Skopje is often given a quick pass when on a whirlwind trip through the Balkans, with people often telling you to give the capital city a quick pass on your way to Lake Ohrid. And while certainly Lake Ohrid deserves all the acclaim it receives, I’m here to tell you that Skopje is worth more than a quick whistle-stop visit. There are several worthwhile things to do in Skopje when you visit the Macedonian capital; here are just a few.
1 – Visit the “Warrior on a Horse” statue
A massive point of controversy in Skopje, the “Warrior on a Horse” monument is dedicated to Alexander the Great. However, instead of calling it by its name, they chose a rather oblique name in order to not anger Greeks who claim Alexander the Great is their hero and their hero only. Whatever your feelings on the issue are – Greeks feel put out by what they deem as Macedonians ‘stealing’ their history, Macedonians are tired of the constant controversy every time they name something – there’s no doubting that for the tourist, seeing the “Warrior on a Horse” monument is one of the highlights of Skopje.
2- Walk along the bridge of statues
The most photogenic bridge of all of Skopje, the bridge leading to the Macedonian Museum of Archaeology simply shouldn’t be missed on your trip to Skopje. While much of Skopje’s renovations as part of the Skopje 2014 project are a bit tacky and distasteful, I think this bridge is the true gem of all the renovation work – a bit of opulence, a bit of restraint. Yes, it’s a bit obviously new, but as much of Skopje was leveled in the devastating 1963 earthquake which killed thousands, you can’t really fault Skopje for trying to rebuild (even if they may have gone a bit heavy-handed).
3- Check out the Old Bazaar
The Old Bazaar of Skopje is the second largest bazaar in the Balkans — after Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, naturally. I really enjoyed walking around the labyrinthine streets of the Old Bazaar, popping into shops along the way and stopping for a cup of tea — served the Turkish way, naturally. When buying souvenirs, I advise you to avoid the cheap Chinese-made souvenirs and give preference to those peddling traditional Macedonian crafts. A few crafts you can look out for are Macedonian filigree, wood carvings, hand-painted icons of Orthodox saints, and traditional Macedonian textiles. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about what you’re buying to the shopkeepers – they are quite friendly and not nearly as pushy as, say, you’d find in Istanbul’s bazaar.
4- Try traditional Macedonian food
While you’ll find food in the Balkans can be quite similar, there are some delicious things to look for in Macedonia that are unique(ish) to the region. One such dish is the sharska burger, which is similar to a Serbian pljeskavica but with a dollop of cream (kaymak) on top. Another traditional Macedonian dish is uvijac, a thinly pounded piece of pork rolled around cheese and wrapped in bacon. Vegetarians, if you’re worried, don’t be: there are a few vegetarian options on offer at every Macedonian restaurant. Shopska salad will become your best friend (a salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and onion with a ton of sirene cheese grated on top) as well as bread and Macedonian dips like ajvar (a pepper and tomato spread) will do the trick when you’re hungry.
5 – Visit the Skopje Fortress
The Skopje Fortress (also called Kale) is a great place to get a beautiful view in Skopje. Seeing a sunset from the fortress is one of my top recommendations for things to do in Skopje. The fortress isn’t in great condition (I recommend wearing closed-toed shoes or at least watching where you walk) but the views from there are unbeatable.
6- Hike Mount Vodno to the Millennium Cross
Skopje is blessed to have a gorgeous mountain right inside the city! Mount Vodno stands tall over the city at 1,066 meters and is easily noticed by all of Skopje thanks to the giant Millennium Cross on top. The views from Mount Vodno are gorgeous and well-worth making the hike up the side of the mountain, which takes approximately two hours. Alternately, if you simply want to visit the Cross and get the viewpoint, you can take a bus to halfway up Mount Vodno then take a cable car the rest of the way. Make like the locals and bring a picnic!
7 – Do a day trip to Matka Canyon
A mere 15 kilometers outside the city is one of the most beautiful parts of Macedonia, Matka Canyon. Nearly every Macedonian I’ve spoken to says that to visit Skopje and not see Matka Canyon is basically a crime. A taxi should cost about 300 denars to Matka Canyon (one-way) or you can take a bus. Once at Matka Canyon, you can rent kayaks or hire a local to take you on his boat out to see some of the beautfiul caves of Matka Canyon.