Athens and the Acropolis

At once grubby and graceful, smoggy and sublime, Athens is a city whose past lives coexist peacefully with its present. The remnants of ancient Greece are the most famous of course, personified by the magnificent Acropolis, a complex made of milky marble set on a steep-sided hill, that’s visible from almost every part of the city. But there are plenty of traces left from other eras too: Byzantine mansions and churches are strewn throughout, the influence of the 400 year long Ottoman occupation can be seen in both the housing and the food, and neoclassicism looms large in the city’s graceful downtown hub.
Athens has suffered hardships thanks to recent economic and political crises but the city retains a dynamic, contemporary edge. It has some of the best street art in Europe, as well as a vibrant dining scene encompassing everything from traditional tavernas to hipster hotspots.

History of the Acropolis

The rock of the Acropolis, crowned by the dramatic ruins of the Parthenon, is one of the most potent symbols of the ancient world. A steep-sided, flat-topped hulk of limestone, it has been the focal point of the city during practically every phase of its development. People lived here as early as 4,000BC, and its size and elevated position made it the perfect place to watch for invaders coming across the ocean. The earliest temples were built during the Mycenaean era, the last phase of the Bronze Age in Ancient Greece, in homage to the goddess Athena. Then, after all the buildings on the Acropolis were destroyed by the Persians in 480BC, Athenian statesman Pericles launched a comprehensive rebuilding programme, constructing sculptures and temples, and promoting the arts, in what later came to be known as Greece’s classical golden age. The Acropolis became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987, and restoration works continue to tackle the damage inflicted by years of foreign occupation, theft, damage by tourists and natural disasters, with many original sculptures moved to the Acropolis Museum for protection.

Visiting the Acropolis

Most people climb the Acropolis to see Greece's most famous temple, the Parthenon. A powerful reminder of the glory of ancient Greece, this 46-column marvel was built from white Pentelic marble between 447 and 438BC, both as a symbol of the city’s might, and to honor Athena Parthenos, goddess and patron of the city.
Set on the north side of the Acropolis, the Erechtheion, named after the legendary king of Athens, Erechtheus, was once the most sacred part of the complex, and is now celebrated for its famous porch, held up by six statues of maidens known as the Caryatids, instead of the standard columns. Also impressive are the Propylaea. These are the grand entrance gates to the Parthenon temple, built around the natural entrance to the Acropolis plateau. They were also once used as a checkpoint, in part to prevent the ‘unclean’ from entering the Acropolis complex.
A later addition was the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a stone theatre completed in 161AD on the southern slopes of the Acropolis. Fully renovated in the 1950s, it’s still the site of regular cultural and musical performances throughout the year.
Just east of the Odeon is the dazzling Acropolis Museum. It has pretty impressive scope, covering everything from Archaic Greece to Roman times, but its major draw are the ancient treasures preserved from the 5th century BC Acropolis, considered the zenith of Greek art and sculpture. A striking modern structure, it blends in seamlessly with its surroundings, with ruins visible through its toughened glass floor, and the Parthenon looming large above. On the top floor is a marble frieze that was once housed in the Parthenon. About half of the pieces are copies of those removed by Lord Elgin in 1801 (the controversial Elgin Marbles) which are still housed in London’s British Museum today.

Other key sights and activities in Athens

Two of Athens’ historic districts sit at the foot of the Acropolis and are well worth a look. The Agora was the administrative and political hub of ancient Athens, where lively philosophical debate took place, courtesy of Socrates and other luminaries. It also contains the beautifully preserved Temple of Hephaestus, dating to 415BC. Just to the southeast is Plaka. The oldest residential district in Athens, it’s full of cobbled streets and colourful neoclassical homes, though it’s also mobbed by tourists in peak summer season. Away from the main tourist drag, the elegant National Archaeological Museum hosts a vast spread of ancient and classical Greek artefacts.

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Best time to visit

The best time to visit Athens is the spring, when there are fewer tourists and a scattering of wildflowers, or autumn, when the crowds and sweltering heat have subsided. If you do visit in high season, bear in mind that the Acropolis is the country’s most popular attraction, so you should either visit early in the morning or late in the afternoon, to escape the massive queues and sweltering heat. Try to walk below the Acropolis at night too – bathed in the golden glow of floodlights, it’s a magical sight.

How to get there

Most people arrive in Athens by air. The city's international airport lies 17 miles northeast of the city, from where you can easily catch metro trains, taxis or buses downtown. The main boat terminal, Piraeus, is 11km southwest of central Athens, with straightforward bus and metro links between the city and the international airport. International trains arrive at Athens Railway Station, in the city’s northern district.
Written by Nana Luckham
Photo credits: [Page banner: Robert Anders] [Topbox: piet theisohn] [Parthenon: A.Savin] [Best time to visit: Weekend Wayfarers]