Although it’s easily accessible and comes complete with all the comforts of the Western world, the Republic of Macedonia is Europe’s best hidden treasure. The county is part Balkan, part Mediterranean and has been heavily influenced by Roman, Greek, Albanian, and Ottoman culture. It’s a stunning natural paradise with grand historic sites and ruins tucked into idyllic villages that haven’t seemed to change in centuries.
The surprising part is that you get all that, plus fully modern cities and luxuries right at your finger tips. It doesn’t seem that you could fit all that into one country, and maybe it’s because of its size that it gets overlooked. Macedonia is a wonderful representation of the Balkans with a wide variety of influences and ethnicities, modern cities and beautiful countryside, where life moves at its own unique pace. Let’s have a look at the best places to visit in Macedonia!
Skopje is most definitely Europe’s most eclectic capital city. Efforts have been made, rather successfully, to bring infuse new culture in the form of museums, fountains, bridges, and statuary throughout the city. The result is something grand that has come to symbolize a new national identity for all Macedonians. The history still remains in places like Kameni Most (Stone Bridge), Sveti Spas Church, Tvrdina Kale Fortress, and the old Turkish bazaar Caršija. Be sure to check out the giant statue of Alexander the Great, commissioned to celebrate Macedonia’s 20th year of independence. The shopping and nightlife in Skopje are also something to experience – if this is what you’re looking for, head straight to Makedonija Street.
Bitola is an old Ottoman town once known as the “City of Consuls” because it served as a diplomatic centre for the region. Elegant and sophisticated are the best worlds to describe it. You’ll see colourful townhouses from the 18th century and Turkish mosques throughout. The not-to-be missed and certainly often repeated experience is to sit along the Širok Sokak (Wide Street), sipping espresso, and watching everyone come and go. Bitola is the second largest city and is a favourite among Macedonians for its café culture and European atmosphere. Discover the Deboj Amam Turkish Bath (17th century), the Old Bazaar, Jeni Mosque, and Isak Beg Mosque (both 16th century).
Prilep is famous for a few unique things. First, agriculturally speaking, it’s Macedonia’s tobacco capital. Second, became known as “the city under Marko’s towers,” from when it was the medieval capital for Kings Marko and Volkasin – who populated the town with churches and monasteries. Located in Western Macedonia Prilep has a distinctive landscape of huge rocks sparsely scattered at the base of a small hill. At the top of the hill are the ruins of a medieval fortress. The locals have a distinct flavour as well – which you can see in their humour and their dedication to preserving their traditions.
Though it only has 10,000 citizens, Kruševo was once its own republic. Macedonians equate the town with the centuries-long struggle to win independence from the Ottoman Empire. During the last revolution, as it looked like Macedonia might be successful, Kruševo experienced ten days of freedom before a massive Ottoman army burned the town and martyred national heroes like Pitu Guli and Nikola Karev, who led the revolution. You can visit Mechkin Kaman and Makedonim, two monuments built to commemorate the uprising. As you explore the town you’ll learn the many reasons why August 2 is an important date throughout the country and such an intense point of pride. Nestled in the Baba Mountains, Kruševo features incredible architecture and several monasteries and churches worth visiting.
National Park Mavrovo
The perfect place for skiing, National Park Mavrovo is Macedonia’s biggest winter resort, covering over 730 sq km of forests, gorges, waterfalls, and karst fields. You can also see the country’s highest peak, Mt Korab, which stands at 2764m. No matter what time of year you visit, the high-altitude fresh air and the staggering vistas are more than worth the trip. Nature lovers can wander among the diverse fauna and flora and take a hike around Mavrovo Lake. Galichnik and Janche are two quaint villages nearby, as is St. Jovan Bigorski Monastery.
Pelister National Park
The oldest of the three great national parks is Pelister, located in western Macedonia near Bitola. With nearby Mount Pelister (2600m), and eight other peaks that top 2000m, the vistas are a magnificent natural escape from daily life. The park is home to the five-needle pine molica – found on only a few mountains in the Balkan Peninsula – something all nature enthusiasts will love to see. There’s also roe deer, wolves, bears, chamois, eagles, partridges, and red billed jackdaws. Pelister also has two wonderful mountain lakes, which the locals call Pelisterski Oci or Pelister’s Eyes, that offer great hiking opportunities like the Stone River – crushed rocks that form a path heading up the mountain slopes.
One of the most important archaeological sites in the country is found in Stobi. First founded in the 7th century by the King of Paeonia, the city changed hands several times, from the Macedonians, to the Romans and Byzantines. Strategically located along an old Roman trading route, Stobi quickly became a hub for traders travelling from the Danube in Serbia to the Aegean Sea in Greece. The dig site is open every day and the town itself is just an hour drive from Skopje.
Most likely the top tourist spot in all of Macedonia, sunny Gevgelija has a reputation for fun and big times. It’s called the “Macedonian Las Vegas” because of the casinos, five star hotels, nightclubs, galleries, and concert venues. There are lots of opportunities for exclusive entertainment here but the fun is meant for all. If you need to step away from the black jack table or the buffet, Gevgelija offers Smrdliva Voda, a spa with sulphur baths and over 400 villas to choose from. Nature is also on full display here with a sublime climate and a pine and deciduous forest, there is a rich biodiversity here that makes the region special for all of India.
There are well over 24,000 hectares of vineyards in Macedonia, as well as an incredible 2000 year history of viticulture. Deep in the fertile Vardar River Valley lies Povardarie, whose wines are well known throughout the world. The most popular varieties are Vranec and Smederevka – so be sure to sample them when you visit. In Povardarie there are three wineries that you must discover for yourself: Winery Tikves, Stobi Winery, and Popova Kula. Popova Kula Winery is regularly ranked at the finest winery in the country. They produce over 20 wines and offer cooking lessons, accommodation, and folklore shows.
Strumica lies in Eastern Macedonia with a number of great attractions worth exploring. Enjoy hiking on Mt Belasica or head out to Smolare and Kolesino, two nearby waterfalls. There are also some stunning monasteries, including tranquil Veljusa and Vodoca. Both are Byzantine and still occupied by both monks and nuns. Be sure to check out the incredible frescos at both. From there, head to St. Bogorodica Eleusa, built in the 11th century, the healing spa of the Roman Therma, as well as St Leontuis.
The largest town on Lake Ohrid, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ohrid has a remarkable history and heritage to share. At the top of the list are the frescoes inside Saint Sofia Church, the Ancient Theatre, St. Clement Church (13th century), and Tsar Samuil’s fortress – which has an unbelievable view over the city and lake. The surrounding mountains reach upwards of 2800m, which means that Ohrid is not only culturally significant, but naturally breath-taking. It’s no stretch at all to say that Ohrid showcases the best of Macedonia. It’s a good idea to use the town as base camp to explore the lake as well as its many surrounding towns and monasteries. Just 30km away is St. Naum’s, one of the richest and oldest monasteries in the country.
A visit to Struga makes a great day trip from Ohrid. Nicknamed the “City of Poetry,” the town is relaxing and beautiful to stroll through. The national anthem, “Denes nad Makedonija se raga,” was written by Vlado Maleski, a poet born in Struga. In fact, the first time the anthem was publically sung was in the town itself. You’ll enjoy the lively market at the Old Bazaar, St. George Church, the Halveti Teke, and a walk down Goce Delcev Street where you can see some well-preserved traditional houses.
The Monastery of St.Naum
A 30 minute drive from Ohrid will take you to Sveti Naum, an impressive 10th century monastery which sits on a high outcropping over the lake. Most popular for its excellent frescos, it’s also a relaxing and rejuvenating place. Some of the best religious paintings in all of the Balkans can be found here. You’ll love the panoramic views of the lake and if you have time, the rowboat tour down the Drim River is highly recommended. Wrap up the day by popping over to one of the islands for dinner. Because it encompasses so much of what is phenomenal about Macedonia, this is the perfect place to end your tour.
Built in 1968, Tikves Lake is both the largest and oldest man-made lake in the country. It’s close to Kavadarci and makes the perfect Sunday afternoon family picnic spot. Scuba diving, sailing, kayaking, and canoeing are all on offer – plus you can paraglide or mountain bike in the summer and ski and snow board in the winter. If you like fishing, spend a morning trying to land the sheat-fish, which can grow to be over two metres long. The valley itself is so fertile that many orchards and vineyards dot the landscape.
Outside of Skopje is Kumanovo. It’s one of the larger cities in the country and has a fantastic blend of Macedonian and Serbian culture. The Kumanovci are a feisty group and the town and outlying villages highlight the colourful multi-ethnic blend of Roman, Serbian, Albanian, and Turkish minorities. Check out Kostoperka Karpa, a unique rock formation, the Church of St George, the monument to Batko Gjorgjija – a local , legendary, and much loved bohemian.