North Macedonia sits in the middle of the Balkans, surrounded by Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece to the south. Where is South Macedonia you might ask? It doesn't exist. But the northern part of Greece is called Greek Macedonia and was once the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon. This differentiation is important to Greece and they weren't fond of the former Republic of Macedonia being shortened to simply "Macedonia". In 2018, the issue was addressed between the Macedonian and Greek parliaments and the Republic of Macedonia was officially changed to the Republic of North Macedonia in early 2019.
North Macedonia is a fairly new country, having declared independence from Yugoslavia in September 1991. Our first stop was the country's capital of Skopje in the north. The history of Skopje dates back to at least 4000 BC, but the modern city's architecture was erected after an earthquake destroyed over half the ancient buildings in 1963. Mostly described as brutalist architecture, the large, blocky buildings throughout the city centre are made mostly of concrete. To add to the unique look, in 2010, the ruling party announced a project called Skopje 2014, which set out to add a more classical appeal to the city. Between 2010 and 2014, 136 structures were built across the city (a lot of them being strange, kitsch statues of different figures from history). In 2018, conversations began about removing these structures.
Aside from the interesting decor, the city of Skopje is quite lovely and was the birthplace of Mother Teresa. The Vardar River runs through the centre of the city and several bridges connect the main square in the south with the Old Bazaar and Kale Fortress in the north. The best way to explore is by foot, as every turn you make you will discover a new statue, bridge or ancient place. There are even a few craft breweries and beer bars. We also found 3 puppies in the main shopping street, so it's a small miracle we left the city at all.
Nearby to Skopje, you will find the Matka Canyon. We were able to find a bus that ran from the main bus station directly to the canyon. It took about an hour to travel the 16kms southwest. The turquoise blue waters are beautiful (and a little unexpected). For a reasonable price, you can get a boat ride down the canyon to a small cave that is lit up to highlight the large stalagmites inside. There is also a walking path along the side of the canyon that you can venture down to see the views without so many people around. It does get busy, so try to go on a weekday if possible.
We used Skopje as our base to jump over to Kosovo (read more about that here) and then headed onward to Lake Ohrid. We were pleasantly surprised by what a hidden gem (well, maybe not so hidden anymore) the lake proved to be. The water was a beautiful blue colour, with snow capped hills surrounding it. We used the city of Ohrid as our base to explore the surrounding areas
The city of Ohrid is a treasure chest of sites to explore and discover. We set out on foot and first visited the churches and area around around Holy Mary Perybleptos. We headed down the small hill to the Ancient Theater and met two adorable street dogs that escorted us on the walk up to Samuel's Fortress. After exploring the fortress walls, we walked down through the woods to the museum area around Saint Pantelejmon/Saint Clement. If you have a student card, it will go a long way with saving on entrance fees. We headed further down to the water's edge, to the picturesque St. John the Theologian at Kaneo. The views from this church are hard to beat and the small church grounds are a popular attraction on the water. We found the path along the shoreline and walked through the small restaurants, to the wooden boardwalk, back to the main port.
The following day, we took a day trip by boat to the Monastery of St. Naum. The scenery along the water was breathtaking. It had recently snowed so the tops of the hills surrounding the lake were covered is fresh, white snow and the water below was turquoise. The Monastery was also beautiful, set on a small hill overlooking the water. The resident peacocks greeted us as we explored the small grounds and the church. We had plenty of free time to have lunch, and relax at the nearby beach before catching of boat back to Ohrid. We also stopped to see the Bay of Bones museum, a reconstruction of a settlement on the water.
On our final day, we took a bus 70km to Bitola. Our main destination was the remains of the ancient Greek city of Heraclea Lyncestis. The city was founded in the middle of the 4th century BC by the king of the Greek kingdom of Macedon. In the middle of the 2nd century BC, Romans conquered Macedon and ruled Heraclea Lyncestis. The site is well preserved, espeically the incredible mosaics that remain uncovered and relatively unprotected by security (except one guy that sits in the building at the entrance). After exploring, we walked into the centre of the town for lunch. There is one main street with plenty of coffee shops to stop and sit at, but not too much else to see.
The only challenge with had with Lake Ohrid was finding the correct information to get into Albania. Every person we asked had different information on how to get there. We were told we could cross the border near St. Naum, but if there was no taxi there to take you to the check point you might end up walking quite far. A few people seemed fairly certain we could get a bus from Struga to Korçë in Albania, so we took a local shared taxi to the bus station to try our luck. When we arrived in Struga the bus station attendant told us there was no bus on that route, so our only option was to take another taxi to Pogradec on the Albanian side of Lake Ohrid. Thankfully the taxis are cheap and we drove the scenic route around the western shore of the lakeand got our final stunning views of North Macedonia.
Questions about travelling in North Macedonia? Email us and we will be happy to help!