It’s been just over six years since I first visited Macedonia and a lot of things have happened during that time. The Skopje 2014 project is old news by now, probably even officially “complete”, though I tell you that city always looks a little different every time I visit. That ridiculous liquor law which made it illegal to purchase alcohol in stores after 7pm in the winter and 9pm in the summer has finally been abolished, and the smoking ban in bars and restaurants is now one of the most strict I’ve seen out of all its neighboring countries. A godsend for those not down for a side of cigarette smoke with their tavče gravče.
This is all child’s play though in comparison to the vote that was just made last week in Skopje to officially change its name to “North Macedonia”. As a means to settle the 27-year dispute they’ve been having with their southern neighbor which has been blocking them from joining NATO and the EU, this is what the compromise was. Or tragedy, depending on who you ask. Now the controversial ball is in Greece’s court to make it “international official” and we’ll all just have to wait and watch what happens live…
UPDATE: It’s official, both sides have ratified the Prespa Agreement and history has been made – you’re now reading about the Republic of North Macedonia
Nevertheless, whatever it was called before, what it’s now called, or what it will be called in the future, what is contained within its borders is absolutely amazing and that will not change. Even though it’s a relatively small European country (less than half the size of Latvia and almost a quarter the size of Serbia), there is so much to see for all different types of travelers with tons of potential to develop much further, especially when it comes to agritourism and adventure tourism.
I’ve really seen a lot of North Macedonia, more than I could have ever imagined I would six years ago (I forgot to mention it eventually became my next-door neighbor for two of those years while living in Kosovo), and way more than I even realized until I started writing this post. Now I feel like it is not only an opportunity, but a responsibility of mine to share with you some other treasures I found within the country that are not just Skopje or Ohrid – the only two places most tourists ever make it to which is what I call the real tragedy.
Here they are in alphabetical order, a listicle with character written by someone who has actually been to all 15 places and doesn’t include any Creative Commons photos. Be aware, it’s a long one, but hopefully informative and inspires you to travel deeper once you step foot in the Southeastern European sweetheart that is now North Macedonia.
Bitola is one of the cities I’ve spent the most amount of time in outside of Skopje and Ohrid, I even have a dentist and hairdresser there. What’s funny is that the only thing that’s really changed from what I initially wrote about it after my first trip to North Macedonia in 2012 is that there are a more tourists now, though not as many as there should be. I still think it goes off, like I would even argue Bitola has better nightlife than Skopje or Ohrid, and there isn’t just a lot for visitors to see – there is a TON to see, especially if you are into nature.
Known as the “city of consuls” because it was an important administrative center under the Ottoman Empire, it has some pretty elegant architecture, albeit a lot of it crumbling the further you get from the very center. There are the ancient ruins of Heraclea Lyncestis, one of North Macedonia’s most important archeological sites, and the old bazaar/Čaršija which is an incredible Ottoman Yugoslav mishmash. Širok Sokak, the always lively pedestrian street with an abundance of shops and cafés, is still one of my favorite places to spend time, and in less than 10 minutes by car, you can be out at the foot of Pelister National Park sipping some žolta at a cozy dining establishment with magnificent views of Baba Mountain, the third tallest mountain in North Macedonia.
There’s just something special about Bitola, call it the #dobrolifestyle, which makes it such an unbelievably pleasant place to spend time and a great base for exploring the southern part of the country. One of my favorites for sure and out of all the other places on this list, one you definitely should not skip.
Read more about Bitola here:
- 15 Things You Should Know About Traveling to Macedonia
- Four Reasons to Visit Bitola, Macedonia’s ‘City of Consuls’
About 60 kilometers from the Greek border and coming in hot (it is literally the hottest town in North Macedonia), Demir Kapija is a lesser-known banger of a stop along North Macedonia’s wine trail through Povardarie. Aside from its importance as the home of my favorite Macedonian rosé, Stanushina Rosé from Popova Kula, this area of North Macedonia is a lo pro paradise for outdoor adventure enthusiasts interested in hiking, rock climbing and/or kayaking. It all centers around the Vardar and its limestone gorge of the same name meaning “Iron Gate” in Turkish. Much to my surprise, Demir Kapija is also recognized as well for being one of the best spots in the country for birdwatching.
Back in town, you can find the Museum of Wine which I hear is awesome, but truthfully, no visit to Demir Kapija would be complete without an overnight stay at the Popova Kula compound which features a lovely hotel set against vineyards, a fantastic restaurant, and a tasting kulla with a gorgeous 360 degree view.
Read more about Demir Kapija here:
Continuing along North Macedonia’s wine trail, Kavadarci is the town most commonly associated with Macedonian wine mostly because it is home to Tikveš, the largest winery in the country, and one of the biggest (and most awarded) wine producers in the Balkans. They offer great tours through their facilities and have an awesome underground restaurant where you can eat à la carte or prix fixe with pairings of wine and rakija. The town itself doesn’t have much else in the way of tourist attractions, but within its vicinity, you can find more small wineries, Tikveš Lake, Polog Monastery and a pretty snazzy Brutalist spomenik built as a memorial (and in the shape of a traditional Macedonian house) to fallen fighters during World War II.
Unless you are super into archeology or astronomy or archeoastronomy, you probably have never heard of Kokino before. Don’t feel too bad though, no one in North Macedonia had even heard of it before 2001 even though it is like 4,000 years old, but it’s actually kind of a big deal. It’s been recognized by NASA for its importance as a megalith observatory and as well sits on UNESCO’s tentative list.
I had the pleasure of exploring it with an expert in prehistoric archeology, the lovely Vasilika from HAEMUS, while I was road tripping in northeastern Macedonia a few years back. We even had time to squeeze in the nearby village of Staro Nagoričane so I could check out the 11th century (reconstructed in the 14th century by King Milutin) Church of St. George. All of this is less than an hour away from Skopje, so definitely a cool day trip if you’re looking for one.
Read more about Kokino here:
Kratovo is the medieval museum town of bridges, towers and secret underground tunnels that not many tourists seem to know about, but definitely should. Can’t get more authentic than this place, and the amount of history contained here is pretty mind-boggling.
Mentioned in Homer’s Iliad, Kratovo is thought to be one of the oldest cities in the Balkans and had always been quite prosperous due to its hefty supply of minerals. In the 16th century, it was the largest mining center in the European part of the Ottoman Empire, but by the 19th century all the town’s mines had been closed and its decline got real.
Just outside of Kratovo, down a dusty, rugged road (from what I can recall), you can find what I like to believe is the closest thing to Cappadocia in North Macedonia: Kuklica. Though way modest in comparison, there are around 120 stone pillars you can wander around, all of which together make up the “Happy Wedding”. If you look close enough, I guess you can see wedding guests in the middle photo above and bride and groom in the third photo with their Little Person priest or a ring bearer (I’m just speculating on that last one).
Read more about Kratovo and its surroundings here:
About an hour and a half from Skopje, almost to the border of Bulgaria, Kriva Palanka is famous for being the town closest to one of my top two favorite monasteries in the country, Osogovo Monastery. Hidden back in the hills about three kilometers from the center, I’m sure your jaw will drop just like mine did when you first lay your eyes on the Church of St. Joachim of Osogovo and all of its wildly colorful frescoes.
It’s truly something spiritual and definitely worth the trip out even though it’s in the middle of nowhere, or at least in the middle of somewhere with not a lot else going on that I am aware of.
Read more about Kriva Palanka here:
Another one of my favorites on the list, once upon I time in 2014 I actually almost made Kruševo my home base in the Balkans – and had it all documented on House Hunters International. That fell through, honestly for the better, but my heart still has a massive soft spot for the place as it was just so damn cozy, so beautiful, and such an authentic little piece of North Macedonia.
I haven’t visited in a few years, but the last time I checked, probably 80% of the population was over 65, there was no nightlife and barely any tourist infrastructure was in place. The whole time I was there (four of five weeks combined), I probably caught glimpse of like six other tourists. It was August. It was awesome.
While I know not everyone wants to visit a place that sounds super sleepy, tourism has definitely been on the rise in Kruševo ever since and it is absolutely one of the top spots in North Macedonia to go if you are interested in Macedonian history and seeing what is in my opinion the most striking spomenik in the country, Makedonium/Ilinden. It’s here, after all, where the first steps were ever made to forge an independent Macedonian state (see: Kruševo Republic) and the biggest Macedonian pop star in history, Toše Proeski, the “Elvis of the Balkans”, was born (may he rest in peace).
Read more about Kruševo here:
I think a lot of people, especially ones who don’t pay much attention to maps, have no idea that there is a second, equally impressive lake in North Macedonia just a paprika’s throw away from Lake Ohrid. Prespa is its name and a pretty unspoiled biosphere reserve experience is its game.
I’ve been fortunate to have visited on three or so occasions in my life and every time I seem to love it more and more. In the village of Oteševo, and more specifically Lakeview Resort, is where I usually go to find refuge from the Balkan hustle as it provides beautiful vistas, complete peace of mind, and an incredible urbex experience next door at the abandoned Hotel Europa. TBD how long Hotel Europa will stay this way – nor if there will be a full-functioning Bloody Mary bar when you arrive. Prespa/Oteševo also provides a complete 180 from Lake Ohrid which is done and done to say the least in terms of overtourism.
Read more about Prespa here:
Prilep is what I affectionately dubbed “Tobacco Town” while I was “living” in Kruševo because it’s pretty much the epicenter of tobacco production in North Macedonia – and it shows. Tobacco leaves and plants errrrrywhere.
Because you can’t get to Kruševo from Skopje unless you pass through Prilep, I ended up spending quite a bit of time there during the same period I was thinking about relocating to the mountains of North Macedonia. It definitely helped that I had a local friend from there and because of him I was able to discover much more than the bus station which includes a cozy little town square with attached old bazaar, the Burial Mound of the Unbeaten spomenik by Bogdan Bogdanović, Marko’s Towers and of course Treskavec Monastery. All of this while riding backseat on a ninja street bike. Sometimes I look back and wonder how that life was real.
Speaking of a life that’s not real, I nearly forgot about the Roma wedding I attended this one time in Trizla, the second largest Roma community in North Macedonia, which is just on the periphery of Prilep. I had an invite from lovely Nesime who runs a very respectable organization doing great things there called Roma S.O.S., and I have to say it was a pretty sweet spectacle full of so much good energy and amazing style. Like if I ever got married, I might loosely base the ceremony or at least the reception on the fire street party that unfolded, it was that cool.
Read more about Prilep and its surroundings here:
Every time I’m in Skopje for a few days, I always try to pop over to Shutka. Though it is “technically” part of Skopje and not more than 15 minutes by bus from the center, this 76.6% Roma municipality according to the 2002 census – btw there hasn’t been an official census in Macedonia since 2002 so it’s probably more like 95% – sometimes feels like an entirely different planet in comparison to all the kitsch and neoclassical glamour of the capital.
Not that it doesn’t have some fantastic kitsch of its own, you just have a wander around some of the more affluent streets built by remittances from abroad and you will see what I mean. The best thing to do there really is hit its market and pray that you stumble upon one of its world famous weddings which is a summer occurrence from what I understand. Last time I was there, we found the best (and perhaps only?) bar in town – Gypsy Café. One thing lead to another…we got acquainted with the owner, befriended a very stylish Dervish who had just arrived from getting a fresh fade to his hair, and watched a four year old boy twerk the floor harder than Cardi B and Nicki Minaj combined. There is really never a dull moment in Shutka and I’d love to meet its mayor someday. Maybe over a beer and some twerking at Gypsy Café.
Read more about Shutka here:
- Hanging Out in Shutka – Gypsy Capital of the World
- 15 Things You Should Know Before Traveling to Macedonia
I knew I loved Stobi before I met it because I had been drinking it since 2012. There was just something about the sexy label and its crisp whites that had me enamored, so you can imagine when I learned that there was also a historical significance to it, I was determined to find out more.
What you need to know (that I didn’t) is that not only is Stobi a source of amazing wine, but it is also another contender for “Top Archeological Site in North Macedonia”. Located just down the road from one of North Macedonia’s largest wineries that you can visit in Gradsko, this ancient town has been around since 3 B.C. and was an important stop on a road that was connected to Via Egnatia, the Roman route which connected Byzantium (aka Istanbul) to the Adriatic Sea. Actually it was the capital of what was then called Macedonia Salutaris at the time when the Romans ruled these lands, so definitely a stop you need to make if you are interested in ancient history.
There is a massive site there, much larger than the one in Bitola, that is continually having excavations done so don’t be surprised if by the time you arrive it looks a little different. There is an information booth when you first pull in where you pay a nominal entrance fee, receive a basic information pamphlet, and then get sent off to figure it out.
Read more about Stobi here:
If you’re headed to central Albania (like to Elbasan or Tirana) via North Macedonia, you will 1000% pass through Struga unless you got on the wrong bus. Unfortunately, the bus station is located in the town’s industrial zone and not comfortably walking distance from the center if you have luggage, but no matter which direction you are coming from, I still encourage you to at the very least make a stop and venture out towards the lake using whatever mode of transportation you can. It’s lovely.
As it’s located pretty much at the border to Albania, there are a lot of Albanians living there which is how I actually found myself exploring it properly in the first place. It was during a travel conference, I was with a group of colleagues from Kosovo (Albanian ones), and they were looking for a good lunch spot close to Ohrid on Ohrid. Struga is just 14 kilometers away and has a nice selection of lakeside/riverside cafes and restaurants. It also has a pretty sizable selection of beaches and is well-known for its Struga Poetry Evenings that take place every summer as well as its eels (though you better not eat one).
When I visited it was spring, quiet and very brief, but still beautiful AF. I’ve seen the water around Ohrid in a few difference points, but this one was pretty spectacular. Maybe it’s because it’s the point where Lake Ohrid knows it can run wild and free into the Adriatic Sea (Black Drin meet White Drin), I don’t know, just guessing…
Tetovo, located in the north of North Macedonia and just across the border from Kosovo, is another town which has a majority Albanian population. Its biggest draw is definitely Šarena Džamija/Painted Mosque, one of my favorite mosques in the Balkans not only because of its beauty, but also its story. Covered by insanely colorful, Tarot card-esque plates and the inside painted with pastel flowers, depictions of Istanbul, and other things I have never seen in a Balkan mosque before, Šarena Džamija is undeniably striking. What really sets it apart from the others though in my book is the fact that it was commissioned by two sisters from Tetovo. This all during the 15th century when no one else but Ottoman sultan/pasha dudes were building things. WE CAN DO IT!
The Pena river runs through and in addition to this picture perfect place of worship, you can also find an old hamman and one of the most well-preserved Bektashi tekkes in Europe – Arabati Baba Tekke – which dates back to 1538.
I haven’t explored too many beaches around Lake Ohrid yet, but so far one of my favorites is found in the village of Trpejca which is on the way to Albania/Sveti Naum from Ohrid. If you weren’t looking for it, you’d probably drive right by as its crystal clear waters are found a short, downhill trek from the main road.
This “hiddenness” about it makes it all the more appealing and if you want to get even more wild, you can pay for a boat ride or take one of those paddle contraptions to some more isolated beaches not far away. If you want to get spiritual, you can also arrange for a ride to Zaum, one of Ohrid’s “365 churches” which is only accessible by boat.
Located smack dab in the middle of the country along the Vardar River, Veles’ new reputation proceeds itself as one of the fake news capitals of the world that went from producing silk and porcelain for Tito to pro-Trump propaganda during the 2016 U.S. election.
You’re likely to pass through if you’re heading anywhere south of Skopje and its dark tourism draw aside (let’s be honest, the 2016 U.S. election was indeed a catastrophe), it’s actually a cute place to wander around for a couple of hours. I love me an old town set against some hills just as much as I love climbable spomeniks with killer views so, needless to say, Veles checks some pretty important sightseeing boxes for me.
Have you been to any of the places mentioned above? What else do people need to know about them or see? It’s been an honor and privilege to travel through North Macedonia as much as I have, but the funny thing is I know there are at least 15 other places I still need to see. Would also love to hear about any other awesome places to visit not on this list – I promise I will try my best to get there sometime in the next six years ;)