Back to Classics at the Acropolis in Athens

You really can’t appreciate the weight of Ancient Greece until you step foot on Acropolis Hill.  Its name means “high city”, soaring more than 150 meters (490 feet) and spanning 7.4 acres above the heart of historic Athens.  The Acropolis is arguably one of the most important sites in the Western world, a natural fortress that has been inhabited as far back as the 4th millennium BC where gods were once worshiped and greats like Socrates and Plato once walked.

View of Acropolis Hill from the Plaka neighborhood

After defeating the Persians in 480 BC, Athens entered into a Golden Age – a period when democracy, philosophy, science and art flourished – and the Acropolis was rebuilt as a testament to the glory of the city and as a tribute to its patron goddess Athena.

Visiting the Acropolis
One of the best things about your ticket for Acropolis is that it also covers admission to 6 other archeological sites including the Ancient Agora within 4 days (ask about this if they don’t automatically stamp the back of your receipt with the full list).  As you probably can imagine, the Acropolis gets very crowded and can be extremely hot with very little shade, so definitely plan on getting there early as soon as the site opens.  I also highly recommend visiting the Acropolis Museum first to get a good overview of the site.  It definitely makes for a more meaningful experience.  Finally, since there’s very little descriptive signage on Acropolis Hill, arm yourself with a good guidebook and equal parts wonder to truly appreciate this window back in time.

What impressed me the most about the Acropolis is that unlike other ancient sights that are often layer upon layer of ruins, much of what we see today was built within a single span of time during in the 5th century BC, largely under the leadership of the Greek statesman Pericles.  He employed sculpture/architect Phidias who was the visionary behind the 4 most important structures on the site – the Propylaea, Temple of Athena Nike, Erechtheion and Parthenon.

 “The Acropolis, the site of four of the greatest masterpieces of classical Greek art – the Parthenon, the Propylaea, the Erechtheum and the Temple of Athena Nike – can be seen as symbolizing the idea of world heritage.” – UNESCO

Propylaea (437-432 BC)
First impressions are everything and this grand gate once served as the entrance to the Acropolis.  Not just any approach, the steep steps lead to an imposing curtain of Doric columns, which were originally painted bright colors.  The Propylaea was never completed due to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta in 431 BC.

Temple of Athena Nike (426-421 BC)
To the right of the Propylaea, this small temple was built as a place to worship and thank the goddess Athena for bringing them victory (or “nike” in Greek) in the battle with the Persians.  Nearly square with two sets of Ionic columns at either end, it once housed a statue of Athena, wingless so she would stay and continue to protect the city through the Peloponnesian War.

Erechtheion (421-406 BC)
This temple gets its name from the legendary king Erechtheus in Homer’s Iliad.  The building is most well-known for its elegant south-facing porch supported by the 6 Caryatids maiden columns (5 of which are beautifully displayed at the nearby Acropolis Museum). It’s perhaps one of the most important sites on Acropolis Hill as it’s believed to be the spot where Athena and Poseidon duked it out for naming rights to the city. As the story goes, Poseidon threw down his trident and opened the earth to bring forth a spring of water, whereas Athena stabbed a rock with her spear and out grew an olive tree, which resulted in her winning the contest.  Fittingly, a life-sized statue of Athena Polias (“Protector of the City”) made out of olive wood once stood inside the Erechtheion.  

Parthenon (447-438 BC)
The main event, the Parthenon is the most famous building on Acropolis Hill and a symbol of Ancient Greece at the height of its power.  Dedicated to Athena Parthenos (“Athena the Virgin”), it served as both a temple and treasury for the city (and later for gunpowder storage for the Ottomans, which caused it to be bombed by the Venetians in the 17th century).  The Parthenon is the largest Doric temple in Greece at 228 feet long by 101 feet wide with a total of 46 outer columns and 23 inner columns.  Imagine just how grand it looked when it was painted in bright colors and adorned with statues and sculpture.  Most notably was the 92 outer metopes depicting various battle scenes, the inner frieze that brought the story of the Panathenaic Procession to life and the east and west pediments, showcasing the birth of Athena and contest between Athena and Poseidon, respectively.  Surprisingly, it’s perfectly imperfect.  The Greeks were masters of perspective and employed various optical illusions, such as building the Parthenon with a slight curve, in order to achieve the appearance of balance and harmony.  Impressive to say the least.

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