Huddled beneath the Macedonia Gate, our first real view of Skopje was masked by an unexpected and unwanted summer rainstorm. It had been just a few hours since we landed in North Macedonia, only long enough for us to take a taxi from the airport to our hotel and wash away the jetlag with a much-desired hot shower. When we emerged from the hotel ready to explore Skopje in earnest, the gray skies above were less than welcoming. Adam glanced upward, optimistically observing traces of blue in the distance. Realizing I had neither an umbrella nor a raincoat, I met the scene with a bit more skepticism.In what would be the first of several strokes of good luck during our brief visit to Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia and its largest city, we booked a free walking tour of the city to ensure our first afternoon was put to good use (and to avoid the temptation of taking a nap and losing precious daylight hours!). As we watched the rain roll in, we were joined under the gate by our guide Elena, whose knowledge and candor about her hometown would ultimately help us to see Skopje’s history, character, and quirks in a way we might not have without her. Combined with her expert skill at routing us to dry spots as the storm lingered around us, our first rainy afternoon didn’t drown our enthusiasm for exploring a new city. Instead, we found ourselves inspired to learn more.
Like so many cities in Eastern Europe, Skopje strikes a balance between storied history and writing the future, between remembering where it has come from and deciding where it will go. We found that balance around every turn, echoing from buildings to monuments and from the parks to the riverfront. It presented us with dozens of opportunities to consider what it means to visit a capital city in a young country; after all, the Republic of North Macedonia—then (and, for many citizens, still) simply the Republic of Macedonia—is not quite 30 years old. If you are thinking of a trip to the Balkans, here are some of our favorite things to do in Skopje—and many more reasons why Skopje is a magnificent destination to visit.
Skopje Monuments and Statues
Before our city tour—and before the rain—began, we took a quick walk through Skopje’s main roads to orient ourselves with our home-away-from-home for the first days of our Balkan vacation. To our weary eyes, Skopje looked shockingly historic. Beautifully preserved buildings towered over every street corner, and hundreds of monuments chronicling the city’s most important people and events crowded the tops of every building. We shared how impressed we were with Elena, who listened to us with a knowing smile before telling us the truth behind the façade: a project called Skopje 2014.In 1963, Skopje was devastated by an earthquake that claimed close to 80% of the city’s architecture. In response, hundreds of plain-fronted, brutalist-style buildings were constructed to fill the space. In 2010, Macedonia announced the Skopje 2014 project, which sought to provide the capital with a bit of a face-lift. Pitching a plan to inspire national pride, attract visitors, and give the city a more pleasing look and feel, Skopje 2014 invested hundreds of millions of Euro into rejuvenating the city. Existing buildings received brand-new frontages reflecting more classical architecture, and hundreds of monuments began to appear to tell the country’s story. The project, while well-meaning, created a bit of controversy for residents who found the effort to be both misleading and a waste of resources. After all, Skopje’s citizens have faced mounting poverty and unemployment in the years since declaring their independence and spending significant resources on aesthetics were largely viewed as unnecessary. Additionally, many people questioned the integration of monuments that contributed to a type of revisionist history, in some cases telling stories whose origins are questionable and perhaps not historically accurate. Still, the monuments slowly began to take over the skyline, and today they represent the strange balance between the history and the present, what the city wants to be and what it is. There’s a certain beauty in that; while many places we have visited know just what they are and how they came to be, Skopje is still battling its adolescence. The Skopje 2014 program—worthwhile or not—does one thing very well: it reflects Skopje’s current moment in its own unfolding history.
While citizens may be rightfully conflicted about the many, many monuments, visitors to the city will undoubtedly find real value in seeking them out. Some of them, like the Macedonia Gate (or Porta Macedonia), are unmissable and unmistakable. The huge arch represents Macedonia’s independence and tells centuries of history through carvings on its exterior. Of similar height and equal grandeur, the Warrior on the Horse monument in the center of nearby Macedonia Square is one of the city’s primary symbols and is unofficially recognized as Alexander the Great. The statue is controversial, though not only for its high price tag; Macedonia does not directly refer to the statue as Alexander the Great because Greece also claims him as one of their own. Also noteworthy are the Mother Theresa statue and the Warrior statue, commonly recognized as Philip II of Macedon. When it comes to things to do in Skopje, a walk through the city to discover the monuments can be more than just a series of great Instagram photos: it can highlight the complexities within the city itself.
Skopje AqueductLocated way off the beaten path, the Skopje Aqueduct would never have been on our radar if it weren’t for our fantastic driver Daniela, who took us from Skopje to Kosovo and back again for a quick day trip. As Skopje came back into view, signaling the end of our tour, she asked if we were interested in one final historical detour. The word “yes” had barely escaped our lips when Daniela turned the car down an unpaved road that wound its way into some truly remote territory before 2,000 years of history emerged on the horizon.
The Skopje Aqueduct may be as old as the 1st century AD, and it was in use until the 18th century as it brought water into the area. There are plenty of questions about its history and original purpose; some theories suggest the aqueduct would have been built in the 5th century, not the 1st, and some suggest it may be as young as the Ottoman Empire, which would age it only back to the 1500s. We pondered these questions as we marveled at its remains. While it is among the oldest and best-preserved aqueducts in the region, only 1,200 feet of it remain intact. With its most logical water source close to six miles away, it’s clear that most of the aqueduct has disappeared. We considered how fortunate we were to see it at all, and how fortunate we were that Daniela suggested it to us, before continuing back into the city. When thinking of things to do in Skopje, the aqueduct is worth a detour if you have a car and a few extra minutes to see something the guidebooks might fail to recommend.
Memorial House of Mother TeresaWe didn’t know that Skopje is Mother Teresa’s hometown, but the nun-turned-saint was born there and spent her formative years in the city before departing for suburban Dublin and the start of her missionary work. The building stands in the exact spot that the Sacred Heart of Jesus Roman Catholic Church once stood. That church, which was destroyed in the 1963 earthquake, was where Mother Teresa was baptized the day after her birth. Today, the memorial house serves as a lovely museum that details Mother Teresa’s life and contributions to society. Entrance is free, and the museum boasts long visiting hours that make it easy to incorporate it into your own list of things to do in Skopje.
Although many of Skopje’s buildings are quite new—even when they are designed to look much older—there are buildings that are, in fact, truly historic. The Skopje Fortress, or the Kale Fortress, is one of them. Dating back to the 6th century AD, the original fortress was most likely constructed during the reign of Justinian I. Portions of the fortress were likely destroyed during the various battles that plagued the region, and the fortress suffered more recent damage during the 1963 earthquake. Although restoration efforts are underway, Kale is still worthy of a spot on your list of things to do in Skopje. The fortress stands on the highest point in the city, which means it provides some of the best views you can find of the city. It’s just a 20-minute walk from the city center, which makes it an easy destination for some great pictures and a respite from the crowds.
Matka CanyonWe were fortunate to have some truly phenomenal guides during our trip to Macedonia, and Matka Canyon found its way onto our radar and our list of things to do in Skopje because of another local recommendation. As we wrapped up a day of wine tasting in the Macedonian countryside, our guide and driver Martin told us about some of his favorite spots to visit within the country. We were scheduled to leave Skopje for Sofia the following morning, and he organized a transfer for us that took us from city to city with a long stop at Matka Canyon on the way. It ended up being a memorable morning as we discovered how diverse the Macedonian landscape is just beyond Skopje’s city limits.
Matka Canyon is only 30 minutes away from the city center, but it feels like a different world. After arriving, we spent an hour hiking along the lake on some clear trails that took us past historic monasteries and to some of the most surprising and beautiful vantage points we have seen during our travels. When we had put in enough steps, we returned to the docks to join a one-hour boat tour that sped us through the lake to Vrelo Cave, which may be the deepest underwater cave in the world. The experience reminded me a bit of our trip through the Panama Canal, when our boat made its way across Lake Gatun in what felt like a surprise moment for me. I was expecting narrow passages, but I was greeted with gorgeous views of nature instead. The same was true of Matka Canyon, where a boat ride through the lake was an unexpected but welcome adventure. If you are hoping to incorporate outdoor activities like hiking, boating, or swimming into your list of things to do in Skopje, Matka Canyon is a great addition to your vacation itinerary.
Old BazaarIn the shadow of the Kale fortress, Skopje’s Old Bazaar offers another chance to incorporate some of the city’s more authentic character and charm into your visit. The Old Bazaar is one of the largest in the Balkans, and its history extends all the way back to the 500s and Justinian I’s rule. Full of mosques and minarets and punctuated by the enticing aromas of fresh grilled meat and local pastries, today’s iteration of the Old Bazaar isn’t too different from the purpose it has served for centuries.
The Old Bazaar is a great destination for souvenir shopping and Skopje’s café culture. During our walk through with Elena she introduced us to some of the tasty treats that are worth spending a few denar. Our favorite bakery was Rigara, which sells traditional Turkish desserts including some of the tastiest cookies we have tried. Late in the afternoon on a rainy day we were surprised to see the bakery quite full, although after a bite of the treat we purchased it became clear why Rigara is so popular with locals and tourists alike. Beyond the bakeries, coffee shops and markets comprise much of the destination’s real estate, making it a great place to spend an afternoon or a great choice for a local meal.
More Information: TripAdvisor.com/Rigara-Skopje
Macedonia SquareFor us, all roads ended up at Macedonia Square, and you may find that is true for you, too. Macedonia Square is at the center of Skopje, and it’s an ideal place to find monuments, meals, and museums along the banks of the Vardar River. From the square, you’ll see some of the city’s most important museums, including the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle and the Skopje City Museum. Dozens of monuments and statues decorate Macedonia Square, and it is a great place to begin your visit to the city. On our first night in town, we spent a couple of hours exploring even after the sun set before settling at a table at Kebapčilnica Destan, which serves just one meal: kebapche. Also known as ćevapčići or ćevapi, we have sought out and devoured the delicious grilled sausages throughout Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Bulgaria. If you have time for just a few things to do in Skopje, there’s a good chance a visit to Macedonia Square will help you to cross most of them off!
More Information: TripAdvisor.com/Destan-Skopje
Mount VodnoIf you’re looking for a great place for a panoramic photo of Skopje, stop by the observation area on Mount Vodno. A short drive halfway up the mountain will deposit you in a parking lot with an observation deck that’s perfect for catching sunrises, sunsets, or just a beautiful view of the city. For an even better panorama, continue on to the top of Mount Vodno, where you’ll find the Millennium Cross. With a height of 217 feet, the Millennium Cross is one of the tallest crosses in the world, and the location provides an incredible view of the city. If you don’t have a car, or if you’re looking for other ways to get to the top of Mount Vodno, consider taking the Millennium Cross ropeway; the cable car tram will take you right to the top of Mount Vodno!
Hotels in Skopje
We stayed at the Holiday Inn Skopje City Centre, which was a great choice due to its close proximity to Macedonia Square and so many of the sights we wanted to see. The rooms are clean and comfortable, and we were happy to be able to enjoy free WIFI and complimentary breakfast during our stay. Knowing that we could walk to everything we wanted to see was also helpful; located just behind a mall and close to tons of dining options, we were very happy with our hotel selection.
More Information: Booking.com/Hotel/Mk/Holiday-Inn-Skopje
We found the Holiday Inn Skopje City Centre on booking.com, which helped us compare a few different properties to find one that was just right for our trip. Take a look at booking.com to see If they have a hotel that would be great for you, too!
Despite its long history, Skopje is unquestionably still coming to terms with its own identity. After centuries of wars, invasions, and the weight of Socialism, Macedonia and its capital are, in many ways, growing into their independence. The city reflects the struggle between the old and the new, the classic and the modern, and the desire to cover up the less desirable pieces of history with what might be more attractive to tourists and the new story of pride and identity they want to tell. We loved Skopje for exactly that reason: it’s conflicted and nuanced, and it’s a wonderful place to begin a Balkan vacation. One thing is for sure: there are many things to do in Skopje, and your trip will be filled with lessons to learn, great food to eat, and fantastic people who can help you to understand what life is like in one of the world’s youngest nations.
Are you interested in visiting more cities in Eastern Europe? Here are a few more of our posts to check out!