North Macedonia’s capital city is fast making a name for itself as a city break destination. Get lost in the Old Bazaar of Skopje, explore the Kale fortress and take in the rugged beauty of the Matka Canyon before sampling the country’s finest rakija.
Known for its warm hospitality and penchant for colossal (if controversial) statues, North Macedonia’s energetic capital is a great destination for a weekend getaway. Expect a cross-section of east meets west here, with an Arabian style bazaar that sits just across the river from the vibrant Debar Maalo neighbourhood with its multitude of clubs and bars.
This eclectic church was built in 2009, as a memorial to the Nobel Prize-winning Catholic nun who was born in Skopje in 1910. It was constructed on the site of an older church, where Mother Teresa was baptised the day after her birth. It features a permanent exhibition focused on the saint’s early life, when Skopje was still part of the Ottoman Empire. Peek into one of the Catholic services, held in a glass-walled chapel on the second floor, or browse the temporary exhibits in the subterranean multimedia centre.
This sombre museum is focused on the country’s history of occupation and fight for independence. The story is told chronologically, starting with the rebellion of Macedonian Christians against Ottoman rulers in the 16th century and concluding with the country’s declaration of independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. Ponder the spookily lifelike wax models and unsettling oil paintings depicting executions, battles and massacres. You can visit either individually, with an expert guide or using an audio guide.
The 1,066m (3,497ft) Mount Vodno is situated to the southwest of Skopje and is topped by the 66m (217ft) Millenium Cross, one of the world’s largest crucifixes. The most direct hiking routes to the summit from the city centre measure about 6.5km (4mi) in total and require a couple of hours to complete. Alternatively, you can ride the Millenium Cross bus to the cable car terminus and glide the rest of the way. Relax at the summit’s small cafe with a coffee and take in the vista.
Skopje’s plain, muscular Kale Fortress occupies the highest point in the city, overlooking the Vardar river. It’s believed to have been constructed during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (527-565 CE) and was added to throughout the 10th and 11th centuries. Excavation of the site in the late 2000s yielded some important finds, such as woodwind instruments and clay decorations dating from around 3,000 BCE, subterranean dwellings and the largest collection of Byzantine coins ever found in Macedonia. Kale is easily walkable from the city centre.
In 2014, the government gave Skopje a neoclassical makeover, erecting hundreds of states and revamping important buildings. While this project was controversial due to its cost and timescale, the results make for interesting viewing. Start in Macedonia Square, where you will find a 22m (72ft) high monument of Alexander the Great. From here, cross the Vardar River via the Art Bridge, with its 29 statues of Macedonian artists and musicians. Once this side of the river, gaze in awe at the Museum of Archaeology with its Greek revival architecture and the newly constructed National Theatre, a replica of the former theatre destroyed by the 1963 earthquake.
Whether opera, drama or classical music is your thing, Skopje does not disappoint in its cultural offering. The National Opera and Ballet has a rich year-round programme and is worth a visit, if only for its architecture. Designed by Slovenian architects Biro 71, the building’s white concrete form is designed to evoke mountain peaks. In addition to opera and ballet, the venue hosts classical music and theatre productions. Set close by, just off Mother Teresa Square, the Macedonian Philharmonic Orchestra resides in a state-of-the-art concert hall built as part of the city’s recent revamp.
The next step in discovering Skopje’s old town involves traditional Macedonian cuisine. The best place to find authentic dishes is undoubtedly at the Old Bazaar, where you can sample kebabs, tavče gravče (a hearty local bean dish), gevrek (sesame bread) and burek (layers of thin flakey dough, filled with minced meat or with cheese). Kaj Serdarot, on the southern fringes of the bazaar, serves a simple but excellent menu of local fare, best washed down with a local beer or wine.
Situated just west of the city centre, Debar Maalo is a vibrant neighbourhood that is at once leafy and urban; night clubs and start-ups stand just steps away from the seemingly endless lawns of the City Park. Any visit to Debar Maalo should start with Aminta Treti. This popular street is a cornucopia of bars, cafés and bohemian restaurants. Drop into Casa for an alfresco coffee or beer and enjoy live music every Monday at Kino Karpoš.
It’s nearly impossible to make it through a visit to North Macedonia without sampling that quintessential Balkan staple: rakija. A distilled spirit made from fermented fruit, in North Macedonia rakija is generally made from grapes. Start your adventure in rakija at the Old Bazaar’s Rakija Bar Kaldrma. This charming drinking place has abundant old-school charm and even more plentiful rakija – more than 30 varieties, to be precise. Pair a glass with a traditional shopska salad – peppers, tomato, cucumber and onion sprinkled with a feta-style white cheese called sirene – for the ultimate appetiser.
Just a 40-minute bus ride outside of Skopje, Matka Canyon is an ideal day trip destination from the North Macedonian capital. Here the River Treska has cut through the rugged landscape to form a steep gorge that, since the construction of a dam in 1938, has housed the country’s oldest man-made lake. Matka Canyon is a hotspot for outdoor activities, with kayaking, fishing and hiking all on offer. For a gentler journey through the canyon, join a boat trip along the lake to the Vrelo Cave, famed for its intriguing mineral formations – look out for the famed “pine cone” stalactite – and its incredible depth.
Mark Nayler contributed additional reporting to this article.
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