If you’ve checked a grand European tour off your bucket list, but are still craving culture, cuisine, history, art and architecture, consider the Balkan Peninsula - in particular, the little landlocked republic of North Macedonia. Giving you fodder for countless dinner party conversations to come, this long-overlooked and relatively undiscovered corner of Europe is a diamond in the rough, and a fascinating mosaic of natural beauty, intriguing history, ancient site, warm hospitality and a lively culture. Here are our favorite reasons to visit North Macedonia:
Skopje and Ohrid
The capital of North Macedonia - Skopje - has been around, well, seemingly forever. As the country’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site and with a history that leads to before the time of Christ, this is an incredible destination for history buffs and culture seekers. Plus, with its cobalt-blue Lake Ohrid and Mediterranean beauty, it’s pretty as a picture. A massive transformation project has resulted in a refreshed Skopje, where one can see old Orthodox churches, Muslim mosques and the Byzantine Skopje Fortress juxtaposed with Yugovlavian modernist architecture.
Culturally richy, Ohrid is another sightseeing must for its Byzantine-era old town, beautiful beaches and Tzar Samuil’s Fortress. Visit ancient archaeological sites, including a Greek amphitheatre, wander past red-roofed homes and visit the churches of Sveti Jovan at Kaneo and Sveti Naum for stunning lakeside sunset views. (If you’re an art aficionado, don’t miss the Church of Sveta Bogorodica Perivlepta, famous for its icon gallery.) While in Ohrid, you can’t help but appreciate its UNESCO World Heritage-designated namesake lake, the region’s oldest and deepest.
If you’re in North Macedonia, you’re already drawn toward under-the-radar destinations and immersive, authentic experiences. For those reasons, add Bitola to your must-see list. The little town was a huge diplomatic and cultural center for the Ottoman Empire, which has resulted in a tableau of varying architectural styles, historic Ottoman mosques and markets and more. Despite its ancient history, Bitola is a thriving cosmopolitan center with a thriving cafe culture - see it in action along Sirok Sokak Street.
Ruins, Ruins and More Ruins
Despite its compact size, North Macedonia overflows with ancient archaeological sites. There are well-preserved Greek and Roman ruins, Neolithic village remains, fortresses and the incredible Kokino, one of the world’s oldest observatories and referred to as the “Stonehenge of North Macedonia.”
Avid history lovers won’t want to miss the old Hellenic city of Heraclea Lyncestis, founded in the middle of the 4th century BC by Philip II of Madeon. You’ll be able to tour ancient Roman monuments, baths, amphitheaters and Byzantine basilicas.
Macedonian Food and Wine
Macedonian cuisine is making a name for itself on the world’s culinary stage. Add to this award-winning wineries and you have a must-see destination for food and wine enthusiasts. Everything from stuffed peppers to homestyle baked beans to traditional moussaka grace the menus here, all tinged with Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Italian influence. The produce is fresh and abundant, thanks to the warm Macedonian climate. Complement your hearty, multi-course meal with a full-bodied red wine - and, if you have the time, visit one of the following notable wineries: Elenov, Popova Kula, Grkov, Tekvesh or Bovin. Some of the very best are in Tikves, the grape-growing epicenter of North Macedonia.
Festivals and Markets
In Skopje, Ottoman influences are evident throughout the Carsija (old Turkish quarter) and in particular the lively bazaar, the largest in the Balkans. Shop for hand-loomed carpets, antique silver, spices and more, then pop into one of the traditional restaurants or tiny convivial cafes lining the streets here.
If you’re in Skopje in the summer, you may be fortunate enough to experience the Summer Festival. Starting in late June and lasting four to five weeks, it’s a captivating blend of traditional events, folkloric music and museum openings. Other notable festivals throughout the country include the Skopje Jazz Festival, International Film Festival, the March carnival in Strumica and the Galichnick Summer Festival, during which one fortunate couple gets married in a one-of-a-kind celebration!
In Bitola, attend the summer-long arts festival, Bit Fest, for concerts, art exhibits, literary readings and comedy performances or the Manaki Brothers International Film Festival, which annually screens more than 200 independent foreign films, shorts and documentaries.
Intrigued by this tiny treasure of a Balkan country? So are we! Let’s chat. You can sign up to schedule a consultation or sign up for my weekly newsletter for more inspiration.