Ancient Athens – Touring the Acropolis

The Acropolis of Athens and its monuments are universal symbols of the classical spirit and civilization and form the greatest architectural and artistic complex handed down by Greek Antiquity to the world. Built back in the 5th century BC, these iconic structures are the birthplace of democracy and Western civilization. Follow US-based traveller Saul Schwartz as he discovers ancient Athens and shows us where best to feel the presence of history.

By Saul Schwartz

My wife Fern and I spent five nights in the Greek capital of Athens.  We spent about half of our trip touring the sites of antiquity.  Our trip was in November which is not peak tourist season, so the sites were not that crowded.  The weather was still quite pleasant with temperatures around 21°C / 70°F.

Acropolis Museum

We visited the museum both before and after our visit to the Acropolis. The cost is 5 Euros.

Modern museum
This museum opened in the summer of 2009 and is located at the foot of the Acropolis. Glass walls allow a direct view of the Acropolis temples from within the museum. The museum hosts the collection across three levels. A tour guide suggested going to the museum before the Acropolis for a better orientation. An English language video provided us with a good background of the Acropolis monuments. The museum is located next to the Acropolis metro station and the modern design of the exterior is impressive.

Lost marbles
The museum holds stunning treasures from the Acropolis and surrounding areas, including the Parthenon marbles. The galleries house finds from the slopes of the Acropolis, the magnificent sculptures that graced the temples, the offerings dedicated by worshippers and the relief sculptures of the Parthenon frieze. The museum contains an area for the return of the Parthenon marbles now housed in the British Museum, which were taken by Lord Elgin in the 19th century. This controversy is noted throughout Athens by a campaign to return the marbles to Athens.

Early Christianity
Just outside the museum lie the ruins of an early Christian settlement. The museum admission allows entry to this newly opened exhibit. Roads, houses, baths, workshops and tombs are part of these remains. These finds were uncovered during the excavation that took place prior to construction of the museum.
English signage of this exhibit is very good.

Lunch with a view
We enjoyed a light lunch in the informal café, which has a great panoramic view of the Acropolis and the surrounding hills. Although the English language signage in the museum is more than adequate, we found it difficult to understand the thematic placement of the various objects. We wished that a guided or audio tour had been available so that we could better understand the collection. This museum replaced a much smaller Acropolis museum.


We purchased the ticket for the extended area that included the Ancient Agora, Hadrian’s Library and several other sites. The 30 Euro ticket is good for one week. Although there is some English language signage, our walking tour was greatly enhanced by listening to Rick Steves’ 55 minute audio guide. These monuments were constructed during the late 5th century B.C. during the golden age of Athens.  The Acropolis is clearly the landmark of ancient Athens and is one of the most significant sites in Greece.  Its temples are among the most influential buildings in Western architecture.

As we went up the Acropolis hill, we first saw the Propylaea, the entrance to the Acropolis. We walked by the tiny temple to Nike Athena which stands on a platform.  We then walked by the Dionysus Theater. This mosaic tiled theater was the site of classical Greece’s drama competitions. Here is where the great playwrights of that era had their first performances. The theatre seated 15.000.  We were told that the benches are still used today for musical concerts.

Arguably the Parthenon is the ancient world’s greatest temple. The temple honors the virgin goddess Athena.  Even having seen many photographs, we were still not prepared for the immensity of the Parthenon. It took 9 years to complete. Every piece of the building is unique and fits together. Lines that look straight are actually tapered or curved. This was our highlight of the Acropolis tour and the key building on the hill. Some reconstruction is currently going on to hold the building together.

The Erechtheion contains the famous porch of the maidens. This building was the real religious temple on the Acropolis. The maidens are actually reproductions of the originals. Nevertheless, it may be the most attractive portion of the Acropolis.

Greek flag
The Greek flag flies at the northeast corner of the Acropolis. When the Germans occupied Athens during World War 2, the soldier that guarded the Greek flag which flew from the Acropolis was ordered by the Nazis to remove it.  He took it down, wrapped himself in it and jumped to his death. The plaque by the flag commemorates two 18-year-old heroes, who tore down the Nazi flag flying from the Acropolis on May 30, 1941. This act of courage was an inspiration to the subjected Greek people. From this spot, we had spectacular views looking down at various neighborhoods in Athens.

As with the other ancient sites, it really helps to have a good guide book, audio guide or tour guide.  Otherwise it is difficult to distinguish what certain ruins were in those days!

Roman Athens

Entry to Hadrian’s sumptuous Library is included in the Acropolis admission fee. Alternatively, separate tickets are available for 6 Euros. The site is relatively small and there is very little signage. If you are in the area, it is worth a brief self-guided tour.

Hadrian’s Library
Roman Emperor Hadrian built this luxurious Corinthian-columned building in 132 A.D. Most of the space was actually a showy marble courtyard, with mosaic floors, gardens and a pool. There were also lecture rooms, music rooms and a theater concert area. The library itself was on the east side, where you can see marble slots for manuscript scrolls. Part of the site is open to the public, following an extensive excavation and restoration project. The library is located right off of Monastiraki Square.

Hadrian’s Arch
Hadrian’s Arch can be viewed without any admission fee. This is one of the monumental gateways within Athens that still stand. Emperor Hadrian had the west side of the arch inscribed on the east side “This is the city of Hadrian and not Theseus” and the west side “This is Athens, the ancient city of Theseus” so as to distinguish the ancient city of legend from the then more modern Roman era. At that time, the arch spanned an ancient road that led from the old sections to the new. The arch is a short walk from Syntagma Square and the whole monument is made of Pentelic marble.

Temple of Olympian Zeus
From Hadrian’s Arch we viewed the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Sixteen columns survive from the original temple. This is the site where Greeks worshipped Zeus. The majestic temple was the largest one in Greece and originally had 104 columns. On a walking tour we learned that the temple originally contained a gold and ivory sculpture of Zeus which has disappeared. We did not pay the fee to see the columns up close inside the gate, as we learned that there is no much else to see at this location.

Ancient Agora

The ancient Agora is also included as part of the Acropolis entry fee. It is located southwest of the Acropolis.  The Agora was the heart of public life in Athens during antiquity. It is close to the Thissio metro station.  Although there is some English language signage, our walking tour was greatly enhanced by listening to Rick Steve’s 47 minute audio guide.

The Agora has remnants of former shopping malls, theaters, bars and government buildings. Here. Socrates addressed his public and Saint Paul preached in this market place, which began in the 6th century B.C. and lasted for 1.200 years.
There were quite a few interesting sights within the Agora.

Agora Museum
A reconstructed building houses the Agora Museum. In ancient days, this building (the Stoa of Attalos) functioned as a shopping mall. The museum houses finds from the Agora site, including sculptures. We particularly enjoyed seeing an ancient voting machine made from a slab of stone with slots for voting tokens.

Temple of Hephaestus
The Temple of Hephaestus is the best preserved classical temple in Greece.  Its freeze depicts the deeds of Theseus. The Temple dates to around 460 B.C. and was built to honor the patron of metal workers and the patroness of crafts and potters.

Church of the Holy Apostles
The Church of the Holy Apostles is located within the Ancient Agora. This Byzantine church dates to the 10th century and honours the holy apostles. There are several fading colourful frescos on the walls and roof while the exterior has very decorative tile work.  The structure has survived intact since its foundation and has been restored to its original form.

Phyx Hill

We then walked over to Phyx Hill; the birthplace of democracy.  This area is primarily a small rocky hill and is where the first democratic congress met weekly in the 5th century B.C. Great orators held forth here. At that time, a limestone theatre accommodated about 10.000 or more for assemblies. The speaker’s’ podium (bema) and surrounding steps are well preserved. Otherwise there is not much to see, but there is no charge to tour this site.

Our tour of the ancient sites in Athens followed from a similar tour of the ancient sites of Rome one year ago.  Fern and I learned a good deal from both tours.  Both cities are easy to navigate by public transit.  With more time, we might have explored some of the museums featuring ancient works.

More info

Check out Saul’s account of Modern Athens as well.

About Saul Schwartz

Saul lives in Alexandria, Virginia and has lived in the Washington, D.C. area since 1984. He loves to travel throughout Europe with his wife and family and particularly enjoys interacting with local residents and learning about life in their city and country.

He has visited Berlin for one week, cruised on the Romantic Danube, wrote a 1-week city guide for London, roamed the ancient architecture of Rome and much more! Check out all Saul’s contributions.  

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