Mycenaean palace are the two bases of the columns.
This temple was the sanctuary of Athena Polyas as the patroness of Athens. In ancient times this was the site of the Xoan. This is the name given to the Cultic Image of the Goddess, made of wood. It is thought to belong to the Mycenaean culture.
In 480 BC, both the old temple and many other buildings in the vicinity were destroyed by the Persians. It was not until the 19th century that scientists were able to discover the foundation of the temple.
Olive Tree Pandros
The Pandroseion is located between the Erechtheion complex and the Old Temple of Athena. This humble temple was named after Pandros, the daughter of the first ruler of the city. Historians speculate that this is where the sacred serpents of the Acropolis were kept.
Legend has it that after defeating Poseidon Athena gave the city a gift in the form of an olive tree. In the 5th century BC historian Herodotus said that just after the defeat of Acropolis by the Persian army, a young shoot appeared from a charred olive trunk. It became a symbol of the rebirth of Athens. To commemorate this event, an olive tree was planted here in modern times.
The Pandros Olive Tree
This is a must-see cultural attraction in the city. The museum opened relatively recently, just in 2009. It is located 300 meters from the archaeological sites. The museum presents one of the most valuable and important collections of ancient Greek art.
More than 4,000 priceless artifacts are on display in the spacious exhibition rooms. Most of them were found exactly in the vicinity of the Acropolis.
The main exhibits are the original ancient caryatids from the Erechtheion, the sculpture Moschophoros from the 6th century BC representing a young man with a calf on his shoulders, the statue of Athena from the 5th century BC and several bas-reliefs from the Temple of Athena.
As you can see, the Acropolis Museum is quite a modern building
There is a fee to enter the museum. The cost of its visit is not included in the ticket price to the Acropolis. However, it is definitely worth a visit.
For more information, visit the official website of the museum.
Theater of Dionysus
Not far from the Acropolis Museum you can see the theater of Dionysus, from the 4th century BC. It has a separate entrance. A ticket to the Acropolis includes a visit to the Theater of Dionysus. But you can get a cheaper ticket designed just to visit the theater.
The Theater of Dionysus was already in ancient times the oldest building on the southern slope of the hill. The greatest Greek dramas and tragedies by such authors as Sophocles and Euripides were once staged here.
Theater of Dionysus
Next to the theater of Dionysus you will find the portico of Eumenes. It was built in the 2nd century BC by King Eumenes II of Pergamon.