The Best Things to do in Ohrid, North Macedonia

Jovan Kaneo Church on beautiful sunny day at Lake Ohrid, Macedonia.
Jovan Kaneo Church on beautiful sunny day at Lake Ohrid, Macedonia. | © QQ7 / iStock Getty Images Plus
Photo of Bojana Trajkovska
4 August 2020

One of just 28 sites accepted as both Cultural and Natural World Heritage sites by UNESCO, the ancient city of Ohrid is the jewel in North Macedonia’s crown. Get planning your next trip and discover the best things to do in this Balkan treasure.

Set on the shores of Lake Orchid, one of Europe’s oldest and largest lakes, Ohrid is home to awe-inspiring Orthodox architectural masterpieces and religious artworks. The city has been referred to as a “Jerusalem of the Balkans”. Once home to 365 churches, one for each day of the year, the city offers an abundance of religious history. There is so much more on offer as well, with theatre performances, pristine beaches, retail therapy and the very freshest of fish. The more time you spend exploring Ohrid, the more you’ll be desperate to come back.

Explore Ohrid’s Old Town

The architecture of the traditional street allies in the Old Town is steeped in history dating back to the 7th century | © iStock Editorial / Getty Images Plus

The starting point for any trip to Ohrid should be the Old Town. Home to its most significant historical landmarks, the Old Town is a well-preserved architectural ensemble, dating from between the 7th and 19th centuries. As you walk down the winding streets, make a beeline for the 11th-century Church of St. Sophia with its magnificent courtyard and beautiful Byzantine frescoes. Take the time to look around inside, but bear in mind that photography is not allowed. Continuing uphill, among elegant villas and traditional houses, you can stop for a coffee or lunch in one of the many cafes and restaurants. Immerse yourself in the craft shops and pick up jewellery designed and made by local artisans.

Discover Byzantine architecture at Kaneo

The church of St. John the Theologian is the emblem of Ohrid | © iStock Editorial / Getty Images Plus

Kaneo is to Ohrid what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. Located on a cliff overlooking Lake Ohrid and the surrounding mountains is the Church of St. John the Theologian at Kaneo. The church is the emblem of Ohrid, due to its picturesque location on a cliff over Kaneo Beach overlooking Lake Ohrid and its distinctive Byzantine architecture, making it one of the most photographed places in the whole of North Macedonia. Dating back to the 13th century, the church is dedicated to John of Patmos, the writer of the biblical Book of Revelation. After admiring the beauty of the church, head down the steep steps to the lake’s edge to reach Kaneo Beach and enjoy a dip in the lake. For those wanting to explore more of Ohrid’s history, continue uphill towards Samuil’s fortress.

Admire the view from Tsar Samuil’s Fortress

Samuil’s Fortress dominates the Ohrid skyline | © Ekinyalgin / iStock

Sitting on the hilltop overlooking the Old Town, Samuil’s Fortress is named after Tsar Samuil, who ruled the First Bulgarian Empire from Ohrid at the turn of the 10th century. Today, 18 towers and four gates still remain from the original structure and serve as a popular vantage point for spectacular sweeping views of the city and Lake Ohrid.

Go back in time at Plaošnik

The Basilica of St Clement was known as the Ohrid Literacy School, and is believed to be the first and oldest discontinued university in Europe | © Frankix / iStock

Between Samuil’s Fortress and the Church of St. John at Kaneo, you will find the outstanding Plaošnik archaeological complex. Plaošnik hosts the multi-domed medieval Church of Saint Panteleimon, restored on the foundations of a monastery in the year 893, when Saint Clement arrived in Ohrid. This monastery would later be used by Saint Clement and Saint Naum as a liturgical building and a place for teaching the Cyrillic alphabets, known as the Ohrid Literary School, which welcomed over 3,500 students and formed the first Slavic university.

Catch a performance at the Ancient Theatre

After being buried by the locals after the demise of the Roman Empire, the theatre was rediscovered in the 1980s and is now used for high-profile cultural performances | © Frankix / iStock

Ohrid is home to an open-air Hellenistic-type theatre built around 200BCE. Situated on a hill in the Old Town, the ancient site serves as one of the main entrances to the fortified city and provides a magnificent view of the lake and the city. Once hosting Greek plays and Roman gladiatorial games, nowadays it hosts performances during the Ohrid Summer Festival, one of the biggest cultural events in the country. Performers, musicians and theatre groups entertain audiences throughout the summer, fusing ancient architecture with contemporary culture.

Relax on Lake Ohrid’s beaches

A boat ride is a great mode of transport between Ohrid’s beaches | © iStock Editorial / Getty Images Plus

One of Ohrid’s main selling points is its proximity to a range of tranquil beaches. While many are accessible on foot, there’s no better way to explore the options than by boat. Take a boat ride from the port of Ohrid and ask the captain to make a few stops along the way. First stop: Golden Beach, a popular spot home to many bars and restaurants. Next up is family-oriented Lagadin, followed by the buzzing Orevche Beach. Particularly popular among younger people, Orevche hosts DJs, parties and movie screenings once the sun goes down. In the meantime, chill out here with music and cocktails.

Try the local specialty at Trpejca

Trpejca has become a popular upmarket holiday destination that relies heavily on tourism | © Nade Prodanova / 500px

Historically a fishing village, and affectionately nicknamed today as the local version of Saint Tropez, Trpejca is second-to-none when it comes to tranquility and delectable food. As you step into this peaceful village you will notice fishermen bringing in their catch and be enchanted by the pretty, narrow streets. The real beauty is revealed, however, once you reach the fantastic pebbled beach and its sparkling waters, utterly transparent and perfect for bathing. Once you have swum, head to Taverna Mrestilishte, order local specialties such as layered gjomleze (pie), garlicky makalo spread, freshly caught trout and belvica, or fish stew.

Shop for Ohrid pearls

The Talevi family has been producing Ohrid pearls since 1924, which have been worn by world-famous names | © Michael Nitzschke / Alamy

Among the best souvenirs you can buy from Ohrid are local pearls. Renowned for their high quality and brightness, Ohrid pearls are a symbol of the city’s dedication to tradition. The process for producing them is a highly guarded secret, passed from one generation to another as a tradition for a century. What is known is that the process includes a special emulsion made out of the scales of the local plasica (Ohrid trout) fish, creating a beautiful and elegant pearl, rich in colour and shine. Even Queen Elizabeth II has Ohrid pearls in her jewellery collection.

Head for the hills

A tandem paragliding experience gives the best view of the Lake Ohrid shoreline and the Galičica National Park

A short bus ride from the city centre is the Galičica National Park with its mountain range stretching between Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa, and peaks rising to over 2,000m – meaning a guaranteed incredible view of both lakes and the surrounding towns. Exploring this area by foot is the best way to experience it, but there is another option for anyone seeking a more high-adrenaline experience: once you are done with hiking, sign up for a paragliding tandem tour and enjoy a bird’s-eye view of Ohrid. Pro trip: there are 1644 species of butterflies in the Galičica National Park, so keep your eyes peeled for them.

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