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Guide to ancient Athens

Get straight to the heart of ancient Athens – and Western civilisation – with our tour of the classical highlights

 Temple of Olympian Zeus to the Parthenon

Ancient Athens: From the Temple of Olympian Zeus to the Parthenon © Chris Bourn

Conveniently, most of the significant landmarks of ancient Athens are close to each other, connected by a pleasant pedestrian promenade dotted with shady cafés. The best way to explore this most historic area of Athens is via the pedestrianised Unification of Archaeological Sites walkway, which leads you past the key places on every visitor’s itinerary. To discover the many fascinating neighbourhoods that have grown up around the Acropolis and its surrounding sites, just branch off the walkway wherever takes your fancy.

The first order of business, though, is to purchase your Acropolis ticket. For €12 it gives you four days’ re-entry to the Acropolis site, as well as to six other classical essentials (see below for details). You can get hold of a ticket at any of these sites, or at the main entrance to the Acropolis – at its western edge below the looming Propylaea (monumental gate)…

Propylaeum gate, Acropolis, Athens

© Dimitrios/Shutterstock


The Acropolis and around

Pass through that gate and, just as its 5th-century BC architect intended (Mnesicles, since you ask), you’re ushered away from the realm of the profane and up into another, altogether more exalted place. The Acropolis, or ‘high city’, and the area around it, as the oldest continuously populated parts of Athens, are layered with the remains of all the civilisations that have existed here. The throne-like hill was a seat of royalty and a focus of religion as far back as Neolithic times. After the 11th century BC, however, Olympus’s champion of wisdom Athena became the focus. Thereafter the Acropolis became home to successive temples, altars and legends dedicated to the goddess of wisdom from whom the city takes its name– including the colossal bronze statue of Athena Promachos, a 30-foot high warrior guardian that once towered and glowered over the city, built with weapons and spoils from the battle of Marathon.

Sadly the statue itself is long gone, but most of what is visible now dates from around the same era: the 5th-century BC, also known as the Golden Age of Athens, during which the great Athenian leader Pericles initiated construction on the complex of temples and structures that now graces the top of the Acropolis. The citadel of course, along with the rest of the city, is dominated by the Parthenon, one of the most recognisable structures in the world, and to many the earthly realisation of architectural perfection (lack of roof notwithstanding). It’s well worth seeing the old Athenian treasure-pantry up close (it’s where they used to stash the gold they syphoned from their Aegean empire), where, despite the scaffolding and detritus of ongoing preservation work, it loses none of its weatherworn elegance and magnetism.

The Parthenon, Acropolis, Athens

Party on, Parthenon© Karl Blackwell

Once you’ve patrolled the Parthenon’s columns and taken in the Athena’s-eye views of the city from all angles, there’s much more still to marvel at. The simplicity of the Parthenon contrasts with the fascinating complexity of the Erechtheum opposite. It was completed in 406 BC, on the spot where Athena and Poseidon are said to have battled for Athens. The most famous feature is the south porch, held up by six columns in the shape of drapery-clad maidens, known as the Caryatids, possibly after the women of Caryae, near Sparta, who served as dancing devotees of the goddess Artemis.

Erechtheum at the Acropolis, Athens

Maidens of the Erechtheum© Chris Bourn

Whatever the provenance the statues here are now copies; five of the originals can now be seen in the new Acropolis Museum at the foot of the hill, while the other is in the British Museum in London (along with the assorted friezes and sculptures taken from the Parthenon known as the ‘Elgin Marbles’ – still a source of bitter contention between Greece and the UK just over two centuries after an opportunistic Scottish diplomat removed them).

On your the right-hand side of the Propylaea (as you enter), is the tiny Temple of Athena Nike. Built in 424 BC, this sanctuary of the goddess of victory was demolished in 1686 by the Turks to make way for gun emplacements, then painstakingly reconstructed in the 1830s – hence the two-tone stone effect.

Temple of Athena Nike, the Acropolis, Athens

The Temple of Athena Nike: just view it© Jan Willem van Hofwegen/Shutterstock

Outside the entrance to the Acropolis is the Aeropagus, an unassuming, slippery outcrop of limestone rock where visitors often slope off for a smoke and a think overlooking the city. Named after Ares, the god of war, it once served as ancient Athens’s highest (literally and figuratively) court. Later, in AD 51, when St Paul visited Athens, he is said to have delivered his famous ‘Men of Athens’ sermon here. The speech, recorded in the Bible (Acts 17:22-34), is carved on a bronze plaque at the bottom of the rock, often visited by pilgrims.

On the south slope of the hill are not one but two ancient theatres. The more venerable and accessible is the Theatre of Dionysus (see below) – but the Roman-era Odeon of Atticus is more spectacular, and a better aerial photo-op as you clamber back down from the Acropolis entrance. It’s a working venue today and to see it from the inside, you’ll need a ticket to one of the many theatrical or classical music performances that are staged here.

Opposite the Theatre of Dionysus the relatively new Acropolis Museum (it opened in 2008; general admission is €5) is an essential post-script to any Acropolis visit – and, as an oasis of breezy air-conditioning, the perfect place to cool down. As modern as the hilltop is ancient, the museum competes with the exhibits for visitor-flooring wow factor: from the glass-floored courtyard that suspends you over a spectacular archaeological pit to the incredible views of the Acropolis from the fourth floor.

Acroterion sculpture, Acropolis Museum, Athens

Reconstructed floral ‘acroterion’ from above a Parthenon pediment© Chris Bourn

Its beautifully designed exhibition spaces provide the missing pieces in the Acropolis jigsaw puzzle, especially the magnificent Parthenon gallery – where Phidias’s sculptures are displayed in their original relative positions, with spaces tactfully left for absent friezes.

Acropolis Museum, Athens

Parthenon gallery in the Acropolis Museum© Chris Bourn

Acropolis highlights

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Six more wonders of ancient Athens

Your Acropolis ticket gets you into these other ancient attractions – all of which are Athenian essentials in their own way…

1. The Theatre of Dionysus

Drop in to this remarkably well-preserved amphitheatre on the southern slope of the Acropolis, where you can sit in the seats sat on by the very first Western theatregoers, and picture the mise-en-scènes Aristophanes, Euripides and Menander had in mind.
Dionysiou Areopagitou. Metro: Akropoli. 

Theatre of Dionysus, the Acropolis, Athens

The Theatre of Dionysus© Chris Bourn


2. The Temple of Olympian Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch

The tyrant Pisistratos commissioned the largest temple in Greece in 515 BC, ostensibly to honour Zeus, but mainly to keep his subjects occupied. After he was overthrown, the citizens of the new democracy refused to complete what they saw as a monument to tyranny. And so the temple languished for centuries, until the Roman Emperor Hadrian finished it off in seven years. Today, only 16 of the original 104 columns remain – along with Hadrian’s elaborate triumphal arch – but their colossal scale still overwhelms in a vast, serene open space that’s like a titans’ bowling alley at the end of Lisikratous Street.
Leof Vas Olgas and Leof Vas Amalias. Metro: Akropoli.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch, as seen from the Acropolis© Chris Bourn

The Temple of Olympian Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch, as seen from the Acropolis© Chris Bourn


3. The Ancient Agora

This extensive market place, founded in the sixth century BC, was the city centre for 1,200 years – during which time, like most CBDs, it witnessed the ongoing construction and destruction of civic institutions. Far more than a place to shop, the market was the centre of all public life. A typical Athenian would spend all day here, listening to the likes of Socrates, Demosthenes, St Paul or various sophists holding forth among the oil and spice stalls, checking in at the circular tholos, where a council of 50 administrators was available 24 hours a day.

Ancient Agora of Athens

The Agora overlooked by the temple of Hephaestus© Chris Bourn

Or they might settle in for an impromptu lecture on one of the stoas – the colonnades fronting the market, which were the hangout-stoops of ancient civic society, and as the meeting place for Zeno’s adherents in the 3rd century BC, ended up lending their name to the Stoic school of philosophy he founded. Or they might light a candle at the shrine to Hephaestus, which overlooked the whole scene. This is still the best-preserved classical-era temple in Greece – get up close and look at the friezes, which depict the adventures of Theseus and Heracles. The long Stoa of Attalos, meanwhile, functioned rather like an ancient shopping mall, and the restored building today houses the excellent Agora Museum, which displays, among other things, fantastic reconstructions of the marketplace in its heyday.
Entrances on Adrianou Street and on the descent from the Acropolis. Metro: Monastiraki or Thissio. 

Agora Museum, Athens

Quick heads up on the Agora Museum© Chris Bourn


4. Hadrian’s Library

The Roman Emperor Hadrian built this luxurious library in AD 132. Most of the space was a marble courtyard with gardens and a pool, but there were also lecture rooms, music rooms, a theatre and a small place for storing scrolls. The gate to the site is located between the handicraft stalls on Areos, just up from the Monastiraki metro station. However, most of the site is visible from adjoining streets.
Dexippou and Areos Streets. Metro: Monastiraki.

Hadrian’s Library, Athens

Shhh… by order of Emperor Hadrian© Chris Bourn


5. The Roman Agora

One of Athens’s most interestingly layered sites. Its earliest and most striking feature is the marvellous, eight-sided Tower of the Winds, built in 50 BC by Syrian astronomer Andronikos Kyrrhestas – its elaborate friezes and portico all sadly obscured under a tarpaulin while it undergoes restoration work. The combination of sundial, weathervane and water clock was unlike any other building in the ancient world.

A century later, the Romans shifted Athens’s central marketplace from the sprawling Ancient Agora (see above), creating a smaller, more orderly one around the tower. The Ottomans made their mark by building a mosque on the same site. In the 20th century archaeologists used the Forum as a repository for unclassifiable smaller finds from all over Attica, which explains the presence of the odd Byzantine grave marker or garlanded sarcophagus.
Eolou and Pelopida. Metro: Monastiraki.

Roman Agora, Athens

The Roman Agora© Karl Blackwell



6. Kerameikos

Peaceful, green Keramikos has been many things during its long life: shrine, city gates, hangout for prostitutes and soldiers, artists’ quarter and the oldest and largest cemetery in Attica. What these uses had in common was that they were all suited to a site on the edge of the ancient city. The site’s name derives from the prevalence of potters’ workshops on the grassy banks of the river Eridanus, which cut through the site and marked the north-west boundary of ancient Athens.

In 478 BC that boundary was built in stone with the construction of the Themistoclean Wall around the entire city (the wall’s foundations still mark the outer edges of Keramikos). At the south-west edge of the site are the remains of the Dipylon Gate, the main entrance to Athens and the largest gate in ancient Greece. The roads from Thebes, Corinth and the Peloponnese led to this gate, and many ceremonial events were staged here at important arrivals and departures. To the south-east is the Sacred Gate, reserved for priestesses to pass through on the Sacred Way to Eleusis, to perform ancient Greece’s most important religious rites, the mysteries of the goddess of agriculture, Demeter, and her daughter Persephone.

Keramikos cemetery, Athens

Keramikos cemetery (with Agia Triada – Church of the Trinity – in the background)© Renee Vititoe/Shutterstock

Along the sides of the sacred road grew Athens’s main cemetery, resting place for war heroes and wealthy statesmen. The earliest tombs are probably the 7th-century BC tumuli – high, round burial mounds built to honour great warriors. But 200 years later, the classical Athenians decided they wanted a lot more than just mounds of dirt, hence the showy monuments. The most distinctive of these is the 5th-century BC marble bull on the tomb of Dionysios of Kollytos, a man praised for his goodness, who died unmarried, mourned by his mother and sisters. The tomb of Dexileos, who died in 394 BC, shows a sculpture of the young man astride a rearing horse. The lovely 5th-century BC stele of Hegeso shows the departed woman, seated on the right, taking a trinket from a box held by her maid, while the sculpture of Demetria and Pamphile shows two sisters absent-mindedly sharing a familial tic.

Stele of Demetria and Pamphile, Keramikos cemetery, Athens

Stele of Demetria and Pamphie© ABB Photo/Shutterstock

As on the Acropolis, many of the sculptures that are exposed to the elements are copies, with the originals displayed in the small but fascinating on-site Oberlander Museum. The museum also contains other fabulous cultural remains like pottery shards depicting erotic scenes, used in a brothel once on the site, and bits of marble carved with curses, which people would slip into the graves of their enemies.
148 Ermou. Metro: Keramikos or Thissio.

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