My first trip to North Macedonia was in 2011 and since then I’ve been there TWELVE times! Of course, I’ve done plenty of sightseeing and know Skopje, the capital city of North Macedonia, like the back of my hand, but the reason I visited so many times was because I found love there! Not everlasting love, if that even exists, but love nonetheless! However, it was pretty steamy while it lasted!
These past few years, thanks to Wizzair, I’ve flown directly to Skopje from Malta, my home country, but in the past I had to be pretty inventive at getting there. On a few occasions, I flew to Skopje via some other airport (via Munich or Frankfurt, for example) but that was rather expensive so most times I just took a direct flight to some neighbouring country and caught a bus or train from there.
My first time was by mini-van from Thessaloniki in Greece while on other occasions it was a 5-hour bus ride from Sofia in Bulgaria! Once, it was even a train ride from Belgrade in Serbia, but NEVER AGAIN! That train was so rundown and moved so slowly that I thought it would take me days to get to Skopje, if at all!
Anyway, I transgress. What I love about Skopje is how different it is to all other European capital cities and how cheap it is. Accommodation is dirt cheap compared to other countries and you can easily book a whole apartment for yourself at less than €20 per night right in the city centre! Eating out is also cheap, particularly around the so-called Bohemian district, with coffee and burek pie, in particular, both delicious and worth every denar (the currency used in North Macedonia).
I have to say that North Macedonia, and Skopje in particular, should definitely be on your bucket list if you’ve not been there yet. Skopje, proudly standing on the banks of the Vardar River, is a very unusual city that doesn’t resemble any other city in Europe! It’s been called the capital of kitsch or the city of statues and not without reason. The joke among the locals is that one can find more statues than people living there! That’s not true of course but you get my drift.
In 1963, Skopje was devastated by an earthquake that claimed close to 80% of the city’s architecture. In response, hundreds of plain-fronted, brutalist-style buildings were constructed to fill the space. In 2010, North Macedonia announced the Skopje 2014 project, financed by the Macedonian government, which sought to provide the capital with a bit of a face-lift.
Existing buildings received brand-new frontages reflecting more classical architecture, and hundreds of monuments and statues began to appear to tell the country’s story. The project, while well-meaning, created a bit of controversy for Macedonians who found the effort to be both misleading and a waste of resources.
The project had two main aims: to draw in more tourists and to try to reclaim aspects of the country’s history from neighbouring Greece, appealing to the patriotism of many ethnic Macedonians. It has cost somewhere between €80 million and €500 million (depending on who you talk to) and has resulted in a completely new-look city centre. Skopje’s new neo-classical splendour is divisive and expensive – not to mention of questionable taste. But one thing’s for sure: it’s made the Macedonian capital a truly surprising and impressive spectacle!
In the past, foreign visitors used to come to Skopje primarily to wander around the beautiful Old Bazaar district, with its alleys, mosques and old hilltop fort. One can still do that of course, but now one can go in less than five minutes from drinking a Turkish coffee among people and architecture that wouldn’t be out of place in a traditional city of the Middle East to being surrounded by faux-classical European architecture and imagery.
Since you’ll be planning on seeing the sights while visiting Skopje, you’ll want to know the best way to get around the city. Although the city limits of Skopje stretch out quite a long way, you won’t have much need to wander far from the city centre. Even with the Vardar River carving its way through the city, getting from one side to the other is a breeze thanks to Skopje’s many bridges.
What all of this means is that you’ll have no problem getting around Skopje on foot. Most of the city’s major sights are neatly grouped together, reducing any need for extra walking. However, depending on how you arrive in Skopje or where you are staying, you may find the need for public transport. Skopje is connected by a network of red double-decker buses, which will have you thinking you’re in London! However, in my case, I hired a car each time as I needed to go to different parts of the city and doing so by bus would have taken up too much of my time!
Anyway, there’s probably no other place to start your Skopje visit than at Macedonia Square in the heart of the city. A great round plaza with crowds of people regularly passing through, Macedonia Square focuses on a gigantic statue known as the Warrior on a Horse. Clearly meant to depict Alexander the Great (and also clearly meant to irk the Greeks), this oversized statue sits within an elaborate fountain (it’s covered and non-operational in the winter months), which quickly draws your attention.
Nearby, statues of former rulers and saints seem to be crammed by the dozen into all available spaces, along with the city’s own Arc de Triomphe! You’ll also notice there’s a thriving café scene here with lots of cosy cafes and restaurants, particularly along the Vardar River.
Across the river and connecting the main square with the historic centre to the north is the city’s beautiful Old Stone Bridge, perhaps the next most symbolic sight after the Warrior on a Horse statue. This bridge dates back to the 6th century, which helps explain why it has pride of place on Skopje’s coat of arms and flag. Once you cross this bridge, you can’t miss another towering statue, this time that of Philip of Macedonia, with hand raised to the heavens.
Interestingly, the Old Stone Bridge sticks out in comparison to the rest of the riverfront here. A great deal of effort has gone into redeveloping this part of the city with new bridges, promenades, and buildings added in recent years. Depending on your tastes, you’ll likely find this grandiose style of architecture to be either impressive or tacky, but interesting either way. Spots not to miss include the bridge leading to the city’s Archaeological Museum with its row of endless statues and lavish street-lamps, as well as the two pirate ships that feature restaurants and even a hotel!
After crossing the Old Stone Bridge, you soon find yourself walking through the more historic Old Bazaar, the largest bazaar in the Balkans. Made of traditional buildings, housing shops, restaurants and cafes, the bazaar has been the hub of trade in Skopje since as far back as the 12th century. Unlike in the city centre, the Ottoman heritage is clearly reflected in the architecture and atmosphere, not to mention the several mosques nearby.
The other landmark of Skopje to earn its way onto the city’s coat of arms is Kale Fortress. Looming over the Old Bazaar, this is one landmark that’s hard to miss. Believed to date back to the 6th century with additions later on, the fortress has long influenced the fate of the city. Once you find your way up to the fortress, you’re able to walk along the fortified walls and enjoy a good vantage point of the city below. Like much of Skopje, the fortress suffered damage during the 1963 earthquake that shook the city but has undergone repairs and excavations several times in the last decade.
Just west of the city centre stands Skopje’s modern Orthodox Cathedral building, also known as the Ministry Temple, with Saint Clement of Ohrid as its patron. Nearly 6,000 people can gather inside this church! The church, built in 1972, has a very unusual design from the outside. However the interior is utterly brilliant. When you enter the church, the iconostasis made of oak wood attracts particular attention.
Many people forget or simply don’t know that the world-famous missionary and saint Mother Teresa was actually born in the city of Skopje. Without doubt the most famous person to come from the city, it makes sense that they would want to honour her and her legacy in some way. While there are many plaques scattered about the city bearing quotes by Mother Teresa, the Memorial House is the main landmark dedicated to her. Built on the site of the church in which Mother Teresa was baptised, this memorial contains a small museum and gallery documenting her life through photographs and relics. Inside is even a small chapel where mass is held each Tuesday.
Easily visible from the city centre is Mount Vodno. It’s definitely worth going up there but if you don’t feel like hiking up this 1066-metre-high mountain, you can take the cable car from half way up the summit (you can reach this half-way point by car or by bus). Once you’ve made it to the top, you’ll find the 66-metre high Millennium Cross standing before you. From here, you’ll be treated to sweeping panoramic views of Skopje although walking around the area is also recommended for its beautiful scenery.
Another must is a trip out to Matka Canyon. Located not far from the city on the far side of Mount Vodno, this canyon is great for people looking to go sightseeing or enjoying some outdoor activities on the large and artificial Matka Lake. Out on the water, you can enjoy a relaxing boat ride or paddle about in kayaks. The canyon is also home to ten caves which feature walkways, while you can also spend the day hiking along the gorge and visiting a few medieval monasteries that have long been hidden away here.
Is it worth visiting Skopje? Let me answer this with a big resounding YES! Skopje is cheap and fun. It is also a very safe city with many different things too, day tours, trips, and so much culture. I recommend that you spend at least 2 to 3 days in Skopje. That way, you’ll get to see the sights and relax a bit as well. And if you can extend your stay, then I suggest you include at least a couple of days by the enchanting Lake Ohrid and a day trip to Pristina, the capital city of neighbouring Kosovo, Europe’s newest country!