The Parthenon is one of the most well known and best preserved temples from the ancient world. It is the one site in all of Greece any tourist will mark down as a must see. With that comes crowds upon crowds of people. Here are a few of my experiences and bits of advise on the Acropolis and avoiding crowds. Sit back, have a nice cup of tea and a snack as you read on.
Let me just mention that the hill that the Parthenon sits on is referred to as the Acropolis. Acropolis in Greek means hill. In ancient times, the most important religious ceremony that took place in Athens was known as the Panathenaic procession. It was a sacred ritual that came with the Panathenaic Games held every 4 years. Sacrifices were made to the city’s patron goddess, Athena as well as many of the other gods in the Greek Pantheon (ie: Zeus, Ares, Poseidon, Nike, etc.)
In short, the procession would begin in the ancient city center and end at the temple of Athena, the Parthenon. Starting at the base of the hill, there are many markers that will lead you along the path this procession followed. Remember this for later.
If you want to see the Parthenon and enjoy the Acropolis without crowds, I would come either when the site opens first thing in the morning, or one and a half to two hours before closing. The majority of tourists in Athens come in groups and won’t begin to arrive until about an hour after opening. I went in the morning and the monument did not disappoint! If you are one of the first tourists up the hill, there is a special added surprise.
I discovered that the Greek army marches up the Acropolis to the Parthenon every morning in order to raise the Greek flag. It is incredible intimate with no people up there to watch the flag be raised behind the ancient temple and hear the Greek national anthem. If you come at closing, the Greek army is also present to claim the Greek flag. Site hours vary by the summer or winter season. Everything closes by 3:00 or 4:00 pm n winter, so plan accordingly.
My recommendations may not work for everyone, but I would actually recommend coming twice! You can purchase two types of tickets, one for the Acropolis only (10 Euros as of March 2018) or an all inclusive Acropolis and other ancient sites around Athens combo ticket (30 Euros). The combo ticket is the best deal of the lot. The first time you go, I would recommend taking a walking tour so you can fully appreciate the history of the ancient temples on the hill and understand their stories. It’s really hard to listen, battle tourists, and take a lot of photos all at once. Yes it can be costly, but think about when you’re going to be able to come back again to Greece.
The second time you visit the Acropolis, go first thing in the morning. I already knew I would follow the ancient Panatheanic path on the way down the hill and visit the other temples on the Acropolis. I had a plan of attack. By going twice, you have an idea of what to expect. If you didn’t have enough time to photograph the sites or yourself the first time around, you do now! I would recommend hitting the Parthenon first before you enjoy the walk down the hill.
The first “set” of temple ruins you will encounter is the Propylaea. The Propylaea marks as the official temple entrance to the Parthenon. It is a site to behold! The stairs are made of marble that lead up to the Propylaea and are the steepest and most slippery on the Acropolis. Be careful! Sidetracking, make sure that you wear shoes with good tread on them before you hike the hill. This area is narrow and can become very very congested. I wouldn’t recommend pausing on the steps to take any photos. Stop at the bottom or the top. I won’t spend too much time explaining it’s history, but more details about the Propylaea can be read here on Wikipedia.
Once you get to the top of the Propylaea, there is a wooden and metal bridge you will pass over. If you look to the right, you will have a great glimpse into the Temple of Nike. The Temple of Nike isn’t accessible to tourists. It was in ruins prior to the restoration efforts of the Greek government. Nike was the Greek goddess of victory. Her temple once held the gold and prizes that would be awarded to the victors of the Panatheniac Festival.
I would recommend looking at the magnificent Parthenon first. You will see the front facade covered in scaffolding. Take a moment to read about what restoration efforts they are currently doing on it. It’s a labor of love project that is one of the most ambitious the world has seen. There is a nice bench to take a moment to sit and gather your thoughts off to the right hand side of the Parthenon. It is a nice place to take photos from if you want to get the temple of Nike or the entire front of the Parthenon.
Following the pathway along the Parthenon, you will get a gorgeous panoramic view of Athens. Look out for the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the ancient Agora and the ancient cemetery of Kerameikos. This is where I mentioned my blunder at forgetting to bring a jacket with me the first time. It was super windy at the top of the lookout area. Weather can be unpredictable. I held my arms around my body a good amount of the time. The second mistake I made was wearing a skirt at the top. You can imagine wind and a close to Marilyn Monroe moment. Dress accordingly.
When you reach the halfway point, you’ll come to one of the faces of the Parthenon that is free of scaffolding. You also will see the flagpole I mentioned earlier in the post. There are a lot less tourists on this side of the Parthenon if you want to take a few pictures. Be mindful of using any tripods or selfie sticks. You aren’t supposed to have them out. There are some Greek ministry of culture workers who walk around to enforce the rule. Do not touch the exposed section of the temple either. A large group of Chinese tourists ignored this rule when I was there and was escorted off the site!
When you finish your walkabout of the Parthenon, you will see the Erechtheion temple off to the side. I would wait on walking over to this temple until you finish with the Parthenon. The Southeast side of the Parthenon has some uneven slopes and can make for some interesting pictures. I used the slopes to get different levels and angles in my pictures of the Parthenon. I’m also guilty of using my small handheld tripod here to get some body shots and selfies with the Parthenon and me. This was the first thing I did in the morning of my second time on the slope. I was able to have the Parthenon to myself with no tourists walking through my pictures! The ministry officials are also more lenient.
Coming to the Erechtheion…this is actually the oldest and most important temple on the Acropolis! It has a few interesting myths tied to it including the founding of Athens. I’ll cover those in a later post. The famous maiden statues known as the caryatids can seen holding the temple wall up on top of their heads. The caryatid statues on the Acropolis today are copies of the originals. 3 of the 4 originals are in the new Acropolis Museum in Athens and the 4th is in the British Museum in London. This temple should be enjoyed from all angles like the Parthenon.
You may notice an Olive tree on one side of the Erechtheion. It is said it was grown by Athena when the people of Athens accepted her as their patron goddess of the city. The Erectheion temple marks the exit and path that leads down the Acropolis. Take your time as you descend and follow it. If you want the full experience, you can follow the signs that mark the path the Panatheanic procession followed. You will pass the Temple of Ares, Temple of Asklepios and a few other ruins along the way.
There is a majestic point you can overlook the ancient Agora and the well preserved Temple of Hephaestus. The Agora in ancient times was the lifeblood of ancient Athens. It is another must see site. When you reach the bottom of the Acropolis and have finished with your walk, you will encounter the Theater of Dionysus and the Herodes Atticus Amphitheater
Both the Theater of Dionysus and Herodes have an amazing acoustics; the Herodes is still used today for a variety of different shows and events throughout the year. I like saving these for last because it’s after you’ve had time to enjoy the splendor of the Parthenon and Erechtheion and it’s on the way down. You don’t need to rush and you already know it will be crowded. The bottom line is to make sure you have seen everything you want to see on the Acropolis before you exit. There is no readmission unless you have an Acropolis only ticket and did not see the Theater of Dionysus.
Just a few other thoughts before I wrap this post up, if you want to use the restroom, the only restrooms on the Acropolis are before you enter the site by the ticket booth. Use them before you enter! The ticket booths for all ancient sites sell the combination tickets, I would recommend buying them at a different site unless you want to wait in a long line at the Acropolis. The Acropolis only ticket, however, can only be purchased at the Acropolis. The ticket booth accepts both cash and card. Cash is preferred.
No food or drinks (other than water) are allowed at any ancient Greek site. There are no trash cans on the premises. Eat before you enter. There is a snack shop across from the restrooms. You can purchase bottled water to take up to the top of the Parthenon. It is a long walk and if it’s a hot day, I especially recommend you have it with you.
If you are following a guide, make sure they are officially licensed as a guide! All guides have a special badge or lanyard they wear issued by the Greek Ministry of Culture and Tourism. It will have their name and the languages they are approved to give their tours in. If your guide does not have one of these badges, they are either ripping you off or will be kicked out of the site as an unofficial guide.
Lastly, if you have the chance, return to the Acropolis in the evening. The Parthenon is lit up at night and presents a beautiful site to see up close or from the distance. I hope this post will help you know what to expect at the Acropolis and will help you avoid some of the crowds that can plague it. Until next time, happy travels.