If one place is synonymous with Athens, it is the Acropolis. The ancient buildings on a tall hill dominate the city, both literally and metaphorically. The Acropolis of Athens is the cornerstone of Greek history and civilisation, a place you’ll want to keep coming back to.
The Birthplace Of Democracy
Walking through the narrow, dusty streets of the Plaka, with the occasional broken pavement and a strong scent of pine everywhere, you have little sense of the grandeur that awaits you. Not just the majesty of the ancient buildings and their spectacular hilltop location, but the enormity of being where it all began. This is the birthplace of democracy and of the Greek poets, playwrights and philosophers who laid the foundations of western civilisation.
Acropolis means “highest point”, so it is not surprising that you have to climb a hill to get there. I walked up the ancient road, past crowds of people sunning themselves on the steps, towards the Propylaea. This is the monumental gateway that is still the only entrance to the buildings on the plateau at the top of the hill. In ancient times guards would turn undesirable people (such as runaway slaves in search of sanctuary) away, but today anyone with a ticket may pass through.
Exploring The Parthenon
The Parthenon is the grandest and most important building of the Acropolis. Unfortunately, when I visited it was covered in scaffolding, part of a restoration programme that began in 1975. But it was still impressive. I dodged around the tour groups to take a picture of the famous Doric columns; the words I overheard most often seemed to be “Elgin” and “marbles”.
The Parthenon was built in the 5th century BCE as a temple to the goddess Athena Parthenos. But it has had a long and varied history since then. It was turned into a church in the Roman era and then became a mosque, complete with minaret, during the Ottoman period.
It has variously been a Greek administrative centre, the headquarters of the Turkish army (the commander having his harem in the nearby Erichtheion), and a gunpowder store during the 17th century Siege of Athens. It was the latter usage that (literally) caused the Parthenon’s downfall: the whole building blew up when it was hit by a cannonball.
A Whole Complex Of Buildings
Of course there’s much more to the Acropolis than the Parthenon. The site is a whole complex of temples and public buildings. The hill may have been inhabited for several millennia BCE but the buildings you see today were built by the Athenian statesman Pericles in the 5th century BCE, some of them on the site of earlier structures. The whole area is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, designated for its visual impact, historical importance and influence on later architecture.
Don’t try to see it all in one day. I went back three times and still didn’t see everything; there are a lot of buildings here. As well as the Parthenon, the hilltop site includes the Erichtheion, a temple dedicated to both Athena and Poseidon, and the Temple of Athena Nike. And on the lower slopes you have the Acropolis museum and several other sites and buildings.
The Ancient City
Don’t miss the Theatre of Dionysos, where the works of Sophocles and Aristophanes were first performed, or the Ancient Agora, the main meeting place of the city, where business and politics were debated and the idea of democracy first arose.
For much of the time I just enjoyed immersing myself in the ancient city. I wandered along the Panathenaic Way, where the great procession of the Panathenaia used to pass by. And I tried to imagine the area as it would have been more than two thousand years ago, ringing with the voices of orators, actors and ordinary Athenian citizens.
Layers Of History
But the Acropolis isn’t just about ancient Greece. The Romans were here for a while; they built a new Agora, as well as a theatre (the Odeon of Herodes Atticus) and temples to their own gods. And it was during the Roman era that St Paul preached to the crowds from the nearby Areopagus Hill.
Then there was the Byzantine period. I went on an excellent walking tour of Byzantine Athens where we discovered Greek Orthodox churches right in the middle of the Acropolis area. The Church of the Holy Apostles was built in the Greek Agora and the Church of St George Akamates was originally the Temple of Hephaestus.
And, although little is known about medieval Athens, it is clear that people continued to live and work around the Acropolis throughout the centuries. Even today it is central to the life of Athens, as the prime tourist attraction and the symbolic heart of the city.
Visiting The Acropolis Of Athens
- You can buy a joint ticket (valid for four days) for most of the buildings on the Acropolis. Separate tickets are available for some of the smaller sites but you need the joint ticket for the buildings at the summit, including the Parthenon.
- The Acropolis is open all year round but in the main tourist season it is advisable to visit at the beginning or end of the day to avoid the worst of the heat and the crowds. Ticket prices are lower in the winter months.
- Skip-the-line tickets can be purchased in advance.
- A new (2021) elevator provides disabled access to the summit. However, you are advised to check availability in advance.