To round out the remaining my Balkan countries list, I finally was able to visit North Macedonia (formerly known as just Macedonia). It was the last country on my list of former Yugoslavian nations. I’m a big fan of the Balkans having visited Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina on one trip, and Slovenia on another. Not only are the people incredibly friendly and charming, but the food is right up my alley. As well, the recent history of the Balkans is tragic but truly fascinating for me.
North Macedonia was my last country and I spent five days here as part of my South Balkans trip that included Albania and Kosovo as well. I didn’t get to see everything in Macedonia but did visit the highlights including Lake Ohrid, Tetovo, and Skopje. If you are planning a quick trip to the country, I think 4-5 days is enough to see everything. To be honest, I thought Lake Ohrid and Skopje were perfectly fine for a trip. If you’re into mountains and nature, I think Albania is more stunning with their alps and lakes.
Macedonia and Greece
Prior to visiting to North Macedonia, I always thought it was strange that Macedonia would willingly change their name and add a word to it. Why make your name longer when you already had it so good?
It turns out that Macedonia is also a province in Greece! It is the northernmost province with Thessaloniki as its capital. It essentially borders the country of North Macedonia. However, because it is a part of Greece, the name of Macedonia was never contested. That is until 2018 when North Macedonia made a push to join the EU. They didn’t want to upset their Greek neighbors and changed their name so to highlight that Macedonia is not just where modern day North Macedonia lies.
Turns out in Ancient times, the Macedonian kingdom heralded by Philip (Alexander the Great’s father) encompassed modern day North Macedonia and the Greek province of Macedonia. It was only centuries later that Slavs came and settled in modern day North Macedonia.
How to plan a trip in North Macedonia?
For this itinerary, I will focus primarily on Lake Ohrid and Skopje. Structuring your trip is quite simple as there are only really two destinations. You can spend as little or as much time in each place as you want but it’s up to you what kind of relaxation levels you want to achieve.
All flights will land in Skopje, the North Macedonia capital. This is one of the prettier capitals that I’ve seen, especially after visiting Tirana and Pristina. I think you need at least one full day to see everything so I would allot at least two nights to Skopje.
From Skopje to Lake Ohrid is 2.5 hours by bus or 2 hours by car. Within Lake Ohrid, there are a few different highlights to see but most people base themselves in the town of Ohrid. This beautiful lake side town is definitely the highlight of a trip to North Macedonia. It reminds me a bit of Lake Como and is the perfect place to relax. I stayed in a beautiful apartment right on the hill which afforded me views of the entire town.
I would recommend 2-3 nights in Ohrid so you can see everything and feel relaxed.
North Macedonia Itinerary
A sample N. Macedonia Itinerary can look something like this
Day 1: Arrive in Skopje
Day 2: Full day in Skopje
Day 3: Bus from Skopje to Ohrid
Day 4: Full day in Ohrid
Day 5: Full day in Ohrid
Day 6: Bus back to Skopje and flight home
Alternatively, you could shorten this trip by simply spending less time in Ohrid.
Rent a car or not?
If you’re only visiting North Macedonia, I think renting a car is personal preference. If you want to do a lot of hiking or exploring smaller towns then renting a car would be a good move. Otherwise, I don’t think it’s necessary since you are only going to the most popular places.
If you are keen to rent a car, the rental prices in North Macedonia are quite cheap.
How much money do I need for North Macedonia?
If you’re looking to budget travel around a developed country, then North Macedonia is your spot. Things in North Macedonia, like neighboring Albania and Kosovo are very very affordable. Prices for basic goods like food and alcohol might be among the cheapest I’ve seen.
The official currency is the Macedonian Dinar which is mostly pegged 60 to 1 with the Euro. Euros and Dinars can be used interchangeably in the country. If you do use Euros, you can expect to be paid back in Dinars.
The basic price for a delicious lunch of Kebapi at a local style restaurant is between 120-150 Dinars. A cocktail at a nice cocktail lounge in Skopje will be 200 to 250 Dinars. You can also expect to have a delicious dinner with drinks at a good restaurant for 500 Dinars.
Of course, the more touristy places like Ohrid will be more expensive but it won’t break the bank that is for sure.
Skopje is the North Macedonian capital. It’s likely any trip will start here unless you are coming by way of Albania (in which chase Lake Ohrid would be your first stop most likely).
Skopje is not your typical European getaway. It lacks the absolute charm of places like Vienna or Amsterdam, but it holds its own with its unique history and character. The city is divided into two parts; an old quarter featuring the bazaars left over from the Ottoman times, and the newer quarter built up after Ottoman occupation in more “traditional European” ways.
In this list of things to do in Skopje, you’ll find hammams that have been converted into art galleries, brutalist architecture, trendy cafes, a museum dedicated to Skopje’s most famous resident and another to the earthquake that flattened the city in 1963.
The drive is quite scenic with the mountain views and terrace farms. There isn’t a whole lot to see besides the Ottoman era mosque in Tetove which has some of the most stunning murals I’ve seen on a Mosque.
This area in the west of Macedonia is mostly Albanian which I learned shortly after that much of the population in North Macedonia is Albanian, similar to how much of Southern Albania’s population consider themselves Greek.
Skopje is a beautiful town and was definitely the most beautiful capital of the three countries in my opinion (Tirana, Skopje, and Pristina). The town has a fantastic vibe and energy which I enjoyed.
Walking tour of Skopje
The free walking tour of Skopje is a great way to see all the sights of the city. There is one company that does these and they meet in the main Square next to the Alexander the Great statue. My guide was great as he explained so much about the city I wouldn’t have known otherwise.
For starters, Macedonia is a former Yugoslavian country and therefore have a Slavic language. However, I never knew that Greece also has a Macedonia part which is the region in the very north with Thessaloniki as its capital. In Ancient times, “Macedonia” encompassed what is now modern day North Macedonia and “South Macedonia” which is in Greece. However, Slavs moved in during the 5th century AD and staked out their land.
Up until 2018, the country of “Macedonia” was what is now North Macedonia. However, as North Macedonia wants to join the EU, they needed to change their name because their neighbors Greece was not happy with their claim to all of the “Macedonia” name. North Macedonia was therefore created and adopted only a few years ago. Most people were not happy about the name change and I can’t blame them!
Nevertheless, the walking tour is great as it explores the new part of the town with more European and Communist style buildings as well as the old part of town just over the old Bridge. This area was thriving in Ottoman times and nowadays is home to a Bazaar style neighborhood with shops and restaurants closely packed. It is in fact, the second largest Bazaar style neighborhood after Istanbul!
Visit Macedonia Square
If you are doing the free walking tour, you will undoubtedly pass through the main square of Skopje. This large open square features the famous Alexander the Great statue which of course upset N. Macedonia’s neighbors to the who feel like only they can lay claim to them.
The Square also features mostly new pieces of architecture remodeled and refitted in the last few decades to spruce up the city. Many statues of famous figures were created in the last two decades as a way to make the city prettier and more inviting for tourists. This of course has caused lots of controversy with people as tax money inevitable becomes misused. Nevertheless, I think they have done a good job and the city looks much nicer than I expected.
You will notice the huge Marriott hotel right in the Square. It might look like a historical building that has stood the test of time for centuries. However, that is not the case. It is the first Marriott built in the Balkans and was constructed from scratch. The Government told Marriott they could make the inside whatever they wanted but the outside facade had to resemble the Gothic architecture befitting of other European capitals.
Explore the Bohemian Neighborhood of Debar Maalo
I stayed in the Bohemian neighborhood that is just 15 minutes away from the city center. I was recommended this area as it was where all the cool bars and restaurants are. If you want a more neighborhood vibe, then this is definitely where you’ll want to stay.
Make sure to visit the cocktail bars of Casa and visit the restaurants on the main strip. The two I went to were Shopski Merak and Taverna Debar Maalo. These places are located across the street from each other and are definitely where all the cool people in Skopje hang out (as well as tourists).
Taberna Debar Maalo was playing Balkan music all night and it was here that I met some very cool local people. Inevitably, we started drinking rakja and the night went blurry quick.
Get lost in the Old Baazar (TBD)
The old bazaar of Skopje is in fact the second largest Ottoman style bazaar in the world after Istanbul. Of course it can’t compete to the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul but it is much larger than it appears. A visit is a must and can be easily done by crossing the old bridge from the main square.
I didn’t spend a whole lot of time exploring the old town but there are two places that I can recommend.
The first is a cevapcici restaurant among the myriad of other cevapcici restaurants. This is the beloved street food of the Balkans and no one did it better than Kosmos Kebabchilnica (in Macedonia they call it Kebapi and in Bosnia/Serbia/Croatia they call it cevapi). The meat is grilling in front of you and the smoke flavor that is imbued into the meat is divine! All for 120 dinars.
After chowing down cevapi, head over to the ultimate Baklava shop nearby run by this sweet old lady. Her shop is called ‘Turska baklava Angela Merkel’. You can’t miss it – it’s the only shop with pictures of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and a baklava dedicated in her honor. There is also a huge posted of Turkish president Erdogan. I was told from my walking tour guide that she is his biggest fan and have gotten into heated arguments with Turkish tourists in the past.
Skopje to Ohrid by bus or private transport
As this is one of the most popular routes in N. Macedonia, there is a regular bus line from Skopje to Ohrid at intervals of one hour. The first bus is at 5:30 am and the last one starts its trip at 7.30 pm. The ticket costs 9 euros if you are going one way, and if you want to get a return ticket it will cost you 14 euros.
The bus trip takes around three hours and you are likely to make a few stops as the bus picks up passengers from other stations along the road. There is only one longer break where you can rest your legs and visit the restroom, and it is located at the tallest point of the road, named Straza.
Another option for transportation is to take a private transfer from Skopje to Ohrid by a car with a professional driver. It’s a very convenient way to travel, and not so expensive you might think.
Lake Ohrid is the symbol of North Macedonian tourism and a can’t-miss in the Balkans. Shared with Albania, this is the only inscribed UNESCO World Heritage Site in North Macedonia and one of only a few dozen anywhere in the world to be included on both the Cultural and Natural lists.
Ohrid’s cobalt waters are a mecca for international and domestic tourists alike. The town of Ohrid is an obvious place to base your stay. It boasts a charming Old Town and a buzzing ‘tourist centre’ filled with restaurants, wine bars and shops.
There are lots of alternative villages near Ohrid if you want to escape the hustle of Ohrid. I visited in May during COVID so there was almost no tourists. However, I have heard that in normal times during the summer months, it can get very crowded. Nevertheless, the town of Ohrid itself is a beautiful highlight that you must visit. It’s probably the only town on the lake that has that old city charm unlike Lake Como where every city seemed to be a must visit.
What to do in Lake Ohrid
Lake Ohrid is similar to Lake Como in that there are multiple towns surrounding the lake. However, I found that only one was historic and picturesque and that was of the town of Ohrid. People don’t talk much about the other towns so I think it’s safe to base yourself entirely in Ohrid.
Staying in the old town of Ohrid is the way to go as you will be close to all the sights. The main things to see here are the fortress at the top of the town and numerous Orthodox churches. The fortress is a short walk and can be done in a few minutes.
Of the churches, the most famous and most picturesque is without a doubt St John’s Church right on the tip of the peninsula. From here, you have panoramic views of Lake Ohrid and this beautiful Orthodox church perched by itself overlooking the lake.
Aside from this, you can take a catamaran around the lake as a tour. Simply walk along the main waterfront and there are plenty of people selling tours from their boats.
Simply, there is just time here to relax and soak up the beautiful lake views. I definitely could have stayed in Ohrid for a few more days.
For the best morning cafes, go to Terazza Aquarius which is right on the water overlooking the old town.
Bay of the Bones
The Bay of the Bones Museum was a lovely place I visited during my trip to Ohrid. The complex is situated in Gradiste, 16 kilometers away from the beautiful town of Ohrid.
I thought this was an ancient settlement but it is infact just a museum that offers 24 replicas of prehistorian houses on a wooden platform placed above the Lake Ohrid. It’s meant to show how ancient dwellers of the region lived.
Although the village isn’t big, it will surely bring you closer to the people who lived there thousands of years ago. Animal remains, pottery, jewelry, all found in the beautiful, crystal clear water of Ohrid will take you back to the past, for a minute.
It’s well worth a visit if you have a car, but otherwise many of the boat tours from Ohrid town will bring you here. You don’t need more than a half hour here but you can take some very nice pictures from the jetty of the lake!
Stay at Villa Ohrid
There are so many amazing guesthouses in Lake Ohrid so your options are endless. I wanted a view of the town and of the lake so I ended up choosing to stay at Villa Ohrid. It did not disappoint because I had a balcony that was front and center viewing the lake. Waking up to this view every morning was divine.
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If you are ever in Ohrid again, make sure to go to Trpejca (hidden gem most articles won’t talk about)
Ah I was almost going to go there but stopped at the bay of the bones. Next time 😁
REPUBLIC OF MACEDONIA !
The name change was illegal. It was done against the people’s will. The government didn’t get the support on the referendum for the name change. The majority of the people boycotted the referendum and didn’t accept the proposal to change the name.
The fact that Slavs settled on the Balkans 15 centuries ago is totally irrelevant in your text.
The name of the country was, is, and will be… Republic of Macedonia.
Hi Alexander, yes I learned about the referendum too. Pretty ridiculous but in the end it’s all about joining the EU and not pissing off Greece i guess.
You guess wrong. It’s not at all about joining EU. The membership in a temporary union is not that worthy.
If your name (I guess it’s Johnny) pisses your neighbor off… Will you change it just because of it?
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