What’s so special about the Acropolis?The Acropolis is the site of the most important religious buildings from Classical Athens, including the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, and the temple of Athena Nike. These temples were built in the 5th Century B.C., also known as the Golden Age of Athens, and symbolized Athens’ power over the Delian league of city-states - it was also largely paid for by money which came from the Delian league. The previous buildings on the Acropolis had been destroyed by a fire when the Persians sacked Athens in 480 B.C., and the move to rebuild even bigger and better temples than those destroyed was a form of propaganda, sending a message to the rest of the ancient world. The buildings survived the centuries mostly intact and became a symbol of not just Athens, but all of Greece.
Which buildings will I see when I visit the Acropolis?The main attraction for most people is definitely the Parthenon, which on the surface looks like the ultimate classical temple, but has a couple of architectural quirks. It was dedicated to Athena Parthenos, the patron goddess of the city of Athens, but in later years it became a church (dedicated to Saint Sophia) and then a mosque. It was badly damaged during a siege in 1687 before many of the sculptural decorations were taken by Lord Elgin to the British Museum in the 19th Century. It’s the most recognizable building at the site, but there’s more! You’ll also see the unusual structure of the Erechtheion, which has three distinct areas dedicated to three different gods - Athena Polias, Poseidon-Erectheus, and Hephaestus. The temple was the home of the city’s most important religious relics: marks of Poseidon’s trident, the saltwater well which he created by striking the rock, and the olive tree which Athena conjured when the two gods were competing to decide who would be the city’s patron. The Erechtheion has a portico to the north, and the south porch is held up by caryatids - giant sculptures of women. There are two other major structures, the Temple of Athena Nike (the first Ionic temple on the Acropolis - most of the other buildings are Doric), which celebrated military victories, and the Propylaia, which is the monumental gateway to the site.
Can you go inside the buildings?The buildings of the Acropolis can only be viewed from the outside so that visitors don’t damage the stone through wear. Several of the temples are also undergoing construction work almost constantly, with scaffolding holding the structure up, so it wouldn’t be safe for visitors to enter. There’s still plenty to see on the outside, plus you get a wonderful view over Athens from the top of the hill.
Is everything on the Acropolis original or has it been restored?Not all of the buildings on the Acropolis are completely original. The Greek government and the EU have been funding restoration work at the site for several years, with the goal of restoring the temples to their former glory. This involves finding all the usable material at the site, discovering where it belongs, and filling in the missing areas with newly carved marble pieces. You’ll be able to see the places in the Parthenon, for example, where unweathered new marble sits next to the original material. Due to the splitting of the marble decoration from the Acropolis between the British Museum in London and the Acropolis Museum in Athens, and in order to protect any delicate carving, there’s very little original sculpture left in place on the buildings. In order to see the elaborate sculptures of the caryatids from the Erechtheion, some figures from the pediments, and some of the pieces of frieze, you should combine your trip to the Acropolis with a tour of the Acropolis Museum, which is a short walk away. The current stage of reconstruction is planned to end in 2020.
How long will it take to explore the site?A quick visit to the Acropolis, without a guide, can be completed in about an hour. If you’re a history or architecture buff then you’ll probably want to linger a little longer, but you’ll still probably finish your visit within 2 hours - most guided tours also take between 1 and 2 hours. If you’re planning to combine your visit with a trip to the Acropolis Museum (which is highly recommended, since you’ll get to see the original sculptures up close) then you should plan to spend an entire morning or afternoon between the two sites, possibly longer.