The Acropolis is the most important ancient site in the Western world. Crowned by the Parthenon, it's visible from almost everywhere in Athens. Its marble gleams white in the midday sun and takes on a honey hue as the sun sinks, then glows above the city by night. A glimpse of this magnificent sight cannot fail to exalt your spirit.
The Parthenon is the monument that more than any other epitomises the glory of Ancient Greece. It is dedicated to Athena Parthenos, the goddess embodying the power and prestige of the city. The largest Doric temple ever completed in Greece, and the only one built completely of Pentelic marble (apart from the wood in its roof), it was designed by Iktinos and Kallicrates to be the pre-eminent monument of the Acropolis and was completed in time for the Great Panathenaic Festival of 438 BC.
The Parthenon’s fluted Doric columns achieve perfect form. The eight columns at either end and 17 on each side were ingeniously curved to create an optical illusion: the foundations (like all the ‘horizontal’ surfaces of the temple) are slightly concave and the columns are slightly convex making both appear straight. Supervised by Pheidias, the sculptors Agoracritos and Alcamenes worked on the architectural sculptures of the Parthenon, including the pediments, frieze and metopes, which were brightly coloured and gilded.
The temple’s pediments (the triangular elements topping the east and west facades) were filled with elaborately carved three-dimensional sculptures. The west side depicted Athena and Poseidon in their contest for the city’s patronage, the east Athena’s birth from Zeus’ head. See their remnants and the rest of the Acropolis' sculptures and artefacts in the Acropolis Museum.
Metopes & Frieze
The Parthenon's metopes, designed by Pheidias, are square carved panels set between channelled triglyphs. The metopes on the eastern side depicted the Olympian gods fighting the giants, and on the western side they showed Theseus leading the Athenian youths into battle against the Amazons. The southern metopes illustrated the contest of the Lapiths and centaurs at a marriage feast, while the northern ones depicted the sacking of Troy. The internal cella was topped by the Ionic frieze, a continuous sculptured band depicting the Panathenaic Procession.
Statue of Athena Polias
The statue for which the temple was built – the Athena Polias (Athena of the City) – was considered one of the wonders of the ancient world. It was taken to Constantinople in AD 426, where it disappeared. Designed by Pheidias and completed in 432 BC, it stood almost 12m high on its pedestal and was plated in gold. Athena's face, hands and feet were made of ivory, and the eyes fashioned from jewels.
Temple of Poseidon
Though he didn’t win patronage of the city, Poseidon was worshipped on the northern side of the Erechtheion. The porch still bears the mark of his trident-strike. Imagine the finely decorated coffered porch painted in rich colours, as it was before.
The Erechtheion, completed around 406 BC, was a sanctuary built on the most sacred part of the Acropolis: the spot where Poseidon struck the ground with his trident, and where Athena produced the olive tree. Named after Erechtheus, a mythical king of Athens, the temple housed the cults of Athena, Poseidon and Erechtheus. This supreme example of Ionic architecture was ingeniously built on several levels to compensate for the uneven bedrock.
Porch of the Caryatids
The Erechtheion is immediately recognisable by the six majestic maiden columns, the Caryatids (415 BC), that support its southern portico. Modelled on women from Karyai (modern-day Karyes, in Lakonia), each figure is thought to have held a libation bowl in one hand, and to be drawing up her dress with the other. Those you see are plaster casts. The originals (except for one removed by Lord Elgin, now in the British Museum) are in the Acropolis Museum.
Crafty general Themistocles (524–459 BC) hastened to build a protective wall around the Acropolis and in so doing incorporated elements from archaic temples on the site. When you're down the hill in Monastiraki, look for the column drums built into the wall on the north side of the Erechtheion.
The monumental entrance to the Acropolis, the Propylaia was built by Mnesicles between 437 BC and 432 BC and consists of a central hall with two wings on either side. In ancient times its five gates were the only entrances to the ‘upper city’. The middle gate opens onto the Panathenaic Way. The ceiling of the central hall was painted with gold stars on a dark-blue background. The northern wing was used as a pinakothiki (art gallery).
Temple of Athena Nike
Recently restored, this exquisitely proportioned tiny Pentelic marble temple was designed by Kallicrates and built around 425 BC. The internal cella housed a wooden statue of Athena as Victory (Nike) and the exterior friezes illustrated scenes from mythology, the Battle of Plataea (479 BC) and Athenians fighting Boeotians and Persians. Parts of the frieze are in the Acropolis Museum, as are some relief sculptures, including the beautiful depiction of Athena Nike fastening her sandal.
Beulé Gate & Monument of Agrippa
Just outside the Propylaia lies the Beulé Gate, named after French archaeologist Ernest Beulé, who uncovered it in 1852. The 8m pedestal halfway up the zigzagging ramp to the Propylaia was once topped by the Monument of Agrippa. This bronze statue of the Roman general riding a chariot was erected in 27 BC to commemorate victory in the Panathenaic Games.
Theatre of Dionysos
Originally, a 6th-century-BC timber theatre was built here, on the site of the Festival of the Great Dionysia. During Athens’ golden age, the theatre hosted productions of the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes. Reconstructed in stone and marble between 342 and 326 BC, the theatre held 17,000 spectators (spread over 64 tiers, of which only about 20 tiers survive) and an altar to Dionysos in the orchestra pit.
Theatre of Dionysos Thrones & Carvings
The ringside Pentelic marble thrones were for dignitaries and priests. The grandest, with lions’ paws, satyrs and griffins, was reserved for the Priest of Dionysos. The 2nd-century-BC reliefs at the rear of the stage depict the exploits of Dionysos. The two hefty men (who still have their heads) are selini, worshippers of the mythical Selinos, the debauched father of the satyrs, whose favourite pastime was charging up mountains with his oversized phallus in lecherous pursuit of nymphs.
Asclepion & Stoa of Eumenes
Above the Theatre of Dionysos, steps lead to the Asclepion, a temple built around a sacred spring. The worship of Asclepius, the physician son of Apollo, began in Epidavros and was introduced to Athens in 429 BC at a time when plague was sweeping the city: people sought cures here.
Beneath the Asclepion, the Stoa of Eumenes is a colonnade built by Eumenes II, King of Pergamum (197–159 BC), as a shelter and promenade for theatre audiences.
Odeon of Herodes Atticus
The path continues west from the Asclepion to the magnificent Odeon of Herodes Atticus, known as the Herodion. It was built in AD 161 by wealthy Roman Herodes Atticus in memory of his wife Regilla. The theatre was excavated in 1857–58 and completely restored between 1950 and 1961. Performances of drama, music and dance are held here during the Athens & Epidaurus Festival.
- Porch of the Caryatids
- Temple of Athena Nike
- Beulé Gate and Monument of Agrippa
- Theatre of Dionysos
- Asclepion and Stoa of Eumenes
- Odeon of Herodes Atticus
- Visit first thing in the morning or late in the day.
- The main entrance is from Dionysiou Areopagitou near the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. The east entrance, near the Akropoli metro, can be less crowded.
- If you have a large bag, you must enter at the main (west) entrance and check the bag in the cloakroom.
- Wheelchairs access the site via a cage lift; call ahead to arrange it (210 321 4172).
- Buy the Acropolis combo ticket at a smaller site, to avoid the ticket-booth line at the Acropolis.
- Check www.culture.gr for free-admission holidays and changing opening hours.
Take a Break
Metro Akropoli station, near the east entrance.
Walking A dirt-path shortcut connects the Ancient Agora and the promenade near the main (west) entrance. You can also walk up from Monastiraki.
Sidebar: The Greek Flag
The one modern detail on the Acropolis (aside from the ever-present scaffolding and cranes) is the large Greek flag at the far east end. In 1941, early in the Nazi occupation, two teenage boys climbed up the cliff and raised the Greek flag; their act of resistance is commemorated on a brass plaque nearby.
Sidebar: Express Tour
Most visitors will strive to see the Acropolis in the morning, but if your schedule skews later (and you don't mind a slightly faster pace), you can see the site in about 90 minutes. Enter from the less busy east entrance, but make a beeline up to the Parthenon. Site clearance starts up here about 45 minutes before closing time; then you can start making your way back down along the south slope, a little ahead of the exiting crowds.
An icon of Western civilisation.
The grand Acropolis Museum displays the surviving treasures from the temple hill, with emphasis on the Acropolis as it was in the 5th century BC, the apotheosis of Greece’s artistic achievement. The museum showcases layers of history: glass floors expose subterranean ruins, and the Acropolis itself is visible through the floor-to-ceiling windows, so the masterpieces are always in context.
Finds from the slopes of the Acropolis fill the entryway gallery. The floor's slope echoes the climb up to the sacred hill, while giving glimpses of ruins beneath the museum foundation. Objects here include votive offerings from sanctuaries and, near the entrance, two clay statues of Nike.
Bathed in natural light, the 1st floor is a veritable forest of statues, mostly offerings to Athena. These include stunning examples of 6th-century kore (maiden) statues: young women in draped clothing and elaborate braids. Most were recovered from a pit on the Acropolis, where the Athenians buried them after the Battle of Salamis. The youth bearing a calf, from 570 BC, is one of the rare male statues discovered.
Early Temple Treasures
The Archaic Gallery also houses bronze figurines and interesting finds from temples predating the Parthenon, which were destroyed by the Persians. These include elaborate pedimental sculptures of Heracles slaying the Lernaian Hydra and a lioness devouring a bull.
On the mezzanine of the 1st floor are the five grand Caryatids, the world-famous maiden columns that held up the porch of the Erechtheion. (The sixth is in the British Museum.)
The museum’s crowning glory, this top-floor glass atrium is built in alignment with the Parthenon (visible through the wraparound windows) and showcases the Parthenon’s pediments, metopes and 160m frieze. When the museum opened in 2007, it marked the first time in more than 200 years that the frieze was displayed in sequence, depicting the full Panathenaic Procession. Interspersed between golden-hued originals are white plaster replicas of missing pieces – the controversial Parthenon Marbles taken to Britain by Lord Elgin in 1801.
- Parthenon Gallery
- Archaic Gallery
- Foyer Gallery
- Buy tickets online to skip the line.
- EU students and under-18s enter free; non-EU students and youth, plus EU citizens over 65, get reduced admission. Bring ID.
- Leave time for the fine museum shop (ground floor) and the film describing the history of the Acropolis (top floor).
- Last admission is 30 minutes before closing, and galleries are cleared 15 minutes before closing, starting at the top floor.
- You can visit the restaurant on the top floor without paying, but you must get a special ticket at the desk. The ground-floor shop and cafe are open without admission.
Take a Break
The museum's cafe-restaurant on the 2nd floor has superb views across the way to the Acropolis, and prices are surprisingly reasonable (mains €10 to €15). Eat inside or sip a coffee al fresco on the terrace. If you want cheaper eats, head for Mikro Politiko for souvlaki.
Metro Akropoli station.
The Parthenon at eye level.