Located in the heart of the Balkans, Macedonia is somewhat of a zip-file of extraordinary beauties. Some of the best scenery in Europe is compressed into a 25,713 km2 (9,928 sq mi) landlocked natural paradise. The country is also super-rich with history, as well as with excellent fresh and cheap food, especially vegetables, fruits, cheese, and wine.
Some years ago, we had two very dear friends from Turkey visiting us in Macedonia. We took them on a quick three-day round tour through the western parts of the country. They were fascinated. When I asked my friend Mustafa why is he so astound, coming from Turkey which is way bigger and home to some of the top world’s sites, he answered: “Yes, that’s true, but I have to travel for hours to get from one spot to another. Here, there is beauty unveiling every step of the way.”
Although this list could be much longer, these are the top 10 destinations for your first encounter with Macedonia.
Skopje is the capital of Macedonia and the place you’ll probably get first. Like any other capital, it offers a variety of things to do and places to visit. The Kale fortress, the Old Bazaar, the main square or the huge city park are just a few of the places in the city you can find interesting to see. The nightlife is also versatile: lots of clubs, pubs, restaurants, concerts, art exhibitions, theater plays, and more, offer entertainment for everyone’s taste.
If you are more into nature and hiking, you can climb mountain Vodno which rises just above the city (you can also get to the top by a cable car from Middle Vodno.) If you have extra time, Matka is a must-see location, just a little bit further from Skopje (about 25 km/15 mi from the city center.) It is an artificial lake and a power plant at the end of river Treska’s canyon – the scenery there is simply astounding. A more elaborate article on what to visit while in Skopje is coming very soon on our blog. Stay tuned!
It is safe to say that Ohrid is Macedonia’s top travel destination and there are many reasons for that. The town lies on the shores of Lake Ohrid, the oldest and deepest of natural lakes in Europe. It was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979, and in 2010, NASA named one of Titan’s lakes after it. Even more fascinating, Ohrid is one of only 28 sites that are part of UNESCO’s World Heritage that are Cultural as well as Natural sites.
The town is very old and has a unique and preserved architectural style. Ohrid was the center of Slavic literacy from the 9th to the 11th century. Cultural tourism is very developed since the area around Lake Ohrid is home to numerous churches, monasteries, archaeological sites, architectural diversity, all of which attract a huge number of scientific explorers and history enthusiasts.
Today it is Macedonia’s number one tourist destination, offering beaches, hotels, camping, excellent nightlife, and a lot of phenomenal scenery, especially in summer. Don’t even think about going to Ohrid for just one day – book a room for at least one night, although I would recommend a three-night stay if you want to explore the surroundings as well. That way you can visit Struga, another beautiful town on the coastline, just 10 km (6 mi) from Ohrid. The village of Radožda, near Struga, on the Albanian border offers some of the best restaurants for fresh fish, some of them with tables literary on the surface of the lake. Don’t miss the Monastery of Saint Naum, 29 km (18 mi) south of the city of Ohrid, where you can visit the 9th-century church where the saint is buried and see the unearthly beauty of the springs of Black Drim river.
3. MAVROVO NATIONAL PARK
Nature lovers and those of pursuit of outdoor recreation will find Mavorovo National Park simply irresistible. Boating, fishing, backpacking, cycling, climbing, hiking, hill walking, swimming, skiing, snowboarding, are some of the things this wonderful place has to offer, aside from the extraordinary scenery. It is the largest of the three national parks in Macedonia, featuring deep canyons, snow-capped mountains and picturesque villages combined with dense forests that abound with diverse wildlife.
Mavrovo Lake is the center point of the Mavrovo National Park. The village of Mavrovo and other settlements around the lake offer a wide variety of accommodation, ranging from private rooms to luxury hotels and spa centers.
Another point of interest is the village Galicnik, located on the slopes of Bistra Mountain, 10 km (6 mi) from Mavrovo Lake. It is widely known for its authentic architecture, rich cultural heritage, and breath-taking landscapes. The road to the village is also sensational in terms of scenery.
Other places inside Mavorovo National Park worth a visit are the 11th-century Saint Jovan Bigorski Monastery, Elenski Skok (Dear Leap) bridge on the way to Debar, the village of Lazaropole, and the waterfall Duf near Rostushe. The village of Trnica is also close to Mavrovo Lake and it’s a place where you can eat kachamak (a kind of maize porridge traditionally made in Turkey and the Balkans.) along with the extraordinary homemade cultured sheep milk.
The second largest city in the country and its surroundings offer a lot to tourists. It’s far more tranquil than Skopje and if you’re into the cafe culture, which is super-popular in the Balkans, be sure you take a stroll through Širok Sokak (eng. Wide Street.) It’s the main artery of the city’s social life. This long pedestrian street is where the best cafes and restaurants in the city are located. It runs through the center and ends in Magnolia Square, the home to some of Bitola’s major landmarks: the Clock Tower, the Yeni Mosque and the nearby Church of St. Dimitrija. If you cross the Dragor river, you can get to the Old Bazaar which will give you a bit of another-era experience.
One of the main tourist attractions in Bitola is the archaeological site of Heraclea Lyncestis, found by Phillip the Second of Macedonia in 4th century BC. It is located south (and not very far) from the city center. It is known for the well-preserved Roman baths, portico and amphitheater, and the Early Christian basilica with its wonderful floor mosaics.
If you’re more into adventure, hiking, cycling, mountain climbing, or a relaxed stroll in nature, don’t miss the Pelister National Park. It is located in the Baba Mountain massif and covers an area of 171.5 sq. kilometers (66.2 sq mi). There are so many things you can do there, with its numerous hotels, hostels, mountain huts, and sporting facilitates. If you’re in good shape, you can climb the mountain’s peak which is located at an altitude of 2,601 m (8,533 ft) above sea level.
Another popular destination for foreign visitors in that area is Villa Dihovo, situated in the village of Dihovo. It functions as a bed-and-breakfast with no fixed prices, except for alcohol. In other words – pay what you think is worth. Here, you can eat fresh, organic food grown on the property, Macedonian specialties, their custom brewed beer, and refreshing vegetable salads. The villa is a traditional Macedonian house, built in 1928.
5. THE STONE DOLLS OF KUKLICA
Kuklica is a village located 8 km (5 mi) northwest of Kratovo, in the eastern parts of Macedonia. Just outside the village, there is a very peculiar setting – the Stone town of Kuklica, an area consisting of approximately 120 naturally formed stone pillars. Most of them have humanoid forms and resemble a petrified gathering of some kind. The local legend tells of a man who could not decide between two women he loved. So, the man planned to marry both women on the same day but at different times. When the first wedding started, the second bride-to-be went to see who else was getting married on the same day. When she saw her future husband marrying another woman, she cursed all in attendance at the wedding and turned them into stone.
There are several variants of the same story. Science, on the other hand, tells us a different story – the humanoid stones were formed as a result of natural erosion processes in the Holocene, in a period of 100,000 years. Differences in the erodibility of the volcanic rocks of the area are the main factor for the pillars creation.
Wedding or not, the stone dolls of Kuklica are fascinating. However, you don’t need to spend more than a few hours there. You can visit the small town of Kratovo, built on a top of an extinct volcano. Since you’ll already be in that part of the country, I recommend you visit the next attraction on our list, the Lesnovo monastery in the village of Lesnovo.
During the two millennia of the rich Christian tradition in Macedonia, numerous churches and monasteries were built. One of the more striking and authentic is the Lesnovo Monastery, which has survived for nearly a thousand years. Officially called Monastery of St Archangel Michael and St Hermit Gabriel of Lesnovo, it is important for its role in spreading Slavic literacy, as well as for its well-preserved and unique frescoes. It ‘s located at the beginning of the village, at an altitude of 870 meters (2854 ft.)
Lesnovo is also interesting for the cave complex near the village. Many of the cave halls were used in the past by monks in their spiritual quest and isolation from the world. The cave rooms are interconnected and you can go from one hall to another through narrow holes. Overall, the scenery around Lesnovo is phenomenal. It stands tall above Zletovo and the whole region around Probištip, with a stunning view on the valley which lies beneath.
Berovo is a small town situated in the foothills of the Maleševo Mountains, at an altitude of around 850 m (2800 ft.) Surrounded by dense pine forest with a big artificial lake nearby, the area is called “Little Switzerland” by the Macedonians. Berovo is considered to have the highest concentration of oxygen in the Balkans and many visitors use it primarily as an air spa. If you want to spend a cool summer, Berovo area is the ideal place, although it is quite popular as a winter destination as well. Hiking, cycling, fishing, swimming, and sunbathing are just some of the things you can do there.
You can rent a villa near the lake or in the city for decent prices. There are several high-end facilities if you want some extra luxury like spas, sport terrains, fine-dine restaurants, etc.
Berovo is one of the best places to try super-quality traditional food and dishes. One of the trademarks of the region is the famous sheep cottage cheese but there are also other specialties from the Maleševo region I would recommend trying, such as honey and home brewed alcohol. If you’re on a gastronomic journey, Berovo will surely satisfy your lust.
8. LAKE DOJRAN
If you like quiet, relaxing places by water, Lake Dojran is the perfect choice. Situated in the southern parts of Macedonia, on the border with Greece, it has always been the more relaxed alternative to Ohrid, especially for tourists from the eastern part of the country. Due to the Mediterranean climate and the proximity of the Aegean Sea, Dojran has a vegetation that starts blooming in early spring and flourishes until late autumn. In Star Dojran, there are some nice but not-so-fancy beaches and a few traditional restaurants which offer fresh, homegrown local food. There are many hotels, hostels, and private rooms for rent, but if you go there in the summer it would be wise to pre-book your stay.
Dojran Lake is home to large quantities of weed and plankton which makes its waters quite effective in the treatment of rheumatism, skin rashes, and respiratory diseases.
Traditional fishing is another landmark of Dojran. One will immediately notice the fishing boats and the fishermen’s huts standing on stilts above the surface of the water. The fishermen of Dojran still practice the old ways of fishing, with the help of cormorants, gulls and other birds that fly above the lake, directing the fish into the baskets where they are gathered in enormous quantities.
9. KOLEŠINO AND SMOLARE WATERFALLS
If you find yourself in the southeastern parts of Macedonia, go and see the Kolešino and the Smolare waterfalls. A 30 minutes drive from the city of Strumica to the southeast will take you to these awesome natural sites on the slopes of Belasica mountain. The Kolešino waterfall is elevated 610 meters (2001 feet) above sea level. The water falls from a height of 19 meters (62 feet.) Its surroundings are wonderful, with dense forests and colorful flora. You’ll have to do a bit of hiking to get there but it is worth it. There are several covered gazebo areas for picnicking if you wish to have lunch in the woods.
The Smolare Waterfall, named after the nearby village of the same name, is located at an elevation of 630 meters (2067 feet). Being 39.5 meters (129.6 feet) high, it is the tallest waterfall in Macedonia. Both of these natural sites are protected by The Institute for Protection of Cultural Monuments and Natural Rarities and Museum in Strumica.
Last but not least is Kruševo, the town considered to be a living museum of Macedonian history. Located at an altitude of 1350 m (4429 ft) it is the highest town in the Balkans and one of the favorite winter destinations for the citizens of Macedonia. Kruševo is recognizable for its 19th-century traditional domestic architecture. Even the new houses are built in that style. There are numerous historically important sites and monuments such as Mečkin Kamen (Bear’s Stone,) Makedonium monument, the Museum of National Liberation War, Toše Proeski Memorial House, Sliva monument, etc.
Similar to Berovo, Kruševo is a great destination for the summer vacation also, especially if you want to get away from hot temperatures, fancy beaches or crowded cities. You could rent private rooms in the town, villas in the surrounding forest or a more luxurious hotel rooms in and outside the city.
Pack your suitcase and come to Macedonia
As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, Macedonia is a marvel of natural beauty. These 10 places are just an introduction to this wonderful country, places which you can get to without much need of assistance. There are regular bus lines from Skopje to most of the above mentioned sites and cities. For the more remote ones, like Kuklica and Lesnovo, you will probably need to rent a cab, which is quite cheap in the smaller cities. My sincere recommendation would be to rent a car and explore these attractions by yourself. Below is a map of Macedonia with the land routes to the places in the list.
If you’re coming to the Balkans or just passing by, do not miss Macedonia – you can enjoy a lot in a relatively short time and on a budget-friendly schedule. If you’ve already been to Macedonia and have something to add, please write a comment below. If you found this article helpful and interesting, subscribe to our newsletter and receive notifications in your inbox about upcoming posts and articles. More information about traveling in Macedonia is coming soon, so stay tuned!