The Parthenon was such a dream for me since childhood. It was the quintessence of ancient civilization and represented so much of what I imagined of mythological Greece: a many-columned temple high on the Acropolis, graceful but strong, looking out over the distinguished city of Athens, Pallas Athena guarding it with wisdom and martial skill. By the way, Athena was always my favorite Greek goddess. Of course I had a place in my heart for Aphrodite too–who doesn’t want to be beautiful and loveable?–but Athena was wise, a leader and a warrior. She was totally badass.
So, what is the Parthenon like now?
One must climb up to the Parthenon (unless you are mobility-impaired, in which case you can use an elevator). Doing so means you start at the foot of the Acropolis and encounter all the other ruins, museums, and things to see. Since we only had a day, we skipped nearly all of these… but if you have time, check out the Ancient Agora, Mars (Aeropagus) Hill, the Theatre of Dionysus, and the Acropolis Museum.
Entrance to the Acropolis is usually 12 EUR (check the official site to see if you get any discounts, specially if you already have a museum pass of some sort) and it does include entrance to the Ancient Agora and the Temple of Olympian Zeus.
Pro tip: To avoid the line for tickets to the Acropolis, get your combined ticket at one of the other spots included in it, since their lines are usually shorter.
The path is clear and well-marked, if not busy with other explorers. As you climb up, the first significant structure you spot is the Odeon, a building similar to a theater, but built for singing and musical performances. This particular one has awesome acoustics, and even now they have the occasional concert here.
After you pause, take in the view, and breathe a little, keep climbing on to the gates of the Acropolis.
This is the official gate to the Acropolis. The last push towards it is a windy set of sloping steps. Imagine what this looked like when it was at its glory! How exciting it must have been, at the end of the climb up the hill, to gaze at these huge marble columns and gilded doors.
Before you walk in, turn around for a great view of Mars Hill, and of the path you took to come up here.
Supposedly, upon entry through the Propylaea you would come upon a giant statue of Athena Promachos (the warrior aspect of Athena), poised in her role of protection over the city.
There are more buildings and spots of interest atop the hill than just the Parthenon. Once again, I strongly recommend a good guidebook, like Rick Steves’ Greece or similar. You get some cool background and details on everything you see.
For example, the Erectheion. This smaller temple was dedicated to both Athena and Poseidon, who shared custody of Athens (there’s a myth about how the two battled for who would become patron of the city… interesting reversal when it’s the gods who vie for the people’s love and devotion instead of vice versa). We’ve talked about Pheidias before… he built the Temple of Zeus in Olympia. Seems he was responsible for the design and architecture of the Erectheion as well.
This building served to house some important relics of the gods. On the outside is the “Porch of the Caryatids” showing six maidens as supporting columns. Part of the drama of restoring antiquities–Lord Elgin, a British explorer, took one of the original Caryatids for himself and then later donated it to the British Museum, where it still remains. The other five are housed in the Acropolis Museum. The six you see out here are replicas. Amazingly done!
Now to the star: of course, the Parthenon. Huge, dominating the hill, and in more of a state of disarray than all the pictures show–restoration is actively occurring on this iconic building.
Interestingly, while it looks like a temple and no doubt served that purpose at one point or another, the main reason for its existence was as a treasury. Pheidias had built a massive cryselephantine statue of Athena Parthenos (the virgin aspect of Athena), and this was where it lived, along with many valuable items belonging to the city of Athens. So during hard times, the city would melt the gold on the statue or any of the smaller duplicate ones, to use as currency. In more prosperous times they would create more replicas. Isn’t that a great idea?
Also, because of the shape of the hill and the massive bulk of the temple, it was actually built deliberately crooked so it would appear…straight. A huge sign along one side of the temple explains how this was done. Optical illusions and excellent architectural design were already well known in 400 BC!
Views from the Acropolis
This is a great place from which to look out over Athens. Walk around the hill, breathe in the cool air, and admire the view! The Ancient Agora and Roman Forum are clearly visible. You can even see the Temple of Olympian Zeus looking quite small, but still paradoxically gargantuan (when you realize how far away you are and how tiny everything is around it).
Pro tip: there are restrooms and water fountains up here, but no food. Down the hill, there are some food stands, but be prepared to shell out a lot of money. Better yet, bring your own cold water and snacks, or eat before ascending.
The Acropolis and its treasures definitely met all my expectations and more. I only wish I had more than the couple hours I was able to spend here. If there is one thing you must see in Athens while you are there–it’s obvious this is the spot!