Welcome to Macedonia, or North Macedonia, as it has now been renamed.
This small landlocked country is often somewhat dismissed as a travel destination in favour of its bigger sand-studded neighbours. Those who do venture here will be rewarded with striking scenery, delicious wine, fascinating history and tasty food.
I visited Skopje in June 2018 for six days with my boyfriend, Paul. We spent our time between the capital city, Skopje, and charming lakeside city Ohrid.
Currency: Denar (MKD)
Language(s): Macedonian, Albanian
Plug Sockets: Type C and F
Ease of travel: 5/5 with car 3/5 without
Ease of communication: 5/5
Ease of meeting others: 4/5
General costs: ££
Stepping into Skopje I couldn’t quite put my finger on any one city it reminded me of.
The country’s complicated yet diverse history is somewhat revealed as you walk through a jumble of distinct cultural influences, from the ancient fortresses to Turkish bazaars, soviet apartments to modern European shopping malls.
Alexander the Great - Statue
Skopje Main Square
Things to do:
1. Skopje Main Square
Towering fountains and dramatic statues mark the centre of the square, with cafes restaurants and shops framing the scene. You can certainly see the similarities between this square and the piazzas of many other European cities, but something feels different. Why? Well although many of the buildings sort-of look old, mostly they are not. The monuments and buildings are part of the Macedonian governments somewhat controversial project Skopje 2014.
The main square was also the starting point for our walking tour – Skopje free walking tours (link: http://www.freeskopjewalkingtours.com ) - the tour was highly informative, and our tour guide, Zoran, was fantastic. He filled our googlemaps with his favourite bars and restaurants, interesting shops, viewpoints and introduced us to the national alcoholic beverage, 'rakia' (I'm not sure I am quite as thankful for this bit however....)
2. Bridges and the Vardar river
As you walk through the main square, you will meet the famous Stone Bridge over the Vardar river. I do love a pretty bridge, so maybe I was more excited than others would be, but it does make for a particularly dramatic view of the newly erected buildings lined with busy restaurants and bars. Look out and you'll spot the Art Bridge, which is interesting to potter across. You can also catch a glimpse of my favourite statue, the diving man statue.
We were warned by a local that most of the restaurants in the square and along the river are overpriced, bland and not to go there (bar one or two). However, on our first night, arriving at the waterfront ready to walk to a restaurant, we noticed that the area was eerily quiet. Asking one of the restaurant servers where everybody was, we discovered that about 30 minutes earlier there had been a large protest (protesting the country’s name change) followed by the police-response of a large amount of tear gas. Everybody had fled, leaving pretty much all the restaurants empty apart from the waiting staff. He reassured us that the protest had stopped and police had left. Having practically the whole of the waterfront area to the two of us, we decided to stay at this restaurant. I have to say – overpriced? Maybe slightly, in comparison to the rest of the city – but compared to the UK incredibly cheap. Bland? Perhaps we stumbled upon one of the good restaurants, but I have to say I had a delicious meal trying various new foods – the cabbage rolls were so good I ordered another plate in place of a dessert!
Across from the river are an abundance of museums: Archaeological Museum, Museum of the Macedonian Struggle, and the Holocaust Museum.
Grand buildings and the Stone Bridge
View from Kale Fortress
4. Kale Fortress
The fortress was definitely worth a visit. Here we walked along castle wall ruins for inner city views stretching all the way to Mount Vodno. It's also free to enter!
5. Turkish bazaar
One of my favourite places in Skopje was the Turkish bazaar. As you walk up, aromas of shisha and delicious spices will fill your senses. The bazaar is a jumble of lanes packed with spice shops, cafes, bars, clothes and jewellery shops, baklava shops, ice cream etc etc etc. In comparison with the waterfront restaurants, everywhere here felt very local – and yes, it was a lot cheaper!
Look out for the street covered with brightly coloured umbrellas! (Perfect if you get caught in the rain, like we did!).
6. Memorial House Mother Teresa
Worth a visit to if you want to learn more about Mother Theresa’s life and her legacy.
7. Railway clock and Museum
The railway clock, frozen in time, literally! It’s been stuck at 5.17am since Skopje’s deathly earthquake struck on 27th July 1963. There’s also a museum inside with photographs and stories from the quake.
No visit to Skopje is complete without popping up Mount Vodno. These views are certainly worth climbing up for – but if you don’t don’t fancy the walk, never fear; the cable car will take you right to the top.
Once you’re at the summit, it’s easy to wander around the Millennium Cross, take a stroll through shrubs and greenery and appreciate the views. In terms of food – never fear, there are plenty of shops at the bottom of the mountain and a cute juice bar at the top! The shops at the base are pretty nice and sell coffees, teas, ice cream – this in fact where I got to taste my first milka ice cream! (Please bring them to the UK).
It would make a nice backdrop for some yoga shoots, if you have better balance than me..!
Matka Canyon is a super-easy day trip from Skopje by car and 100% worth visiting.
This beautiful canyon boasts luscious green waters, sweeping mountain peaks with vibrant flowers peaking through. Here you can enjoy strolls along the well-paved tracks, idyllic boat rides, and kayaking. You can also take a boat ride to the Vrelo cave and up to an isolated monastery.
One thing to note is that you will need cash here! (Thankfully they accepted our euros - we'd quickly run out of denar!)
The Matka Canyon
The Matka Canyon
Ohrid was our next destination in Macedonia. If you thought it a shame that this small landlocked country was missing out on its piece of the Adriatic coast, then you haven’t been to Ohrid. This 36km long beautiful stretch of water is lined with beach chairs, restaurants, cafes, loungers and is full of watersport activities. Even better, you won’t have to worry about the tide reaching your feet if you choose to bake in the sun all day here. Think Lake Garda, but without as many tourists, and significantly cheaper.
On first arrival into Ohrid, the stark contrast between here and Skopje was instantly obvious; tourists, tourists shops, bars, nightlife are abundant here. If that’s your jam, great! You’ll love it here! However if you’re looking more for calm and tranquillity, try staying further around the lake – in Lagedin. Struga is a good in-between option too.
The lake itself borders Macedonia and Albania and its reasonably easy (providing you have a green card) to drive the whole length of lake and appreciate both sides.
The town of Ohrid deserves at least a day of your attention – with monasteries, churches, and beautiful panoramic walks – there’s plenty to see and do.
Things to do:
1. Church of Sveti Jovan (St. John) at Kaneo
The pièce de résistance of Ohrid has to be the church of Sveti Jovan and the view of the dazzling sapphire lake with the church peering out in the corner is one you can’t miss. Here you can wander in the footsteps of medieval monks gazing into the azure blue water.
2. Old town
Walk through the old town and you will pass multiple byzantine churches, the ancient theatre of Ohrid, Samuel's fortress, the church of St Sophia, Plaošnik amongst many other interesting buildings.
3. Bay of Bones Museum
A drive down the lakeside will take you past the Bay of Bones museum, which is an archaeological museum on water and is truly fascinating.
Church of St John
Obviously we stopped several times to look at the cute cats roaming around.
4. St Naum Monastery
Located almost at the Albanian-Macedonian border is this beautiful monastery. Walk through the gates and you’ll find an abundance of shops, restaurants, beach bars with sun loungers, rivers, stands offering boat tours all leading up to the main part of the monastery. You can easily spend a day here, wandering the parks, learning about the history of the monastery and soaking up some sun.
One thing I will take from this monastery is the friendliness of strangers. We had spent the morning here and were keen to drive over to the Albanian border to walk through and have dinner there. We got into our car, turned the engine on and were immediately met with honks and beeps from the taxi drivers lining up near the front of the car park. “Your tyre is flat” one man shouted. Sure enough, our tyre was very, very flat. So we opened up the boot, hoping to find a spare tyre and some sort of kit to change it – alas, there was no spare tyre, and certainly no kit.
By this time several of the taxi drivers had come over to see if they could help – one of the men said that he had kit to change the tyre, if we had a tyre. One man offered us his phone so that we could phone up our car rental agency and spoke in Macedonian to him – to our despair they said it would take potentially until the evening to reach us as we were about 4 hours from Skopje, where they were based. One of the taxi drivers came up with a solution – he took the tyre off, drove the 1.5 hours back to Ohrid with my boyfriend and the tyre in the back, took him to a repair store, got the tyre repaired, then drove him back to the monastery and replaced the tyre – and all for a very small amount of money (€35). We couldn’t really believe it, this man had gone well above and beyond to help us out, and wasn’t even asking for much money, especially considering the time he had taken. We thanked him profusely, and obviously gave him far more money than he had asked for.
What a nice man! It certainly restored some of my faith in humanity and left me with a warm impression of Macedonian people.
St Naum Monastery
Pretty lake views
Watch out for the peacocks!
Crossing the Albanian Border
Finally, we were on our way to the border. After initially attempting to walk there from the monastery, we quickly turned back; with no clear pavement down winding fast roads, we decided to drive. We couldn’t drive over the border itself as we didn’t have a green card, but it was easy enough. Located right next to the border were a number of car parking spots! Perfect! We parked up, produced our passports (which sadly were not stamped!) and walked through.
Another 20 minutes or so and we had reached the town of Tushemisht. Here we parked ourselves at the beach and had a delicious dinner before heading back through the border.
Lake Ohrid from the Albanian side
If you’re looking for a stopover between Ohrid and Skopje, look no further than Mavrovo National Park. With stunning scenery, Worth a detour through the winding roads forked by beautiful country. Stunning scenery,. Lots of walks, restaurants, and you might even catch a sighting of a wolf, lynx or bear!
This is in no way a comprehensive trip to Macedonia. Had I more time I would have loved to explore some of the other cities and of course, the vineyards.
Foods to try in Macedonia
A mix of tomatoes, onions and cucumber topped with a large helping of grated white cheese. Simple yet delicious.
A meaty dish of chicken and pork wrapped in bacon and cheese and oven-cooked.
My favourite dish. Essentially more exotic baked beans with onions, spices and tomatoes. Never will I eat Heinz again.
So, I get a bit excited whenever I see a new flavour of fanta to try - the UK is pretty boring, so we only really have lemon or orange flavour. Here I got sample shokata fanta (lemon and elderflower) - delicious!
NORTH MACEDONIA TIPS
Watch out for stray dogs - they are everywhere and will follow you around.
Car rental is easy, cheap and the roads are reasonable quality, but check you have a tyre repair kit handy.
Be sensitive to the current political climate and avoid planned protests (unless you want to risk getting tear-gassed)
Keep cash on you!
English is reasonably well-spoken throughout Ohrid and Skopje, but you may come into difficulty in other areas. Keep a phrasebook on you or make sure you have google translate ready to go on your phone!
Do a walking tour in Skopje - and make sure you have good walking shoes as there are lots of steps and uneven surfaces!
If you don't like big busy tourist towns, avoid Ohrid and head to Lagedin instead.