fbpx

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

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

Trip Anthropologist
Royal Tombs of Aigai. Vergina. Central Macedonia, Greece

It lies about 70 kilometers west of Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki. That means Vergina is just under an hour by hire car and only a little longer (and somewhat cheaper) by bus. – it makes for a great day trip if you’re based in northern Greece for more than a few days and have an interest in the Greek ancient world.

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 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, and architecturally exciting, the explanations are very good quality and in English and Greek, and the restroom facilities are top quality.
  • The most exciting things to see include the royal tombs, and 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, and 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 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.

The History of Vergina and Aigai

The modern name Vergina dates from after the First World War, but the history of Aigai, a sacred city of the Macedonian Kingdom (and the first capital of ancient Macedonia) has roots that go back into the distant past.

Trip Anthropologist
Statue of King Philip II near the White Tower in Thessaloniki

Once the stomping ground of the Macedonian kings, today this royal burial cluster is a UNESCO World Heritage site. UNESCO has listed the ancient city of Aigai as one of Greece’s many World Heritage sites 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

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

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

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 he called Aigai, whose name derives from the Greek word for goat.

A City of Culture

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.

Greece-Vergina-ancient-amphitheater
Theater of Aigai at Vergina

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 as the origins of the Macedonian dynasty.

It may not be as large as it once was during the time of the royal dynasty, but it has an eventful past! 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

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

Trip Anthropologist
Entrance to the royal tombs at Vergina

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

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

Trip Anthropologist
Funerary oak wreath of Phillip II

The city was looted by marauding Celts in the late 3rd Century BC. It was also 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, Vergina now stands as one of Greece’s greatest archaeological sites.

Royal Palace

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

Trip Anthropologist
Mosaic in the Palace of Aigai

Built on a plateau below the main acropolis, the monumental 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 ancient palace is a huge structure and the most obvious remaining structure on the site of Aigai.

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

City Walls

As you wander around the archaeological site, you’ll come across the ancient city walls. You cant’ miss them – they were built three meters thick and there are towers set at intervals along the walls.

The walls are made from mud bricks and local stone and they once protected the Acropolis and the central part of the city.

Royal Tombs

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.

Trip Anthropologist

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

Trip Anthropologist
Inside the Royal Tombs (DocWoKav, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Museum of the Royal Tombs of Aigai

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

Trip Anthropologist
Gorgon’s head on the breastplate of Phillip II’s armor
Credit: Mary Harrsch

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

Trip Anthropologist
Golden larnax and oak wreath
Credit: Akrokorinthos

Royal Tomb II: the tomb of King Philip II

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, and 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. On the lid of golden larnax you’ll see what’s known as the Vergina Sun embossed upon it.

This piece of ancient art is full of symbolism and the box itself is made up of 11 kg of gold. Each ray signifies one of the 12 Olympian gods and the other four are the cardinal elements of earth, air, fire, and water.

The gold wreath

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 golden diadem decorated with flowers and her own golden wreath of flowers and myrtle.

Tomb III: the tomb of Alexander IV

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.

The Silver Urn

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. The young prince’s tomb contains his cremated bones inside the silver urn.

Opening Hours and Ticket Prices

If you’d prefer to strike out yourself to visit the ancient site of  Vergina it’s possible to purchase skip-the-line tickets to the Museum of the Royal Tombs in advance.

TheVergina: Aigai Royal Tombs Admission Ticket and Audio Guide is a skip-the-line ticket and has an app and audio guide that you can download to your phone before your visit.

If you’d prefer to skip the audio guide and would like to see the excellent museum as well, the best entry ticket is Vergina: Aigai Archaeological Site & Museum Admission Ticket

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 the Byzantine Museum).

Where to stay in Vergina

Vergina is a typical old northern Greece small town with its historical city center and mid-range accommodation, tavernas, and bakeries. There are lots of four and five-star hotels only 10-15 kilometers away, but to be near Aigai and experience some very friendly Greek hosts, these three 3-star hotels are lovely:

Hotel Archontiko Dimitra– spacious rooms in a lovely house, sun terrace, free wifi, and private parking, and this property has lots of little extras like fruit.

Estate Kalaitzis – a “gourmet countryside retreat” that includes a cafe-bar, wine cellar, and vineyard.

Aigon Hotel – large, simple rooms with spectacular views, the hotel is near the royal tombs of Philip II.