Skopje, capital of The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia
It’s possible you haven’t heard of this city, but if Skopje isn’t yet on your radar, you need to add it to your bucket list this very instant. It certainly wasn’t on my bucket list when I booked my last-minute budget flights to The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Surely that has to be in the Guinness book of records for the longest country name ever!
It’s often shortened to FYROM or Macedonia but be warned, if you use the latter you may receive some abuse. The Greeks have a big issue with their tiny neighbour trying to pinch the namesake of one of their regions. So much so that I got a little telling off on Twitter for not using the correct name.
One minute in Skopje
If you prefer video, hopefully, ‘One minute in Skopje’ will give you a taste of the city’s key delights. Otherwise, let me share with you how this city captured my heart. I am already itching to return and I have not even disembarked from my return flight.
Čaršija – The Turkish old town
In the heart of the city is the old bazaar with glistening cobbled tiles, Turkish coffee shops, kebab restaurants, souvenir stalls and bustling bars. It’s a colourful place to wander (women, prepare to be stared at) and the melting pot of Balkan and ottoman cultures is evident here.
This is one of the strangest tourist attractions I’ve visited. Perched high above the city, with a bird’s eye view of city panoramas and Mount Vodno, it’s FREE to enter. It looks part abandoned ghost town and part archaeological dig site. More bizarre still is the groups of bedraggled guys chatting over picnics or sleeping in the grass.
WARNING: if you are travelling with children, do not let them wander off alone. Health and safety laws do not exist here with rusty barbed wire barring entryways and sheer, barrierless drop offs. There’s nothing to see within the walls apart from the guys and scary looking policeman. I am unsure what they are guarding but given the extensive Kevlar and machine guns it must be something important.
The sole reason to visit is for the views and they are spectacular.
Opposite the fortress, you will find the mosque of Sultan Murat so head there next before descending back into town.
Sultan Murat Mosque
Skopje differs from Ohrid in its religions and ethnicity. There is a much greater Muslim influence here with minarets dotting the skyline instead of the innumerable Christian crosses we saw in the south.
This mosque is unusual for the colour of the stone and is another FREE attraction. Be sure to take off your shoes by the front door and I recommend women cover up arms, legs, and head. Whilst there appears to be no staff to reprimand you should you do otherwise, don’t be surprised if you get some negative attention from any stray worshippers if you don’t.
Macedonia square and surroundings
The area on both sides of the Kameni Most bridge is simply stunning. Grandiose marbled columns hold up whitewashed palatial buildings, fountains spurt water into their basins and countless statues are scattered about. The Bridge of The Civilisations is a modern day equivalent of the Charles Bridge in Prague with statues of ancient heroes lining it. From above, it resembles an eye but sadly I did not find this out until after we left.
It is easy to while away a few hours admiring the incredible fountains or lazing in terrace cafes. The frenetic construction of buildings and monuments in recent years is somewhat mind boggling. It’s as though the architects were determined to build bigger, better, and more brag-worthy edifices to commemorate ancient heroes.
The Holocaust Museum
Not surprisingly this is not a bag of fun but is a very interesting historic reconstruction of the fate of Macedonian Jews. Virtually the entire Jewish population of Macedonia was wiped out during the holocaust and their stories are recounted here.
There is an especially poignant gallery of children’s pictures and drawings on the ground floor. One, in particular, catches my eye, depicting seven graves each etched with the name of a mass genocide. The year of each is also captured and the Cambodian Killing Fields, Rwanda, and Balkan War all serve to remind us that it will happen again.
Please note: to gain entry you need to push the button on the intercom and it is FREE. Happy days!
Once you tire of all the monuments there are two ideal day trips that you can take. The first to Mount Vodno is more a half day involving a bus ride. Take bus 25 from the bus station or board just behind Macedonia Square (on the same side of the road as the large arc de triumph). For 35 Den this drops you at the base of the cable car which will take you to the top of Mount Vodno at just over 1,000 metres.
From here you will have unobstructed 360 views of the city, surrounding valley and mountains circling you. Covered in misty clouds, the mountains look sublime and have me longing to return for a future ski trip.
Our day trip to Matka ends up being a washout thanks to relentless rain but this place is beautiful regardless of the weather. Make sure to dress for the occasion and go no matter how wet or cold it is.
Bus 60 takes you there for just 35 Den (50p) in around 40 minutes. It drops you by the walking track and from here it takes ten-minutes to get to the restaurant, hotel, and church.
Alternatively, you can jump on bus 2 to Sagari and get a cab from there. There is no cab rank but you can try to flag one down or wait for an opportunist local to offer to drive you the last few km. In some respects, this is a better option as the number 2 runs much more frequently than the haphazard timings of the 60.
Once in the canyon
You can head into the canyon on foot taking the narrow, cliff-hugging hiking trail. If you prefer to travel on the water, you can opt for a boat trip or kayak hire. For 400 Den the boat trip lasts an hour and includes entrance to a cave thought to be the deepest underwater cave in the world.
The boat will only leave if there are sufficient passengers and unfortunately for us, this wasn’t the case. We end up watching the rain in the cozy restaurant for a few hours until the rain abates.
Encouraged by a glimmer of brightening skies and determined to see at least a little of the canyon I rush outside. Leaving my dad behind, I promise to be back in ten minutes and weave my way up the uneven path hugging the cliff. Low clouds hover above lush greenery, jagged cliffs, and serene waters and I find myself smiling in spite of the rain.
I am gutted when I have to turn around but the abundance of water and my promise to my dad force me to do the sensible thing.
Note: there are tours to Matka Canyon costing €25 but do it yourself and you will save a ton.
How long should I stay?
I would recommend a minimum of two days but if you can spare it, ideally three days would be better to do Skopje justice. This will allow you a few leisurely days in the city and a full day in Matka Canyon.
Have you been to Skopje?
If so I would love to hear what you thought and any other tips you have for potential visitors. I absolutely love this city in spite of the ridiculous, OTT displays. Opinion is divided on the city however with some blogs being very critical.
Are you planning a trip to Skopje?
If you are planning a trip to Skopje anytime soon, be sure to check out my ‘Beginners guide to Macedonia’ as travelling around the country poses some challenges which this guide may help with.