“I’ve never even heard of Macedonia…”
You’re probably not alone. Truth be told – i was pretty unfamiliar. This is one of many destinations picked by my boyfriend for a birthday trip. Every year we buy each other a trip somewhere – a tradition that’s over 4 years strong now, but due to COVID-19 this year was a little different..
Picking a destination in the middle of a pandemic that requires no PCR testing prior to arrival and no isolation period has proven very difficult but then along came North Macedonia – one of the cheapest cities in europe, but perhaps one of the best cities to visit in europe!
In terms of tourism, North Macedonia only attracts around 750,000 foreign visitors a year- compare this with the likes of Spain which attracts a whopping 83 million a year! Crazy right!
Everything was pretty last minute..
We actually ended up booking EVERYTHING for this trip about 36 hours before we flew out to Macedonia – an absolute whirlwind. We had no idea if our flights would even go ahead due to the impending doom of Lockdown 2.0! we flew out on the 3rd November not knowing if we would be able to return on the 8th, but figured being stranded in Macedonia would be (a lot) nicer than being stranded here in the UK.
We decided on visiting Skopje as the main part of our trip with a visit and overnight stay in Ohrid at the end of the week.
On small city breaks we are normally AirBnB bookers through and through, but thought it might just be that bit safer to book a hotel this time round – just in case! we decided on Hotel Alexander II right in the centre of Skopje, less than a 5 minute walk to Macedonia Square (The city centre).
we stayed in a superior room with city view and spa bath (a nice touch after long days exploring!) and the price was super reasonable. The hotel was a pretty perfect choice!
! TOP TIP ! we found it so helpful this time round that we had breakfast included at the hotel – we normally head out to find things ourselves for breakfast, but most of the restaurants in the centre only had lunch & dinner menus available so we may of struggled a little had we not got breakfast included.
The breakfast was fab, with so much to choose from; cooked english, traditional macedonian, fruit salads, cereals, pancakes etc etc – because of COVID-19, we only saw around four other guests in the hotel the whole time and so pretty much had breakfast to ourselves!
So tell me about Skopje..
While a fairly small city there is sooo much culture to soak up in Skopje.
Fun fact!: Mother Teresa was actually born and baptised in Skopje and there is two memorials to her in the city. The museum is actually free to enter and well worth a mooch round!
Interestingly the Government in charge in 2014 decided to completely redesign the City. Though works are said to still not be fully complete, Skopje is known as the ‘city of statues’ it is said that there are over 300 in the whole city – but no-one has been able to accurately count them all! trust me they are EVERYWHERE! A lot of the buildings you’ll see in Skopje are actually only 5/6 years old but have been designed to look ‘older’ in keeping with the actual ‘age’ of Skopje.
! TOP TIP ! If you are short of time or don’t know where to start, join a free walking tour with Free Skopje Walking Tours. I’ll link all their info below! Due to COVID-19 they’re running an on demand service so make sure you get in touch with them a couple of days before you want the tour.
What MUST i see while in Skopje?
While you get so much out of just wandering the streets of Skopje, there’s deffo a few things not to be missed.
The Old Bazaar
The old bazaar is actually the second biggest bazaar in Europe, second only to Istanbul. It is still known as the ‘turkish bazaar’ due to the ottoman rule in Macedonia.
It is jam packed with hundreds of shops containing traditional and modern souvenirs, bakeries and coffee shops. So easy to get lost exploring the winding paths and never ending shops! Not to be missed.
To get here – simply cross the stone bridge from Macedonia Square you’ll walk right in to it.
Be sure to make a stop at ‘Kaldrma Rajika Bar’ at the start of the Bazaar. The first ever Rajika bar in Skopje.
‘Rajika’ pronounced RAK-EE-YA is a collection of fruit spirits (normally brandy) and is to be enjoyed slooooowly! at 40% ABV, definitely not one to shot!
Skopje fortress, while not the most attractive is definitely worth paying a visit. We got to the top right before sunset are were not disappointed! The actual fortress itself has been left in pretty bad shape, and it doesn’t appear the government put any money into restoring it. The best bit: the panoramic and undisturbed views of the city (if that’s your thing – check it out).
Located a short bus ride just out of the centre of Skopje, Matka Canyon is home to several monasteries, Cave Vrelo and 50,000 hectares of gorgeous landscapes. To get here, take the number 60 bus from Skopje bus station and get off at the last stop. i think the tickets worked out at less than £1 return pp. When you get off the bus its about a 1k walk right up to the canyon – one thing we noticed about Macedonia is that attractions are not well sign posted! and with no free data roaming in the country this was a little difficult. Its a straight road right up and so easy to find when you know the way!
BE AWARE! The buses in Macedonia can be a little unpredictable, and often run off their own timetables. You may find yourself waiting a little for a bus to arrive (if it does!) but hey, all part of the fun of travelling right?!
While you’re at Matka Canyon you can take a boat trip right over the canyon and stop off at the Cave Vrelo – one of the deepest caves in Europe! If a boat isn’t your thing, kayaks are available to hire and super reasonably priced. Be sure to have stop for a drink at the (only) restaurant in the Canyon. The views alone are worth sitting for a while!
- The Millennium Cross – Bus 25 takes you to the bottom of the hill where you can grab a ride right to the top in the cable car. Unfortunately due to COVID-19 this attraction is closed – boo!
- Macedonian Gate – You can actually rent the top area and have ceremonies such as weddings etc in here (pre COVID-19 of course)
- Senigallia Hotel – Shaped like an old pirate ship, worth getting a quick snap of this as well as sitting outside on the bow with a drink and taking in the view!
There are loads of restaurants and cafes to choose from in Skopje with a good range of cuisines on offer. For traditional Macedonian we went to old city house. The food was wonderful! there was so much on the menu it was hard to choose. In the end we went for salted baked potatoes, tavce gravce, macedonian pork sausage, traditional bread and avjar.
! TOP TIP ! Be sure to go to local bakeries throughout Skopje for traditional Macedonian Burek. You can literally eat burek for breakfast, lunch, dinner and even a snack. You can’t leave Macedonia without trying one and for around 75p they are a steal! especially for those doing budget travel like backpackers.
If you want a ‘cheat’ cuisine whilst in Skopje, Amigos was great! Mexican with a twist. Every day there is a different deal so worth checking the menu ahead to see which day suits you. The cocktails here were super super cheap – around £3 each for all flavours, even the premium ones. The decor is also cute and such a nice atmosphere in the heart of the city.
It wouldn’t be a birthday trip without the obligatory birthday ‘posh meal’! For this we went to Distrikt Bar and Kitchen – located in the Marriott Hotel. We each got a burger as we both fancied something stodgy. My Boyfriend is vegetarian and went for the falafel burger and i had the Distrikt burger. The wine here was out of this world – wow! Would absolutely recommend Distrikt if you’re wanting something more mid-high price range. I say high but for two main meals and 4 wines it was just over £25 – another steal!
I am so glad we stumbled upon the option of going to Skopje. The city itself was different to any other we have visited. I always find it a real treat to visit somewhere that is a little less touristy as you really get to soak up the culture without any huge western modernisation. Did you know there is not ONE McDonalds in the whole of North Macedonia?! If Skopje isn’t on your list to visit – it may be worth having a rethink!