City Guide to Athens, Greece: Part 3 | Visiting Ancient Ruins
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There’s so much to do in Athens, and it seems that everywhere you turn there’s an ancient ruin site or complex you can visit. Each site, on its own is spectacular and would make our must see list of attractions. However, the last thing you want when touring a city is to see so much of one thing (ruins, churches, art museums, etc.) that their significance and meaning is less impactful. So, if you don’t want ‘ancient ruin fatigue’, or if you have a limited time in Athens, here are the best of the best ancient ruin sites in Athens, Greece (in our humble opinion) that you shouldn’t miss!
To possibly make your research on sightseeing in Athens (and other destinations) easier, we’ve kept our maps with all of the information we gathered (accurate at the time of our sightseeing). Finding hours, prices, and general information can sometimes be challenging, so we’ve tried to include these details on our maps and provide appropriate links below. We’ve included our tips, impressions, and our takeaways on each place to help make your visit that much easier. On the map below, we’ve included all of our itinerary, however do note that the Ancient Athenian Ruins are shown in green.
NOTE: We used this sightseeing map for our personal sightseeing adventures, because of that, some notes may not make perfect sense, and some information could be outdated. Information on this map was valid at the time of creation. All prices are shown in US dollars but are actually Euros (local currency). That being said, feel free to save it to your Google account and use it as a starting point (or modify it accordingly) for planning out your personalized itinerary in Athens.
The Acropolis of Athens
No post on must see attractions in Athens would be complete without the Acropolis of Athens. This is the place you may have read about in elementary school and again in your college philosophy course, and of course, it’s the place you see in so many pictures of Athens and Greece. Therefore, there’s no doubt that you won’t be alone when visiting, as every other tourist in the city will be visiting this site as well (although, see how we managed a few spectacular minutes to ourselves at the top of the Acropolis of Athens, and how you can too).
Having said all that, there’s good reason for it being so popular. It’s not only a hill topped with ruins dating back 2,500 years, it’s also a place that’s been a sacred site for Ancient Athenians since Mycenaean times (circa 1600 to 1100 BCE)!
It makes sense then that Athens was built around the Acropolis, and that it’s a large rock formation that seems to rise out of the city and ascend everything else. Therefore, it’s not hard to understand where the complex got its name from, since Acropolis comes from the Greek words ἄκρον (akron) meaning highest point, and πόλις (polis) meaning city.
Tip: The Acropolis of Athens is one of the seven archaeological sites participating in the Athens Combined Ticket. Save money and time, and purchase one ticket for all seven sites!
When you’re visiting it’s helpful to understand that the entire complex is called the Acropolis of Athens, and the ruins on it, which were built in the fifth century BCE, each have their own name. The most famous of them is the Parthenon, but you’ll also recognize the Temple of Athena Nike and the Erechtheion with it’s Porch of the Maidens or Caryatids' Balcony. You may even be surprised to see how many ruins are actually within the Acropolis of Athens complex. Along with the sheer volume of things to see, also keep in mind the long ticket lines, crowds, and weather, when planning your visit. We’d recommend planning on at least 90 minutes for your visit (of course, depending on your travel style), but if you arrive after 8 am during peak season (summer) then you could find yourself waiting in 2+ hour lines to purchase tickets.
Tip: If you want to skip the long ticket lines at the Acropolis of Athens, purchase the Athens Combined Ticket ahead of time at one of the other six participating archaeological sites! Plus, learn how we had the Acropolis of Athens to ourselves!
It’s always easier to know what you’re looking at, so here’s a map and the corresponding sites you’ll be able to see at the Acropolis of Athens.
- Parthenon – Temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena Parthenos (447-432 BCE)
- Old Temple of Athena – The shrine of Athena Polias, the patron deity of the city of Athens (525-500 BCE)
- Erechtheum – A temple dedicated to Athena and Poseidon (421 and 406 BCE)
- Statue of Athena Promachos – A giant bronze statue of Athena sculpted by Pheidias, which once stood between the Propylaea and the Parthenon
- Propylaea – The gateway that serves as an entrance to the Acropolis (437-432 BCE)
- Temple of Athena Nike – A temple built for the Greek Goddess, Athena Nike (449-420 BCE)
- Eleusinion – A temple to Demeter
- Sanctuary of Artemis Brauronia or Brauroneion - The sanctuary of Artemis Brauronia, protector of women in pregnancy and childbirth (430 BCE)
- Chalkotheke – A building thought to store objects (circa fourth century BCE)
- Pandroseion - A sanctuary dedicated to Pandrosus
- Arrephorion – The building is thought to have provided lodging for the Arrephoros, four noble Athenian girls who worked to prepare the peplos which would be used in the Panathenaic Games (470 BCE)
- Altar of Athena (Circa 525 BCE, although it may have been built on top of an earlier temple that was constructed between 550-599 BCE)
- Sanctuary of Zeus Polieus – An open-air sanctuary dedicated to Zeus Polieus, the city protector (500 BCE)
- Sanctuary of Pandion (420 BCE)
- Odeon of Herodes Atticus (161 CE)
- Stoa of Eumenes (Circa 160 BCE)
- Sanctuary of Asclepius or Asclepieion (420 BCE)
- Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus (Circa fourth century BCE, although the site had been used as a theater since the sixth century BCE)
- Odeon of Pericles (435 BCE)
- Aglaureion – Shrine erected to Aglauros on the eastern slope of the Acropolis (Third century BCE)
Temple of Olympian Zeus
When you visit the Acropolis of Athens and stand near the Parthenon, you may comment on how large the temple is. However, it pales in comparison to the size of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, also known as Olympeion. Construction on the temple began in 515 BCE by Peisistratos, and while many people attempted to complete it over the centuries, it wasn’t until 132 CE that Emperor Hadrian finally completed the massive structure. In total, 104 unusually tall (56 feet high) columns were lined in double and triple rows (20 by 8), although only 15 still stand today, with a 16th blown over by a storm in 1852. Over time, as the temple aged and went into disrepair, the marble from the columns was pillaged and used in building projects across the city. Keep that in mind as you explore Athens, as you never know when you may be setting eyes on remnants of the columns in other parts of the city!
When we visited, we first saw the temple through a fence near the Arch of Hadrian and thought that we were satisfied with seeing it from afar. However, since we had the Athens Combined Ticket that included entrance to the Temple of Olympian Zeus, we came back the next day and entered the grounds. We’re so glad we did, since up close we quickly realized that we hadn’t appreciated the mammoth size of the columns from afar!
Tip: The Temple of Olympian Zeus is one of the seven archaeological sites participating in the Athens Combined Ticket. Save money and time, and purchase one ticket for all seven sites!
Ancient Agora of Athens
The Agora has been the heart of Athens for over 5,000 years, serving as the center for political, commercial, administrative, social, and cultural activity. Over the centuries, as you can imagine, it was built and reconstructed numerous times, especially after damage from invasions (Persians in 479 BCE, Romans in 89 BCE, and Herulae in 267 CE). However, after the Slavic invasion in 580 CE, the area was abandoned until 1834 when Athens became the capital of Greece and the Agora became a residential area. Extensive remains of Ancient Athenian life were found during excavations in the mid 19th century and into the 20th century, and today archaeological work continues.
When we visited, we entered the site of Ancient Agora from the north side (on Adrianou Street). There was an attendant at the entrance, but ahead of us, we saw a man pass without presenting a ticket or payment. As we approached the entrance, we asked if we could pass or if we needed to purchase a ticket and were told that we could enter without a ticket. The site is walkable via dirt paths and is quite large. There aren’t very many signs giving context of what the ruins and building remnants are, but there are a few highlights you should definitely see:
Hephaestus Temple is also known as Thissio and it was built in approximately 450 BCE. It’s considered to be one of the best preserved ancient temples, most likely because it was transformed into a Christian church in the 17th century CE. Then, King Otto ordered the building to be used as a museum, which it was until 1934. Today, the temple is a great example of ancient Greek monuments, and reconstruction and excavation works are still being carried out. Similarly, when visiting, you may also notice a resemblance between the Hephaestus Temple and the Parthenon, since Iktinus, the architect, worked on both projects.
Stoa of Attalos
The Stoa of Attalos was built by and named after King Attalos II of Pergamon, who ruled between 159 and 138 BCE. The building was given as a gift to the city by the king, in appreciation for the education he’d received there. The building was larger than most others of its type built during that time, and it’s thought that its main purpose was as a market place, housing vendors along its two isles and 21 rooms on each level. The building was in frequent use, until 267 CE, when the building was destroyed by Heruli and the ruins became part of a fortification wall. It wasn’t until 1952 that the building was reconstructed and restored, with the addition of the Ancient Agora Museum that was created by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, with funding from the Rockefeller family. If you’re curious about the portion of the name ‘Stoa’, it’s similar to the Italian word ‘portico’, and means a covered walkway supported by columns.
Tip: The Hephaestus Temple, Ancient Agora of Athens, and Stoa of Attalos are all a part of the seven archaeological sites participating in the Athens Combined Ticket. Save money and time, and purchase one ticket for all seven sites!
Arch of Hadrian
The Arch of Hadrian was built circa 131 CE for the Roman Emperor Hadrian, upon his arrival and in commemoration of the consecration of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, which stands nearby. Today, the archway is located in the center of Athens, standing between the Acropolis of Athens and the Temple of Olympian Zeus, and while there may not be a road running through it at the present, there once was. It symbolically marked the line between the ancient city and the new modern one in which Hadrian had built many great buildings. Although the arch has withstood thousands of years, sadly discoloration has occurred due to smog. However, even now, nearly two thousand years later, if you look closely, there are two inscriptions, one on each side:
Northwest side, facing the Acropolis of Athens:
ΑΙΔ' ΕIΣΙΝ ΑΘΗΝΑΙ ΘΗΣΕΩΣ Η ΠΡΙΝ ΠΟΛΙΣ – This is Athens, the ancient city of Theseus
Southeast side, facing the Temple of Olympian Zeus:
ΑΙΔ' ΕIΣΙΝ ΑΔΡΙΑΝΟΥ ΚΟΥΧI ΘΗΣΕΩΣ ΠΟΛΙΣ – This is the city of Hadrian, and not of Theseus
Clearly, the inscriptions refer to Theseus and Hadrian as founders of the city, however, it’s unclear if it presents the city as a unified whole, or as two parts.
The monument is said to be built on the site where Musaios, a sixth century BCE poet and seer, was buried and it's also the tomb of Philopappos. It’s located on Pnyx Hill and is at similar height to the Acropolis of Athens, therefore some believe that it signifies the high position of Philopappos in Athenian society. He was an exiled prince of Commagene, when he came to Athens, became a citizen, and involved himself in city affairs by holding civic and religious offices. Before the monument fell into disrepair and was pillaged for its marble, the three inscriptions below the statues on the monument were recorded. The statues are said to be of Philopappos (center), Antiochus (left), and King Seleucus Nicator (right).
In additional to the Philopappos Monument, visitors are graced with amazing views of Athens, which extends out from the ground below them in all directions. And, no one at the top of this mountain will be able to miss the view of the Acropolis of Athens. We’d argue that this is likely one of the best places to get an elevated and unobstructed view of the Acropolis, and in particular the Parthenon!
Syntagma Square Metro Station
We didn’t think that a metro station would offer such a unique experience, but Syntagma Square Metro Station is a site you’re going to want to add to your must see attraction list! Not only is the metro system in Athens the second oldest underground system in the world (Line 1, M1 dates back to 1869), second only to the London Underground (1863), it’s also constructed under the modern city of Athens, and directly through Ancient Athens. When planning began for the construction of the two newest lines (M2 and M3), the city knew that below the soil they’d be digging, lay ancient antiquities that needed to be preserved. Therefore, the construction of the new metro lines became a massive project of archaeological excavations. In total, archaeologists uncovered more than 50,000 artifacts in 79,000 square meters (nearly 20 acres) of space! Many of these finds, as well as cross sections of the land displaying the layers of human life over the centuries are displayed within six of Athens' metro stations.
We visited Syntagma Square Metro Station and marveled at the beautiful display of artifacts dating as far back as the seventh century BCE, and were in awe of the layers of earth displayed behind the glass that gave a unique look into the history of Athens. Details on the excavations’ work can be found on the Attiko Metro website. Presently of course, Syntagma Square Metro station is more than just an excavation site, it’s also a hub of Athens' metro system.
Tip: If you’re looking at how to get around Athens, Greece, don’t miss our City Guide to Athens, Greece: Part 1 | Public Transportation.
Tip: While visiting Syntagma Square Metro Station, we recommend taking the time to also see Syntagma Square, which is located right above the metro station.
It goes without saying that, while these are our top picks for a well rounded exploration of Ancient Athens, there are countless more places to see and things to do in Athens. If you have the time to spread your sightseeing out over a period of time, we highly suggest seeing all the ancient ruin sites in Athens. Each building, market place, home, sanctuary, and temple are significant parts of history and shouldn't be ignored! Plus, if you want to see what else Athens has to offer, check out our must see attractions to explore more of Athens, including Athens’ funky and political street art scene!