The myths and history of Ancient Greece are probably the most widespread of all throughout the western mainstream media. The very center of Athens - Ancient Acropolis was the cradle of our civilization. Having had watched the films and documentaries about the glorious warriors, Greek scholars, mythical Gods and magnificent temples, it was always my dream to see this magical site in real life. I was warned, however by some people that visiting Athens is a rather disappointing experience and it's better to head straight to the famous Greek beaches on idyllic islands rather than walk around the few piles of ruins that remain today. What is the Acropolis like in reality then? Is it the way you might imagine it in your mind - splendid and impressive - or is it another overrated, overpriced and disappointing tourist attraction?
How to reach Acropolis
Acropolis is situated right in the center of Athens, near the Monastiraki Square. It's visible from many locations throughout the city. From the square, you'll be able to see the Acropolis hill and then you'll have to hike up until the entry gate - it's very easy. The full adult fare is quite expensive - 12 EUR, but considering the importance of the site, acceptable. There are discounts available for students, and on certain days of the year, the entry is free. You can find more details here, on the official website.
One day is more than enough to visit the Acropolis as well as Mouseion (Philopappos) hill which offers an amazing view over the Parthenon and other temples. The site is open daily from 8-19 in the summer and from 8-sunset in the winter. I would recommend visiting Acropolis in the autumn, out of season. I went there in October and it was still incredibly busy with hundreds of tourists.
Acropolis - Expectations vs Reality
I'm going to be completely honest. Let's assume you've seen some other monumental archaeological sites (in my case: Roman Colosseum, ancient towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, Petra and Jerash in Jordan, cave towns in Georgia, Armenia and Turkey, Bagan in Myanmar, Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Machu Picchu in Peru). Let's pretend that you have never heard of the history of Athens in the media before. Would you be awestruck and amazed at what you experience in Acropolis? The answer is: a little. Very little, to be exact - comparing with all those other ancient sites.
Hundreds of tourists crammed in a relatively small area as well as the ubiquitous scaffolding wrapped around the ancient temples didn't help to feel the "mythical atmosphere" of the place either. It seemed more like a construction site at times - as if those monuments were being built now rather than 2500 years ago.
In fact, when I first reached the top of the Acropolis hill, I thought: those who warned me were right - it is just a few columns here and there and one monument quite well preserved (the Parthenon). Recalling the other ancient cities I've visited - Athens paled in comparison. That was my first impression.
But then, you really start to think what actually took place here. When you bring the whole history back and understand the turbulent times over the centuries, the few pillars and columns that stand up to this day create a new meaning to what you see around. You actually discover the greatness of this magical site.
Most Important Monuments
The monuments present in Acropolis date back to the Classical Greece period: 5th century BC until around 2nd century AD.
The first thing you'll see, before you'll start climbing the Acropolis hill itself, is the Hadrian's Library located near the Monastiraki Square. It was completed in the 2nd century and was used to store rolls of papyrus - ancient books. Although heavily damaged a century later by Herulian invasion, the west wall is still quite well preserved. In the middle ages, three churches were built on the site. All of them are completely destroyed now.
On top of the Acropolis hill, you will see a range of monuments dating back to the 5th century BC. The most famous and important one is the temple dedicated to goddess Athena - the Parthenon. It is undoubtedly the most impressive of all - unfortunately heavily damaged in the 17th century by an explosion.
The main gateway to the complex of Acropolis is called Propylaea - now in ruins, but the sheer size of the monument gives clues of how magnificent it used to be. When I visited Athens, most of the Propylaea and the nearby Temple of Athena Nike were covered in scaffolding so I wasn't able to admire it fully. As an interesting fact, I'd like to mention that the Brandenburg Gate of Berlin is copied from the main section of Propylaea.
Another, spectacular temple with the famous Porch of The Maidens (the columns shaped into female figures) is right beside the Propylaea - Erechtheion dedicated to god of the same name. It's quite well preserved but it was rebuilt several times in the middle ages. During the reign of the Ottoman Empire it became the palace for one of the rulers.
From the hill of Acropolis you can see two ancient theaters from the 2nd century AD. The most impressive is the Odeon of Herodes Atticus which was reconstructed in 1950 and serves as a concert hall today. It has the capacity of 5000 seats. The second one is the
Theater of Dionysus which could seat up to 1700 spectators during the times of its glory. Now, it is badly ruined.
The Acropolis hill itself is only a small portion of what was once Ancient Athens. Around it, you can find more monuments as well as museums, churches and Philopappos Hill from where you'll be able to see the entire Acropolis and the modern part of the city.
The best preserved temple, which is not on top of the hill and not as famous as the Parthenon or Erechteion is the Temple of Hephaestus (patron god of metal works) which looks now exactly as it did in the 5th century BC when it was completed. It serves as an Greek Orthodox Church from 7th-11th century.
Near the temple, there is the beautifully restored Stoa of Attalos (originally from 2nd century BC) - one of the most magnificent buildings in Athens, now houses the Museum of Ancient Agora.
On the opposite side of the hill, you'll see the once largest and most magnificent Greek Temple - the Temple of Zeus. It took around 650 years to finish it - the construction started in 5th century BC. Unfortunately, what's left from this piece of art today is merely several pillars.
The Philopappos Hill boasts one of the most beautiful views over Athens and Acropolis itself (other being Lycabettus Hill). You can see the entire city from the port to the mountains. It takes only a 30 minute walk to reach it, and although it is so close to such a popular tourist destination as Acropolis - there were literally less than 5 people we met at Philopappos hill. I've observed exactly the same thing all over again in other famous tourist destinations - people usually don't seem to be curious what's beyond the main part - they just want a selfie with the most famous monument.
On top of the hill is the 2nd century mausoleum of Philopappos - a Greek prince who died in 116 AD.
In the second part, I have described the modern Athens, what is there to see beyond the ancient Acropolis.
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