The Acropolis

The Athens Acropolis has the city's most iconic building, the Parthenon, along with other historic buildings and is where the Elgin Marbles were removed from.

The Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens, Greece

Akro poli means 'upper city', and many Greek towns and cities have an acropolis. Athens has the most famous, topped as it is by the Parthenon. Whether you see it in daylight when approaching from the airport, at night from your hotel balcony, or up close when you visit, the Parthenon dominates the Athens skyline, a constant reminder of the Golden Age of ancient Greece.

The Parthenon at Night

Sometimes people get confused with the names. The Acropolis is the whole area of the upper city, and the rock on which all the buildings at the top stand. The Parthenon is the name of the main temple, the one that you can see from everywhere.

How to Get to the Acropolis

You can reach the entrance to the Acropolis by walking up one of the two approaches to the western end. The more atmospheric of the two is on the north side through the Plaka district where you will spot occasional hand-written signs directing you up through the steep and winding streets. Local shopkeepers are also used to being asked directions, as the route is not always obvious. The approach from the pedestrianised Dionysiou Areopagitou street to the south of the Acropolis is perfectly straightforward.

Direction sign to the Acropolis in Athens

Evidence of a settlement on the southern slopes of the Acropolis dates the first habitation in Athens to about 3000 BC. The buildings that remain date mainly from the 5th century BC, when ancient Athens reached its pinnacle during the period that is referred to as the Golden Age of Pericles.

The Golden Age of Pericles

Pericles hired the finest workers of the day, including the master sculptor Phidias. He was the main artistic director of the Parthenon, which was the first building to be raised on the site. The great architect Iktinos (or Ictinus) was probably responsible for its overall design and construction.

Artist Reproduction of what the Acropolis in Athens used to look like

It's now one of the well-known facts about the Parthenon that it has no straight lines in its construction, the apparent symmetry being created by gently tapering columns and steps. The building is designed using repeated ratios of 9:4, for such aspects as the gap between columns in relation to the width of a single column, or the width of the building in relation to its height.

The Goddess Athena

Originally, the focus of the building was a 40-foot-high (12 m) golden statue of the goddess Athena, after whom the city is named. A model of the Parthenon as it would have looked then, complete with golden statue, can be seen in the National Archaeological Museum.

The building took nine years to construct, was finished in 438 BC, and is made from marble quarried locally. To see how the marble was transported up to the top of the Acropolis, visit the Acropolis Museum. Flecks of iron in the chosen marble give the building its wonderfully warm golden glow in the evening light.

The Parthenon at night

Several other buildings on top of the Acropolis are worth a closer look. To the right, soon after you enter, is the small temple of Athena Nike, added in 427-424 BC to celebrate victories by the Athenians in their wars with the Persians. Athena Nike means Athene of Victory, and yes, that's where the name of the trainers comes from.

The Parthenon was dedicated to a different aspect of the goddess, Athena Promachos, Athena the Champion. In 1686 the temple was destroyed by the Turks who were then occupying Greece. It has been reconstructed twice since then, most recently in 1936-1940.

The Parthenon and Acropolis in Athens, Greece

The Turks wreaked havoc on the Acropolis, including building a mosque inside the Parthenon, which was left to fall into ruin before parts of it were sold off to Lord Elgin (see box below on the Parthenon Marbles). The Turks also used the building as a weaponry store, which resulted in further damage when the arsenal exploded after being fired upon. This happened in 1687 and removed the roof of the Parthenon.

The Parthenon and Acropolis in Athens, Greece

Other Buildings

Over to your left as you approach the Parthenon from the entrance is the Erechtheion, added between 421 and 395 BC and partially reconstructed in 1827. It is said that the first olive tree in Athens sprouted on this spot when the goddess Athena touched the ground with her spear. An olive tree has been kept growing here since 1917 as a symbol of this legend.

This building includes the Porch of the Caryatids, where the supporting columns have been sculpted in the shapes of six maidens. Those you see today on the site are copies. Five of the originals are in the Acropolis Museum. The sixth was carried off by Lord Elgin. 

The Caryatids at the Acropolis in Athens, GreeceThe Porch of the Caryatids

The Parthenon Marbles

In 1801 Thomas Bruce, the Earl of Elgin, was the British Ambassador to the Porte, which was the name of the Turkish government that was then in control in Athens. The Turks were using antiquities from the crumbling Acropolis as building materials. Lord Elgin was allowed to save some stones and sculptures, which he ended up selling to the British government, who handed them to the British Museum in 1816. The most famous of these, the friezes from the Parthenon, became known in Britain as the Elgin Marbles, although the Greeks refer to them more appropriately as the Parthenon Marbles.

The Elgin MarblesThe Parthenon Friezes in London's British Museum

The Greeks have wanted the friezes back virtually ever since they gained their independence in 1832. Pressure was increased in the 1980s by the Greek Minister of Culture, Melina Mercouri, and the campaign continues. When the new Acropolis Museum opened in 2009, it had a special viewing area giving terrific views of the Acropolis and the Parthenon, and showing how wonderful the building would look if the friezes were returned. The British Museum had always argued that the friezes could not be returned because there was no suitable place in Athens where they could be safely displayed. That argument is no longer valid, but the friezes remain in London.

The Parthenon at night

More Information

Visit the official government website for The Acropolis.

Where to Stay in Athens

Don't miss this visual tour of Athens with photos by Donna Dailey of Greece Travel Secrets.

Some other Athens pages

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  • Athens to Santorini

    There are lots of flights from Athens to Santorini as well as a ferry service from Piraeus, with flights to Santorini leaving from Athens International Airport.

  • Where to Eat in Athens and Piraeus

    If you're wondering where to eat in Athens and Piraeus we have a few suggestions including some favorites around the Acropolis, Omonia Square, and Syntagma.

  • Ten Fun Things to Do in Athens

    Ten Fun Things to Do in Athens include eating in the Central Market, watching the sun set over the Acropolis and seeing one of the world's oldest theatres.

  • Marathon

    The ancient site of Marathon and the site of the Battle of Marathon are in Attica and naturally about 26 miles or 42 kilometres from the centre of Athens.

  • Cape Sounion and the East Coast

    The beach resorts of Athens are easily reached from the city and also close are Cape Sounion with the Temple of Poseidon, ancient Marathon and Rafina's port.

  • Piraeus

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  • Pictures of Athens

    Pictures of Athens from the Greece Travel Secrets website

  • National Archaeological Museum

    The National Archaeological Museum is one of the best things to see in Athens, and the best museum in the world for seeing Greece's archaeological treasures.

  • My Athens: a Portrait by Travel Writer Mike Gerrard

    In My Athens on Greece Travel Secrets travel writer Mike Gerrard describes what he loves about Athens including the Acropolis and eating!

  • Monastiraki Flea Market

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  • Monastiraki and Around

    Around Monastiraki is the flea market, Athens cathedral, Kerameikos Cemetery, the Benaki Museum of Islamic Art and the Psirri and Gazi nightlife districts.

  • A History of Athens

    A History of Athens from the first people to live on the Acropolis through the Golden Age of Pericles and Alexander the Great to the military junta.

  • Greek Architecture

    This beginner's guide to Greek architecture explains how to tell your Ionic from your Doric columns, and what to look for in temples and Byzantine churches.

  • Entertainment in Athens

    There's all kinds of entertainment in Athens whether you're interested in theatre, dance, classical music, jazz, Greek music, rock music, disco, opera or movies.

  • Easter in Athens

    Easter in Athens is, like everywhere in Greece, the biggest religious celebration of the year and this page tells you what to expect over the Easter weekend.

  • The Best Things to Do in Athens

    The best things to do in Athens, Greece, include top archaeological sites like the Acropolis and must-see attractions such as the National Archaeological Museum

  • Best Cocktail Bars in Athens

    Two of the best cocktail bars in Athens, MoMix Kerameikos and The Clumsies, are making creative cocktails using that most Greek of Greek spirits, Metaxa.

  • Athens: Travel Information and Advice about Athens, Greece

    Athens is a top vacation destination. The Greece Travel Secrets Athensguide has information on hotels, museums, Athens airport and all the best things to do.

  • Athens Weather and the Best Time to Visit

    The Greece Travel Secrets website looks at the Athens weather, the chance of rain, the climate in summer and winter and the best time to visit Athens.

  • Athens Walking Tours and Other Experiences

    Athens walking tours and other experiences like cookery lessons, ceramics workshops, dining with a family, and street art are available from Alternative Athens

  • Athens International Airport

    Athens International Airport is east of Athens city centre with its own Metro train station, buses to Athens and Piraeus, taxis and car rental offices.

  • Athens in the Rain

    Athens in the rain isn’t something you’re likely to experience but here are suggestions for things to do in the rain in Athens including museums and shopping

  • Athens Food Tours

    Athens Food Tours are being introduced by new company The Greek Fork, and will include tours of the Central Market, and the best street food.

  • Athens Events and Public Holidays

    If visiting Athens it helps to know when major events and public holidays take place, as some shops and attractions may be closed, but to be there at times like Easter can make for a magical trip.

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