This dazzling modernist museum at the foot of the Acropolis' southern slope showcases its surviving treasures still in Greek possession. While the collection covers the Archaic and Roman periods, the emphasis is on the Acropolis of the 5th century BC, considered the apotheosis of Greece's artistic achievement. The museum cleverly reveals layers of history, floating over ruins with the Acropolis visible above, showing the masterpieces in context. The surprisingly good-value restaurant has superb views; there’s also a fine museum shop.
Designed by US-based architect Bernard Tschumi with Greek architect Michael Photiadis, the €130-million museum includes items formerly held in other museums or in storage, as well as pieces returned from foreign museums.
As you enter the museum grounds, look through the plexiglass floor to see the ruins of an ancient Athenian neighbourhood, which were artfully incorporated into the museum design after being uncovered during excavations.
Finds from the slopes of the Acropolis are on display in the foyer gallery, which has an ascending glass floor emulating the climb up to the sacred hill, while allowing glimpses of the ruins below. Exhibits include painted vases and votive offerings from the sanctuaries where gods were worshipped, and more recent objects found in excavations of the settlement, including two clay statues of Nike at the entrance.
Bathed in natural light, the 1st-floor Archaic Gallery is a veritable forest of statues, mostly votive offerings to Athena. These include stunning examples of 6th-century kore (maidens) – statues of young women in draped clothing and elaborate braids, usually carrying a pomegranate, wreath or bird. Most were recovered from a pit on the Acropolis, where the Athenians buried them after the Battle of Salamis. The 570 BC statue of a youth bearing a calf is one of the rare male statues found. There are also bronze figurines and artefacts from temples predating the Parthenon (destroyed by the Persians), including wonderful pedimental sculptures such as Hercules slaying the Lernaian Hydra and a lioness devouring a bull. Also on this floor are five Caryatids, the maiden columns that held up the Erechtheion (the sixth is in the British Museum), and a giant floral akrotirion (a decorative element capping a gable) that once crowned the southern ridge of the Parthenon pediment.
The museum’s crowning glory is the top-floor Parthenon Gallery, a glass atrium built in alignment with the temple, and a virtual replica of the cella of the Parthenon, which can be seen from the gallery. It showcases the temple’s sculptures, metopes and 160m-long frieze, which for the first time in over 200 years is shown in sequence as one narrative about the Panathenaic Procession. The Procession starts at the southwest corner of the temple, with two groups splitting off and meeting on the east side for the delivery of the peplos to Athena. Interspersed between the golden-hued originals are stark-white plaster replicas of the missing pieces – the controversial Parthenon Marbles hacked off by Lord Elgin in 1801 and later sold to the British Museum (more than half the frieze is in London) – making a compelling case for their reunification.
Don’t miss the movie describing the history of the Acropolis.
ParthenonMore than any other monument, the Parthenon epitomises the glory of Ancient Greece. Meaning ‘virgin’s apartment’, it's dedicated to Athena Parthenos, the goddess embodying the power and prestige of the city. The largest Doric temple ever completed in Greece, and the only one built completely of Pentelic marble (apart from the wood in its roof), it took 15 years to complete. It was designed by Iktinos and Kallicrates and completed in time for the of 438 BC.
Designed to be the pre-eminent monument of the Acropolis and built on its highest ground, the Parthenon had a dual purpose – to house the great statue of Athena commissioned by Pericles, and to serve as the new treasury. It was built on the site of at least four earlier temples dedicated to Athena.
The temple consisted of eight fluted Doric columns at either end and 17 on each side. To achieve perfect form, its lines were ingeniously curved to create an optical illusion – the foundations are slightly concave and the columns are slightly convex to make both look straight. Supervised by Pheidias, the sculptors Agoracritos and Alcamenes worked on the architectural sculptures of the Parthenon, including the pediments, frieze and metopes, which were brightly coloured and gilded.
The metopes on the eastern side depicted the Olympian gods fighting the giants; on the western side they showed Theseus leading the Athenian youths into battle against the Amazons. The southern metopes illustrated the contest of the Lapiths and Centaurs at a marriage feast, while the northern ones depicted the sacking of Troy.
Much of the frieze depicting the Panathenaic Procession was either damaged in the Turkish gunpowder explosion of 1687 or later defaced by the Christians, but the greatest existing part (over 75m long) consists of the controversial Parthenon Marbles, taken by Lord Elgin and now in the British Museum in London. The British government continues to ignore campaigns for their return.
The ceiling of the Parthenon, like that of the Propylaia, was painted blue and gilded with stars. At the eastern end was the holy cella (inner room of a temple), into which only a few privileged initiates could enter. Here stood the statue for which the temple was built – the Athena Polias (Athena of the City), considered one of the wonders of the ancient world. Designed by Pheidias and completed in 432 BC, it was gold-plated over an inner wooden frame and stood almost 12m high on its pedestal. The face, hands and feet were made of ivory, and the eyes were fashioned from jewels. Clad in a long gold dress with the head of Medusa carved in ivory on her breast, the goddess held a statuette of Nike (the goddess of victory) in her right hand; in her left, a spear with a serpent at its base. On top of her helmet was a sphinx, with griffins in relief at either side.
In AD 426 the statue was taken to Constantinople, where it disappeared. There's a Roman copy (the Athena Varvakeion) in the National Archaeological Museum.
A cemetery from the 3000 BC to the 6th century AD (Roman times), Keramikos was originally a settlement for potters who were attracted by the clay on the banks of the River Iridanos. Because of frequent flooding, the area was ultimately converted to a cemetery. Rediscovered in 1861 during the construction of Pireos St, Keramikos is now a lush, tranquil site with a small but excellent museum containing remarkable stelae (stone slabs) and sculptures, a good collection of vases and terracotta figurines.
Once inside, head for the small knoll ahead to the right, where you’ll find a plan of the site. A path leads down to the right from the knoll to the remains of the city wall built by Themistocles in 479 BC, and rebuilt by Konon in 394 BC. The wall is broken by the foundations of two gates; tiny signs mark each one.
The first, the Sacred Gate, spanned the Sacred Way and was the one by which pilgrims from Eleusis entered the city during the annual Eleusian procession. To the northeast is the Dipylon Gate – the city’s main entrance and where began. It was also where the city’s prostitutes gathered to offer their services to travellers. From a platform outside the Dipylon Gate, Pericles gave his famous speech extolling the virtues of Athens and honouring those who died in the first year of the Peloponnesian Wars.
Between the Sacred and Dipylon Gates are the foundations of the Pompeion, used as a dressing room for participants in the Panathenaic Procession.
Leading off the Sacred Way to the left as you head away from the city is the Street of Tombs. This avenue was reserved for the tombs of Athens’ most prominent citizens. The surviving stelae are now in the National Archaeological Museum, so what you see are mostly replicas. The astonishing array of funerary monuments and their bas reliefs warrant close examination. Ordinary citizens were buried in the areas bordering the Street of Tombs. One well-preserved stela (up the stone steps on the northern side) shows a little girl with her pet dog. The site’s largest stela is that of sisters Demetria and Pamphile.
The Acropolis is the most important ancient site in the Western world. Crowned by the Parthenon, it stands sentinel over Athens, visible from almost everywhere within the city. Its monuments and sanctuaries of Pentelic marble gleam white in the midday sun and gradually take on a honey hue as the sun sinks, while at night they stand brilliantly illuminated above the city. A glimpse of this magnificent sight cannot fail to exalt your spirit.
Inspiring as these monuments are, they are but faded remnants of the city of Pericles, who spared no expense – only the best materials, architects, sculptors and artists were good enough for a city dedicated to the cult of Athena. It was a showcase of lavishly coloured colossal buildings and of gargantuan statues, some of bronze, others of marble plated with gold and encrusted with precious stones.
The Acropolis was first inhabited in Neolithic times (4000–3000 BC). The first temples were built during the Mycenaean era, in homage to the goddess Athena. People lived on the Acropolis until the late 6th century BC, but in 510 BC the Delphic oracle declared that it should be the province of the gods.
After all the buildings on the Acropolis were reduced to ashes by the Persians on the eve of the Battle of Salamis (480 BC), Pericles set about his ambitious rebuilding program. He transformed the Acropolis into a city of temples, which has come to be regarded as the zenith of classical Greek achievement.
Ravages inflicted during the years of foreign occupation, pilfering by foreign archaeologists, inept renovations following Independence, visitors’ footsteps, earthquakes and, more recently, acid rain and pollution have all taken their toll on the surviving monuments. The worst blow was in 1687, when the Venetians attacked the Turks, opening fire on the Acropolis and causing an explosion in the Parthenon – where the Turks had been storing gunpowder – and damaging all the buildings.
Major restoration programs are continuing and many of the original sculptures have been moved to the and replaced with casts. The Acropolis became a World Heritage–listed site in 1987.
Although the Parthenon was the most impressive monument of the Acropolis, it was more a showpiece than a working sanctuary. That role fell to the Erechtheion, built on the part of the Acropolis held most sacred. It was here that Poseidon struck the ground with his trident and where Athena produced the olive tree. Named after Erechtheus, a mythical king of Athens, the temple housed the cults of Athena, Poseidon and Erechtheus. Six larger-than-life maiden columns, the Caryatids, support its southern portico.
The Caryatids got their name because they were modelled on women from Karyai – modern-day Karyes, in Lakonia. Those you see are plaster casts. The originals (except for one removed by Lord Elgin, now in the British Museum) are in the Acropolis Museum.
The Erechtheion was part of Pericles’ plan, but the project was postponed after the outbreak of the Peloponnesian Wars. Work did not start until 421 BC, eight years after his death, and was completed around 406 BC.
Architecturally it is the most unusual monument of the Acropolis, a supreme example of Ionic architecture ingeniously built on several levels to counteract the uneven bedrock. The main temple is divided into two cellae – one dedicated to Athena, the other to Poseidon – representing a reconciliation of the two deities after their contest. In Athena’s cella stood an olive-wood statue of Athena Polias holding a shield adorned with a gorgon’s head. It was this statue on which the sacred peplos (shawl) was placed at the culmination of the Great Panathenaic Festival.
The northern porch consists of six Ionic columns; on the floor are the fissures supposedly left by either the thunderbolt sent by Zeus to kill Erechtheus, or by Poseidon's trident in his contest with Athena. To the south of here was the Cecropion – King Cecrops’ burial place.
Except for a small temple of Rome and Augustus, which is no longer in existence, the Erechtheion was the last public building erected on the Acropolis in antiquity.
Theatre of Dionysos
The tyrant Peisistratos introduced the annual Festival of the Great Dionysia during the 6th century BC, and held it in the world's first theatre, on the south slope of the Acropolis. The original theatre on this site was a timber structure, and masses of people attended the contests, where men clad in goatskins sang and danced, followed by feasting and revelry. Drama as we know it dates back to these contests.
At one of the contests, Thespis left the ensemble and took centre stage for a solo performance, an act considered to be the first true dramatic performance – hence the term ‘thespian’.
During the golden age in the 5th century BC, the annual festival was one of the state’s major events. Politicians sponsored dramas by writers such as Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, with some light relief provided by the bawdy comedies of Aristophanes. People came from all over Attica, with their expenses met by the state.
The theatre was reconstructed in stone and marble by Lycurgus between 342 BC and 326 BC, with a seating capacity of 17,000 spread over 64 tiers, of which about 20 survive. Apart from the front row, the seats were built of Piraeus limestone and occupied by ordinary citizens, with women confined to the back rows. The front row’s 67 Pentelic marble thrones were reserved for festival officials and important priests. The grandest one – in the centre, with lion-paw armrests – was reserved for the Priest of Dionysos, who sat shaded from the sun under a canopy.
In Roman times, the theatre was used for state events and performances.
The 2nd-century-BC reliefs at the rear of the stage depict the exploits of Dionysos. The two hefty men (who still have their heads) are selini, worshippers of the mythical Selinos, the debauched father of the satyrs, whose favourite pastime was charging up mountains with his oversized phallus in lecherous pursuit of nymphs.
National Archaeological Museum
One of the world’s most important museums, the National Archaeological Museum houses the world's finest collection of Greek antiquities. Treasures offering a view of Greek art and history – dating from the Neolithic era to classical periods – include exquisite sculptures, pottery, jewellery, frescoes and artefacts found throughout Greece. The beautifully presented exhibits are displayed mainly thematically. Allow plenty of time to view the vast and spectacular collections (more than 11,000 items) housed in this enormous (8000-sq-metre) 19th-century neoclassical building.
It could take several visits to appreciate the museum’s vast holdings, but it's possible to see the in a half-day. The museum also hosts world-class temporary exhibitions.
In addition to the highlights, the museum has a superb pottery collection on its upper floor, which traces the development of pottery from the Bronze Age through Attic red-figured pottery (late 5th to early 4th centuries BC). Among the treasures are six Panathenaic amphorae presented to the winners of the Panathenaic Games. They contained oil from the sacred olive trees of Athens and victors might have received up to 140 of them.
A joint ticket with the and others costs €12. The museum is a 10-minute walk from Viktoria metro station, or catch trolleybus 2, 4, 5, 9 or 11 from outside St Denis Cathedral on Panepistimiou and get off at the Polytechnio stop.
Temple of Poseidon
The Ancient Greeks certainly knew how to choose a site for a temple. Nowhere is this more evident than at Cape Sounion, 70km south of Athens, where the Temple of Poseidon stands on a craggy spur that plunges 65m down to the sea. Built in 444 BC – at the same time as the Parthenon – it is constructed of local marble from Agrilesa; its slender columns, of which 16 remain, are Doric.
It is thought that the temple was built by Iktinos, the architect of the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens’ Ancient Agora.
It looks gleaming white when viewed from the sea, which gave great comfort to sailors in ancient times: they knew they were nearly home when they saw the first glimpse of white, far off in the distance. The views from the temple are equally impressive: on a clear day you can see Kea, Kythnos and Serifos to the southeast, and Aegina and the Peloponnese to the west. The site also contains scant remains of a propylaeum, a fortified tower and, to the northeast, a 6th-century temple to Athena.
Visit early in the morning before the tourist buses arrive, or head there for sunset to enact Byron’s lines from Don Juan:
‘Place me on Sunium’s marbled steep / Where nothing save the waves and I / May hear our mutual murmurs sweep.’
Byron was so impressed by Sounion that he carved his name on one of the columns (sadly, many other not-so-famous travellers followed suit).
There are a couple of tavernas just below the site – perfect for lunch and a swim.
Also called the Hill of the Muses, Filopappou Hill – along with the Hills of the Pnyx and Nymphs – was, according to Plutarch, where Theseus and the Amazons did battle. Inhabited from prehistoric times to the post-Byzantine era, today the pine-clad slopes are a relaxing place for a stroll. They offer excellent views of Attica and the Saronic Gulf, well-signed ruins and some of the very best vantage points for photographing the Acropolis.
The hill, to the southwest of the Acropolis, is identifiable by crowning its summit; it was built between AD 114 and 116 in honour of Julius Antiochus Filopappos, a prominent Roman consul and administrator. The paved path to the top starts near the periptero (kiosk) on Dionysiou Areopagitou. After 250m, it passes the excellent , which contains fine frescoes, and continues past and on up to the top.
In the 4th and 5th centuries BC, defensive fortifications – such as the Themistoclean wall and the Diateichisma – extended over the hill. You see their extensive remains today.
Roman Agora & Tower of the Winds
The entrance to the Roman Agora is through the well-preserved Gate of Athena Archegetis, flanked by four Doric columns. It was financed by Julius Caesar and erected sometime during the 1st century AD. Restored and reopened in 2016, the extraordinary Tower of the Winds was built in the 1st century BC by a Syrian astronomer named Andronicus. The octagonal monument of Pentelic marble is an ingenious construction that functioned as a sundial, weather vane, water clock and compass.
Each side of the tower represents a point of the compass, with a relief of a floating figure representing the wind associated with that particular point. Beneath each of the reliefs are faint sundial markings. The weather vane, which disappeared long ago, was a bronze Triton that revolved on top of the tower. The Turks allowed dervishes to use the tower.
The rest of the ruins are quite bare. To the right of the entrance are foundations of a 1st-century public latrine. In the southeast area are foundations of a propylon (fortified tower) and a row of shops.