My quest to visit every country in Europe has almost come to an end, and as of this year only 4 countries remained on the to-do list, one of which was (North) Macedonia. I won’t be using it’s ‘official’ name as locals have told me they themselves prefer not to use it. So after a stay back in the UK, instead of returning home to Ukraine I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to jump on a plane to the Macedonian capital Skopje and get to work exploring this unique Balkan country. I have to admit that before arriving I knew next to nothing about this country, so it was very interesting for me to spend two weeks there exploring and getting to know the culture. If you’re planning or considering a trip to Skopje any time soon, read on for some of my thoughts on what to do while you’re there.
I’ll preface the rest of the post by saying I absolutely loved Skopje. I’d heard differing opinions on it before visiting, some positive, some not, and I also didn’t know much about it, but I had a really good first impression of it and enjoyed my stay a lot. Obviously I don’t recommend everyone to stay 2 whole weeks just in Skopje – I did so because I was working remotely the entire time and so my days were mostly spent either in my room or in a cafe on my laptop, with evenings and weekends for exploration. As a regular traveller I’d suggest 2-3 days in Skopje to see pretty much everything you might want to see, before moving on to other destinations in the area. That said, I really fell in love with this cute and cool Balkan city – on my first day I was walking around with big eyes just taking things in and saying ‘wow’ to myself over and over. Each person is likely to have their own opinion, but the city’s mix of Greek and Balkan styles definitely hit the spot for me.
First things first though:
What’s the covid situation?
The good news for prospective visitors to Macedonia is that (at the moment of writing this blog post) there are no special requirements for anyone who wants to travel there. Visitors do not need a test, proof of vaccination or insurance to enter – you simply follow the usual rules depending on your nationality, passport and travel origin (obviously you should check all requirements for your particular case before making any travel plans). In July 2021, as British person flying from the UK, nothing was needed except my passport.
Within the country things are fairly relaxed – as far as I can tell everything was open as usual, and the curfew that was in place earlier in the year had been lifted along with any significant rulings on things like group sizes or social distancing. Masks are required in some indoor places like hotels (in public areas), supermarkets and shops, and you should definitely carry a mask with you in case you need it at certain points, although it’s not required outdoors. Of course you should also follow the usual common sense precautions and respect any rules that are in place in any venue you visit, but that goes without saying. By and large there are no restrictive measures that would impact your visit.
As an aside – if you need a test to fly back to your own country there is a very efficient testing center located at Skopje airport offering rapid PCR and rapid antigen tests. We took a rapid antigen test to fly to Montenegro afterwards, at a cost of 25 euro per person, and received printed results within 15 minutes. (In fact it wasn’t needed but that’s another story and I’d always rather be safe than sorry when it comes to meeting testing requirements).
Now on to the more fun stuff:
Visit the central square
Like in almost any European city, there is of course a central square that roughly represents the center of the city, which is often a good starting point for your exploration. Many major hotels and hostels are located very near to here, so you are likely to encounter it pretty quickly without any special effort (honestly, it’s a small and very walkable city and you don’t actually need a Trip Advisor list or travel guide to see pretty much everything within 1-2 days without much work). This square very prominently features a large and impressive statue of Alexander the Great, aka Alexander III of Macedon, which as you might guess is modern-day Macedonia.
One noticeable feature of Skopje is that it plays host to a very large number of grand-looking statues and fountains – probably more than in most other European cities when you take size into account.
Around this square you’ll find loads of restaurants, cafes, bars etc… Mostly more modern and international/European ones. If you want traditional food in a more rustic/original setting, then you’ll want to head to the bazaar/old town area which is on the other side of the river, not more than 10 minutes walk away.
Cross the Stone Bridge
The Stone Bridge is one of Skopje’s biggest tourist must-sees, and is pretty much self-explanatory. It is, indeed, a stone bridge as the name suggests. Construction began on the bridge in 1451 so it really it a historical part of the city and survived a major earthquake in 1963 that destroyed the majority of the city’s buildings. Not only is it a nice piece of historical architecture but it’s also a very convenient link between the Old Bazaar and Macedonia Square, so you’re sure to cross it a few times and be able to appreciate its construction and the nice views across the river and towards both sides of the city.
Enter the Museum of Archaeology
I don’t often spend a lot of my time visiting huge numbers of museums when I visit cities (just my preferred style of travel), but after crossing the Stone Bridge it’s almost impossible not to notice the Museum of Archaeology which is located in a pretty majestic building right beside the river. Since I was strolling around the city alone on my first day in Skopje I decided to go in and have a look. The exhibits are basically what you’d expect – some archaeological finds from various periods in Macedonia’s history such as pottery, jewellery, tools, decorative items etc, plus a number of statues. You can look around the museum in approximately 45 minutes depending on how long you tend to spend looking at things and reading about them, and the ticket was 150 dinar, aka around 2.50 euro so pretty cheap. I had a good time looking around this museum and if museums are your thing you should definitely visit while you’re in Skopje.
Visit the Old Bazaar
After passing the Stone Bridge and Archaeological Museum you’ll enter the Old Bazaar area which is probably the best part of Skopje if you like that kind of bustling market vibe. The area has a strong Turkish influence with stalls selling Turkish coffee/tea (recommended!), desserts like baklava, Turkish food (as well as plenty of nice traditional Macedonian places of course) and a number of mosques. One very cool thing about this area is that there are also several fountains with free drinking water which is a real plus for me as it also means you don’t have to keep buying plastic bottles of water. Having a stroll around here, sitting at an outdoor table for a traditional meal, drinking a Turkish coffee or getting an ice cream from one of the many kiosks and possibly buying a souvenir or two is definitely a highlight of spending time in this city.
Check out the views from the fortress
On the other side of the old bazaar, slightly up the hill, you will find Skopje Fortress. Entry to the grounds is free of charge and you can not only explore the ruins of the old fortification but also catch the best available views of the city. There are usually a number of guides hanging around the area in case you are interested in taking a more official tour. Otherwise you can just stroll around on your own and take a walk along the walls to enjoy the 360 degree views.
Take a day trip to Matka Canyon
Lovely as Skopje is, it’s not very big, and in summer you may bemoan the lack of a sea breeze or lakeside to retreat to. Luckily though, there is a lovely spot that you can drive to within around 30 minutes.
Matka Canyon is a popular spot for walking, kayaking, boat trips and even climbing and it makes a really good day trip (or afternoon trip – you can probably see and do all you need to within 2-3 hours unless you want to do a specific activity like climbing or kayaking, or you wish to eat at one of the restaurants there). There is a bus from the city but the easiest way to reach Matka is either by driving or taking a taxi. It may sound strange to take a taxi such a long way, but taxis are pretty affordable and you can get one to drive you there, wait 2 hours and drive you back for around 20 euro.
The area is fairly busy with tourists in summer as you might expect, but is still a very picturesque spot and a good place to get away from the city and chill in nature for a few hours. Temperatures in the city get easily to the late 30s in summer, and this is also a good place to seek cooler temperatures.
Take a day trip to Kosovo
Another good option for a day trip is to cross the border into neighbouring Kosovo. While this may seem a little extreme for a day trip, it’s actually really doable within one day (depending on how long you might want to spend in particular places).
Again, there is a bus, but we chose to take a taxi for simplicity. Prices are something like 120-150 euro to get a taxi driver to take you over the border and to your chosen destination/s and then back to Skopje by evening. You can discuss the price and service with the driver individually. We agreed that they would take us to Pristina for 2-3 hours, then to Prizren and the mountains for another few hours, then back to Skopje. Skopje to Pristina takes approximately 1.5 hours, so you need to factor in roughly 3 hours of travel time overall.
There is some confusion and mixed information online about the rules for crossing from Macedonia to Kosovo and vice-versa. As always, this does depend on your passport and the situation at the time of travel, so you should always check on a reputable site regarding what rules apply right now. As of July 2021, however, with one British and one Italian passport, we were able to cross both ways with no need for a test, proof of vaccination, visa or any other documents or conditions. So, as far as I am aware, travel to and from Kosovo from Skopje is no problem at all for most passports. The border crossing was fairly quick with maybe 15 minutes or so queue on each side. However the one thing to be aware of is that you cannot cross from Kosovo directly into Serbia, since this is not recognised as an official border crossing by Serbia, meaning you’d have technically entered the country ‘illegally’ in Serbian law. Your best bet is to cross from Macedonia into Kosovo and back again via the same route, and to visit Serbia separately if you wish to do so.
Pristina is the capital of Kosovo and a good choice for a day trip from Skopje. It’s a fairly small and walkable city and you can easily see all the major sites within 2-3 hours. The major sites in Pristina include the Bill Clinton statue, the Mother Teresa Monument, the Skanderbeg statue, Mother Teresa Cathedral and the Newborn Monument. I personally found 2 hours to be enough to have a walk around the major sites and be ready to leave again, but some people have told me they really liked Pristina and wanted to spend longer there, so really it’s down to personal preference.
I’d personally recommend to save more time for Prizren and/or the mountains. Visiting the mountains in the south of Kosovo was the highlight of my day, much more so than going to Pristina, so if there is good weather you should try to stop there for a walk and a look at the amazing views.
This is by no means a full list of every single thing there is to do in Skopje, nor every possible place you can visit from the city, it’s just a summary of my highlights from the trip. I really enjoyed Skopje and would recommend any fans of the Balkans to add it to their itinerary.
Let me know if I’ve missed any of your favourite things to do in the comments, or if you’d like any other information or more detailed recommendation!