Athens is located on a peninsula that stretches south-eastward into the Aegean Sea. The city is surrounded by the Plain of Attica, which in turn is surrounded on three sides by mountains. The city covers an area of 15 square miles (39 square kilometres), the metropolitan area, 167 square miles (433 square kilometres). Athens' seaport, Piraeus, is 5 miles (8 kilometres) away on the coastal plain. The core of the ancient city consists of a flat-topped mass of rock known as the Acropolis. Northeast of the Acropolis, the pointed summit of Mount Lycabettus (Likavittus) rises to a height of more than 1,100 feet (330 meters).
The location of Athens was favourable for its early growth. The Plain of Attica provided good conditions for farming, while the surrounding mountains gave protection against enemies. There were good natural harbours, yet it was distant enough from the coast to prevent surprise attack from the sea. The site has been inhabited since before 3,000 BC. The earliest buildings date from the late Bronze Age, about 1,200 BC, when part of the town spread to the south of the citadel on the Acropolis. The 6th century BC was a period of great growth. The old, primitive shrines began to be replaced with large stone temples, thus changing the Acropolis from a citadel to a sanctuary. In 480 BC the city was captured and destroyed by the Persians. The Acropolis buildings were burned and the houses in the lower town mostly destroyed. When the Athenians returned the next year they immediately began to rebuild. Over the next 30 years they built only fortifications and some secular buildings. The Acropolis and its destroyed temples were left as a reminder of Persian atrocities until a peace with Persia was reached in 449 BC.