You don't have to look far in Athens to encounter perfection. Towering above all—both physically and spiritually—is the Acropolis, the ancient city of upper Athens. The Greek term Akropolis means "High City," and today's traveler who climbs this table-like hill is paying tribute to the prime source of Western civilization.
Most of the notable structures on this flat-top limestone outcrop, 512 feet high, were built from 461 to 429 BC, when the intellectual and artistic life of Athens flowered under the influence of the Athenian statesman Pericles. Since then, the buildings of the Acropolis have undergone transformations into, at various times, a Florentine palace, an Islamic mosque, and a Turkish harem. They have also weathered the hazards of wars, right up to 1944, when British paratroopers positioned their bazookas between the Parthenon's columns. Today, the Erechtheion temple has been completely restored, and conservation work on the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena Nike,
and the Propylaea is due for completion by the end of 2012. With most of the major restoration work now completed, a visit to the Acropolis evokes the spirit of the ancient heroes and gods who were once worshiped here. The sight of the Parthenon—the Panathenaic temple at the crest of this ieros vrachos (sacred rock) —has the power to stir the heart as few other ancient relics do.
The walk through the Acropolis takes about four hours, depending on the crowds, including an hour spent in the New Acropolis Museum across the street. In general, the earlier you start out the better—in summer the heat is blistering by noon and the light's reflection off the rock and marble ruins is almost blinding. Remember to bring water, sunscreen, and a hat to protect yourself from the sun. An alternative, in summer, is to visit after 5 pm, when the light is best for taking photographs. The two hours before sunset, when the fabled violet light occasionally spreads from the crest of Mt. Hymettus and embraces the Acropolis, is an ideal time to visit in any season. After dark the hill is spectacularly floodlighted, creating a scene visible from many parts of the capital.
You enter the Acropolis complex through the Beulé Gate, a late-Roman structure named for the French archaeologist who discovered the gate in 1852. Made of marble fragments from the destroyed monument of Nikias on the south slope of the Acropolis, the gate is dated 320 BC. Before Roman times, the entrance to the Acropolis was a steep ramp below the Temple of Athena Nike that was used every fourth year for the Panathenaic procession, a spectacle that honored Athena's remarkable birth (she sprang from the head of her father, Zeus). When you enter the gate, ask for a free bilingual (in English and Greek) pamphlet guide. It is packed with information, but staffers usually don't bother to give it out unless asked.
At the loftiest point of the Acropolis stands the Parthenon, the architectural masterpiece conceived by Pericles and executed between 447 and 438 BC. It not only raised the bar in terms of sheer size, but also in the perfection of its proportions. Dedicated to the goddess Athena (the name Parthenon comes from the Athena Parthenos, or the virgin Athena), the Parthenon served primarily as the treasury of the Delian League, an ancient alliance of cities formed to defeat the Persian incursion. In fact, the Parthenon was built as much to honor the city's power as to venerate Athena. After the Persian army sacked Athens in 480-479 BC the city-state banded with Sparta, and together they routed the Persians by 449 BC. To proclaim its hegemony over all Greece, Athens then set about constructing its Acropolis, ending a 30-year building moratorium.
Once you pass through the Beulé Gate you will find the Temple of Athena Nike. Designed by Kallikrates, the mini-temple was built in 427–424 BC to celebrate peace with Persia. The bas-reliefs on the surrounding parapet depict the Victories leading heifers to be sacrificed. In 1998, Greek archaeologists began dismantling the entire temple for conservation. After laser-cleaning the marble, the team has been (since 2000) reconstructing the temple on its original site.
Past the temple, the imposing Propylaea structure was designed to instill the proper reverence in worshipers as they crossed from the temporal world into the spiritual world of the sanctuary, for this was the main function of the Acropolis. The Propylaea was intended to have been the same size as the Parthenon, and thus the grandest secular building in Greece, but construction was suspended during the Peloponnesian War, and it was never finished. The structure shows the first use of the Attic style, which combines both Doric and Ionic columns. The building's slender Ionic columns had elegant capitals, some of which have been restored along with a section of the famed paneled ceiling, originally decorated with gold, eight-pointed stars on a blue background. Adjacent to the Pinakotheke, or art gallery (which has paintings of scenes from Homer's epics and mythological tableaux), the south wing is a decorative portico (row of columns). The view from the inner porch of the Propylaea is stunning: the Parthenon is suddenly revealed in its full glory, framed by the columns.
If the Parthenon is the masterpiece of Doric architecture, the Erechtheion is undoubtedly the prime exemplar of the more graceful Ionic order. A considerably smaller structure than the Parthenon, it outmatches, for sheer elegance and refinement of design, all other buildings of the Greco-Roman world. For the populace, the Erechtheion, completed in 406 BC, remained Athena's holiest shrine, for legend has it that Poseidon plunged his trident into the rock on this spot, dramatically producing a spring of water, while Athena created a simple olive tree, whose produce remains a main staple of Greek society. A panel of judges declared the goddess the winner, and the city was named Athena. The most delightful feature is the south portico, known as the Caryatid Porch. It is supported on the heads of six maidens (caryatids) wearing delicately draped Ionian garments. What you see at the site today are copies; the originals are in the New Acropolis Museum.
Most people take the metro to the Acropolis station, where the New Acropolis Museum is just across the main exit; it was inaugurated in the summer of 2009. They then follow the Dionyssiou Aeropagitou, the pedestrianized street which traces the foothill of the Acropolis to its entrance at the Beulé Gate. Another entrance is along the rock's northern face via the Peripatos, a paved path from the Plaka district. The summit of the Acropolis can also now be reached by people with disabilities via an elevator.
Don't throw away your Acropolis ticket after your tour. It will get you into all the other sites in the Unification of Archaeological Sites for seven days—and for free.
Guides to the Acropolis are quite informative and will also help kids understand the site better.