The Parthenon is one of the most famous and iconic ancient sites in the world. Approximately 7.2 million people visit the Parthenon each year, which makes it a very busy and crowded site. But I have some tips to make your visit a little bit easier, and hopefully more enjoyable.
1. Visit the Acropolis Museum First
I got this advice from a colleague who visited Athens a few years prior. The interpretive signage at the Acropolis is terrific, don’t get me wrong. But you don’t really get the full story of the Acropolis and Parthenon from reading the on-site plaques. That’s because most of the original statues, sculptures and architectural elements are no longer in situ. Some were destroyed, some got stolen, and those that were saved are now in museums, like the Acropolis Museum.
The new Acropolis Museum was built in 2007, and covers an astounding 25,000 square meters of space. It’s a beautiful building situated on top of an archaeological site, which you can view through transparent floor panels and open air sections:
The museum’s permanent exhibits include pottery and other everyday items, as well as numerous sculptures and decorations from the Acropolis and its temples. Incredibly, many of the sculptures still have elements of paint on them! (You can take photos in many of the areas, but you can’t take photos of the sculptures that still have remnants of paint on them.)
One of the sad facts about the Acropolis and its temples is that over the centuries, many “collectors” came to Athens and took pieces of the decorative elements home with them. The most famous offender, of course, was Lord Elgin. Between 1801 to 1812, he removed around half of the sculptures from the Parthenon, Propylaea and Erechtheum and shipped them to Britain. The remaining sculptures now reside here, at the Acropolis Museum. The movie the museum runs on how the marble friezes were chiseled off was really jaw-dropping and heart-breaking.
This is one of the reasons why it’s so important to visit the museum before going to the Acropolis. It really gives you a better sense of the damage done to the temples, not by time and weather, but by man.
Something else you might not realize when you visit the Acropolis and Parthenon, is that the stunning Caryatid statues that support the Erechtheum aren’t the originals. Lord Elgin removed one of the statues in the 19th Century. It’s now at the British Museum with the rest of the pilfered Parthenon marbles. He attempted to remove a second statue, but the statue was smashed and left behind in fragments. You can see the remaining fragments here:
Greek authorities implemented early restoration efforts on the Erechtheum, but the use of concrete patches actually damaged the the roof of the Caryatids’ porch. In order to preserve the remaining statues, authorities removed them in 1979. They were on display at the Old Acropolis Museum until the new museum opened in 2007. The Caryatids you see at the Erechtheum today are exact replicas.
The museum has a cool video showing how they cleaned centuries of dirt and pollution from the Caryatids using lasers. Be sure to watch a few minutes of it, it’s fascinating.
Note that visiting the Acropolis Museum first will most likely mean that you won’t visit the Acropolis itself on the same day. Tip #2 explains why.
2. Arrive Either Early or Late
By midday, the Acropolis and Parthenon are absolutely overrun with visitors. I would highly recommend getting here as soon as the ticket booths open. During the hot summer months, getting here early in the morning also means the weather is a bit cooler and more bearable. Or, you can try getting to the site after 5pm and see what the crowds are like then. Most tour groups arrive in the late morning or midday, making these times the busiest. The same goes for cruise ship visitors. These groups have to get back to their cruise ships by a certain time, which means the Acropolis should be less busy after 5pm until it closes.
We arrived early in the morning, so we got some decent photos of the Parthenon without the crowds:
But just an hour later, the crowds arrived.
This is what the Acropolis started to look like when we were leaving. We timed things well, we think. Also keep in mind that we visited in February, so this is just a fraction of what the crowds would look like in the middle of summer:
You can purchase your tickets online here to skip the additional wait time of buying them in person. When you click on the link, choose “Attica” and then “Acropolis and Slopes”. This might not save you a ton of time, since you’ll still have to join the queue to enter the gates. But it will save you the time of waiting in one additional line.
Another option is to purchase the Skip The Line tickets. It costs a little more but also comes with an audio guide tour for your smartphone. During the winter months though, this isn’t necessary, as it isn’t nearly as busy as it is in the summer.
The Acropolis is open from 8:30-15:00 daily in the winter, and 8:00 – 19:30 in the summer.
3. Wear Good Shoes
The paths up to the Acropolis are all paved, so the hike is pretty easy. But once you reach the top, the areas around the Parthenon and Erechtheion are rough and uneven. This is what the terrain on top of the Acropolis looks like:
A lot of the rocks are now polished smooth from millions of visitors walking over them over the years. This means that the stones also get extra slippery when they’re wet. In fact, I saw a few people slip and fall on these very rocks when we were there. So wear good, grippy-soled flat shoes, and watch your footing.
4. Get Creative with Your Camera
Sites like the Acropolis are perfect for photography buffs. You can get high, low, aim at different angles and perspectives, and play with lenses and settings. I’m more of a point-and-shoot kind of person, but my husband Mark brought his mirrorless camera and a few different lenses to swap out. Bring a portrait lens for selfies, of course. but for cool, creative shots, bring a fish eye lens as well. Buildings as large as the Parthenon make for perfect fish eye lens subjects. You can easily fit the whole building in without having to back up very far:
You’ll also want something with a decent zoom for details like the Caryatids, since you can’t walk right up to them.
The remnants of the frieze on the Parthenon benefits from a good zoom lens as well:
We also loved playing with shadows and light:
This is just a great location to play with your camera settings and get some unique shots in the process.
5. Save Some Love for the Other Ruins
Everyone comes to see the Parthenon, and it is truly spectacular. But it isn’t the only ruin to see at the Acropolis and surrounding area. In fact, you’ll probably want to spend more than one day exploring all the ruins in and around the Acropolis.
For example, at the southwestern base of the Acropolis, lies the Odeon of Herodes Atticus:
The Theatre of Dionysus is next to the Odeon of Herodes Atticus.
This is the eastern facade of the Propylaea. the monumental gateway to the Acropolis:
This is the western entrance of the Propylaea. Note the thick rectangular column on the left. This is the Pedestal of Agrippa:
The Temple of Athena Nike is the small temple on the far right of the Acropolis:
And, of course, there’s the Erechtheum, my favourite temple on the Acropolis. The “Porch of the Maidens” on the south side boasts the six Caryatids as supporting columns. The ancient Greeks dedicated this temple to both Athena and Poseidon.
The Caryatids are just beautiful, even though these aren’t the original sculptures. But I’m okay with that if it means that they will be preserved for future generations.
Getting to the Acropolis and Parthenon:
By Metro: Monastiraki, lines 1 and 3; Akropoli, line 2.
By Bus: 024, 040, 057, 103, 106, 108, 111, 126, 134, 135, 136, 137, 155, 206, 208, 227, 230, 237, 856, A2, A3, A4, B2, B3, B4, E2, E22
By Trolley: 1, 5, 15