How to See the Best of Athens in One Day
With just one day to spend in Athens it was actually quite easy to decide how to spend our time there. You really can’t go to Athens and not see the Acropolis! So we were up early and debarked as soon as allowed with a plan to visit the temples of the Acropolis followed by a visit to the new Acropolis Museum. As we would learn from our day in Athens, no visit to the Acropolis is truly complete without a visit to this incredible new museum that is appropriately situated at the foot of the Acropolis.
When visiting Athens as part of a cruise you will come into the port of Piraeus, which is located about five miles to the southwest of Athens. Getting from the port to Athens should be a very easy thing to do. There will undoubtedly be a host of taxis waiting to whisk you into town. The tough part is trying to negotiate with them. Or, if you don’t want to take an overpriced taxi there is always public transportation available but the problem might be getting to train station, which could be compounded by exactly where your ship is docked.
As we were a group of six and we were meeting a guide at the Acropolis at a predetermined time we opted for the overpriced taxi and off we went. You can also always opt for an excursion offered by your cruise company but I find them to be overpriced and confining.
Depending on your parties size a taxi might actually be your most economical option for getting from the port into Athens.
There is strength in numbers when it comes to splitting a taxi fare. And, it is far and away the quickest and most direct way to get where you are going.
The first thing you will notice about Athens is that it is a sprawling city. It just seems to go on for miles in every direction. The other thing that immediately struck me was how modern some parts of the city were. I expected Athens to be much like Rome where no matter where one looked you were seeing ruins or something that was centuries old.
As we snaked our way through the street of Athens early in the morning we could see the sunlight illuminating the top of the Acropolis and the pillars of the Parthenon. This was certainly a dream come true for me, and any true lover of history, travel and adventure must certainly have a desire to visit Athens, one of the world’s oldest cities and considered by many to be the cradle of Western civilization.
We decided to visit the Acropolis prior to the museum at the advice of our guide and I think there are valid reasons for this. First of all the top of the Acropolis can get very crowded, especially during peak seasons so an early start will help to avoid some of this. There is also very little shade on top of the Acropolis so going in the morning before it gets too hot is another reason to go early. Lastly, after visiting the temples of the Acropolis a visit to the museum certainly ties everything together and gives you an opportunity to see many of the original pieces that came from the temples of the Acropolis.
View of the Ancient Agora and Athens from the Acropolis
Theaters of the Acropolis
As you climb and descend the Aropolis be sure to take note of the magnificent Theatre of Herod Atticus that is located at the base of the Acropolis. You get a great view into the theatre just before you get to the gate to the Acropolis. The theatre was built with a capacity of 5,000 and was used for concerts and plays. Today the restored theatre is a highly sort after venue for some of the top musical artists in the world.
There are actually two theaters at the base of the Acropolis and the larger Theatre of Dionysus is currently being restored with a planned completion in 2015. This theatre could hold 17,000 spectators and is actually about 600 years older than the nearby Theatre of Herod Atticus. Be sure to take in the view of the theaters from the top of the Acropolis as this is the best vantage point.
Theatre of Herod Atticus
Theatre of Dionysus
The Acropolis in Athens dates back to the 5th century BC when most of the important buildings and temples were constructed. Of the numerous temples and other structures that once stood here there are really only four that remain and cannot be missed.
The first structure of significance that visitors will come upon is the giant gateway to the Acropolis, which is called the Propylaea. Built of white and grey marble with classic Doric columns the gateway was constructed with the one central building and two adjoining wings on either side. The climb up to the Propylaea is steep so take your time and be sure to notice the detail work of the columns.
As you enter through the Propylaea you will also surely notice the scaffolding and restoration efforts going on all around you. The restoration of the Acropolis has been on-going since 1975. While the work should be completed by 2020 the task of reassembling, restoring and filling in the missing pieces has been arduous. There were over 70,000 original pieces that had to be cataloged, repaired, and reassembled.
Temple of Athena Nike
Just to your right as you come through the Propylaea is the Temple of Athena Nike. While we are all aware of Nike today as the athletic shoe company in ancient Greece Nike meant victory. Athena was the Greek goddess of wisdom and war and this temple was used by citizens to worship Athena in the hope of victory in the Peloponnesian War against the Spartans. The restoration of the Temple of Athena Nike was completed in the summer of 2010.
To your left as you enter through the Propylaea is the Erchtheion. This temple was dedicated to Poseidon and Athena and was also constructed in the 5th century BC. The Erchtheion contains a porch called the Porch of the Caryatids and is famous for its six ionic columns known as the Maidens. The porch one sees today contains replicas of the maiden statues and five of the originals are now housed in the Acropolis Museum. The sixth statue is displayed in the British Museum along with other sculptures and pieces from the Parthenon. More on this later.
The most famous temple on the Acropolis is certainly the world famous Parthenon. As the most iconic surviving figure of Ancient Greece the Parthenon stands as one of the greatest cultural monuments in the world. While reconstruction efforts will impede your view of the Parthenon for a few more years this is without a doubt a magnificent gift from ancient Greece to our generation.
The temples of the Acropolis amazingly remained pretty much intact until the 17th century when two devastating events occurred that brought much of the Acropolis to the ground. The first event was an explosion in the Propylaea that was being used to store gunpowder. The second event occurred in 1687 when the Venetians bombed the Parthenon causing it and many of the nearby temples to collapse.
Like many of the other temples here the Parthenon was dedicated to the goddess Athena and historians date its construction to being completed in 438 BC. At one time the Parthenon held a giant statue of the goddess Athena, which was sculpted of gold and ivory. Historical documents placed the amount of gold used in the statue at a staggering 2,400 pounds. The statue was removed by the Romans in the 5th century AD and its whereabouts today are unknown if it still exists, which is unlikely. There are a number of replicas of the statue located in museums around the world including the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, the Louvre in Paris, and the National Museum in Rome.
The fact that the Parthenon has survived for over 2,500 years is certainly a testament to its resilience. Like all great Mediterranean cultures the Athenian Acropolis changed hands many times over the centuries and has certainly witnessed its share of war and natural disasters. The restoration efforts currently on-going to the temples of the Acropolis should leave them in good standing for future generations to enjoy. If you are visiting Athens do not miss out on your opportunity to be bear witness to this great archaeological site.
The New Acropolis Museum
After touring the Acropolis we made our way down through the ancient Agora and had a brief lunch at a wonderful café in the heart of Athens. We then headed to the New Acropolis Museum, which is itself a marvel of modern engineering. Started in 2003 and not completed until 2007 the Acropolis Museum was built at the base of the Acropolis a mere 300 meters from the Parthenon. As you approach the museum be sure to glance up at the top floors of the building where you will see the Parthenon reflected in the glass of the museum. Done by design, it is the first of many surprises built into the architecture of this amazing tribute to ancient Greece.
The New Acropolis Museum
The other thing you will notice as you enter the museum is that it appears to have been built directly on top of an archaeological site. Construction of the museum site revealed ruins below and the architects managed to design the museum on top of the ruins while protecting and preserving them. The ruins below the museum can be viewed through floor windows on the first floor of the museum.
The museum has four floors and contains many of the original pieces from the Acropolis. It is far too risky to have the surviving original sculptures placed on the Parthenon itself so most of them have been moved to the museum.
The ground level of the museum has the floor windows that give visitors a view down into the archaeological site below the building. As you walk up what is called the Slope toward the first level you will pass many pieces that were excavated from the slopes of the Acropolis, hence the name the “Slope”.
The first floor of the museum contains areas dedicated to the Propylaea, the Temple of Athena Nike and the Erechthleion. Here you can see five of the original six Caryatids, or Maidens, that held the south porch roof of the Erechthleion. While we were there they were in the process of restoring and cleaning one of the statues using laser technology. It was fascinating to see.
The second level of the museum is where the restaurant is located with a beautiful terrace that looks out toward the Acropolis. While we did not eat lunch here it looks like a wonderful setting to have lunch or a snack while gazing up at the Acropolis.
The third level of the museum was easily my favorite. Here is the Parthenon Gallery that displays the Pediments, the Metopes, and the Frieze. What are these you ask? The Pediments are the two triangular spaces at each end of the Parthenon formed by the angle of the roof. This area of the temple contained large statutes depicting scenes from Greek mythology. The model in the photo below shows the Pediment and the Metopes. The Pediment shown contains only the sculptures that have survived.
The Metopes are the square sculpted marble pieces that surrounded the outside of the Parthenon just below the Pediments. There are 92 of them and each one is unique and contains a scene from a victorious battle between the Athenians and the Persians. The Metopes are laid out exactly as they would have appeared on the Parthenon and replicate the dimensions of the Parthenon. Clearly a lot of thought went into this display.
Pediment Sculptures, Metopes and Frieze
The Frieze, in contrast to the Pediments and the Metopes depict scenes from the Great Panathenaia, which was the festival that occurred every four years to honor the Goddess Athena. There are 115 blocks to the Frieze that measured about 160 meters in length and contained 378 human figures and over 200 animals shown is different processions. The Frieze formed a continuous band around the exterior of the inner temple of the Parthenon.
Of the Frieze blocks that survive today (about 130 meters) there are about 50 meters in the Acropolis Museum and about 80 meters in the British Museum in London with a few scattered blocks in various other museums around the world. And here in is the source of a major controversy. For years the government of Greece has been trying unsuccessfully to get the original pieces returned from the British Museum to what they feel is their rightful home, Athens.
How some of the original pieces from the Parthenon wound up in London goes back to the early 1800’s. At the time Athens was part of the Ottoman Empire and the British Ambassador to the Ottomans, Lord Elgin, had a particularly keen interest in ancient Greek art. So, with the apparent permission of the Ottoman authorities he had about half of the surviving sculptures from the Parthenon shipped off to London, where they eventually wound up in the British Museum. The Greek Government feels that the British have no legal right to the pieces and they should be returned to Athens. The British steadfastly disagree.
After touring the museum we had time for a quick visit to the Olympic Stadium that was used for the first modern Olympic Games. From there it was a short taxi ride back to the port before our ship sailed without us. It was a great day in Athens and we look forward to the day when we can return.
I hope you enjoyed this one day visit to Athens. While there is much more to see in and around the city of Athens if you are visiting as part of a cruise your time will be limited. But, with some careful pre-planning it is certainly possible to see two of Athens greatest treasures, the Acropolis and the new Acropolis Museum.
I need to give a big thank you to our wonderful guide for our day in Athens, Vickie Miniotis. She tirelessly led us through Athens and is an incredible wealth of knowledge on ancient Greece.
© 2014 Bill De Giulio