A few weeks ago, I had a vague idea of where Macedonia was but I could not name the capital, any of the major towns, the language or the currency. It wasn’t on my bucket list, I’d seen no blogs raving about it and I didn’t even realise I knew someone from Macedonia. Or should I say the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia?
What kind of travel blogger am I? Well, clearly A rubbish one!
Macedonia pain relief
For anyone else who may be considering visiting, this post is designed to take some of the pain and frustration out of a first-time visit to Macedonia. Macedonian tourist infrastructure is a little lacking and information can be hard to come by. I spent hours searching the Internet for bus timetables and tourist information only to come up empty-handed.
Hopefully, this post will not only inspire you to visit but will help prevent some of the frustrations we have experienced on our brief trip. It’s not intended to be a complete overview of everything you need to know, but instead to share some of the key things we discovered.
Where is it?
For anyone who admits to being as ignorant as I, Macedonia is in the central Balkans. Squashed between Greece to the south, Albania to the west, Kosovo and Serbia to the north and Bulgaria to the west, this landlocked nation is like a bullied kid squeezed into the middle of the back seat.
It is perhaps best known for being in a permanent state of tension with Greece over claims to Alexander the Great and the use of Macedonia in the country name. It also happens to be the name of one of the Greek regions and the Greeks didn’t take too kindly to its use (I even got called out on Twitter for not calling the country by its official name of FYROM. Wtf?!)
This is one little gem you don’t want to miss. You may not have heard of the place but you won’t be disappointed. It’s packed with more monuments than you can count, fantastic, frivolous fountains and untouched beauty. Macedonia is home to serene gorges draped in mist, glistening lakes, high peaks and a fascinating history. If you need more inspiration, check out these posts.
When to go?
The summer months are understandably busier. Although October is coming to the end of the season and not everything will be open, I highly recommend this month. You will have key attractions to yourself, can still enjoy balmy days in the sun and drinks on the terrace at a night.
How to get there?
We flew into Ohrid in the south on WizzAir from London Luton and returned with them from Skopje. They are the only direct flights I could find although you can book connecting flights with a number of airlines by searching on Kiwi. The good news is the flights are some of the best value flights I came across on my hunt for a budget last-minute break and it only gets better when you land.
Airbnb has arrived on these shores so you can take your pick of a number of fabulous looking apartments giving you great value accommodation. We stayed in Aurelie Apartment in Ohrid and Tina’s Baroque apartment in Skopje. Both were superb value in fabulous locations.
Don’t be put off by the communal areas in these buildings as they seem to be spartan and neglected. Once inside the apartments, you will find some magnificent traditional apartments with great facilities.
If you would prefer a hotel, you can take your pick on hotels.com (remember one free night in ten). Note that international brands are only just appearing with just a Marriott and a Holiday Inn in Skopje and only local hotels in Ohrid.
If you are a McDonald’s or Starbucks addict then you may have to undergo withdrawal symptoms in Macedonia as thankfully the Golden Arches have yet to descend. The only evidence I saw of fast food chains was a Burger King at Skopje airport as we were leaving.
Don’t be deterred however as the cuisine is a real melange of Macedonian, Turkish, Greek and other cuisines. You certainly aren’t going to starve and the food is incredibly reasonably priced. We ate out most nights for less than a tenner for two people including a few beers. Yes, you can forget about the post-Brexit decimation of the pound here.
Macedonian cuisine seems to be heavily weighted towards stews but if you try only one Macedonian dish, make sure it is a shopska salad. Cucumbers, tomatoes, onion and a lone olive combines with grated goat’s cheese to offer a simple, culinary masterpiece that I find myself craving. I could eat this morning, noon and night and I wasn’t the only one as a Swedish guy I met felt exactly the same.
Intercity and international buses are plentiful and cheap. In Ohrid you will need to book tickets either at the bus station or at the tiny Galeb office in the middle of town. There is currently no option to buy tickets online as is the case for most things in Macedonia. The journey to Skopje costs just 490 Den (around £7) and takes 3.25 to 4 hours depending on traffic.
There are trains between some cities but I didn’t use them.
Within cities, buses are frequent but timetables and information are hard to come by. Bizarrely in Skopje, even if you figure out which bus you need and the stop you need, you then have to find the stop. This is no mean feat given the numbering seems to have no logic to it.
Number 25 for Mount Vodno is in the middle lane and number 60 for Matka Canyon is in the first lane, furthest from the toilets. There seems to be no information office, very few timetables, nothing in English and the gangs of teenagers roaming the station can be unnerving. I do not recommend hanging out in Skopje bus station at night or for long during the day if you are travelling solo.
If you do manage to find a bus then fares are super cheap at just 35 or 50 Den (50 to 75p) depending on your journey. They are also great fun providing an insight into daily local life.
I found the bus system to be the most frustrating part of our trip. Not wanting to splurge on taxis, I was desperate to use buses but the lack of information makes it challenging.
Taxis are reasonable at around 250 Den (£3.50) to Mount Vodno, 900 to the airport (£13) and 500 (£7) to Matka Canyon. In Ohrid, we only used one cab to get to the bus station on the outskirts of town and that cost 100 Den (£1.50).
The main source of tourist information online seems to be Exploring Macedonia (more a travel agency) and travel blogs. The latter are better sources of information in my opinion but given the relatively few tourists, you have to be persistent to find what you are looking for.
In Skopje, I couldn’t find the tourist information I was sent to and the one I came across in the bus station was closed. Most sources of tourist information seem to be independent travel agents selling trips or long distance bus tickets to neighbouring countries.
The internet is little better with few sites, countless bad links and poor functionality. For the google generation, used to relying on the internet, you may have to revert to a more old-fashioned mode of travel. Download your guidebook, buy a map and set off to explore.
The Macedonian language uses the Cyrillic alphabet. This makes it nigh on impossible to decipher so it pays to write down any destinations in both English and Cyrillic should you be straying from the big cities. In both Ohrid and Skopje we found English to be widely spoken in restaurants and bars but less so elsewhere.
I carry a small notepad with key information and also as a catchphrase style accessory should I find myself out of options for explaining what I need. (Let’s just say there is a very poor picture of a boat in there!)
German seems to be widely spoken as well but I didn’t pick up on many other languages.
When a country is not on the mainstream tourist trail this is a question which frequently crops up. I travelled solo during the day for most of our trip and felt safe all the time. The only exception was the teenage gangs in the bus station who may have been entirely harmless but I wasn’t hanging around to find out.
The local currency is Denar with currently around 70 to the pound. ATMs are widespread and we had no issues using them.
Credit cards are widely accepted with the exception of AMEX.
- Small beer – around £1.40
- Large beer – £2
- Glass of Wine – £3
- Omelette – £2
Please help me
Hopefully, this information will help you out but if you are visiting and come across any useful information I have not covered, please message me or comment below. I’m really not joking when I say information is hard to come by and even a Sherlock like me really struggled to find helpful stuff. I’d also love to hear what you think about the country.
It may be more challenging to travel around that come countries, but the extra effort is definitely worth it.