FIVE REASONS TO VISIT SKOPJE
Updated: Aug 14, 2022
The first question on everyone’s lips was “Why Skopje?” While Macedonians are very (and rightfully) proud of their country and heritage, it is not on the top of everyone’s top destination lists, especially in March. I am here to change your mind. History, hospitality, and so many interesting contrasts made it one of the more fascinating capital cities I have visited.
So why did I come to Skopje? It’s a long story, so I’ll make it short - in February 2022 my apartment in Berlin was flooded. I already had a ski trip booked to the alps, so a few days before the ski trip ended I decided the universe is sending me a sign that I should travel this March, and I booked the cheapest flight out of Geneva to a place I’d never visited before - enter Skopje.
The capital of recently renamed North Macedonia has traces of thousands of years of history, and was the site of a truly colorful (and relatively successful) revolution just in the past decade. On one side of the Vardar river that bisects the city, centuries old structures and traditions are upheld. On the other side and along the riverfront, stately buildings and statues controversially built to spur tourism in the 2010s rise up, and beyond the city’s peculiar skyline you can always see the Millenium Cross above Vodno Mountain peering down. I am here to share a few gems from my time working remotely in Skopje for a week, and a few of the things I wish I had time for if I had stayed longer.
Top 5 things to do in and around Skopje
1. Dine and dance in a kafana in Debar Maalo
Debar Maalo is the new bohemian part of town, and it is where I stayed on the recommendation of my friend. As night falls, the many coffee shops throughout the neighborhood gradually turn into restaurants, that fill up growing groups of families and friends as musicians start tuning their instruments. Quick-footed waiters start bringing out plates of white cheese, kebapci, shopska salad, meats, and as the musicians get going, singing popular songs from across the Balkans, the diners join in and the rakija and wine starts pouring. Welcome to Macedonian’s daily party: the kafana!
I arrived on a Monday night and went to a kafana, essentially a Balkan restaurant with live music, named after the neighborhood, Debar Maalo. I had barely made it through my enormous meal (I tend to overorder on the first day - is anyone else guilty of this?) before I was invited by the festive group of friends at the table beside me to join them. When I asked them what they were celebrating they laughed. “Oh this is just what after work drinks in Skopje looks like!” Before I knew it, I had three different types of rakija in front of me and a musician playing a classic Macedonian song in my ear, my new friends all singing along around me. Macedonians truly exemplify the famous Balkan hospitality!
If you want to follow up the traditional music of a kafana with something more modern, I’d recommend checking out if Radio or 1212 have any good DJs playing that night. Or for a more chill post-kafana setting, you could get a drink at the very chill Che beer bar or Sindikat whisky bar.
Three kafanas to try:
2. Explore the Kale Fortress
I visited the Skopje Fortress, locally known as Kale, on a morning run that took me through City Park, along the Vardar river following the Trail of Mother Theresa (who was actually born in Skopje) and then up to the imposing fortress that looks out over the city center. The fortress we see today was mostly built in 6th century and recently repaired (given damages sustained during an earthquake that devastated the city in 1963), but archaeological excavations of the site have proven that the site has been consistently inhabited since 3000 BC.
Like most archaeological sites, a lack of funding means there are more questions than answers regarding the ancient history of the fortress’ location, but I encourage you to use your imagination as you wander around the ruins and enjoy the sweeping views of the city, snow-peaked mountains rising in the distance.
3. Barter and eat pide and baklava in the Old Bazaar
The Old Bazaar of Skopje, at the foot of the fortress, has been operating as a bazaar at least since the 12th century and is the largest bazaar in the Balkans outside of Istanbul. In the bazaar you’ll find a lot of handicraft shops, particularly jewelry stores for traditional silver filigree, wedding outfit shops (after seeing a kafana on a Monday night, I can only imagine what an event a Macedonian wedding is!), and coffee shops where men sit and drink tea and gamble for hours. Nestled within the bazaar are several mosques, the call to prayer echoing among the alleyways five times a day as cats move between the shadows and people rush to their next errand.
I had a delicious pide (Turkish pizza, 160-190 MKD) at Gallery 7, a Turkish restaurant hidden down a little side street in the bazaar. This spot was set up as an art gallery and hub for locals interested in the arts, and is very popular among university students in the summer. On my way back I also had to stop at Baklava Nexho, for baklava dripping with delicious sugar syrup enveloping roughly ground nuts and flaky pastry.
As you leave the bazaar and walk back towards the Vardar river, you will also come across the hamam, which was used to be one of the biggest bath houses in the Balkans in roman times, and now houses art galleries.
4. Appreciate views and frescoes on Vodno Mountain
Vodno Mountain is visible from practically every point in Skopje, and being a sucker for a good view (especially when there is potential for an art history lesson mixed in) I was bummed I didn’t end up having time for this. Halfway up Vodno Mountain, at Sredno Vodno, you can take a cable car to the Millenium Cross at its peak (though the times for the cable car are unpredictable and its been mostly closed due to Covid). There are also lots of hiking trails around there, one of them leading to the village of Gorno Nerezi, home to a 12th century orthodox church with a fresco that is said to be one of the first examples of emotion shown in religious imagery. Hopefully you’re not caught up in work while you’re visiting and can make time for these gems! Skopje Daily Tours has some good tours from there.
5. Get into nature in Matka Canyon
Every summer when Skopje becomes unbearably hot, the city heads out to Matka Canyon, a supposedly stunning canyon (I didn’t have time to go) with great swimming, kayaking, and time in nature that will make you feel miles away from a European capital city. Either book a tour there or take a series of buses and then a cab to travel there on the cheap. You can also hike from the Millenium Cross, about a 6-8 hr hike depending on your speed and number of breaks, but I’ve heard it offers up stunning views the whole way.
Now that I have hopefully piqued your interest in visiting this fascinating city, here is some useful info.
🗣 Language: Macedonian (written in Cyrillic, south Slavic linguistic family) - but everyone I met spoke excellent English
💵 Currency: Macedonian Denar (MKD) (when I was there exchange rate was 60 MKD = 1 EUR)
💸 Tipping: Not necessary, but if service is good, throw in an extra 10-15 MKD
🚰 Tap water: safe to drink
🚕 Transportation: Get a card to use the local bus service or download Cammeo, the local taxi app. Uber is not available in Skopje.
🥗 Dish to try: shopska salad - a must on every Macedonian dinner table, and you’re supposed to take a bite of it in between every sip of rakija
🍷 Drink to try: Rakija or the local wine (most restaurants have their own barrel and the quality is surprisingly decent)
🏛 Favorite fun fact: A Roman emperor was born on the outskirts of Skopje, Justinian I, as was Mother Theresa.
💃 Song to listen to: Proud - Tamara Todevska - leave it to me to suggest a Eurovision song, but like most small European countries, they take this annual beloved event very seriously and in 2019 placed 7th with this song, a memorable feat for a country of 2 million that certainly have a lot of pride.