Do not, and I repeat, do not attempt to visit the Acropolis in Athens ever. Well, at least maybe don’t do it in the height of summer. We found it one of the most underwhelming tourist experiences in Europe. Overrated, overcrowded, and overpriced.
When it comes to classical ruins, there are countless sites in the Mediterranean region. Thanks to the seafaring, colonisation and trading activities of the Romans and the Greeks, there are columns pretty much everywhere, from Spain to Israel. It takes a special set of columns to make them stand out in a sea of ancient leftovers.
A target for conquest and national symbol
So why is the Acropolis so popular then? I think it has to do with a fundamental part of the human’s psyche of wanting to climb on every single tower, mountain and monument they come across. I think it gives people the feeling of power, empowerment and superiority. In conquering heights and overcoming strain they feel a sense of achievement or accomplishment. The result of their conquest is a destination they had to bleed for.
Also, being this high up one can look down. It makes it easier to grasp things around you when you can view them from above. So I dare claim that many people’s only objective to see the Acropolis lies within the fact that it is indeed build on top of a mountain. It allows visitors to see the city of Athens from above.
Its very location is in the name: Acropolis means something to the effect of “High City”. Just like in Central Europe and the British Isles, indeed in probably most places around the world, it was an elevated area that was the last line of defence for the surrounding population.
If you can retreat to a place that is higher than the surrounding terrain you have a strategic advantage. Not only can you see your enemy approaching and planning the attack, you can also make use of gravity and throw objects on them from above. A very effective defence mechanism.
Unsurprisingly, the ancient Athenians built a number of buildings on the flat top of this mountain and secured it with a high defence wall, gates and so forth.
More than just the Parthenon
If you have never visited the Acropolis before you will probably be surprised to learn that it consists of much more than just the Parthenon, the large rectangular temple whose depictions you will find on any gyros shop’s wall around the world. The Parthenon is synonymous with Greece and of course a Greek icon. Maybe that’s the other reason why people like to visit it.
As it is, there are many more structures and buildings that you can look at once you have passed the gate and paid your fees. There are two amphitheatres, for example, as well as a number of temples, gates, military buildings and civic buildings.
So why should you not visit it, you say. If it’s offering great views and if it is such a symbol of the Greek identity, a visit must be worthwhile.
Reduced to a bucket list item
Well, the problem lies in the fact that far too many people share the same thought. The Acropolis is overcrowded in summer. As you approach the mountain top, the first building you approach is the admittedly impressive Propylaea. It is a humbling structure made of stairs, columns and high ceilings. A gate that everyone needs to pass through as they enter the core of the site. But you get no chance to just spend a minute admiring the wonderful architecture around you. The impression it could have left on you as you walk past the ancient stone blocks is unfortunately lost in the chaos.
From behind the other visitors have no time to spare. In front of you, you run into a wall of visitors who are listening to their tour guides. These tour guides appreciate the steps up the foundation of the Propylaea. It serves them as a raised pulpit from which to speak to their tour group. However, this also blocks the entrance to the Acropolis site. The result is a tumultuous mix of Babylonian curses, elbows and impatient shuffling.
Once past the steps things won’t improve for a while, as visitors are channeled through the narrow gate of the Propylaea to what lies behind. You need to leave a couple of metres between you and the gate to actually be able to catch your breath, turn around and find your bearings.
A furnace that leaves us stranded
The Acropolis complex overall is nice to look at but you are not getting very close to the structures at all. Many, like the Erqchtheion, you can only see from a distance. Fences will keep you at a fair distance, protecting the ruins as well as the expensive restoration equipment.
This is such a shame. The Erechtheion is one of the only structures that has a visible set of statues, human forms among the otherwise cold and impersonal collection of buildings. Mind you, these statues are not the real thing. 1801 a British lord stole on of the sisters to take her home. She is now in the British Museum. The others are replicas as well, with the real ladies safely put on display at the Acropolis Museum.
Standing on the plateau in summer in the midday sun you wished you were somewhere else. The Greek sun is relentless, and there is no shade around. With plenty of fencing to keep people at bay, it is not possible to get too close to the buildings. With the gate that you came through as the only exit – blocked by visitors to both sides – you are trapped in a furnace.
The marble of the buildings is gleaming. There are no pavers under our feet. Just a slippery mix of pebbles and polished natural rock. There are hardly any explanations. You cannot really walk or get close, and the meaning of what is in front of you is not easily revealed.
So you wander around the mountain top for a while. After all, you made it up here, you paid a fortune, now at least you need to acknowledge the wonder. You take in the views of the sprawling city. Make out the empty field of the Zeus Temple from here. See relicts and ruins on the tops of neighbouring peaks.
In the end, you feel that you ticked off a tourist destination without really understanding anything about it.
The secrets of the Acropolis remain hidden
Nowhere does it tell you that the Acropolis served many different purposes during the millennia of its existence. Did you know, for example, that the Parthenon used to be a church at some stage? Then later it became a mosque complete with minaret? Did you know that an Ottoman garrison was stationed here? And that there had been also a harem here some time ago? None of this will be explained to you.
The focus of the current restorations (which are almost complete) is of course the time of the classical Greek period. And there is nothing wrong about this. This is how we would want to remember the Acropolis, and this is why it is such an important symbol for the Greek people. So any signs with explanations that you will find around the site are focussing on this period.
I don’t know about you but I shut down when I read scholarly texts. They tend to be riddled with foreign words that are not explained. If they are peppered with references to years that are so far in the past, I fail to comprehend the significance. Even though I have had a humanist education at school my mind just shuts down and I stop reading. A sign that has sentences that contain of more than 50 words are useless to me. In the end we left the site as ignorant and as clueless as before.
What remains is the lingering memory of a hot day without shade, too many people, and the grandeur of ancient buildings that are so far away that you cannot really see their details properly anyway.
The Agora as a worthwhile alternative
After visiting the Acropolis we spontaneously decided to head to the Roman Agora, another architectonical site right next to it. For some reason, it was almost devoid of people. It was shady, it was huge, it was cheap to visit (EUR 8 as opposed to EUR 20 for the Acropolis), and it had way more to offer than the Acropolis.
I guess if you want to tick off a bucket list item in Athens, then the Acropolis is what you need to see. But if you want to have a way more pleasant experience, admire it from the bottom and spare yourself the disappointment of the visit.