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Interesting. Zany. Nonsensical. Inspiring. Weird. Wacky. Before visiting Skopje, Macedonia, these were some of the adjectives we had heard used to describe the capital city. After visiting Skopje, Macedonia, we completely agree…with all of them. Regardless of opinions, we can certainly attest to there being no shortage of things to do in Skopje.
During our visit to Skopje, Macedonia in November of 2016, the city was in the process of a massive renovation. The complete overhaul is part of the lingering – and costly – Skopje 2014 Project; this government plan aims to reinvent the city with a classical appearance in order to boost nationalism and attract tourists. Only about half of the residents support the project, which has a price tag of more than $700 million USD – a pretty penny for one of Europe’s poorest countries. (Even some of those who agree with the facelift are not content with the project, as many accuse the government of being corrupt and wasteful.)
Ornate facades now conceal Communist-era block structures, massive monuments have been erected to honor the great Macedonians of the past and a smattering of statues are strewn about the city center to honor…well, just about everyone else. We often felt like we were walking through a closet of stage props; the objects obviously manufactured simply to create a scene.
That’s not to say that Skopje, Macedonia doesn’t have a story. Quite the opposite, actually. Evidence proves that civilizations thrived in the land of Macedonia as far back at 7,000 BC. In the 4th century BC, conqueror Alexander the Great, King of Macedonia, created the world’s largest empire. Since that time, however, the land that was known as Macedonia has had its boundaries shifted and divided. Present day Macedonia only officially became a nation in 1991, born from the dissolve of Yugoslavia.
In its short history as a country, Macedonia has already had its fair share of squabbles – mostly with neighboring Greece, a country that encompasses a territory of the same name as the new nation. Under contention is the name, the flag and the claim of Alexander the Great, all of which Greece believes Macedonia has no right to use.
Therefore, rather than the official name, “Republic of Macedonia,” countries around the world use “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” or “FYROM” for short. The original country flag, designed with the Vergina Sun, was replaced with a flag bearing the Sun of Liberty in 1995 after Greece disputed that the Vergina Sun is a symbol that belongs to them. The controversy over which country can claim Alexander the Great might sound trivial, but neither side is backing down. In 2011, a ridiculously large bronze statue bearing the likeness of Alexander the Great, but officially called, “Warrior on a Horse,” was constructed in the center of Macedonia Square in Skopje.
However, there is more to Skopje, Macedonia than the Skopje 2014 Project and the unending tiff with Greece – a great deal more. From local eats and potent drinks to deep canyons and mountaintops to new museums and an ancient fort, we’ve made a list of things to do in Skopje, Macedonia.
13 Things to Do in Skopje, Macedonia
#1 Marvel and Stare at the Monuments and Statues
The statues and monuments in Skopje, Macedonia are mind-boggling. It’s not just the sheer number and size of the statues, but the seemingly random subjects, the borrowed icons and the peculiar placement of the statues that seem to puzzle the brain. Yet, we were oddly drawn to them; perhaps for no other reason than to see how many we could find. We didn’t keep a tally – and from what we heard, neither has the government, as there are several statues reportedly unaccounted for.
The ‘Warrior on a Horse’ monument can’t be missed – literally. In the center of Macedonia Square, the statue is 80 feet tall (including the pedestal). Several other oversized monuments are on the square, like Justinian I and Tsar Samuil. Other enormous statues are visible from the square, like Phillip II of Macedon, which stands on the other side of the Vardar River.
However, it was the smaller, more offhand statues that truly garnered our attention. “The Charging Bull,” a statue often spotted in financial districts around the world, is placed on a side street in front of a shoe shop. On another street is a statue of a vagrant. An eerie statue of a woman playing a decaying harp sits behind the National Theater; beside it is a huge statue portraying a down-and-out man. Trying to make sense of some of them is useless.
Note: In the summer of 2016, the ‘Colorful Revolution,’ a handful of citizens against the Skopje 2014 Project, used paint guns to deface the newly erected monuments and statues, which – during our visit – the city was attempting to clean up.
#2 Take a Free Tour
Joining a free tour is an excellent way to get acquainted with Skopje, Macedonia. On our 3-hour tour, we covered some serious ground, hitting all the highlights of Skopje with time to spare for a round of our tour guide’s homemade rakija. Learning Macedonia’s history from a passionate local resident helped us to better understand some of the complexities we grappled to comprehend. While there are many tours to choose from, we recommend Mija with Skopje Walks.
#3 Wander through the Old Bazaar
While the Skopje 2014 Project is dominating much of the city, the Old Bazaar remains an untouched piece of Skopje’s historic past. The twisting cobblestone lanes are each dedicated to specific trade (jewelry, textiles, etc.) and feature short streets in order to create a multitude of corner shops for better customer appeal. In addition to the many stores, there are a plethora of atmospheric cafes, bars and restaurants tucked into the lanes.
#4 Shop at the Bit Pazar
In the market for in-season vegetables or fresh ground spices? Looking for a shower head or fishing tackle? Need a barber cut or toilet rolls? Or maybe just a hot cup of Turkish tea and a game of chess? Skopje’s Bit Pazar, the largest market in Macedonia, has it all. The market is an absolute feast for the senses. Beans overflow from burlap sacks. Loose-leaf tea is scooped into paper bags and sold by weight. Toiletries, canned good and hardware items are jammed into compact stalls. Wander the labyrinth of hodge-podge merchandise, then find a table at a makeshift café to sip a hot tea and soak in the marketplace vibe.
#5 Eat Local Fare
One of the best ways to get to know a place is to sample the local cuisine. In Skopje, that means hearty portions – usually of meat, but also bean casseroles – balanced with fresh salads (most likely covered with cheese) or deep-fried, cheese-stuffed peppers. Fast food options in Skopje are like those in the rest of the Balkans: Burek (flaky, meat- or cheese-filled rolled pastries) and kebapi (minced-meat sausages). Sweet shops and bakeries selling syrupy tulumba are found throughout the city. Regional and international fare can also be found in the city center; particularly Turkish fare in the Old Bazaar.
Where – and What – To Eat in Skopje, Macedonia
Gostilnica La Tana – Traditional cuisine in an inviting atmosphere. What to Order: Shopska Salad (cucumbers, tomatoes, cheese) and Selsko Meso (meat and vegetable casserole cooked in a clay pot). Cost: Two dinner entrees plus shared salad, appetizer and bottle of wine – $24 USD.
Note: Reservations are often necessary (we were somewhat rudely turned away on our first attempt to eat here and returned with reservations a few nights later). If there are no seats, head next door to the less-atmospheric Kaj Zlate, where the food is almost as good and costs less. Cost: Two dinner entrees plus shared salad, appetizer and bottle of wine – $15.50 USD.
Galerija 7 – A hidden gem in the depths of the Old Bazaar serving variations of only two dishes: Lahmacun and Pide. What to Order: Lahmacun (Turkish pizza topped with minced meat) and hot tea. Cost: One lahmacum and one pide – $4 USD.
Burek Shop Old Bazaar – Located in the maze of streets in the Old Bazaar, the small shop dishes out some of the best fresh-made burek we’ve eaten (and we’ve eaten a lot). What to Order: Meat Burek. Cost: Two meat portions: 75 cents USD.
#6 Visit the Old Railway Station
Skopje’s Old Railway Station, an architectural masterpiece built in 1938, was once a lively hub of activity, which provided an entry and departure point in the heart of the city. But, on July 26, 1963 at 5:17 in the morning, a massive earthquake shook Skopje, crumbling half of the station and crushing the city. Since then, time has stood still at the Old Railway Station: the large dial clock still reading 5:17. Today, a museum occupies the interior of the station, including a gripping display detailing the day of the earthquake and the aftermath.
#7 Tour the Memorial House of Mother Teresa
Mother Teresa was born and raised in Skopje, Macedonia, where she lived until the age of 18 when she left to become a nun. Her childhood home was just steps from Macedonia Square (marked with a plaque). When she was one day old, her parents had her baptized at the Sacred Heart of Jesus Roman Catholic Church, where the memorial house now stands. The Memorial House of Mother Teresa includes artifacts from her life, as well as a small chapel and gift shop.
#8 Walk the Bridges
Stone Bridge, connecting Macedonia Square to the Old Bazaar, is an icon of Skopje, Macedonia. The image is incorporated in the city’s coat of arms and flag. The pedestrian bridge dates to the middle of the 15th century, but has seen several bouts of reconstruction, most recently in 2008.
Building new bridges and sprucing up old ones was a major component of the Skopje 2014 Project. The two new bridges, Art Bridge and Civilizations Bridge, are ornately designed and incorporate a total of 57 statues.
#9 Step inside the Church of the Holy Savior
The Eastern Orthodox Holy Savior Church is hidden within a complex in the Old Bazaar. The most notable feature is the 30-foot-long wooden iconostasis. The floral details and bible depictions were hand carved by two brothers over a five-year period – from 1819-1824. While the entrance ticket did not include a brochure of information, the caretaker happily shared intriguing bits of history and stories about the church and complex. Fee: $2 USD
#10 Hike to Kale Fortress
The Skopje Fortress, often called ‘Kale’ – the Turkish word for ‘fortress’ – dates to the 6th century AD. Sitting high on a hill overlooking the city, the views aren’t spectacular, but worth a quick look. The fortress walls have been reconstructed, but the interior is still in the process of restoration.
#11 Ride the Cable Car to Millennium Cross
Sitting on the highest point on Vodno Mountain is the 217-foot-tall Millennium Cross, which lights up at night for all of Skopje, Macedonia to see. While it is possible to hike from the city center to the cross, we recommend riding the cable car, which can be reached by car or bus. At the top of Vodno Mountain is a café, as well as several hiking trails. Pack a picnic lunch – and a sweater – and enjoy a day outside of the city. Fee for Cable Car: $1.75 roundtrip
#12 Explore Matka Canyon
For a real taste of the outdoors, locals and tourists head to picturesque Matka Canyon. Treska River runs through the bottom of the gorge and boats carry passengers on sightseeing journeys to nearby Vrelo Cave – one of the many caves in the region. Vrelo Cave is notable for its two interior lakes and large ‘Pine Cone’ stalactite. Other interesting sights at Matka Canyon are monasteries, of which the easiest to reach is St. Andrew’s Monastery that was built in 1389. To really get in touch with nature, take a hike on one of the many trails at Matka Canyon. Fee for Boat: $7 USD
#13 Drink It All In
After a long day of sightseeing in Skopje (or in the middle of a long day sightseeing, for that matter), it’s a good idea to retreat to one of the many cafes or bars to sit back, relax and drink it all in. There isn’t a whole lot of variety when it comes to beers – Skopsko and Zlaten Dab are Macedonia’s two most popular – but there is one local brewery, Star Grad Pivnica, making and serving Temov Craft Beer in the heart of city. For something slightly stronger, try the local rakija – but sip it, don’t shoot it.
There are three streets in Skopje teeming with cafes and bars: Jorgandziska in the Old Bazaar, the Riverwalk on the south bank of the river between Stone Bridge and Civilizations Bridge and Macedonia Street between Dame Gruev and Dimitrie Chupovski. Our top two bar recommendations are: Star Grad Pivnica (try the IPA and unusual smoked beer) and Rakija Bar Kaldrma, which offers more than 30 kinds of Macedonian rakija (ask for recommendations) – both of which are on Jorgandziska in the Old Bazaar.
Where To Stay
During our visit to Skopje, we stayed in this awesome Airbnb Apartment. (Not already a member of Airbnb? Use this link to create an account and save money on your first stay!) However, for those who prefer staying in traditional accommodations, there are many hotels to choose from in – or close to – the city center. Check out these top-rated hotels (based on guest reviews!) for your upcoming trip:
Hotels in Skopje
Hostels in Skopje
Before You Go: Our top tips for your trip
- Don’t forget to pack a pair of lightweight and comfortable walking shoes. I (Sarah) have traveled with these shoes by Columbia, Skechers and Reef. Kris prefers wearing these shoes by Merrell and Sanuk.
- We’re certain you’ll be snapping tons of photos during your trip. Rather than relying on your mobile phone to capture the sights, upgrade to an actual camera for higher quality photos. We travel with a Canon Rebel (which takes amazing photos, but can be a bit clunky) and a Canon PowerShot ELPH (which takes beautiful pictures, is slim and lightweight – and the new models are wifi enabled so you can share your trip pics to social media in real time!).
- It’s easy to get turned around or lost in any new city! Be sure to have a good city map and/or regional guidebook prior to arriving.
- We think travel insurance is essential! If you haven’t already obtained travel insurance for your trip, travel protected with World Nomads.
We want to know: What’s on your list of things to do in Skopje, Macedonia? Tell us in the comments!
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