Though it’s suffered from a bit of an identity crisis, having changed its name because of pressures from bordering nations, what was once called the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) has now embraced what they hope to be their final moniker: North Macedonia.
A bit off the radar for tourists, North Macedonia boasts some of the most incredible landscapes and historical cities in all of the Balkan countries, and huge initiatives into refurbishing infrastructure have left them poised to invite the world for a visit.
With more airlines scheduling flights into Skopje International Airport, it’s never been easier to go, so here’s an overview of some beautiful places in North Macedonia that you may want to add to your itinerary.
Tucked into a valley ringed by mountains, Skopje, the capital and largest city in North Macedonia, is the recipient of a recent government-funded facelift as part of an initiative beginning in 2014. A massive earthquake razed much of the city in 1963, taking with it many of its historical monuments and classical buildings. As the city was reconstructed, a largely brutalist aesthetic began to take shape, but in an effort to re-establish it as a proper national capital, several neoclassical buildings and a plethora of enormous monuments were constructed.
One of the few sites not destroyed in the earthquake is the Old Bazaar. Spanning the distance between the Stone Bridge and the Fortress Kale, it has been in continuous operation since the 12th century and is easily the oldest market in the Balkans.
While Tetovo is currently experiencing a bit of an industrial and tech boom, you’ll still find some dramatic and important ottoman sites, a holdover from a different time. Certainly, the Šarena Džamija (The Painted Mosque) and the Baltepes Fortress are both worth a visit, the views from the latter, as it is set atop Baltepes hill, are phenomenal.
Tetovo is the home of the popular Macedonian dish, tavče gravče: a hearty and meticulously prepared stew of beans, onion, and paprika, sometimes with a bit of bacon or suho meso, a Balkan variety of smoked pork. It is cooked and served in a traditional earthenware pot, which will arrive at your table at one of Tetovo’s many traditional restaurants piping hot from the oven.
A popular summer vacation spot within the largest national park in Macedonia, Mavrovo Lake boasts a curious feature: the remains of an abandoned church, now half-submerged in the waters. Called the Church of Saint Nicolas, it was originally built in the 19th century, but after the construction of a nearby dam flooded the area creating the lake, it had to be abandoned, and now only exists as a tourist attraction.
If you go in the winter, you can pay a visit to Resort Mavrovo near the south end of the lake for excellent skiing. With three hotels, a ski center, and 5,000 meters of groomed slopes, it’s one of the most renowned ski areas in the region.
Throughout the Šar Mountain range you’ll find ample hiking trails and opportunities for mountaineering; the landscape has long been a favorite of European backpackers and thru-hikers because of the incredible vistas.
The range also boasts the Popova Šapka ski resort. Though a bit sparse by contemporary measures, what it lacks in facilities it makes up for in access to some of the best backcountry skiing in the world. For the ultra-adventurous, and quite advanced, this resort offers an untouched landscape of wild, off-piste skiing, famous for its pristine powder and challenging terrain.
One of Europe’s deepest lakes, Lake Ohrid is a favorite of summer vacationers throughout the Balkans. On the Macedonian side of the lake, you’ll find the largest towns are Struga and its namesake city, Ohrid. On a calm day, the incredibly clean and clear waters of the lake can be so placid that they resemble a giant mirror, so be sure to get at least one hike up into the regions’ hills to get a glimpse of it from above. In Ohrid, an easy hike up to The Church of St. John at Kaneo or Tzar Samuel’s fortress will offer views in spades.
A favorite pastime of visitors is to take a boat from Ohrid to the Naum Monastery. If you don’t want to shell out for a private transfer, you can take the 2.5-hour journey on the public ferry for only €10. Once there, you can tour the monastery and grounds, which are famous for the peacocks that you’ll find ambling throughout.
About a half-hour from Struga, you’ll find the quaint, welcoming town of Vevčani. It is famous for its wealth of natural springs, the source of which you can see for a small entrance fee. Its pristine waters are so prized by its residents that a dispute over control of the springs once led to the region briefly seceding, declaring itself the Independent Republic of Vevčani. They still have their own flag and currency to this day, though they are only ceremonial, tourists can purchase these waters in shops around town.
Up the hill just behind the main square is the seemingly non-descript Kutmicevica, a family-owned restaurant and pensione serving up delicious traditional regional fare and sporting two gorgeously appointed rooms upstairs. Both have incredible views of the surrounding countryside, and, on a clear day, you can see all the way down to Lake Ohrid.
At a lofty 1,350 m above sea level, Kruševo is the highest-altitude town in Macedonia. It’s home to a great number of museums, galleries, and monuments, especially when you consider its relatively small population. This is likely due to the long-standing culture of independence that permeates its populace; they have fended off many incoming regimes, and have fiercely protected their culture throughout the years.
A curious sight to see while in town is the space-aged Makedonium Monument. Built to commemorate the Ilinden Uprising, its shape resembles a Soviet-era spacecraft. It houses the tomb of Nikola Karev, once president of the briefly independent Kruševo Republic.
In the far east of Macedonia, near the Bulgarian border, sits one of the most spectacular lakes in the world: Berovo Lake. Surrounded by a dense pine forest, it is famous for having the highest concentration of oxygen in all of the Balkans despite its elevation, earning it the title of an “air spa”.
Summer is a particularly popular time to visit when Macedonians and foreigners alike descend upon the lake to enjoy boating, fishing, and swimming. Cycling along the road joining the lake with the town of Berovo is another popular activity, especially in favorable weather. There’s a single paved road between them, so beginning to intermediate cyclists should have no trouble making the journey.
A treasure trove of Ottoman architecture, Bitola is not only a beautiful city in its own right, but is also the gateway to some of the most spectacular natural spaces in Macedonia.
Within the city, you’ll find charmingly appointed plazas and streets dotted with cafés, each one begging you to stop for a bit. And for those interested in a mini-adventure, what is left of Heraclea Lyncestis, founded by Philip II of Macedon, isn’t far from the center of town and is arguably the best archeological site in the Balkans.
Just beyond the city limits begins the bucolic Pelister National Park in the Baba mountains, where visitors can enjoy hiking and rock climbing. If the weather is warm, you may want to seek out one of Pelisterski Oči (Pelister’s Eyes), what locals call the many glacial lakes that dot the park.
With the border between Macedonia and Greece running right through its center, Dojran Lake is a particularly great place to visit in the summer as the water is famously warm. You will likely feel a distinctly Mediterranean vibe in the nearby towns; the culture is somewhat distinct from the rest of the country.
Because of the specific ecosystem that exists in the lake, there is a huge amount of fish, and the fishermen that live nearby have a unique method of harvesting them: with the help of cormorants. It’s one of only a few places left in the world where you can see fishermen employing the help of birds to fish.