Bordered by Serbia, Kosovo, Bulgaria and Albania, Macedonia has many influences from the Balkans and the Mediterranean and has been an independent country since 1991. Known as the Republic of Macedonia, its title has caused disagreement with Greece who own a region of the same name. Although many people flock to Greece for their holidays, Macedonia does get left off the bucket list but what it lacks in sea and beaches it definitely makes up for in mountains, lakes and rivers.
If you’re travelling overland from Albania, Lake Ohrid (meaning ‘on the hill’) is the first city you come to and in the summer only the locals are allowed to drive in the old town. Lake Ohrid is one of the oldest lakes in Europe and is thought to be three million years old. Covering an area of 358 sq kilometres, it actually looks more like a sea than a lake with two thirds belonging to Macedonia and the other third to Albania. Both the lake and the city are UNESCO sites. You’ll find many people in bikinis and swimming trunks lying on benches catching the rays but there is a beach if you prefer something softer to lie on. You just need to take a boat across the lake to it.
Although the water is tranquil, the town of Ohrid that surrounds it is a hive of activity with restaurants, modern shops and many churches due to its position as a Christian centre. There was once a church for every day of the week here and was known as the ‘legend of 355 churches’ but nowadays the most popular ones are: St John and St Sofia where you can find people singing as well as classical performances. Other places to see here are the Roman Theatre, Samuels Fortress – the oldest fortress at 1000 years old and the National Workshop for Handmade Paper, based on the traditional Chinese method. One of the must-see sights is Saint Naum, one of the most beautiful monasteries in Macedonia. It is nearer the Albanian border so you can take a bus or a boat to its location. Hiking in the mountains in Galicia National Park offers great views of Albania and Greece.
From Ohrid you can experience the Macedonian wine region of Tikvesh where you can visit an old Macedonian house and taste the country’s cuisine or visit Strumica which is also great for those wanting to test out their walking boots. The volcanic crater of Kratovo is a good place to explore and is known for the ‘Stone Dolls’ rock formations. You can even stay overnight at a winery in the Povardarie region and learn (and sample) all about the country’s wine production then hike in the valleys after a night’s stay at the Popova Kula Winery.
Although there are high levels of poverty and many people living here are unemployed, you wouldn’t think that from the building work that is taking place in the capital. Many monuments in Skopje were destroyed by an earthquake in 1963 and the city is again being transformed. You can visit Mother Teresa’s house, the Stone Bridge (the oldest bridge in the country) and the contrast of the Art Bridge with sculptures of artists, painters and poets. The Holocaust Memorial Centre is a fascinating museum but be prepared to be emotionally moved. Lose yourself in the cobblestone Ottoman streets of the Bazaar or take the cable car to the top of Mount Vodno for views of Skopje. If you’re feeling adventurous just outside of the capital is Shutka, a large Roma community with over 20,000 gypsies which is an interesting place to visit.
There’s good night life here with clubs open until the early hours but the place to be is Bitola, an old jewish settlement where all the locals comes to party in the summer. Bitola is on the bus route from Ohrid to Skopje and they even have foam parties here but it’s not just good for nightlife; the city is full of 18th and 19th century architecture. Just nearby is Heraclea with ancient ruins and mosaics including an amphitheatre, basilicas and Roman baths. It’s also home to Pelister National Forest.
To get more off the beaten path and for some outdoors adventure visit Mavrovo for biking, horse riding and hiking amongst gorges, waterfalls, lakes and glaciers. You may even spot a mountain shepherd on your route and if you’re really lucky – a lynx although these are very rare. In the heart of Mount Bistrais is the village of Galicnik, famous for its culture and wedding traditions.
Other places to visit are: Krusevo for the museum of the ‘Elvis of Macedonia’ and the Ilinden Uprising Monument, Struga on the northwest shore of Lake Ohrid and Bansko for hot springs.
If you smoke, don’t get caught out in closed public places where smoking is not allowed.
A cafe bar doesn’t usually sell food and are just for drinks.
There are trains in Macedonia but they do take longer than the bus, (buy your food before you get onboard as they don’t generally don’t have buffet cars). There are bus stations in the majority of the cities and they do run frequent services. The bus station in Ohrid is 30 minutes from the centre; buy your bus ticket from the little kiosk in the city. N.b From Ohrid to Skopje takes 5 hours via Bitola.
If you take a taxi, make sure they turn on the taxi metre. Taxis in Ohrid will give you a receipt. It’s a different story in the capital though and don’t say that you’re going to a hotel or hostel, just give them the address as they are known to take you to a different hotel who they work closely with instead. Some taxis also take Euros instead of Denar.
From the Airport
Ohrid – Airport is 10 km from the city and the route is currently only ran by taxis.
Skopje – There are no buses as yet for the 14 km journey into the city. A taxi will cost €25 for the 25 minute journey.
How long do I need?
If you stay in Lake Ohrid, Skopje and Bitola you can spend a week. Just Ohrid and Skopje you can see in three days.
Travelling onwards (check visas before you travel)
To Serbia – Trains run from Skopje to Belgrade and take 10 hours. The trains are really safe although old and cost €35 for a return.
To Greece – Trains run from Skopje to Thessaloniki every day or there’s a bus service.
To Bulgaria – By bus to Sofia. There is a bus which leaves at 5pm.
To Albania – From Lake Ohrid by minivan to Tushemisht is €2 and takes 30 minutes. Then you can catch a bus or furgon (minivan) to Pogradec.
To Istanbul – You can actually take a night bus from the main bus station in Skopje to Istanbul. It departs at 17.00, takes approx 10 hours and is only €35. (You need to pay 100 Denar at counter no 4 to get onto the bus).
* To Kosovo – Buses run every 30 minutes from Skopje to Pristina and cost €5 for the 2 hour journey then it’s a taxi to the main bus station. Buses to Prizren from Skopje take longer (4 hours) and leave at 11.30am and 16.00.
*If you’re considering Serbia for future travel, ask for your Kosovo stamp to be on a separate piece of paper instead of directly in your passport.
- Can I drink the water? Yes.
- Is tipping expected? Yes, 5-10%.
- Fixed price or barter? Fixed price.
- Any ATMs? Yes.
- Which side of the road do they drive? Right.
- Good for vegetarians? They have great salads.
- Any seven wonders of the world? No.
*This is accurate at time of writing but we appreciate things can change. Please let us know if you experience anything otherwise. Thanks…