Skopje: Visiting the Heart of the Balkans
I was thinking the other day how I never wrote a destination for Skopje, the city where I was born. As today is November 13th and because of the important significance this day holds for Skopje, I thought it would be the perfect time to write a semi-biased review of this city, which at times I both love and hate.
November 13th is the day in 1944 that Skopje was liberated from the Bulgarian and German Axis power in World War II. The Yugoslav Partisans (the National Liberation Army) descended from the mountain Vodno onto the heavily guarded streets by the German forces, and after a 24-hour fighting period, the Partisans were able to force the German soldiers out of the city.
In this post, I want to present the capital city of Macedonia and the heart of the Balkans in Europe to my readers. I will include both my personal opinions as well as things I’ve heard from many travelers I have met, who have stayed at my friend Milena’s Airbnb apartment.
There are several ways of arriving in Skopje; besides driving, you can also take a bus, a train or a plane. Thanks to the numerous cheap WizzAir direct flights in Europe, by plane is possibly the best option for those that want a quick adventure. The airport is around a 20-minute drive from the City Center; from there you can either take a shuttle (around 3 euro per person) or a taxi (20 euro fixed fee).
Entering Skopje is always a funny thing since you’ll pass along nasty neighborhoods and wonder where the hell have you arrived at. Don’t panic, it gets better!
Once in Skopje, you would probably notice the Millenium Cross on top of Mount Vodno as well as the Vardar River that flows across the city. The streets of Skopje are usually busy and loud, so soon your adrenaline levels will go up and you’ll feel more enthusiastic about your arrival.
The place in general – Skopje is a nice city. It certainly could use many improvements and green areas (trees); the recent construction hype has given it cold, grey looks as well as polluted air. However, there are lots of historical sights worth seeing and trips to nearby hidden gems that will make your time in Skopje unforgettable;
Parking – If you’ve arrived by car, finding a parking spot probably won’t be a problem. However, the entire Center area is covered in parking zones and you will probably have to pay for leaving your car there unless your accommodation offers free parking spots. There are many enclosed garages as well as shopping malls where you can leave your car too. Even though locals may ignore parking rules, I wouldn’t recommend foreigners to do so because foreign cars are always the first to be towed or get a boot on the vehicle by authorities;
Nature – Lots of trees in the Capital have been cut and the green parts in Skopje have been drastically decreased. However, nature lovers can enjoy walks in the City Park, hike on Mount Vodno or, highly advised, explore the gorgeous Canyon Matka;
Shops – unlike in other places, shops and markets in Skopje are usually open until late at night. Visitors can buy cheap as well as branded clothes, souvenirs or groceries both in large shopping malls or smaller local markets. There are also several green markets with fresh fruits and vegetables that always seem to be a real attraction to tourists.
Tip #1: Purchasing of alcohol is limited to 9 p.m. from May 1st – October 14th, and 7 p.m. from October 15th – April 30th.
During the Stay
Some of the points that tourists always mention are the dirty streets and the lack of trees. These are known problems and the government has promised to deal with both. Whether that will happen by the time you visit Skopje is unknown and probably unlikely.
Visitors also should have in mind that driving in Skopje, as well as biking and walking, is a real challenge. There are lots of irritating drivers that cut in between lanes, make dangerous moves and fail to let pedestrians’ cross streets. Therefore, it’s recommended to be careful just in case you encounter someone like that.
Another thing is to carefully choose your taxi – namely, there are drivers out there that want to take advantage of tourists by overcharging them. This is, however, a known phenomenon all around the world. So, the best thing is to make sure they turn on the meter and pay the exact amount you see on it, as well as get a receipt. If you have a host, don’t be ashamed to ask for suggestions of reputable taxi companies.
Tip #2: A store/shop must give a purchase receipt to customers. Also, the customer must have it on hand if stopped by inspection. This is to reduce corruption and prevent people from being taken advantage of. Keep this in mind when traveling to neighboring countries like Greece or Serbia.
Other than that, everyone seems to have fun in Skopje. All travelers have agreed that the cuisine is delicious, while the prices are more than reasonable. In Skopje, you can eat and drink all night long without spending a fortune as long as you stay away from elite restaurants.
Things to see in the area:
Mount Vodno and Millenium Cross – hike to the top or take a bus and a cable car to explore the beautiful nature of Mount Vodno. Once on the top, you can take photos of the Millenium Cross, have a nice cup of coffee or tea and, naturally, witness epic views of the city below;
Bohemian Streets – located in the popular Debar Maalo neighborhood, Bohemian Streets No. 1 and No. 2 are the spots to have fun, enjoy the “kafana” (traditional Macedonian restaurant) atmosphere, eat delicious and affordable Macedonian food and spend a generally pleasant day and/or night;
Museum of the City of Skopje – I believe it’s free to enter; the Museum of the City of Skopje is a must. The building itself is worth seeing since it is where the old railway station used to be before the disastrous earthquake took place back in 1963;
Skopje Aqueduct – a true historic gem, the Skopje Aqueduct is far from the city center and in a remote area. If you have the time you should visit it, but during the day as you could easily get lost at night;
Old Bazaar – another authentic sight in Skopje that anyone must visit. In the Old Bazaar you can buy souvenirs, enjoy delicious food and experience priceless historical and architectural values, and get a mix of the Macedonian multi-ethnical culture and religious values;
Stone Bridge – currently connecting the city center with the Old Bazaar, which are separated by the Vardar River, the Stone Bridge is something that can’t be missed. This treasure is possibly one of Skopje’s most recognizable sights alongside the Kale Fortress, which is next on the list;
Kale Fortress – built in the 6th century, the Kale Fortress is a sight to remember, regardless whether you will explore it during the day or walk beneath it at night;
Skopje 2014 Buildings – a controversial project that was widely opposed by many people, especially by those that live in Skopje, entirely changed the city’s looks. Many of the building and statues, however, have now become recognizable for the Capital such as, for example, the Warrior on a Horse (Alexander the Great) Statue and Fountain, the numerous buildings along the Vardar River, the Triumphal Gate and so on;
Mother Theresa Memorial House – dedicated to Mother Theresa, this modernist building is both a memorial house and a mini-museum worth visiting. It is in the city center, so you won’t need extra time to get to it;
Canyon Matka – if you have the time, this is a must-see spot when in Skopje. You can find out more about this hidden gem in our other blog post;
Kozjak – Kozjak is another must-visit spot for nature lovers that requires appropriate transportation and at least several hours. Read more about it our Kozjak post.
Sad to Leave
Well, these aren’t my words, but words of countless travelers I had the pleasure of meeting – it is always sad to leave Skopje, even when you’re headed to a much nicer place.
During winter season the air is poisonous
The city is a bit dirty
Many things to see
Not so great public transportation
Can be explored within several days
This city has a certain charm that cannot be found easily; even though the streets could be cleaner, and the number of green areas could be improved, Skopje is still a great destination for travelers all around the world. From delicious cuisine to rich history and friendly locals, if you want to feel at home while traveling you simply must visit Skopje!