The influence of the Ancient Greeks on our world today is difficult to measure. Their contributions to math and science, music and art, and philosophy and politics inspired European thinkers during the Enlightenment, bringing the Western world out of the Dark Ages and providing a foundation upon which to build modern civilization. Thankfully, it isn’t only their ideas that have survived the ravages of time, and visitors can see for themselves the well-preserved remains of their ancient capital city of Athens.
Temple of Olympian Zeus
Zeus was the ruler of the gods in Greek mythology, and this temple was meant to reflect his great power with its sheer size and larger-than-life statue of the god of thunder himself. Sadly, this large temple complex has been mostly lost—only a few of the massive columns still stand—but with some imagination, you can picture the scale of this once-great monument. Curiously, this temple was started by the Greeks and completed by the invading Romans in the second century A.D. The impressive white entrance arch still standing nearby was built by the conquering Roman emperor Hadrian to mark its completion.
Nearer to the tourist center of Athens, just at the foot of the Acropolis, take a quick walk through the old Roman Forum. The most notable still-standing feature of this ancient marketplace is the octagonal Temple of the Winds. This once functioned as a community timepiece—with both a sundial and a cloudy-day-friendly water clock—and a spinning bronze statue of the Greek god Triton on top of the tower acted as a weathervane.
Older and more historically significant than the Roman Forum is the Ancient Greek Agora nearby. During Athens’ Golden Age, the citizens gathered in this open space to do their shopping, see a play or concert, or attend a religious ceremony. Walk through the replica of the Stoa of Attalos. The Agora had several such stoas, ancient strip malls with covered walkways and rooms for separate shops. On a small rise, walk around the well-preserved Temple of Hephaestus—built in the same style as the grand Parthenon, but half its size. Note the friezes carved just above the many columns depicting important scenes from Athens’ mythological history.
This unmissable rock rising high above the city is the star of the show. The Ancient Greeks wisely selected the Acropolis (literally “highest city” in Greek) as the home of their grandest and most important temples and monuments, visible to all in the lower city and even to sailors coming into port miles away.
On the way up the steep, well-marked walk to the Acropolis, climb the metal staircase of Mars Hill for a clear view of the Ancient Agora, Roman Forum, and the tourist-friendly Monastiraki neighborhood below. Saint Paul is said to have preached to the Greeks from this very rock, taking exception to their worship of idols and mythological gods.Enter the Acropolis proper through the Propylaea—the original grand entrance hall. Once through this gate, get a clear view of the city’s crown jewel: the Parthenon. This massive temple was dedicated to Athena, the patron goddess and namesake of the city; look for her on the carvings and friezes that have survived through the years. The ancient engineers designed the Parthenon to be both aesthetically pleasing and structurally sound, using a number of optical illusions and perfectly calculated proportions to give this static hunk of stone a sense of energy and motion that can still be seen today.
Across the uneven stones of the Acropolis from the Parthenon is the Erechtheion, also dedicated to Athena. This smaller temple is most notable for the Porch of the Caryatids—a small balcony supported by six columns carved into highly detailed women in flowing robes.Finish your Acropolis walk with a look at the city from the eastern viewpoint beneath the blue-and-white Greek flag. Note the curious contrast of ancient ruins nestled between modern neighborhoods and busy streets.
Those who are visiting Athens for more than a day or two should make time to see some of the other interesting ruins, city walks, museums, and contemporary attractions in Athens. For quick-trippers, a swing through these compact highlights is the best way to get in touch with the ancient thinkers who established the roots of modern civilization on top of this rock so long ago.