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A Complete Guide for Visiting the Acropolis of Athens

Sitting on the top of a hill, guarding the city of Athens for over the centuries, the Acropolis is, even nowadays, one of the greatest examples of architecture that we have. 

For those wondering, Acropolis is a Greek word that means “high city”, In ancient times, it was common to build fortresses on top of hills, for strategy and military reasons. Ancient Greece had many Acropolis built in different cities across their territory, but the most famous of them all is definitely the Acropolis of Athens. 

Inhabited since prehistoric times, the Acropolis of Athens guards years of history, religion, and mythology within its walls. But what exactly makes the Acropolis one of the most famous ancient archaeological sites in the world? 

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A Complete Guide for Visiting the Acropolis of Athens

History of the Acropolis

The Acropolis is located on the flat top of a limestone hill that is believed to be inhabited since the Bronze Age, it is in fact, among the earliest inhabited site in the city of Athens. The location was chosen clearly for its natural defensive position. 

Little is known about the site until the Mycenaean period(c. 1700-1100 BCE), when a massive palace surrounded by walls is believed to have been built here, to serve as the official home to the ruler and his household. 

The Acropolis of Athens, Leo Von Klenze

After the decline of the Mycenaeans, the Athenians partially preserved and continued to use their buildings and ruins. the Agora (another famous Mycenaean site in Athens, near the Acropolis) was turned into the residential district and marketplace, while the Acropolis, continued to be used, now as a religious and political polo of Athens. 

In the citadel, the Athenians built temples, most of them dedicated to Athena, the patron of the city. 

The Acropolis of Athens was then destroyed when the Persians invaded Athens in 480 BC during the Greco-Persian Wars. 30 years later, Pericles, the Athenian leader decided to start a rebuilding project during the so-called Golden Age of Athens. 

🎫Did you know? The ancient world was surprisingly colorful and different from what we see and imagine today. The marmoreal statues were painted with vibrant colors, however, the paintings have since deteriorated. 

Map of the Acropolis

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Goddess Athena

According to the tale, when the first king of Athens, Cecrops decided to give a name to his city, he realized it needed a patron. Soon, gods started to make their intentions known. 

The dispute was between Athena the goddess of wisdom and Poseidon god of the sea. Athena suggested a contest: whoever gave the most generous gift to the people, would become the patron. 

In an attempt to gain the Athenians’ hearts, Poseidon hit the ground with his trident, and from there, a stream of salty water emerged, the locals were happy at first, but soon realized salty water was unfit for human beings. 

Athena on the other hand gave the people an olive tree, which won her the contest and the heart of the people. In her honor, they gave the city the name Athens. The people then, erected temples, statues, and the majestic Parthenon in the name of the goddess.

What is in the Acropolis

Propylaea

The monumental gateway of the Acropolis. It is the first building you see when you manage to finally climb the hill. To finally enter the Acropolis you will have to pass through the Propylaea, but do take your time to admire the view overlooking the city, from this gateway.

It was built as part of the revival project Pericles, between 437 and 432 BCE, making Propylaea one of the newest buildings added to the Acropolis. 

The building which consists of many columns, archways, and staircases, was incorporated into the Temple of the Athena Nike which was already built. 

As the main entrance to the Acropolis, the Propylaea served as a civil control point. With five gates, it was easy to control who was getting in and out of the site. You will notice that Propylaea serves its purpose even nowadays, with the number of people passing through the gate to visit the site every day, the entrance is usually slowed down here, so be aware!

Its construction was paused due to the beginning of the Peloponnesian Wars and never resumed.

Temple of Athena Nike

The Temple of Athena Nike (Nike meaning Victory in Greek) was built in the same location as an even older shrine, dedicated to Athena, but archeological evidence shows that the place was used for religious rituals since the Mycenaean age.

It is the smallest temple in the Acropolis located southwest of the Propylaea, at the edge of a high cliff.

This version of the temple we see today was built around 420 BC, by Kallikrates, the same architect of the Parthenon, and is considered one of the best examples of the Ionic order of ancient Greek architecture.

It comprises a small porch, followed by a cell or inner chamber. The temple’s frieze depicts scenes from the Battle of Plataea, one of the most important battles of the Persian Wars. The temple was reconstructed in the 1970s, using the original materials as possible.

Parthenon

The Parthenon is the temple dedicated to the goddess of wisdom Athena and the main building in the Acropolis. It is considered one of the most important examples of ancient Greek architecture and is widely regarded as the masterpiece of the Golden Age of Athens.

It was built between 447 and 438 BC, during the rule of Pericles and under the direction of the architects Iktinos, Kallikrates, and the sculptor Pheidias.

🧐Interesting fact: Each god and goddess in Greek Mythology had one or more abilities and qualities, and the temples were usually dedicated to one of these abilities and qualities, instead of dedicated to the god/goddess as a whole. So depending on the type of request you were supposed to pray for the god in a different temple.

Parthenon is built of the famous white marble, excavated from Mt. Penteli close to Athens, with a peristyle of eight columns at each end and seventeen columns on each side.

The temple is adorned with a frieze that runs around the upper part of the cell walls, depicting a religious procession. The temple also has pediment sculptures on the east and west ends, that depict scenes from Athena’s birth and the contest between Athena and Poseidon for the patronage of Athens.

Many statues were used to decorate the Parthenon, but unfortunately, most of them were removed by Lord Elgin and sent to England, in a controversial move that is still discussed today.

Lord Elgin claimed that at the time, Turkish rulers treated ancient works with disdain, and this was a way he found to protect these pieces, which can now be seen in the British Museum in London.

This colossal building was not only a religious site but also a symbol of Athens’s political and cultural achievements. Inside the Parthenon, there was a statue of Athena Parthenos, made of gold and ivory. This statue was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Parthenon inside, in ancient times a huge statue of Athena made of ivory and gold used to be worshipped inside the temple.

👩‍🏫Did you know? One of the reasons why the Parthenon was so well preserved during the eras, was due to the fact it was continuously used for different purposes. In the 5th century, for example, the Parthenon was converted into a Christian church, later on, in the 19th century, Lord Elgin decided to give the site some attention and started its first major restoration.

When I visited the Parthenon, I was honestly not expecting it to be so well preserved, and the restoration process is still ongoing. Generally speaking, the ancient monuments in Athens are one of the best preserved I have ever seen.

Erechtheum

Now, this is by far my favorite building in the Acropolis. Parthenon is stunning, but the Erechtheum definitely has personality and a good history/story behind it.

The Erechtheum was built around 421–406 BC, during the golden age of Pericles, to house a wooden statue of Athens, and is considered one of the most important examples of the Ionic order of ancient Greek architecture.

It is dedicated to Athena and Poseidon together, each side of the building worshipping one of the gods, in honor of the dispute for the patronage of the city of Athens.

Digital reconstruction of what the Porch of the Maidens would have looked like with its original colors.

The temple stands out due to its famous “Porch of the Maidens,” the porch is supported by six columns sculpted in the form of women, known as the caryatids. These six figures we see today are actually replicas, the original statues can be seen on display in the Acropolis Museum in Athens, although one of the originals was sent to England alongside the Elgin Marbles and is on display in the British Museum.

In front of the Erechtheion, you will see an olive tree, called the “Sacred Olive Tree” which presents the same tree that the goddess Athena gave to the Athenians as a gift in the dispute for the patronage of the city, that is why this Oliveria is so special.

It is said that a spring of salty water runs next to the temple, although I didn’t find it myself.

👉How did Erechtheum get its name? Another interesting story is the legend of the “Erichthonius’ Snake”, it is believed that the serpent Erichthonius lives inside the walls of the temple, in a secret chamber, being protected by Athena herself, mother of Erichthonius, this is how the temple received its name.

Theatre of Dionysus

The Theatre of Dionysus is located on the south slope of Acropolis Hill. It is considered to be the first theater in the world and the birthplace of Greek tragedy.

The theater was built in the 6th century BC and was dedicated to the god Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility, and the patron of the theater. Before its construction, this same site was already used for religious rituals related to Dionysus Eleuthereus (Dionysus the Liberator).

📌Fact box: Every year, during the Dionysia (Dionysus’ festival), actors would come to present plays to the audience, three plays were usually presented and the public would choose the one they liked the most.

The theatre was built in the typical Greek theater style, with a sizeable semicircular audience area (orchestra) and a raised stage area (skene) for the actors. In its full extent during the 4th century BC, the Theatre of Dionysus would have had a capacity of up to 25,000.

Besides hosting performances of plays, music, and dance, it was also used for religious ceremonies and festivals in honor of Dionysus.

The Theater of Dionysus is where the famous Greek playwrights, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, premiered their plays. Many famous plays such as Oedipus Rex, Antigone, and The Bacchae were first performed here.

👉Is the Theatre of Dionysus still used? Yes, the Theatre of Dionysus continued being used in Roman times. After many restorations throughout history, the theatre is still used for performances and orchestras in special events nowadays.

Sanctuary of Asclepius

The Sanctuaries of Asclepius were a series of healing temples dedicated to the god Asclepius the god of medicine who was believed to have the power to heal the sick and injured. People from ancient Greece would visit these sanctuaries, which served as ancient hospitals, to receive healing and offer prayers and sacrifices to god.

The Sanctuary of Asclepius is located west of the Theatre of Dionysus and was built during the Peloponnesian War, probably to treat soldiers, and as a result of the Plague that devastated Athens in the second year of the war.

The building has an altar and two galleries that were used for overnight patients. The Sanctuary also had a stoa, with a dining hall and places where the priests and visitors could rest.

Odeon of Herodes Atticus

Also known as Herodeion, is an ancient stone theater located on the south slope of the Acropolis. It was built in the 2nd century CE by Herodes Atticus, a wealthy Greek and Roman politician, in honor of his wife. The theater has a seating capacity of around 5,000 and was used for musical and theatrical performances.

The Odeon of Herodes Atticus is considered one of the finest examples of ancient Greek theater architecture. Its elegant stone seats and stage are carved into the natural slope of the hill and are still well-preserved. The theater was also used as a venue for political meetings, religious ceremonies, and other public events.

The Odeon of Herodes Atticus is unique in that it has a roofed stage, making it one of the few ancient Greek theaters that were able to provide shelter from the elements during performances. This feature, combined with its impressive acoustics, made it a popular venue for musical performances, especially during the summer months.

The odeon remained intact until AD 267 with the Heruli invasion. In 1950 the building was restored. Today, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus is a popular tourist destination and is used for a variety of cultural events, including concerts, theater performances, and dance performances.

Best Tours

I always recommend getting a guided tour, especially when visiting ancient sites or museums, as with a guide you will be able to see the most important areas, learn about each place, ask questions, and enjoy your time without worrying about getting lost, and not being able to see all the highlights.

Mythological Tour

This is the tour I joined when I visited the Acropolis in Athens. Besides the Acropolis, on this tour, you will visit other important ancient ruins in Athens such as the Agora, for example. During the tour your guide you teach you about ancient Greece and its Mythology, linking it to the ruins you visit.

You can read more about my experience with this tour in this post.

The tour includes a guide and a city map. It does not include the entrance fee, which is €30 per adult. Book the Mythology Tour here.

Acropolis Entrance + Guided Tour

In this tour, you will explore the Acropolis of Athens with the company of a guide.

This tour does include the skip-the-line ticket to the Acropolis, so you won’t have to worry about it.

The Acropolis Entrance + Guided Tour has a duration of 2 hours, which makes it perfect for those who don’t have much time and want to visit just the essential ruins of Athens.

Acropolis & Acropolis Museum Tour with Entry Tickets

Perfect for those who love ruins and museums. In the Acropolis & Acropolis Museum Tour, you will explore the Acropolis of Athens with the help of a guide, then you will head to the Acropolis Museum nearby, to learn more about ancient Greece and the excavation of the Acropolis.

In the Acropolis Museum, you will find many original pieces that once stood in the Acropolis itself but were now replaced by copies to protect the originals, that are on display here, in this museum.

Planning your Visit to Athens

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