First 24 hours in Skopje, Macedonia

Thanks to a controversial regeneration project, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’s capital is looking especially ship-shape. Here’s how to hit the ground running when you visit

Lyn Hughes
20 June 2016

Five hundred years of Ottoman rule, followed by a tug of war over its territory and being part of Yugoslavia, have left the Republic of Macedonia and its capital seeking an identity. Whether Skopje 2014 is part of the solution remains to be seen, and anti-Government / anti-corruption protests in 2016 – the Colour Revolution – have targetted the statues with coloured paint. But, for the visitor, it is all part of the fascination of a city that is a melting pot of Christian and Muslim, old and new.

Whether exploring the many museums, browsing the shops of the old Turkish bazaar or hanging out in a café sipping a macchiato, Skopje will reward the curious in spades.

At the airport

Skopje is a 3-3.5hr flight from the UK. Flights arrive at the Alexander the Great Airport, 23km south-east of central Skopje. It’s not a particularly large airport but has the basic facilities.

Getting into town

Several buses a day run from the airport to downtown (with stops at the Hotel Continental, International Bus Station and Holiday Inn); a ticket costs 175 denars (£2.25). Taxis are available 24 hours a day; the fixed fare to town is 1,220 denars (£16) or €20. There are several rental car agencies.

Other ways to arrive

International coaches run from Germany, Switzerland, Albania, Croatia, Bulgaria, Serbia and others. However, information isn’t that easy to come by – you’ll find timetables here, but not in English.

Essential info

First day’s tour

The city is bisected by the Vardar River. The area south of the river is mainly Orthodox Christian; this is also where the rail and bus stations are, and most of the shopping centres. North of the river is Carsija, the older, Turkish part of town. The main sights are easily walkable.

Start in the south, at the City Museum, housed in the old railway station, which was mostly destroyed in the earthquake of 1963; the clock survives, stopped at 05:17.

Skopje’s most famous daughter is Mother Teresa. A reconstruction of her home houses a commemorative museum.

The main square, known as Plostad, is dominated by the Statue of the Warrior; one exit from the square leads to the Arc de Triomphe. Heading north, you reach Kamen Most, the Stone Bridge. It dates back to the 15th century, and the Ottomans executed traitors here.

The bridge leads into the Turkish bazaar, the oldest part of the city. It is packed with small shops, cafés and bars. Linger over a coffee or two: Macedonia has adopted coffee culture like a zealot, and it is hard to get a bad macchiato.

Also on this side of town are the Kale Fortress, Mustafa Pasha Mosque and Sveti Spas Monastery.

For dinner, you could head to the Debar Maalo area, famed for its restaurants. But, if you only have one night, return to the Old Bazaar, to Pivnica An (or Beerhouse An; Maksim Gorki 1), a traditional restaurant in an atmospheric 15th-century caravanserai.

Where to stay?

Top end: Hotel Solun (Nikola Vapcarov 10) is a well placed contemporary four-star, with art on the walls, good WiFi and a gym. It prides itself on its ‘green’ credentials. Bike hire is available for €15 a day. Doubles from around 4,400MKD (£57); Premium rooms from 9,000MKD (£117).

For something very different, Hotel Senigallia is a replica galleon, moored on the Vardar River near the Stone Bridge. It has 18 beautiful rooms, and an enviable location.

Mid-range: Hotel City Park (Mihail Cokov 8A) is a small, friendly hotel to the west of the centre, close to the restaurants and bars of Debar Maalo. It has large rooms with contemporary décor, as well as space for parking. Doubles from €90 (£70).

Budget: There are now two branches of the friendly family-run Shanti Hostel (Rade Jovcevski Korcagin 11 & Prespanska 18); both are situated within a few minutes’ walk of the town centre as well as the bus and train stations. Dorm beds from €8pp (£6.25); private rooms and apartments also available.

Lake in Canyon Matka (Shutterstock)

Stay or go?

You can see much of Skopje in a day or two but it is also a good base for exploring the region. Just 20 minutes from town (by taxi – longer by bus), beautiful Matka Canyon offers boat trips (including a visit to a cave), while the more active can go hiking, rock-climbing or kayaking, before a trout lunch at the very good restaurant pre-book, or pop in and reserve a table before you go off exploring). It is busy here at weekends, but very pleasant in the week.

Or take a day trip to the remains of the ancient city of Stobi, with its Roman amphitheatre and villas, before getting an insight into Macedonia’s ever improving wines over lunch at top winery Popova Kula. You’ll think you’re in the Napa Valley.

Alternatively, leave the city to explore more of the country. Less than three hours from Skopje, lovely Ohrid and the lake of the same name, are a UNESCO World Heritage site. Take a boat trip, bathe in the clear waters and watch the sun set as you dine on fresh trout. Ohrid Town is an attractive base, or stay at the monastery of St Naum, now a hotel.

You can also hike or horse-ride in magnificent Mavrovo National Park or Macedonia’s other two national parks. The country has plentiful mountains, lakes and wildlife, making it a great destination for outdoor adventures.

Main image: Macedonian’s capital city Skopje (Shutterstock)

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