Although Athens, together with its suburbs and port, sprawls across the plain for more than 150 square mi, most of its ancient monuments cluster around the Acropolis, which rises like a massive sentinel, white and beautiful, out of the center of the city. In mountainous Greece, most ancient towns were backed up by an acropolis, an easily defensible upper town (which is what the word means), but when spelled with a capital "A" it can only refer to antiquity's most splendid group of buildings—the Acropolis of Athens.

Towering over the modern metropolis of 4.5 million as it once stood over the ancient capital of 50,000, it has remained Athens's most spectacular attraction ever since its first settlement around 5000 BC. It had been a religious center long before Athens became a major city-state in the 6th century BC. It has been associated with Athena ever since the city's mythical founding, but virtually all of the city's other religious cults had temples or shrines here as well. As Athens became the dominant city-state in the 5th century BC, Pericles led the city in making the Acropolis the crowning symbol of Athenian power and successful democracy.

After the Acropolis all will at first seem to be an anticlimax. But there is much more that is still well worth seeing on the citadel's periphery, including the New Acropolis Museum, the neoclassic buildings lining Dionyssiou Areopagitou, the centuries-old Odeon of Herodes Atticus, and Filopappou, the pine-clad summit that has the city's best view of the Acropolis. Have your Nikon ready!