Heading to the Acropolis, but don’t know what to see? It is a massive archeological site that is labeled poorly, and without direction, you’ll lose interest quickly in the scorching Athenian sun! Don’t worry! Here are the top things to see at the Acropolis in Athens written by a historian!
Reading up on an attraction will make a guided tour more memorable and interesting! You will impress your travel partners with your vast knowledge and engage more with the guide. Check out our guided tours of the Acropolis! If you need info on tickets & hours, check out our blog on how to visit the Acropolis.
11 Things You Shouldn’t Miss at the Acropolis in Athens
The Acropolis is important as a spiritual, democratic, artistic, and architectural symbol of the glories of Ancient Greece. First inhabited around 5000 BCE the Acropolis is still much intact today. This massive hill is visible from virtually any narrow alleyway in the streets of Athens below.
Part citadel and part sanctuary, mythology tells us that the Greek gods and mere mortals alike long fought to control the Acropolis. The more famous conquerors include the Romans and Ottoman Turks. However, according to Greek traveler Pausanias, the original battle royale pitted the pagan goddess Athena against the god Poseidon. Athena gained the upper hand for the title of patron of Athens and the Acropolis.
Way back around the 8th Century BCE, Athenians dedicated the Acropolis to the goddess Athena. When Athens developed from village to major power, ruler Pericles wanted to make the Acropolis into a showpiece of city-state pride. As a result, under Pericles’ leadership (during the Golden Age of Athens, 450-400 BCE), the Acropolis transformed from a few temples (damaged by Persian invaders in 479 BCE) to a marvel of classical art and architecture.
11. Beule Gate
Once past the ticket booth and a short walk up the pathway, you’ll see the Beule Gate. The gate is a Roman addition to the Acropolis from the mid-third century CE. This arch derives its name from the French archaeologist behind the mid-19th century excavation, Ernest Beule. As for visitors in Roman times, this is your gateway to the prime attractions of the Acropolis.
10. Porch of the Maidens
It is hard to miss the six larger-than-life maiden statues acting as columns supporting the southern part of the Erechtheion. Directly facing the Parthenon, the maidens or caryatids are arranged in a horseshoe shape. According to historian Michael Llewyn-Smith’s account of Athens, the Porch of the Maidens became Poseidon’s consolation prize on the Acropolis for losing out to the goddess Athena in the battle to be the city’s patron.
Historian Paul Cartledge says Athena had at least two advantages in the contest. Firstly, her name. Secondly, her gift to the Athenians of the useful olive tree. On top of that, her warlike attitude probably helped too.
Although much-photographed, the maidens that you see today are only replicas. However, five of the originals are currently displayed in the adjacent Acropolis Museum. One sister statue is at the British Museum in London.
Check Out Our Best Athens Tours
Going with a guide adds substance to your experience and will make it more memorable. Our groups are small and our guides are knowledgeable!
9. Theater of Dionysus
How long was the average wait time to clear theater tickets and security screening in ancient Athens? Luckily your ticket to the Acropolis ensures you don’t need to know the answer to explore this sprawling theater complex on the southern slope of the Acropolis. Named for Dionysus, the god of wine and good times, construction wrapped up in 330 BCE.
Ancient Athenians loved going to the theater. Tragedies forced people to think about life and human nature. Comedies, on the other hand, made people laugh at famous Athenians who may have even been in the audience. According to Robin Wakefield, the Theater of Dionysus could seat nearly 20,000 people. As a result, it was the largest public meeting space in the ancient city. Moreover, the theater was an important symbol of Athenian democracy, because the city’s government met there at times.
8. Flagpole on the Belvedere
A great spot to enjoy late afternoon shade on the Acropolis. Besides that, the flagpole on the Belvedere offers views fit for Greek gods over much of Athens. As such, many ancient and modern landmarks come into focus when standing on the raised platform.
And yes, even the flagpole at the Acropolis has a lot of history. For instance, during the German occupation of Athens in WWII, Manolis Glezos (1922-2020) and a friend stuck it to the Nazis by hauling down the flag of Nazi Germany from the Acropolis. Subsequently, Glezos became a national hero and mainstay figure in Greek political life.
7. Stoa of Eumenes
The Stoa of Eumenes is yet another sign of the importance of theater in the daily life of ancient Athenians. It served as a promenade and shelter from bad weather for theatergoers. If you’re visiting the Acropolis in the summer months, you’ll enjoy the shade made possible by its remaining arches as much as the ancient Athenians. In fact, you might even ask who you need to tag in a thank you post for building this shady spot.
That would be Eumenes II, King of Pergamon. According to Roman author Cornelius Nepos, Eumenes built the stoa during the Hellenistic period in the 160s BCE. So, you could say the stoa is an ancient example of personal branding. For instance, Eumenes hoped that in return for the shade, the Athenians would give him favorable business deals. Did it work out for Eumenes? Well, it’s not called the Stoa of John Stamos.
6. Ceremonial Sundays
For those desiring pomp and circumstance on their Acropolis visit, join the Sunday flag processions led by the elite soldiers called Evzones (Presidential Guard). In addition, Sunday flag ceremonies come complete with a band playing the Greek national anthem. Greek soldiers perform the flag duties on other days, sans fancy uniforms and accompanying music.
5. Odeon of Herodes Atticus
Herodes Atticus was a rich Roman official during the reign of Emperor Hadrian. Rather than spend his fortune on wine and song, Herodes as scholar Robin Wakefield tells us, used it for the public good. For example, Herodes funded an odeon in 161 CE at the southern slope of the Acropolis.
The venue impressed ancient writers. For example, Philostratus tells us that the odeon had a roof made of cedarwood. Cedar was expensive to use even for small statues, let alone a whole building.
At this time, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus is only open during performances. Between June and October, you can take in a concert or play from seats where ancient Athenians witnessed performances of legendary Greek plays, and more recent crowds rocked out to Elton John and the Scorpions.
4. Temple of Athena Nike
South of the entranceway to the top of the Acropolis is the tidy and compact Temple of Athena Nike. Designed by the famous architect Kallikrates and built between 421-415 BCE, the temple is now in its third iteration. According to archaeologist Ioanna Venieri, like other buildings on the Acropolis, the temple endured a fair share of destruction at the hands of conquerors.
First demolished by the Ottomans in 1686-1687 to mount cannons, the current construction only dates from 2003. Fortunately, dozens of marble reliefs from the original structure survive in exhibition spaces at the Acropolis Museum and British Museum.
Talk about making a grand entrance. The Propylaea is an impressive columned staircase leading to the top of the Acropolis. For ancient writers Pausanias and Demosthenes it was as impressive as the Parthenon.
Athenian officials even intended to extend the Propylaea outward with big marble wings. However, a war against Gerard Butler…I mean, Leonidas’ Spartans in 431 BCE ensured this plan never materialized.
Resist the temptation to rush up the final steps to reach the summit of the Acropolis and admire the panoramic view of Athens, Phaleron Bay, and the port city of Piraeus.
The Parthenon is certainly the most recognizable building on the Acropolis. But the most sacred to ancient Athenians was the Erechtheion. As archaeologist Efi Gianikapani tells us, the Erechtheion was constructed on the north side of the Acropolis between 421 and 405 BCE. The Athenians dedicated the temple to three deities. Above all, Athena received pride of place. Secondly, Athenians celebrated a mythical king named Erechtheus. Moreover, Paul Cartledge tells us this king is often confused with a shady character named Erechthonius.
Finally, the Athenians cleverly hedged their bets by honoring Poseidon at the rear of the temple. Like the other temples on the Acropolis, the Erechtheion has performed multiple functions. For example, it served as a Christian church and after that as a harem for the city’s Ottoman commander.
Check Out Our Best Athens Tours
Nothing compares on your Acropolis visit to the first glimpse of the Parthenon. Rapidly constructed under Pericles’ watch from 448-432 BCE, the Parthenon is the latest and greatest temple built on the site. And great it was—highlights included massive friezes (marble murals) and an impressive statue of Athena.
Don’t be put off by the scaffolding. You can admire the Parthenon’s white marble columns in the midday sun or its honey hue in the late afternoon. Remember that all the damage you see tells a story from this legendary structure’s history.
Although badly damaged by a Venetian cannonball in 1687, the Parthenon’s foundation remains solid. Like many ancient wonders, the Parthenon is no stranger to looting. Fortunately, many of the Parthenon’s artifacts are on display in the adjacent Acropolis Museum.
While the Erechtheion was the most sacred site in antiquity, the Parthenon emerged as one of the holiest places of pilgrimage for Christians in the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire. As a result, the Parthenon later became a Roman Catholic church and eventually an Ottoman mosque. As literary scholar Bente Kiilerich argues, few spaces outside the Holy Land can lay claim to such a diverse multi-confessional past as the Parthenon.
Now the Acropolis shouldn’t be all Greek to you; take a selfie at the Parthenon. You’ve earned it!