Skopje, North Macedonia is a fairly new tourist destination. A few years ago this country didn’t exist and its territory was a part of Yugoslavia. But with getting its own independence the country had blossomed. Nowadays the city of Skopje is called a European Disneyland and for a good reason. I spent quite a long time in this city and prepared for you a complete guide to Skopje, North Macedonia.
As soon as you arrive in Skopje you will notice that this city is filled with a huge number of statues. The one statue that attracts the most attention is located in the center of Macedonia Square. The official name of this statue is “Warrior on the horse”, although everyone knows that this is supposed to be Alexander the Great of Macedon.
Let’s talk a bit about who the people of North Macedonia are and what connection they have to Alexander the Great.
Alexander the Great was born in Greece in a region called Macedonia. This region is located right below the Republic of North Macedonia. He was the son of the famous one eyed king – Philip the Second. Back then, Greece was not a unified country, but rather a collection of different kingdoms like Athens, Sparta, Thrace, and of course Macedon. Philip basically conquered all of Greece under his kingdom of Macedon. Alexander the Great, as we all know, made this kingdom way bigger by expanding as far east as Persia. Long after Alexander’s death, this territory became ruled by Romans who extended Macedonia’s region to the north, into what is now called North Macedonia.
So the question still remains, “Should this country be allowed to call itself Macedonia?” I would argue that it can be, although I know that will upset many Greek people. The reason? Well, as this land was part of Macedonia (and the actual Kingdom of Macedon no longer exists) there is a strong enough tie to make the name valid. However this would be similar to Tunisia calling itself Rome and erecting statues of Julius Caesar everywhere.
Ok, maybe that example isn’t the greatest. After all, North Macedonia has archaeological ties going back 3 thousand years to Macedon (remember back then borders were not as well defined as they are today) and while it is unfair to present Alexander the Great from being from here, real Macedonian people did live on this land long before, and long after his reign.
Strangely enough, the current inhabitants of North Macedonia have more similarities to me, as a Ukrainian, than Alexander the Great.
WHY? Well first we have to ask…who are these people?
In the 6th century AD tribes of Slavs came to this land and settled down in Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Bulgaria, and North Macedonia.
So, the people who live in the Republic of North Macedonia are not ancient Greeks like Alexander the Great, but slavs, who don’t have any relationship with this historical figure.
So why do they call themselves Macedonians?
This happened due to some misinterpreted history and political games. Do you know about Josef Broz Tito? He was the ruler of Yugoslavia. He also was Croatian. Why is it important? Well, Tito wanted to keep a union in Yugoslavia and to do that he promoted and encouraged the North Macedonian identity. Why did he do this? Because before Tito people in the region thought of themselves as Bulgarians and Bulgaria wasn’t a part of Yugoslavia. The second reason was because he didn’t want Serbia to be too strong, since North Macedonia was once under its rule.
So now we have a region that called itself Macedonia, didn’t think of Bulgaria as a brother and didn’t want to be ruled by Serbians as well.
Talk about an identity crisis!
In 1991, North Macedonia peacefully separated from Yugoslavia and called itself Macedonia.
And because there already was another Macedonia (region) in Greece, Greek people started to protest. The dispute was resolved in 2018 when the government of both countries reached an agreement that this part of the world will be called not Macedonia, but North Macedonia. And In 2019 the name became official.
Although people in Greece, nor in North Macedonia are satisfied with this name.
Nowadays Skopje is a crazy mix of different cultures. The city and the region in general was ruled by so many, that today’s North Macedonia is quite a unique place. You can easily see it in Skopje. The city has such a big contrast between old Ottoman architecture, brutalist comunist buildings, new bohemian designs, Hellenistic recreations, and a huge density of statues and monuments that you won’t see anywhere else.
Skopje is definitely a city of contrasts. At one place you feel like you are in a very communist city, at another site that you are in the Middle East, and at the third that you are in a classical European capital like Paris or Vienna. In the fairly small city of Skopje you can find many hidden parts of European history, which makes this city even more fascinating.
In North Macedonia there are two international airports. One of them is located 23 km from the capital of North Macedonia and it is called Skopje “Alexander the Great” International Airport. The easiest and cheapest way to get to Skopje from the airport is by the shuttle bus which costs 180 denars. The bus will drop you at the main bus station or at the hotel Holiday Inn, which is basically the city center. If you don’t want to wait for a bus, you can take a taxi which will cost you 20 euros.
The second airport is located next to Ohrid and the official name of this airport is Ohrid “St. Paul the Apostle” International Airport. This airport is mainly used in the summer, since Ohrid is a very popular tourist destination due to the lake. Unfortunately, there is no bus that goes from this airport, so you will need to take a taxi which costs around 8 euros to Ohrid town.
Inside the country you can travel pretty much anywhere by buses that are usually quite affordable.
Skopje has many decent hotels where you can spend a nice few days, although if you are looking for something unique, reasonably priced, and in the center I would recommend these three places:
This is an apartment that belongs to a North Macedonian artist and architect. He has created a masterpiece on every centimetre he had to work with in this apartment. While this style is not for everyone (I could never live in a place like this) it is a great place to stay for a few days for the experience.
Price: 42 Euros
Location: 3A Luj Paster Str., Skopje
Senigallia hotel is located on one of those ships you will see in the center of the city on the river Vardar. It is quite a comfortable and charming place with a unique style. The staff is very friendly and the breakfast they serve is great.
Price: 38 Euros
Location: Кеј 13-ти Ноември, Skopje
This hotel is located in the central (Macedonia) square of Skopje, right next to the famous statue “Warrior on the horse”. The hotel is quite nice and luxurious.
Price: 55 Euros
Location: Boulevard Macedonia, Skopje 1000
You can bring your drone into North Macedonia, but you need to apply for permission to fly it within the country. It is quite simple though, just an online form and email. If your drone is for professional use (not a hobby) then you’ll need to fill out a few more documents with the aviation authority. You can find the rules and regulations for flying a drone in North Macedonia here.
“Macedonia” Square is definitely the center of Skopje, everything points to this place. In the center of the square there is a massive statue that is officially known as “Warrior on the horse”, but everyone calls it the statue of Alexander the Great. The statue of Alexander the Great is 14.4 meters tall and the pillar where the statue sits is another 10 meters. It looks so grand and massive that the neighboring buildings look small. The statue of “Warrior on the horse” is also a fountain that has another 8 bronze soldiers (each 3 meters) and 8 lions (2.5 meters).
In my first evening in Skopje I didn’t notice the statue from afar, just because to me it looked like a weird building rather than a monument. It was dark and I was quite far. In the morning when I decided to explore the city center I was quite shocked with just how large it it is.
The whole “Macedonia” square has many other monuments of kings and warriors. Personally, I really liked the huge mosaic that covers the floor of the square. You of course cannot see the whole picture while standing in the square, but I got a picture on my drone so you can see it.
Around the main square there are a few good restaurants, cafes and hotels. The square is full of wooden benches, so you can just sit and absorb the atmosphere of this place.
The main square of Skopje leads to the famous stone bridge. This bridge was built in the 15th century by the Ottomans, who ruled this territory (from the 14th to the 20th century). The bridge was sometimes used as a place of public execution.
Interestingly, at the end of WWII the Nazis were going to blow this bridge up. They had already placed bombs on the bridge, but the explosion never happened. The people of Skopje really love their stone bridge. It is not a fancy place that is covered with many statues like other places in Skopje, but it is one of the most charming places in the city.
The bridge will take you from Macedonia Square to the East side where you will find the old bazaar, Turkish hammam, Skopje Kale (fortress) and many other historical places.
The old bazaar of Skopje is one of the biggest in the Balkans. There is no exact date when this place was founded, but it was already well known by the 12th century AD. This was the center of the city where all the trades occurred.
When the Ottoman Empire took this territory in the 14th century, they extended the old bazaar by building around 30 mosques, caravansaries (hotels for travelers), and hammams (turkish baths).
Nowadays the old bazaar is one of the main tourist attractions in the city, but like hundreds years ago this is still a place of trade. Here you can buy all the souvenirs you need like jewellery or some fake Gucci.
I recommend visiting the old bazaar close to the evening when the shopping business starts to slow down and the cafes and restaurants are filled with people.
The old bazaar definitely has a unique atmosphere and brings a Middle Eastern vibe to the city. This is definitely a place that you must visit while travelling in Skopje, and maybe it will help you to fall in love with the city like I did.
There are actually a few hammams in the old bazaar of Skopje, something that I was not aware of at first. Cody and I visited the one in the middle of the old bazaar and unfortunately for us it was closed. The guard said that they are preparing a new exhibition and this hammam is closed for the whole week.
So we just went to the other one (at the entrance to the old bazaar). Lucky for us, this one was open and we were to see how the old Turkish hammam looks inside.
Surprisingly, we didn’t need to buy tickets to get into the art gallery. Inside there were some beautiful paintings, but they all belonged to one artist. Anyway, I cared more about the building than the paintings. And I must say they actually preserved it very nicely. The thin portals, ceilings with stars, and stone carvings were exposed and made a nice contrast to the renovated white walls of this hammam.
Traditionally, a Turkish hammam had a few rooms that were called cold and warm, and different parts of the hammam were just for women and just for men. Of course there were VIP hammams for men where they were washed by girls (of course).
Food is a big part of any culture, including North Macedonian culture. National dishes are usually linked to the history of this region.
There are a few places that you can visit to get great traditional food. Many of them are in the old bazaar of Skopje. On the narrow streets of the bazaar you will find not just shops, but also very nice restaurants that serve some delicious food. The prices here are usually very affordable, but before you are going to have a meal I do recommend to get some cash, since not all the places accept cards.
Another place that is famous for its cuisine is the oldest traditional restaurant in the city and is called “Стара Кука” or “Old City House”. It is located 15 minutes away walking from Macedonia Square. The restaurant is very cozy and charming. As soon as you get inside the restaurant you will think that you walked right into the courtyard. In the middle of the restaurant there is a small garden with a pond and a fountain. It actually reminded me a bit of traditional Chinese hutongs.
Old City House has a great many traditional dishes. Different types of stews are particularly popular in Skopje. One of those stews is called “Tavce Gravce” and it is a vegetarian stew. If I am not mistaken the word “tavce” means a pot and the word “gravce” means beans (or reverse), so this is a bean stew. This dish nowadays is also cooked with meat, but historically it didn’t have any meat, since the people on this land were quite poor and could not afford to eat much meat. Although this bean stew is cooked in the way that you might think that the dish has lots of meat. The stew is usually well spiced, quite heavy and very filling.
I made a list of the best places to eat in Skopje.
For everyone who hasn’t been to Turkey or to Bosnia and Herzegovina, getting traditional coffee in Skopje is a must do thing.
Because Skopje was a part of Ottoman Empire their traditional coffee is the same as Turkish traditional coffee – very strong with a lot of coffee grains. The coffee is made in a copper coffee pot directly on hot coals or sand.
This type of coffee is very strong and a tiny cup (usually in which Turkish coffee served) is enough to keep you awake for the whole day.
One of the most important places in Skopje is Skopje Kale, aka the ancient fortress. You can see the fortress from the main square as well as the old bazaar. The fortress is located on a hill, just behind the old bazaar. There are a few gates that lead inside the fortress, but only one of them is open.
This site ended up to be something completely different from what I would expect. For a country that encourages the idea of its own identity so much and puts hundreds of statues dedicated to every famous person that is connected or CAN be connected to this territory, they really neglected one of the important historical sites.
As soon as you are getting close to the fortress, you can see a lot of garbage next to what used to be the water canal. When we entered the gate there wasn’t anyone to stop you from destroying this place. And while we listened to our friend Oliver, who is an archaeologist, a bunch of kids came in and started to run and jump from one wall to another. And those walls are not always safe. Inside the fortress you will see that the city tried to preserve this site. They tried to restore some of the parts and open a museum on its territory, but it never happened.
I must confess that this place made me a little bit sad, but you cannot skip something like this and just not visit if you want to explore the city of Skopje. Plus the view from the fortress is incredible, especially during sunset when the city starts to look completely different.
The house of Mother Teresa is located in the center of Skopje, 2 minutes away walking from Macedonia Square. Mother Teresa was ethnically Albanian, but born in Skopje. Nowadays her house and birthplace is a museum dedicated to her.
In front of the house you can see a statue of Mother Teresa that will tell you that you are at the right place. The house itself definitely stands out among the new buildings and a bunch of the restaurants on the street.
I already mentioned that Skopje is a weird mix of cultures. And sometimes these are separated by regions of the city. One of them is the Bohemian district.
This is a part of the city where you can escape from the crowded center and have a nice walk along the alleys. This is also a part where you can find some of the best cafes and bars that serve traditional food and strong drinks. We actually went to one of the restaurants there and it was a really good place to get North Macedonian food and wine (restaurant “Chardak”).
To get to the bohemian part of the city you can go by walking. It will take you less than 20 minutes from the center of the city and on the way you will see a new all white government building, where the Prime Minister sits (at least that is what locals told us).
If you are looking for cool and unique places to stay in Skopje, then you definitely will want to stay at the Dali apartment. Nowadays it is a small boutique hotel (3 rooms) that you can book on booking.com. Before it was a place where a famous North Macedonian artist used to live. He basically turned his apartment into a museum.
The Dali apartment is located in the very center (2 minutes walking to the main square). The hotel has three apartments and we decided to rent the biggest one on the top level. It has a kitchen, living room, two bathrooms, a loft where the bedroom is, three balconies and a private elevator. But a beautiful view is not the main reason why we rented it out.
The Dali apartment is one piece of art, where every centimetre is covered with hundreds of small details. In this apartment you will see some great stained glass windows, mosaics, carved wood, many chandeliers, and tons of antique furniture.
The Dali apartment is a crazy mix of Gaudi, Dali, and Bohemian styles. There are almost no straight lines in the apartment. Everything, including the ceiling, is artistically done. My guess is that even after a month of living in this place you will find some cool detail that you haven’t noticed before.
One of the places that you need to see is an old ruined railway station. The station was ruined during an earthquake as were many other sites. However the government of Skopje decided not to restore the railway station and leave it as a reminder of that tragedy.
Interestingly, the main clock on the facade of the old railway station stopped at the exact time when the earthquake occurred. I guess that is why the government preferred to leave it as a monument than rebuild it.
I actually accidentally walked by the old railway station. And I must say it caught my eye right away. The place looks so dramatic it feels like you are in a war zone. But the most striking thing is the contrast between the ruined railway station and the new grand Bohemian buildings that are located just across the street.
Matka canyon is the main attraction outside the city of Skopje, therefore in the high season there are tons of local and international tourists who end up visiting.
Matka canyon is located around 30 minutes away by a car from the center of Skopje. And the most convenient way to get there is by driving yourself or hiring a private driver. It is also possible to get there by the bus that goes from Skopje to Matka town and from there you will have to walk to the canyon yourself.
For our convenience, Cody and I just hired a driver who took us all the way to the canyon and brought us back. The price for such service is 30 Euros, which is pretty reasonable, especially if you are travelling with someone else.
Once you are at the canyon you can get on a boat and explore the Matka lake and the Vrelo cave. The boat ride per person costs 400 denars. The boat trip lasts around an hour including the visit to the cave. Take the boat from the second pier, since from the first pier the boat doesn’t go all the way to the cave.
Vrelo cave is one of the few caves around the canyon. It has a massive hall full of stalactites and stalagmites. The cave looked to me like a dragon’s nest. Just a few meters into the cave you can see what looks like a dragon egg or a pine cone.
At the bottom of the cave there are two lakes. One of them is 8 meters deep and the other is 20 meters deep. The water looks incredibly clear; even in the darkness of the cave you can see how clean this water is.
Next to the pier there is an old church and a few cute places to get your lunch at. In summer you also can do kayaking, but unfortunately it doesn’t work in winter. The price for kayaking is 200 denars per hour.
Besides the fortress the next best place to get a great view of Skopje and also the neighboring mountains is the Vodno mountain.
The mountain is located not that far from the Skopje city center and you can get there by taking bus number 25. Then at the bottom of the mountain find where the cable road starts and take a cable car to the top. This is the easiest way to get to the top.
You also can hike the mountain, but in the winter it is quite difficult to do so due to the layers of clothes and super cold wind. And yes, be prepared because if you are visiting this site in winter it is going to be super cold on top of the mountain.
At the top of the mountain the government of the city built a huge Millennium cross that you can see from basically everywhere in Skopje. There are also a few cafes next to the cross and a 3-star hotel. Just so you know, the prices at these places are a bit higher than in the center of the city.
One of the first things that you might have noticed once you arrive in Skopje are three massive ships on the river Vardar. These ships were actually built as a tourist attraction during the 2014 project of remodeling the city.
One of these ships is just a bar, the second one is a hotel with a restaurant and the third is a restaurant as well (I am not sure about the third ship, haven’t visited myself). Anyway, if you like to stay at unique and cool places a hotel on a “ship” is something to do.
We spent two nights in the hotel Senigallia on the middle ship and we really enjoyed it. First of all the rooms are nice. The bathroom is modern, super clean, with a good water pressure. And the breakfast that is included in the price was very good.
You can sit on the open deck while having a cup of coffee or a glass of beer and just people watch or enjoy the sound of a river. I know you probably think that in winter it is difficult to do, but the restaurant has a glass terrace which is basically a warm deck as well.
The price for our room per night was 38 Euros and the location, food, and room were definitely worth it.
For those who don’t know, there are two museums of archaeology in Skopje. But just one of them was a part of the 2014 city project. Since the idea of its own identity in North Macedonia was born fairly recently, the government wanted to show that this land has its own separate history and culture from Bulgaria and Serbia.
The city built a stunning building with huge white columns in the center of the city, where the new museum of Archeology of North Macedonia is located. And even if you are not into museums, I think we owe the people of North Macedonia a visit to this palace, since they try so hard.
The ticket to the museum of Archaeology cost 150 denars per person.
A popular summer activity for locals that live in Skopje is a weekend trip to the town of Ohrid. The town lies next to Lake Ohrid. This is the largest lake in North Macedonia. In fact, the lake is split by two countries: North Macedonia and Albania.
The lake is famous for its clear water and is a favorite summer destination for locals, since the country doesn’t have access to the sea.
To get to Lake Ohrid from Skopje is very easy, you just need to take a bus from the bus station. The buses for that direction leave every half an hour, so you don’t need to buy tickets in advance. Ticket price is 430 Denars ($15) per person round trip. The ticket back is open and you can get on any bus to Skopje (as long as it is the same bus company). Just inform the cashier at the bus station in Ohrid before getting on the chosen bus.
The oldest church in Skopje is actually located on the edge of the old bazaar. It is called the church of Ascension of Jesus. The church was built in the 13-14th century AD, destroyed by a fire in the 17th century, and rebuilt in the 19th century.
The Ascension of Jesus church is famous for its magnificent wooden altar. The altar was hand carved from walnut wood and it is one of the best carving jobs I have ever seen. To get into the church you need to buy tickets. A ticket per person costs 120 Denar.
Mustafa Pasha’s mosque is the main mosque in Skopje. It is located on the hill between the Old Bazaar and the Skopje Fortress. The mosque is built of white and grey marble. Inside the mosque you can see blue arabesques on the ceiling and a huge chandelier.
To get inside the mosque you don’t need to pay a fee, but you also cannot get to the mosque when it is the time for prayer (unless you are Muslim and are visiting to pray of course).
In North Macedonia religions are mainly split at 70% Christians and 30% Muslims, so it is still quite large for a minority religion in the city.
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