With a kingdom that expanded all the way to Asia, Alexander the Great is one of the most emblematic figures of ancient Greece. Born in Macedonia in 356 BC, a visit to northern Greece is a great opportunity to discover the origins of one of the greatest emperors of all time.
During my stay in Thessaloniki, I took a guided visit with Ammon Express to Pella, the birthplace of Alexander the Great and the historical capital of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedonia, as well as Vergina, home to the Royal Tombs of Aigai where Alexander's father Philip II is buried.
how to visit Pella & Vergina
If you want to combine both cities in a single day, you need to book an organised tour. Upon much research, I decided to book the Pella & Vergina tour from Thessaloniki with Ammon Express. My visit included round-trip transportation from Thessaloniki, as well as an English speaking trip guide-archaeologist. The entrance fee to the museums is paid separately, and lunch is not included.
Ammon Express is a local tour operator offering day visits both from Thessaloniki and Athens.
The visit to Pella & Vergina is only available from Thessaloniki, however, if you’re visiting the Greek capital and want to check them out, they have day trips leaving from Athens to different sites on the Peloponnese Peninsula and some nearby islands.
Overall, I had a fantastic trip with Ammon Express: the itinerary, transportation and guide were of the highest quality.
I also booked with them a tour to Meteora from Thessaloniki and my experience was just as satisfactory. I’m just hoping to go back to Greece and book some of their other day tours!
Archaeological Museum of Pella
I met my guide Eleni and the rest of the group at 8:15am on Egniata St., just at the end of Aristotelous Square in the city centre of Thessaloniki. Check out here my 2-day visit to Thessaloniki!
The guide welcomed all of us onboard our van, as our group wasn’t too big that day. We were approximately 15 people in total.
My visit would start in Pella, located 45m west from Thessaloniki. The site is divided into two different sections, first, you have a museum with objects found in the city and extensive explanations about the history and life in Pella, and you can then continue with the archaeological site, where the ruins of the city can be found.
The entrance fee, including both sites, has a cost of €8. There are multiple reductions, including free entrance for European students with a valid card, so I didn’t have to pay for my visit. Even though my tour generally didn’t include a guided visit inside the museum, that day our guide Eleni would come inside with us to guide us with wonderful explanations through all the different exhibitions.
As you enter the museum, you are welcomed by a marble bust of Alexander the Great, who was born in Pella in 336 BC.
An enlightened ruler according to the Platonic standard, he continued on his father’s policy and, in the role of the elected leader of the Greeks, undertook the campaign against the Persians, giving a new aspect to the old confrontation between East and West, preparing the path that would lead to the most creative coexistence and cultural fusion the world would ever know.
Thanks to Alexander, Greek culture spreads to the Far East and transforms into Hellenistic. The shared language (Hellenistic Koine) becomes a common reference point for the peoples from Europe to Egypt and to India. Acceptance of diversity, peaceful cultural coexistence and fruitful synthesis of the opposites mark the world perception of the enlightened Hellenistic hegemony.
The exhibition continues with the history of Pella. The city, which became the capital of Macedonian kingdom at the end of the 5th century BC, flourished in the Hellenistic period. The grid of Pella with rectangular blocks separated by streets 6-9m wide, already present in the early 4th century BC, enabled the systematic expansion of the city in the following three centuries.
Monumental streets, wider than the rest, paved and flanked by footways connected the port with the central avenue crossing the Agora and encouraging trade. A well-organised system of water supply and drainage provided satisfactory conditions and this is also implied by the urban architecture.
The museum of Pella is famous for its exhibition of mosaics, most of them found in an excellent state of preservation. One of the masterpieces of Pella is the Dionysos mosaic, which was found in the Dionysos house, the largest house in Pella.
In the mosaic you can appreciate the god Dionysos seated on the back of a panther, his upraised arm brandishing the thyrsus, the long staff twined with ivy that has his usual emblem. His body and that of the panther are executed with white tiles, making them stand out against the black background, while the sculptural volumes are highlighted with chiaroscuro shading effected with grey pebbles.
The lion hunt mosaic depicts the moment when the two huntsmen, one on either side of the lion, are preparing to kill the beast. The scene is set in a mountain landscape, as shown by the colourful relief of the ground. The bodies of the figures are white, their sculptural volumes suggested by grey stones. The contours and details of the bodies are outlined with thin strips of fired clay. The composition is remarkable for the intense mobility of the futures and the delicate shades of colour.
Some scholars are of the opinion that the mosaic depicts a hunting scene at the Granicus River in Asia Minor, where Alexander the Great was saved from a lion by his friend, the general Craterus. The hunt lion was both a favourite pastime of the Macedonian kings and novels of that age and a favourite subject of paintings.
In the most luxurious houses of Pella, the splendid mosaic decoration of the floors was in most cases matched by the painted mural decoration. One example is the decoration in the so-called “First Pompeiian style” on the north wall of the dining room in a house, known as the house of plasterwork. The decoration on this wall, which has been restored up to a height of 5 meters, imitates the two-story facade of a building, with its typical structural elements moulded from plaster and painted.
This work, which was dated in the 3rd century BC, confirms that this form of decoration was not invented by the Romans, as was previously thought from the decoration of the houses at Pompeii, but was a Greek invention adopted by the Romans, like various other forms of ancient art.
The exhibit continues with a display of objects from the daily life in Pella, including utensils in a variety of forms used for many purposes: jars and amphora for transporting and storing food, kettles and basins for preparing food, dishes and beakers for serving food and wine, jugs and ladles for serving wine and boxes for cosmetics and jewellery.
The’s also a big collection of statuettes of patron deities of the city that protected the household. These include a bronze statuette of Poseidon, clay bust of female divinities, busts of Dionysos or figures of Aphrodite, Eros, Heracles and Athena.
The last part of the exhibit corresponds to the sanctuary of Darron. Located in the southwest sector of the city, the sanctuary is part of a group of public building complexes situated in 4 blocks of the urban plan, between two of the broad main streets that ran from the port to the palace.
A large circular building (tholos) with three lesser tholos around the circumference and a mosaic floor with floral motifs has been identified as the hall for the heroic cult of the local god of healing, Darron.
Next to it, a complex appears to have been a reflector serving the adjacent complex of religious buildings, with dining rooms with decorative floor mosaics; one of these displays floral motifs and, at the doorway, a female Centaur with phials and rhythm pouring a libation in front of a grotto.
The visit to the museum gave me a wonderful overview of the history and relevance of Pella, with plenty of information on how daily life used to be in ancient times. After our guided visit inside the museum, we headed to the archaeological site of Pella, located just a few meters away.
The remains at the archaeological site of Pella were extremely difficult to identify due to extensive plundering of stone from the ancient walls, the crumbling of the brickwork in the superstructures and the rapid erosion of the remaining materials and the soft local limestone used in all the lower parts of the buildings.
Even though most part of the city was destroyed, there are some incredible architectural constructions and mosaics that still stand today.
One of the architectural gems of Pella was the Agora, unique in conception and size. The wealth of finds discovered there yield important information about the administrative and economic life of the city.
Pella’s Agora was built in the last quarter of the 4th century and destroyed by the earthquake that flattened the city in the early part of the 1st century BC. The Agora covered approximately 7 hectares or ten city blocks. Its large central courtyard was surrounded by collonaded buildings with four rows of square rooms on two levels, in perfect harmony with the general urban plan.
The complex had monumental gates opening onto the four main city streets and was bisected by the grandest of the mall, an east-west avenue fully 15 metres wide. This road was one of the main routes into the city.
The east, west and south wings of the Agora housed workshops that made, and commercial shops that sold, a wide variety of goods.
Pottery was made and sold in the south end of the east wing, terracotta figurines in the north part of the same wing, liquid goods and foodstuffs were sold in the south wing, perfumes in the northwest corner, and imported pottery and lamps in the southwest corner where there were also metal workshops and vendors selling metal wares.
Many of the goods manufactured in the Agora and other workshops in the city have been found in places with which Pella maintained trade relations, while numerous products were imported from other cities and sold in the city’s shops.
In the ruins you can enjoy 3 original mosaics in a very good estate of conservation. Since they’re placed outside, it can be harder to spot all the details due to the strong sunlight, but they are as impressive as the mosaics found inside the museum.
The first mosaic depicts a deer hunt in the centre, framed by plant and geometric motifs. It adorned the small symposium hall, situated at the north wing of the house. The main scene, which probably reproduces an existent prototype from large-scale painting, shows two youths who have already captured the animal and they are about to kill it.
The next mosaic shows the myth of the abduction of Helen by Theseus. The figures are identified by inscriptions. The mosaic decorated the largest symposium hall of a wealthy house. It was made of river pebbles of various colours, while parts of the outline and other details of the figures’ bodies are rendered by thin strips of lead or fired clay.
The last mosaic depicts a combat between a Greek and two Amazons, known as Amazonomaxia. The central scene is framed with two zones decorated with plant motifs and animals. The composition does not seem to imitate a specific prototype, it is rather the mosaicist’s original synthesis.
Although the site is not too big in size, you can easily spend an hour or two wandering around the ruins. Unfortunately, I only had about 30 minutes of free time, which was a bit rushed.
However, the heat was starting to get unbearable, so I ended up walked quite fast and had enough time to visit everything before boarding our van and continuing to Vergina.
The ruins and museum of Pella are located 1h15m away from Vergina, known in the ancient times as Aigai.
Aigai was the first city of Macedonia, formed of multiple villages and settlements around a central core. In the 7th century BC, Aigai became the cradle of a dynasty that would rule Macedonia for over 3 centuries. It was in Aigai that the body of Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great, was laid to rest at his death. Alexander's body was also to be buried here before it was sent to Memphis in Egypt.
The main point of interest in Vergina is the Museum of the Royal Tombs of Aigai, a UNESCO Heritage Site. The complex is formed by a museum, the palace, the city, the acropolis and all its surrounded area.
Our visit included a guided tour inside the museum, which has an entrance fee of €12. Just like in Vergina, their concessions allowed me to visit for free for being a European student.
Exploring the museum is an incredible experience. As you cross the door, you'll be surrounded by what seems to be complete darkness until your eyes get used to the very dark interior. Inside, you can visit an impressive exhibition of artefacts and Greek-style architecture, going from the Iron Age to the Hellenistic era.
One of the most valuable objects of the exhibition is the golden larnax of Phillip II, a closed coffin made of gold that contains the ashes of Alexander the Great’s father. The larnax has a sun motif on the lid, known as the Vergina Sun, an ancient symbol of the kingdom of Macedonia.
But the big highlight of the museum is the monumental tombs. Here are buried King Philip II, father of Alexander the Great who ruled Macedonia from 359 to 336 BC, as well as Alexander IV, Alexander’s the Great teenage son.
The funeral of Philip II took place in Aigai, as the tradition mandated, after his death in 336 BC. The ceremony is known to be one of the most impressive rituals in the history of Greece; the king was placed in the funeral pyre in a monumental death chamber made of a gold and ivory deathbed where he wore his golden oak wreath.
In the antechamber, Philip’s wife Meda was buried with him. There is another family member resting there, thought to be Philip’s previous wife. 25 years after Philip was assassinated, the son of Alexander the Great, Alexander IV, was also killed. He was buried in Aigai, next to his grandfather.
The rest of the exhibition goes through the history of Aigai with a collection of artefacts, swords and armours from the ancient times.
Photography is strictly forbidden inside the museum, so unfortunately the lack of photographs makes it much harder to showcase in detail such an incredible collection. I couldn’t take any photos of the tombs or the exhibitions, so I thank the Discover Veria website for providing me with all the images from the museum on this post.
In any case, the atmosphere inside the museum is so special while you visit the resting place of some of the most prominent figures of history, that only a visit in person will make it justice, but I really hope that these images can give you an idea of the wonders that await inside.
If you want to learn about Alexander the Great and the history of one of the greatest empires of all times, a trip to Pella and Vergina is an absolute must to discover the origins of this civilisation. The proximity of both sites to Thessaloniki makes it even more convenient to visit both of them in a single day trip.
Next day, I would join another Ammon Express tour, this time to visit a UNESCO site placed in a breathtaking location: the hanging monasteries of Meteora.
Ammon Express invited me as a guest on this tour, but as usual, all opinions are my own.