The Acropolis is synonymous with Athens, just like the Colosseum is with Rome or the Eiffel Tower is with Paris. And while the former citadel may be on the top of most people’s list, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: visit the Acropolis Museum first.
The museum is relatively new to Athens, having opened less than a decade ago in 2009 to replace the too-small museum on Acropolis Hill. A visit has the power to put everything you’ll see at the Acropolis into an amazingly vivid context, connecting the dots between the marble ruins and filling in the blanks of nearly 2,500 years of history. I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed this museum, which earned its rank high on my list of favorites in the world.
The building itself is an architectural gem, designed to echo and pay homage to is classical surroundings. The lower levels of the museum are aligned with the archaeological ruins below, while the top level sits askew to mimic the orientation of the Parthenon above. It’s the embodiment of art imitating art. Throughout the museum scale models (including one made entirely out of Legos) help you visualize just how grand the site once was. You’ll learn that many surviving pieces from the Acropolis aren’t actually here, but rather at the British Museum in London. The so-called “Elgin Marbles” were removed from Athens in the early 1800s by Lord Elgin and later purchased by the British Parliament. Now that Greece has a proper place to display Acropolis artifacts, they hope that these priceless treasures may someday be returned to their homeland.
Seeing the Acropolis Museum before going to Acropolis Hill definitely makes for a more meaningful experience. Here are my top 5 reasons to visit:
1. Gallery of the Slopes
Its transparent floors reveal the excavations of the maze of settlements and sanctuaries that once sat at the foot of the Acropolis. The gallery also displays items that were found here, giving you a glimpse into everyday life in Ancient Athens before you climb up the stairs to the first level – an ascent that is supposed to emulate the approach to Acropolis Hill.
2. Archaic Gallery
This column-filled gallery is bright and flooded with natural light, housing sculpture from roughly 700 BC – 480 BC. The Archaic Period marked the rise of the city-state along with great achievements in art, literature and democracy following the Dark Ages. I found the male kouros and female kore statues particularly interesting – perfectly symmetrical yet rigid and almost Egyptian in style, lacking the realism and individualism of classical sculptures that are most commonly associated with Greece.
3. Caryatid Ladies
By far one of the most memorizing displays in the museum, these are 5 of the 6 original columns that supported the south porch roof of the Erechtheion (the sixth was removed in 1801 by Lord Elgin). Modeled after noble women, the maiden statues complete the temple’s Ionic design and are beautiful in both form and function. You can view the columns from all angles, and even snap a selfie with them (if that’s what floats your boat), which is especially great since you can’t get as close to the actual Erechtehion porch in the Acropolis where copies stand today.
4. Parthenon Procession
The cherry on top, literally, is the third level of the museum, which is dedicated to the most famous building on Acropolis Hill, the Parthenon. Walk around the gallery to follow the procession of the Great Panathenaia – a festival honoring the Goddess Athena that took place every 4 years – which is played out at eye-level on the frieze over the course of 160 meters (525 feet). Even though only 11 of the original 114 blocks remain here (80 are at the British Museum, 1 at the Louvre and other fragments are scattered at various museums throughout Europe), cast copies complete the story.
Also, on either end of the gallery are reconstructions of the east and west pediments of the Parthenon, depicting the birth of Athena and the dispute between Athena and Poseidon over Attica, respectively. Although sparse, nearby models help your imagination color in the missing details. You’ll also see what remains of the original 92 metopes, the marble panels on the outer walls of the Parthenon, each depicting its own self-contained scene from legendary battles.
5. Restaurant with a View
A nice way to end your visit is with a light meal or beverage at the museum’s second floor restaurant. Here you’ll be treated to panoramic views of the adjacent Parthenon and city skyline, and its large outdoor terrace is particularly pleasant at sunset during warmer months. Plus, the restaurant stays open late on Friday nights.