A journey into Macedonia is a journey into the unknown. The first mystery relating to this small Balkan nation is its name. Greeks will tell you it is called FYROM (former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), locals will tell you its name is Macedonia and officials will tell you that you are in the Republic of Macedonia.
In addition to the controversies surrounding its name and history, notably regarding the origins of Alexandar the Great, Macedonia is a country that very few people actually visit and it is probable that you have never heard of its capital city, Skopje. You will be pleasantly surprised.
History and overview:
The area of modern Skopje has been inhabited since as early as 4000BC, which makes it one of the oldest cities in Europe. The Kale Fortress served as a base for settlements well before the Roman era and well before most other towns in the Balkans were inhabited.
The first century AD saw the Romans seize the settlements in order to establish a military base and Skopje has been under numerous rulers since. The Macedonian capital has in fact been part of the Byzantine Empire (4th to 10th Century), the Bulgarian Empire (10th to 12th Century), the Serbian Empire (13th to 14th Century), the Ottoman Empire (14th to 19th Century) and the Kingdom of Serbia in the early 20th century.
The Second World War imposed a new shift in occupation when the Bulgarian army captured the city but lost it to the new superstate of Yugoslavia shortly afterwards. The eve of the war heralded the era of the Socialist Republic of Macedonia, a period which was mostly marked by the devastation caused by an earthquake that destroyed substantial parts of the city in 1963.
Macedonia eventually gained independence in 1991 when the Balkan war induced the implosion of Yugoslavia. This long and complicated history is the reason why reminders of Macedonia’s past are sheer omnipresent in Skopje. The Macedonian capital is in fact the city with the highest density of monuments and statues in all of Europe.
Macedonia has, like the other Balkan nations, a very complicated past and ethnic composition. 65% of the country’s population are Orthodox Macedonians, 25% are Muslim Albanians and 10% belong to minorities, notably Turks and Romas. This diversity is omnipresent in the country and in its capital city.
The best area to stay is around Alexandar Square. The square is centrally located and all the major sights are in walking distance. The amount of hotels and hostels isn’t too extensive, but their are still quite a few alternatives. Here are our suggestions.
Alexandar Square Boutique Hotel: A stylish yet affordable option right in the city centre. Located right next to Alexandar Square, this newly renovated boutique hotel will delight you with its crisp and modern interior coupled to its great breakfast buffet.
Hotel Senigallia: A luxury hotel located inside a boat on the Vardar river. In addition to its cool setting, the hotel disposes of a pirate style bar on its deck, Aargh.
Cultural offer and activities:
Mother Theresa Memorial House: (Macedonia str. bb) A small yet very instructive museum about the life of the famous Catholic nun and missionary Mother Theresa, a Skopje native.
Alexandar Square and Vardar riverbank: Easily the most beautiful part of Skopje. The whole riverside area around Alexandar Square has been polished, modernized and improved throughout the last decade. Thanks to those recent embellishments, the area around the river Vardar nowadays looks like the city centre of a great European capital blending ancient architecture with modern building technology while retaining its traditional charm.
Kale Fortress: A bit rundown and not very well maintained but nonetheless worth a visit in order to enjoy the stunning views over Skopje
City of Skopje, Earthquake museum: (Ss Cyril & Methodius) The ideal place to learn more about the devastating effects the 1963 earthquake had on the city of Skopje. To add to its authenticity, the museum is located inside the remains of the old railway station which also fell victim to the tremble that destroyed more than 70% of Skopje’s urban structure.
The Bazars: Skopje hosts several bazars where you can buy literally everything, the recommended items to take home from Macedonia definitely include Macedonian wine and Macedonian/Bosnian coffee which is one of the strongest coffees you will find anywhere.
The Millennium Cross: the 66m tall cross is located on top of the Vodno Mountain and overlooks the city of Skopje. Built in 2002, the cross is still the tallest structure in the Republic of Macedonia. You can take the cable cars and reach the top within minutes.
Archaeological Museum of Skopje: (Vardar river bank) The new Archaeological Museum is the largest museum in the Republic of Macedonia and offers its visitors over 6,000 exhibits detailing the country’s complicated history. The collection includes some impressive 18th century statues and a copy of Alexandar the Great’s sarcophagus.
Wine & Dine:
Macedonian cuisine is, like the other Balkan countries, hearty and often meat-based. You will find many small restaurants serving local specialities, notably Cevapcici (sausages made out of a mixture of veal and lamb).
Old House Restaurant: (Boulevard Phillip the Second of Macedon 14) Our favourite restaurant in Skopje. It may be a bit touristy but the quality of the food and the service are unmatched in the centre of the Macedonian capital.
Rock Kafana Rustikana: (Вељко Влаховиќ 5) A place that thinks out of the box by combining delicious traditional Balkan food with modern rock, blues or jazz music and a stylish interior, definitely worth checking out.
TWINS Kitchen and Wine: (Gradski Park Kamping BB) The gourmet option in Skopje. This relatively new restaurant combines a stylish and modern interior with great local and international dishes, specialising in wine and salad for reasonable prices.
Skopje nightlife feels like it is still very much in its cradle. Bars and clubs are opening one after another, but the number of options is still relatively limited. Here are our suggestions on where to spend a night out in Skopje.
Austrian Palace Bar: (Mitropolit Teodosij Gologanov 3) One of the coolest bars we were able to find in Skopje. The bar has several rooms and a large terrace which is an excellent place to enjoy a cold beer and meet some locals.
International Cocktail Bar: (Македонија б.б) This hybrid between latino and cocktail bar is the oldest of its kind in Skopje. Located behind the National Assembly, with 11 years of experience, it serves the best international cocktails in the Macedonian capital.
St Patrick’s Pub: (Kej 13-ti Noemvri) One of the few Irish pubs in Skopje, its location right on the riverbank is a massive plus in comparison to most other bars in the Macedonian capital.
Avenue Club: (Dimitri Cupovski street) the most ‘high end’‘ nightclub you will find in Skopje. A hip young crowd dancing to local folk and other types of Balkan music.
Kapan Han Club: (Bazar) An electro club with a nice location inside the bazar, not to everyone’s taste but a great option especially in summer when the club’s setting is improved by a cozy patio.
Izlet: (Мирослав Крлежа) A large hidden bar which mostly consists of a vegetated outside area and attracts a young, trendy crowd.
Final tips & verdict:
Skopje is a city which is still right at the beginning of becoming a top European capital. When visiting the city, you feel that they are in a sort of transition from post-war city to cultural hotspot. The fact that the city centre has been beautifully polished and renovated is the first step towards becoming the charming capital city of a proud nation.
Another factor is Macedonia’s authenticity. Skopje feels very off the beaten path and is thereby a great destination for travellers who like places without masses of tourists.
English levels are not too bad among the younger generations but it is still recommendable to know a few Macedonian phrases to communicate with the older generations. Most Macedonians understand Serbo-Croatian, which means that if you are travelling in the Balkans, a few sentences of Serbo-Croatian will also go a long way in Macedonia.
We would not recommend Skopje or Macedonia to first time Balkan visitors. There are many other cities in this region that have more sights to offer to tourists and better infrastructure. If you however want to go to an unknown city which won’t make page 1 of Lonely Planet’s top destinations anytime soon, Skopje is the ideal place and as previously stated, you will be pleasantly surprised.