The Acropolis of Athens is one of the world’s most historic sites, and not just because its ancient origins date back more than 3,000 years. It would be atop the Acropolis, a steep and flat-topped hill rising above the city of Athens, that world-changing thoughts would come to life. Modern-day democracy, philosophy, mathematics, and architecture can all be traced back to roots in this one astonishing spot.
Today visitors throng to the Acropolis to admire the towering columns and pediments of the temples, monuments left behind from an incredibly ancient age of wonders. If you’re planning an Athens vacation, or just want to learn more about ancient Greece, we’ve got eight amazing facts about the Acropolis of Athens for you.
The Acropolis has been inhabited since Neolithic times
By the time the Oracle of Delphi had proclaimed Athens was the province of the gods, the flat-topped hill had already proven it was excellent for human dwellings. Artifacts place humans here as far back as the Neolithic period — that’s 4000 – 3000 BC. With its steep slopes, shallow caves and freshwater springs, the Acropolis would have been a perfect choice for early cultures to settle and build defensible villages. In Mycenaean times (1400 – 1200 BC), a walled palace arose for the king. Remnants of these civilizations would be replaced by the Acropolis we know today, a place sacred to Athena.
The Acropolis of today dates to the Greek Classical Era
The Classical Era spanned the 5th and 4th centuries BC, so we’re talking about 2,500 years since then of wind, rain, hailstones, earthquakes, wars and explosions. The Acropolis has been through a lot since its building boom in Athens’ Golden Age. During this wealthy period in the 5th century BC, Athens was the leader of an alliance of city-states. The monuments and temples of the Acropolis became a display of Athenian might and wealth, and the Parthenon, unbelievably massive and gleaming with white marble and gold, was its centerpiece.
The Parthenon is often called “the world’s most perfect building”
The architects of the Parthenon used optical illusions to trick visitors into seeing a perfect structure of rigid angles and straight lines. In fact, the building’s immense size would have created optical illusions of the opposite effect if the building really had been composed of straight lines and right angles. Instead, architectural tricks like a slight angling of the temple pedestal correct the optical impression that the building sags in the middle, and barrel-like curves on the columns counteract the illusion that they narrow in the middle. So in a way, one might say the Parthenon’s perfection is only achieved through a series of deliberate imperfections.
The Nike of Athens didn’t have wings for one simple reason
The smaller Temple of Athena Nike is the first building visitors arrive at as they arrive atop the Acropolis. It has a distinctive porch of four columns build atop a high bastion looking over the steep slope. Athena Nike is Athena as the goddess of victory, and her statue would typically have gorgeously carved wings, like the famous winged Nike of Samothrace — displayed today in the Louvre. But the Athena Nike housed within Athens’ temple was different. Since she was the patron goddess of the city, she wouldn’t leave — therefore, she had no wings. After you’ve visited the Temple of Athena Nike, you can view beautiful sections of the temple’s marble frieze, including artwork of the goddess, at the Acropolis Museum.
The Acropolis Museum uncovered an ancient neighborhood
When a city has already been in business for several thousand years, it’s hard to find ground that hasn’t been built upon. So when the city of Athens set out to build the grand museum that the treasures of the Acropolis deserved, they had extra preservation work to do — to care for the civilization which came before. The chosen museum site turned out to have an ancient neighborhood beneath the surface, delaying the museum’s construction by a decade. You can look down into the ruins from terraces outside of the museum, and through glass floors on the museum’s ground floor. Below, you’ll see the masonry of buildings and alley ways dating back as far as the 5th century. These active excavation sites are yielding new treasures and understanding of everyday life in ancient Athens.
The Greek flag flying on the Acropolis has special historic significance
A medieval-era tower makes for a fantastic picture spot with the bold blue-and-white Greek flag flying overhead, but it’s not there for the great setting. In 1941, two young men pulled down the swastika flag flying here during the Nazi occupation, leaving it empty. Incredibly, they’d reached the Acropolis summit using ancient passages they’d learned about in Greek history books. It was a powerful act of defiance that set the tone for the fierce Greek Resistance movement. Today, you can see the Greek Presidential Guard, called the Evzones, perform a flag-raising and flag-lowering at dawn and dusk on Sundays.
The temples are being restored with incredible precision
If you see a patchwork of white and ivory-colored marble on the columns of the Parthenon, that’s because a massive restoration project is painstakingly repairing the battered stone. The replacement marble is being hand-shaped and finished to perfectly match the work of the Classical builders, right down to sourcing the marble from the quarries of Mount Pentelicus.
The Acropolis’s greatest treasures are safe in the Acropolis Museum
The state-of-the-art museum is where you’ll find the most precious artifacts from the slopes and temples of the Acropolis. Ancient statues in marble and bronze, painted vases and clay offerings to the Goddess Athena, and five of the original Caryatids from the Erechtheion’s Porch of Maidens. Don’t worry — you’ll see exact replicas in their place up on the Acropolis itself. Be especially attentive to the Parthenon’s incredible frieze, which once wrapped the top of the Parthenon’s exterior walls. The original marble is ivory-colored and weatherworn; the replacements, which fill the gaps left in frieze sections taken to the British Museum in the 19th century, are stark white.
Visit Athens and discover the Acropolis
Take an Athens vacation, or stay in the city for a few days as part of a discovery of the Greek mainland or Greek Islands. Our Greece vacation itineraries have something for everyone.