Vergina Greece: visit the royal Macedonian tombs

Under a hill, (the Great Tumulus) in Vergina, Greece, are the Royal Tombs of Vergina. This is the final resting place of the father of Alexander the Great, King Philip II of Macedon who was assassinated. This UNESCO World Heritage site is only 70 kilometers from Thessaloniki. Read on to discover how and why you should visit this unique museum and burial chamber of one of history’s greatest figures.

How to get to Vergina, Greece

great tumulus at vergina
Great tumulus or mound containing the royal tombs

Nestled in the foothills of the Pierian Mountains in ancient Imathia, Vergina is in central Macedonia. 

It lies about 70 kilometers west of Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki. That’s just under an hour by hire car and only a little longer (and somewhat cheaper) by bus.

Parking is available 500 meters away and then you walk to the site. The ticket booth is just inside the entrance gate. See below for opening hours and ticket prices.

Tip: It’s very hard to coordinate a bus trip from Thessaloniki through Veria (Veroia) to Vergina.

Additionally, travelers can take the train to nearby Veria (an attraction in its own right) which sits just across the River Haliacmon.

Veria is only 12 kilometers away and a good place to hire a taxi. If you’re planning on using the taxi for your return trip, factor in at least two hours. 1 hour just isn’t enough.

Highlights of the Royal Tombs of Vergina

The Royal Tombs don’t look like much from the outside – this is an underground museum where you can see the burial chamber of Philip II, King of Macedon.

All of his grave goods are here and they are spectacular. This is why you should visit:

  • The museum is built underground, at the actual site of the royal tombs.
  • The site has not been looted and the artifacts have not been taken to other museums. The decadent and dramatic finds of all of the King of Macedonia’s grave goods are here.
  • The museum is beautifully designed, architecturally exciting, the explanations are very good quality and in English and Greek, the restroom facilities are top quality.
  • The most exciting things to see include the royal tombs, the gold, ivory, and bronze artifacts. These include gold oak wreaths, diadems, god and ivory couches, and beautiful frescoes, including the abduction of Persephone. Philip II’s body armor, bronze shield, greaves are also outstanding.
  • Travelers consistently say this is the most outstanding thing they have seen in Greece, on par with the Parthenon and Delphi.

The History of Vergina and Aigai

statue of King Philip II of Macedonia
Statue of King Philip II near the White Tower in Thessaloniki

Although the modern town of Vergina dates from after the First World War, the area’s history runs into the distant past.

For once upon a time Although the modern town of Vergina dates from after the First World War, the area’s history runs into the distant past. Vergina was known as Aigai, the first capital of ancient Macedonia.

Once the stomping ground of kings, today it is open to the public as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

UNESCOhas listed Aigai as a World Heritage site because it is

“an exceptional testimony to a significant development in European civilization, at the transition from classical city-state to the imperial structure of the Hellenistic and Roman periods.” 

A City of Goats

Goats in Vergina
Goats in Vergina (Aigai)
Credit: Panegyrics of Granovetter

Archaeological records suggest that people have been living in villages around Vergina since at least 1000 BC. 

At some point, these various villages federated and a central king emerged. According to myth, this first king was advised to found a great city wherever the wild goats led him.

Following their meanderings, he came to the spot now occupied by Aigai, whose name derives from the Greek word for goat.

A City of Culture

theater of aigai at vergina
Theater of Aigai at Vergina

However Aigai was founded, a walled acropolis had been built at the center of the ancient city by the 5th Century BC, quickly becoming a cultural and dynastic center.

And although the Macedonian capital was moved to the nearby city of Pella at the beginning of the 4th Century BC, Aigai retained much of its importance.

It was in Aigai’s theatre that the father of Alexander the Great, King Phillip II, was assassinated by a bodyguard and lover.

Alexander’s Not So Final Resting Place

entrance to the royal tombs at vergina
Entrance to the Royal Tombs at Aigai (Vergina Greece)

After assuming the throne, Alexander would launch his famous conquest of the Persian Empire.

And when Alexander died at the age of thirty-two in modern-day Iraq, his body was of course brought back to Aigai, to rest among the royal tombs of his forefathers.

But it wouldn’t stay there. Before too long, one of Alexander’s generals stole the body, taking it to his own capital in Memphis, Egypt.

The Decline of Aigai

oak wreath of philip II
Funerary oak wreath of Phillip II

The city fell into steep decline after Alexander’s death, as his heirs fought over the spoils of his great empire.

The city was looted by marauding Celts in the late 3rd Century BC and thoroughly sacked by the Romans after the Macedonian War of the 1st Century BC.

What was left of Aigai’s population gradually left the city over the Roman period, leaving it little more than a hamlet until the establishment of modern Vergina in 1922.

Archaeological Site of Aigai

The area around Verginawas investigated by archaeologists throughout the late 19th Century but it would take until the Second World War for excavations to begin in earnest.

Decades later, in 1977, Greek archaeologist Manolis Andronikos discovered the tomb of Phillip II and that of his grandson Alexander IV.

With a number of key structures uncovered, open to the public, and under restoration, Verginanow stands as one of Greece’s greatest archaeological sites.

Royal Palace

mosaic in palace of aigai vergina
Mosaic in the Palace of Aigai

Discovered earlier than the more famous tombs, Aigai’s Royal Palace is still considered one of the most important ancient structures in Greece.

Built on a plateau below the main acropolis, the palace is thought to have been built in the 4th Century BC, during the reign of Phillip II.

Check the official website for further details, as the area’s attractions are closed on some days and free on others.

Said to have been built by the architect who constructed the Museum at Halicarnassus, the palace is a huge structure.

Two or three stories high and support by Doric columns, it would have been visible for miles around, a testament to the power and sophistication of the Macedonian kingdom.

Royal Tombs

royal tombs at aigai

Although many of Aigai’s ancient graves had been discovered and looted, two remained undisturbed beneath the Great Tumulus, a large mound near the site.

It was here that Manolis Andronikos dug in the 1970s, making one of Greece’s greatest archaeological discoveries.

Museum of the Royal Tombs of Aigai

gorgon head from Philip IIs armour
Gorgon head on breastplate of Phillip II’s armor
Credit: Mary Harrsch

The Museum of the Royal Tombs of Aigai sits atop Andronikos’s dig site on the Great Tumulus.

Encompassed by the museum are four tombs and a small votive temple known as a heroon, likely dedicated to King Philip II himself.

In Tomb I, the earliest of the four, is the grave of one of Philip’s wives.

Although found largely plundered, this tomb is not without its attractions, housing a wall painting or fresco that depicts the abduction of Persephone by Hades, God of the Underworld.

Tomb IV was discovered last and is thought to contain a ruler of the later Antigonid dynasty. This tomb was also found looted and is best noted for the imposing Doric columns that mark its entrance.

Tombs II and III

Philip IIs grave goods
Golden larnax and oak wreath
Credit: Akrokorinthos

The undisturbed Tombs II and III discovered by Andronikos are the centerpieces of the museum and are where most of its lavish grave goods were discovered.

Tomb II contains the grave of Alexander the Great’s father, Phillip II, whose ruthless consolidation of Greece laid the groundwork for his son’s conquests.

The tomb’s main room houses Philip II’s burial bed, the gold and ivory panoply of the dead.

Phillip II’s remains rest in a golden larnax (a small coffin box) which also contains an ornate golden wreath of oak leaves. 

In the antechamber of the tomb of Philip II lies one of his wives, said to have sacrificed herself at her husband’s funeral.

Her remains lie in a second larnax, which also contains a decorated golden diadem and her own golden wreath of flowers and myrtle.

With chariots racing across the frieze that adorns its walls, Tomb III is thought to have been the final resting place of Alexander the Great’s son, Alexander IV.

This tomb contains far more silver than gold, with a silver urn known as a hydria resting upon a stone pedestal alongside the king’s silver utensils and weaponry.

Opening Hours and Ticket Prices

If you’re traveling to Vergina between the beginning of November 2021 and the end of April 2022, tickets to the Museum of the Royal Tombs will come at a reduced price of €6.

If you’re traveling in the summer, a special ticket package is available for €15 that also covers the wider Aigai Archaeological Site and two other museums in nearby Veria (the Archaeological Museum and Byzantine Museum).