North Macedonia (formally known as Macedonia (FYROM) until February 2019) is probably – alongside its smaller neighbour Kosovo – the least visited of the seven nations that made up Yugoslavia.
Yet while its more prestigious ex-partners take up much of the spotlight, there is a great deal of enjoyment a visitor can have from taking in the sights of this landlocked new Balkan country; having only gained its independence in 1991.
The first thing to note about this relatively untouched European destination is that, as tourists have yet to discover its charms, it remains pretty cheap to travel here. It was for that very reason that I wanted to go and see what the city of Skopje had to offer.
So what should a first time traveller to North Macedonia know before heading there? Well one thing to know for sure is the currency. In North Macedonia the local currency is the Macedonian Denar. This is what is known as a closed currency and, therefore, you are unable to purchase it in the UK before you head to the region. However, once you are there you’ll be able to get some easily from ATMs or a Bureau de Change. Failing that, credit cards are widely accepted. For reference £1 gets you around 60 – 70 Macedonian Denar.
The next thing to recognise is the climate. The weather – like the UK – can change and vary month-on-month. I travelled to Skopje at the end of June / start of July so the average temperatures ranged from 29°c to around 31°c. So be prepared for it to feel quite warm. If you travel in the winter then the temperatures can drop to averages of around 5°c to as low as -4°c.
The city itself is full of interesting history and a lot of it is pretty recent. The fall of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s has left its mark on the city and its people. Many of whom have since seen some of their former countrymen in the other states prosper more (Croatia and Slovenia for example) due to greater tourist numbers and good trade deals. North Macedonia, it is safe to say, remains somewhat behind on both these fronts. But it is improving.
Yet despite modest tourist numbers, the city itself is pretty busy. Skopje is the largest city in North Macedonia and is its capital. However, by European standards, it’s classed as a medium-sized city. Saying that, it is home to some half a million people; many of whom are of Albanian and Kosovan heritage – both of which share borders with the country alongside Greece and Bulgaria.
There is plenty to see and do in Skopje and most of it can be done over a long weekend. Many of the city’s landmarks – such as the Warrior on a Horse statue – have received welcome investment in recent years. Back in 2014, the Skopje 2014 project, financed by the Macedonian government of the then-ruling party, restored and renewed much of the city’s architecture in the hope of making the city the next must-see place for tourists. Time will tell if it is working.
Flights to Skopje are yet to become common place but you can fly directly from London to the North Macedonian capital. For my trip I flew with the Hungarian flight operator Wizz Air from London Luton.
Due to there being a real lack of options to fly to Skopje from the UK (when I check while writing this piece there was currently only the London Luton to Skopje direct route with Wizz Air available) you are rather at the mercy of the flight company in terms of the prices they want to charge. To give you an idea, however, for two people flying out of the UK at the end of June and returning a few days into July, a roundtrip cost me £249.96.
I will say however, that if I got the choice I would not fly with Wizz Air. Our flight was delayed leaving London Luton due to a fault on the plane with all passengers and their luggage already on board. Now I have no problem with the flight not leaving on time if there is a safety issue. That’s totally understandable. However, the staff failed to provide any information to the passengers and used a loophole in aviation law to ensure they did not have to meet their statutory requirements of food and drink for flights delayed over a certain length of time. That’s my moan over.
Once we were in the air the flight – although basic – was straightforward and took about three hours. Skopje International Airport is not much better than the flight itself either, although there has been some redevelopment of the passenger area since the mid 2000s. Each year on average (according to 2019 figures anway) around 2.4m passengers travel to Skopje International Airport.
Once you’ve arrived in Skopje you’ll discover you are around 25km outside the centre of the city. There are a couple of options here. The first of these being to jump in a taxi parked in the official taxi rank (there are lots of unofficial taxis hanging around but will charge you a small fortune once they have you inside). The other option, and the one we did, was to book an airport transfer. For this we used P-Airbus.com.
This service proved to be very easy to book and picked us up directly at the airport and also dropped us back when we left. They were on time and very efficient. There are a couple of options you can book. The first is a low cost bus that costs just seven Euros per passenger for a return trip. This option means you’ll be dropped and picked up at Skopje Central Station.
The second option is slightly more expensive – but the one we opted for given that we had no previous knowledge of the layout of the city itself. This was a private car pick up. This option costs a total of 40 Euros for two people to make a return journey and takes you straight to your accommodation’s front door – which is really handy if you’re not staying in a hotel.
Where to stay
There are plenty of places to stay in Skopje. The city centre itself is home to numerous hotels and apartments. Through various investigations I did before heading to North Macedonia, I saw that there were lots of good quality hotels for very reasonable prices. Yet I didn’t feel that these hotels would give me that special local feel of what I wanted when visiting this ex-Yugoslav city.
During my stay in Skopje, therefore, I opted for the use of a wonderful AirBnB located near the centre of the city. This delightful little dwelling was located on one of the upper floors of an apartment block just off one of the main streets of the city. When we were dropped by our airport transfer at the apartment block, the host of AirBnB met us outside and gave us a a short tour of the place we would call home for four nights, as well as giving us some tips of good places to eat and drink nearby.
The one thing that made us choose an AirBnB over a hotel was that you got a whole host of interesting amenities within the apartment, as well as fantastic views from the balcony of the mountains and the Millennium Cross on the hill which is one of the famous attractions of this city.
Inside the apartment we found a spacious living area, a clean and functional kitchen area, a pleasant bathroom and a good sized bedroom for us to stay in. I personally have fond memories of laying back on the sofa during our stay, watching England knock Columbia out of the 2018 World Cup in Russia on penalties, trying not to make too much noise each time the ball hit the back of the net as my ex-wife slept in the bedroom next door.
Away from the football, and as previously mentioned, just outside the living area there was also a sizeable balcony where you could relax in the summer heat and enjoy the free-swinging chair while sampling a local drink and looking at the view.
The apartment itself was located just off one of the main boulevards that’s known as Blvd. Partizanski Odredi. It was based on a quiet backstreet called Vladimir Polezhanovsi Road. From this central location you are no more than a 15 minute walk to some of the main sites within Skopje – including the Stone Bridge.
There are three main methods of transport most travellers to Skopje will need to use to get around this city and the surrounding areas. The first is walking.
Skopje is quite compact so it is very easy to take a relaxed walk around the city to see some of its main sites such as the Stone Bridge, Skopje Fortress and the Warrior on the Horse statue in Macedonia Square. You can also take a nice walk along the Vardar River which takes you past a number of these sites.
The second main way to travel within Skopje is using the bus. I’ll be honest this bus system was perhaps one of the most confusing I’ve come across while travelling. The main bus station here is Transporten Centar (Транспортен центар) and it’s locoated adjacent to Boulevard Kuzman Josifovski Pitu near a large shopping mall.
First thing to note at this station is that if you are travelling within the country /Skopje you’ll need to use the outside portion of the bus station. I believe, the part of the bus station that is inside takes you further afield and into the neighbouring countries. The second thing to note here is that, from my experience, ignore all information that says to buy a bus ticket at the station itself. This is total rubbish. We spent a great deal of time aimlessly walking from building to building, just to be eventually told to buy our fare once we were onboard the bus. Sometimes they don’t even charge you for a journey but it’s always best to be ready to pay.
The bus itself cost me 150 Macedonian Denar, per person, each way. This works out at about £2.50. Really not bad at all. However, prices may vary for this but either way you won’t be spending a fortune.
The station itself is large but basic. A concrete creation with lines of bus stops spread across multiple roads. It’s not the type of place you would ideally hang out in for a long period of time, so hopefully you can coincide your stop there with a bus that’s about to depart. There are timetables for busses available at the station also but they really don’t stick to these times religiously. Be prepared for your bus to depart whenever the driver feels ready to go!
There are many routes you can take from this bus station, but there are two that take you directly to a couple of the main attractions; the Vodno Mountains with the Millennium Cross and Matka Canyon. For the first you’ll need the 25 bus and for the second you’ll want bus number 60. There are signs hanging above the various stops that show you where each numbered bus will stop. So simply wait at the appropriate one and get on when it arrives.
The final method of transport you’ll probably use is the cable car. This is a great way to get from the middle point of Vodno, where the bus drops you off, to the top of the mountain near the Millennium Cross.
Cable car tickets can only be purchased from the cable car station at a cost of 100 Macedonian Denar (£1.50) per person. Tickets are purchased from the ticket booth just before entering the cable car. The short journey up the mountain gives you stunning views of the surrounding area made up of woods and forests up the side of the mountain, the city of Skopje and the Millennium Cross.
The first stop on mine, and indeed any tourist visiting Skopje, was to Macedonia Square, the Warrior on a Horse statue and the Stone Bridge (all of which are free to view).
Macedonia Square is the main square in Skopje. This square remains significant to North Macedonia because it is where the country’s independence from Yugoslavia was announced.
In the centre of this square is the rather impressive Warrior on a Horse statue that towers over the surrounding area which is now made up of restaurants and hotels.
This statue was erected in 2011 and – much to the annoyance of the Greeks – had an uncanny likeness to Alexander the Great. To avoid any policital issues, rather than call it Alexander the Great statue, they settled for the much more descriptive – if less punchy – name of the Warrior on a Horse statue. Sitting around eight stories high – at about 22m – it dwarfs its surroundings.
Once you have seen the square and the statue you’ll then be able to turn around and walk across Skopje’s most famous bridge; the Stone Bridge.
Built on old Roman foundations back in the 1400s, this bridge transports visitors across the Vardar River. Made entirely from Stone – as its name would suggest – this bridge could’ve been destroyed in the Second World War, when Nazis placed explosives on it 1944, only for the Germans to give up at the last minute.
While it may not appear to be a very big bridge, its architecture is impressive and its place in Macedonian history is unquestionable.
Another unquestionable relic from North Macedonian history is Skopje Fortress. A short 15 minute walk north-west from the Stone Bridge will lead you up a hill and to the entrance of this fortress ruin.
Dating back to the 6th Century, Skopje Fortress was used primarily to defend the region from attack. While it is no longer in its former glory there is still plenty of the original walls and interiors of the fortress to make a visit more than worthwhile. And if you need any further encouragement to go; its totally free to enter!
Once inside this fortress you’ll notice that there are ample paths and trails to walk around within its walls. Much of the interior has been destroyed over the centuries, but there is still plenty of examples of ancient brickwork to witness.
The best piece of advice I can offer for a visit to Skopje Fortress is to take a walk – for as far as you can anyway – along its walls and get the wonderful views it offers of Skopje, Mount Vodno and the surrounding area.
It’s impossible to go to Skopje and miss The Millennium Cross and Mount Vodno. Even if, for some reason, you chose not to go up the mountain itself, it is almost always present given its height – day and night.
The Millennium Cross, it has to be said, is extremely ugly up close. It is a huge metal cross – one of the largest in the world – that stands at 66m tall and is around 15km outside of Skopje. At night it is lit up so it remains visible.
The distance is not too far to travel and, given that you can catch a bus to the base of the cable car, there isn’t even much walking involved. It means that this site is accessible to almost everyone.
The Millennium Cross itself was built in 2000 to serve as a memorial of 2,000 years of Christianity in Macedonia. I think it would be fair to say that they have made their point!
When you arrive at the top of Mount Vodno you find yourself in a beautiful park, surrounded by greenery. I’d suggest you take a few minutes to look around the Millennium Cross (you can’t climb it so it is just to be observed) and then head away from it to try and grab a seat near one of the stunning vistas overlooking the mountains. This is also a great place to grab a spot of lunch (either at the cafe near the cable car station or by bringing your own).
The one downside of the area is that, sadly, humans cannot be trusted to keep it looking green and there are many piles of rubbish laying around that spoil what is otherwise an idyllic setting. Please people throw your rubbish away in one of the bins – there are plenty provided!
Like the Millennium Cross, Lake Matka (within Matka Canyon) is a bus ride outside of Skopje. This may be a little further afield than the mountains – but trust me when I say it’s worth it. Also – as per everything else I’ve mentioned – there is no entrance fee to the canyon.
This man-made canyon spans around 5,000 hectares of land and is a perfect place for hiking and water sports. Many locals go swimming in the waters here but I’d advocate the hire of kayaks.
When I was there, we hired a single, two-person kayak from Almata Prima Kayak Rental and Boat Tours. You rent the kayak by the hour and prices vary depending on how long you want it for. I believe the cost of the double kayak was 500 Macedonia Denar for 60 minutes – or around £7.50.
Renting the kayak allows you to get out on the water and see the scenery at your own pace. A couple of hours should allow you to row your way up a good chunk of the canyon and back again. Do remember though that this is a kayak and you are on the water. You will get wet from the oar going in and out of the water and you do stand a chance (albeit a small one) of falling into the lake – which is quite deep!
Once back on dry land another option is to use the same company to take a boat tour down to Vrelo cave – where you’ll see a number of species of bats and numerous stalactites. This relaxed boat tour is a perfect way of laying back and taking in the views. It is also the only way you can access the cave as you’re not allowed to dock a kayak here and there is no way to walk to it. The boat ride costs around 400 Macedonia Denar each – or about £6.
Aside from viewing the sights from the water, you can also take a hike along the sides of the valley. Be warned, this is not a short walk and you will need to be physically quite fit to make it all the way to the end. Also, be aware that the end is rather underwhelming and is just a path that comes to an abrupt halt where there is no longer room for people to get by. If it’s a hot day make sure you take bottles of water with you as you’ll need it, and there is nowhere to refill – or buy new ones – once you’ve started the trek.
As mentioned, the hike is extremely long. I’m not sure of the exact length but know that it took the two of us a good three to four hours to get all the way to the end and back again.
Once you’re on the walk – and if it is the summer – you’ll notice in the wooded area that many of the trees have small caterpillars hanging down from them. And when I say many, I really mean it. There were thousands of them and we spent most of the time picking them off our clothing and from our hair. However, don’t let that put you off as a hike along this path is both physically rewarding and visually stunning.
Where to avoid
Like any city you always need to be aware of your surroundings. Yet at no point during my time in Skopje did I feel in danger. The people may not have been throwing themselves at you to be friendly, however they were always very polite and helpful when I needed them. It is still probably best to not carry too many expensive items on you – especially at night – as its not the richest of cities in Europe so you may be more unlucky than me and come across an oppitunistic thief.
In terms of sites that you can give a miss to, I’d only say that there are a great number of churches in the city and unless you have a real love for them they can become somewhat monotonous.
Also there is the sculpture of the Divers which is located just at the foot of the stone bridge. You may, therefore, not miss this one as it’s right there but it is really nothing special and something that you can probably do without.
Great places to eat
If honest, Skopje is not famous for its food. Saying that however, it does not mean you will go hungry or unfulfilled.
There are two places during my stay in North Macedonia that really stuck out to me. The first is a restaurant called Pelister which is situated right in the centre of Macedonia Square and is part of a larger hotel. The restaurant decribes itself as a place where people of different ages and professions come not only to have a lunch, but also to meet, have meetings or just a conversation.
Some travellers may be put off by its central location. I myself had this fear, thinking that it could just be a tourist trap like you sometimes get in other cities around the world, however, my fears were unfounded. This delightful restaurant does a good range of food that is well-presented with a local theme. Starters range from chicken liver salad to trout meatballs while main meals can be pizzas and pastas or meat themed dishes. There is also a wide variety of salads on offer as well for those with less of an appetite. Best of all the prices are extremely reasonable and a good meal for two is unlikely to cost you more than £20 to £30.
Make sure you opt for the outside seating on a nice day as you’ll get some amazing people watching opportunities in this busy sub-section of Skopje life.
The second place worth going to is actually outside of Skopje but accessible during a trip to Matka Canyon. This restaurant is simply called Restaurant Canyon Matka.
The restaurant is also part of the Canyon Matka hotel which was founded back in 1939. This restaurant affords beautiful views of the stunning scenery at the start of Lake Matka and allows you to soak these in while sipping a nice glass of wine – or as I did a pint or two of the local beer; Skopsko. When in North Macedonia you must try this beer. I loved it!
The food here is also very well thought out and a menu of light snacks and more filling mains is on offer to guests. As it was so hot when I was there, I chose one of their lighter salads and tucked into it while starting out across the water and soaking in my North Macedonian experience.