I’ve been to the capital of Macedonia 4 or 5 times by now and it never stops to amuse me with so many things to do in Skopje. At the same time after so many visits I can’t decide what I really think of it. It’s a typical love-hate relationship. I love to hate it but deep down I hate to love it.
While most of the city is just a random area with blocks of flats and houses strewn around with no actual urban planning the center is a real playground for me. The old but new buildings trying to resemble the golden old past, the uncountable number of quirky statues and on top of that the real gems of brutalist architecture. And if you go a little bit further you’re suddenly in the bazaar area, so different than anything else!
There are just so many things to do in Skopje that they can keep you occupied for at least 2-3 days!
Table of contents
- 1 First impressions from visiting Skopje
- 2 Things to do in Skopje, Macedonia
- 2.1 Get your opinion on old-new and insanely weird architecture
- 2.2 Count the statues you will stumble across
- 2.3 Get lost in the old bazaar
- 2.4 Find the best view of the city
- 2.5 Look at the city from the fortress
- 2.6 Chase the brutalist architecture before it’s too late
- 2.7 Enjoy the Skopje cafe scene
- 2.8 Relax in Debar Maalo – the bohemian part of Skopje
- 2.9 Enjoy the beautiful views on Mount Vodno
- 2.10 Escape to the nature at Matka Canyon
- 2.11 Go for a day trip to Pristina, Kosovo
- 2.12 Skopje – the best getaway to Macedonia
- 3 Is it worth to visit Skopje, Macedonia?
- 4 Skopje – practical information
First impressions from visiting Skopje
I remember very well the first time I arrived to Skopje, Macedonia. It was the early evening on November gloomy day, together with a friend we were trying to find our accommodation but instead of looking properly for the place we had a huge “wtf is happening here?” moment.
We knew next to nothing about Skopje so seeing the center with all its quirks was a massive surprise to us, especially that in that moment there were more statues than people around us. I don’t think I was that confused after arriving to any other place, I really had no idea what to do in Skopje and to be honest I didn’t have my hopes very high. But over the next days there were so many things that made me enjoy Skopje surprisingly much, even in the autumn wet and foggy weather.
I actually liked it there so much that shortly after I returned to Skopje to spend even more time there, at the end of May when days were warm, long and sunny. It was then when I really fell for the city and now it’s one of the places I really love returning to, just to spend some time and enjoy the vibe (and to hate it just a tiny little bit). Even after all these many visits there are still new things I need to do or see in Skopje.
This is definitely the most unique capital city in Europe, with so many contrasts on every step. But that’s what makes it special and that’s why it’s worth to visit Skopje! I guarantee you will be walking with eyes wide open, looking at everything around you in disbelief (and then with a grin on your face because this place is just crazy!)
Things to do in Skopje, Macedonia
If you’re wondering what to do in Skopje I’ve prepared a small cheat sheet for you so you can enjoy the city to the fullest. I think 2 days in Skopje would be an ideal time for a visit so you can enjoy not only the city itself but also the nearby wonders of nature. You will have time to see all the sights but also to relax and enjoy the coffee which is one of the best things to do in Skopje.
Before we continue – Skopje and the rest of the country are often the hot topic in politic discussion. I do follow those but I’m not gonna mention politics here as I don’t feel this is the right place. I’m not involved in the Macedonian conflict, I’m just a tourists who enjoys visiting the country. This is also a travel blog so let’s focus on travels, shall we?
Get your opinion on old-new and insanely weird architecture
The first thing you will notice when you visit Skopje will be a crazy architecture, especially along Vardar river. All these ancient looking buildings might look old but don’t let them fool yourself, they were built recently, around 2010 or so.
There was a big controversy regarding the funding of the project Skopje 2014 that was aiming to give the city a more classical look. In the country with a rather high unemployment rate there were more urgent needs than basically rebuilding the capital.
As a outcome of Skopje 2014 project you can now admire all these ancient-looking buildings that are home to numerous cultural and political institutions. On some of them you can still find splash of colorful paint – an effect of 2016 colorful revolution.
If that wasn’t enough the brand new old looking ships have been built too, now they are moored on Vardar river. One of them serves as a hotel now so if you ever wished to spend the night on a ship this is your chance.
Not only the brand new building were built to give the center of Skopje a new look. What really breaks my heart is that the old buildings, a fine example or brutalist style (more on that later) were redo, covered in another layer hiding its concrete beauty so they could fit in the area…
But no matter what you think on the new look of Skopje’s downtown it is definitely an interesting experience to walk around these crazy looking buildings and to make your own opinion about them. I haven’t seen Skopje before they were built so I can’t compare.
Even if they are all rather superficial I kind of like them, they represent the modern Skopje to me and I can’t really imagine the city without them. As the city doesn’t really have a real downtown this is as close as it can get to it, even if the result is somehow overdrawn and kitschy.
Count the statues you will stumble across
As part of the project Skopje 2014 there were numerous monuments placed all over the city. And by numerous I mean a lot, many more than you can think of, really! If you stand at the main square and look around you will see at least 20 different Skopje monuments.
Some of them show great Macedonians, other are just crazy and pointless (like the shopping girls or a girl jumping into the water). You walk through the bridge and you’re surrounded by 30 or so sculptures. You want to see the circle of life? No problem, there’re statues showing this too! There is no weird or quirky statue that wouldn’t fit there, everything is so fucked up it actually works together surprisingly well.
Of course you will have more wtf? moments here than anywhere else but that’s part of the fun. Skopje is the capital of kitsch and all these sculptures, together with the new architecture, just prove that!
Get lost in the old bazaar
Skopje’s old bazaar is second largest bazaar in the Balkans after Istanbul and it surely has the orient charm.
As soon as you enter the area you can smell grilled meat which up to now reminded me mostly of Sarajevo’s Bascarsija. You can easily get lost in the maze of narrow streets (I admit it happened to me few times), you can also find some true gems in the most unexpected places, such as bezisten (old, covered market) or hamam (a public bath).
The old bazaar makes such a great contrast to the rest of the city. It kind of feels like the time has stopped here some 100 years ago. Small, old-style buildings are home to numerous craftsman shops, barbers or bars and restaurants serving local food. You can easily spend few hours here, wandering around, getting lost, enjoying delicious Macedonian dishes and just soaking in the atmosphere.
I especially like going to the old bazaar in the early evening when the businesses are closing for the day, there is less of hustle and bustle around but bars and cafes are filling up with the customers. But no matter what time of the day you end up in the area you’re in for a completely unique and different experience than the rest of Skopje serves.
Find the best view of the city
While you’re at the old bazaar you can enjoy the best view of Skopje. The place is a little hidden and not many know about it so you can enjoy it in the peace. Go to Hotel Arka and ask for the top floor cafe (it’s on the 7th floor if I remember correctly) – once you get there you’re in for a treat!
The view from up there is amazing, especially just before the sunset when the golden light overflow the city. You have the old bazaar just in front of you, with the Macedonia square and the downtown or Mount Vodno a little bit in the back. Order a coffee (a regular price, like in the rest of the city, around 100 denars), sit outside on the terrace and enjoy the stunning view! You will love it!
Look at the city from the fortress
While you’re nearby and want to see the city from yet another viewpoint the Kale fortress is a good option. It is located only few minutes away from the old bazaar and being built on the highest point in the city it offers some great views of Skopje.
The fortress itself is nothing special, just some stones here and there and not much else. But you can walk the walls or climb the tower and look at the city spread across Vardar river – it’s such a pleasant view you will enjoy it for sure! Bonus: the entrance to the fortress is free of charge.
Chase the brutalist architecture before it’s too late
Skopje is a real playground for me! That’s where I discovered and fell in love with the brutalist architecture (one of the reasons why the city has a special place in my heart). If you like concrete then you will love Skopje!
There’s a dark history behind the brutalist in Skopje – the major earthquake hit the city very badly in 1963, over a thousand people lost their lives and the big part of the center was destroyed – that’s why you won’t really see any old monuments in Skopje, except of the old bazaar.
Two years later a Japanese architect Kenzo Tange was chosen to design the new look of the city. Since brutalist was at the peak of its popularity at that time he has decided to create the concrete city of future. The projects looked amazing and make my heart beat faster even now, too bad the brand new look of Skopje was never fully built!
For those of you who are not really familiar with brutalist (I learnt about it only couple of years ago) that’s the style in the architecture that focuses on raw concrete but with a twist: curvy shapes, ornaments etc. If you think something looks weird and it is made of concrete that’s most likely brutalist! Besides Skopje you can find some of the great examples in Belgrade, Kiev, Katowice or Tbilisi, just to name few places.
Some of the best brutalist architecture I’ve ever seen was in Skopje. And even if I’ve been at the university few times by now, even if I’ve passed by the main office during every visit I’m impressed every time I see these beauties!
You don’t need to go far from the center to see Skopje brutalist but if you’d like to see more than just few buildings you will have to get around the city a bit. In fact the post office or GTC shopping center are right in the very center!
Some places, like the university or St. Klement Ohridski church, are easily accessible by walking to others – mainly Skopje State Hydrometeorological Institute and Goce Delčev dormitories – are a bit far from the center (even I didn’t make it there) but it’s not impossible to visit those.
Sadly the future of Skopje brutalist doesn’t look very bright. Already few years ago Skopje Administrative Court, yet another concrete gem, was covered in some kind of marble to resemble the rest of ancient looking buildings around. Couple of days ago I saw rumors that one of the brutalist buildings that is part of the post office complex is being destroyed too.
If you would like to admire the amazing concrete structures of Skopje you need to hurry as no one knows how long they will be still there!
Enjoy the Skopje cafe scene
Balkan cities are known for the amazing cafe scene and Skopje is no exception here. The coffee here is thick, delicious and super cheap.
There are some really great cafes in the city but you won’t find them in the center, you need to venture a little bit further to get there. Best places to enjoy a good coffee in a charming, vibrant place are the old bazaar area or Debar Maalo, bohemian-alike part of Skopje.
Relax in Debar Maalo – the bohemian part of Skopje
Not far from the center you will find Debar Maalo – the calm oasis, the most bohemian part of the city and the center of alternative Skopje. Streets are lined with trees, numerous cafes and restaurants fill the area and this relaxing, pleasant vibe is floating around.
I’ve spent quite some time in Debar Maalo and it’s the best area to quickly escape too when you are tired with hustle and bustle of the city and feel overwhelmed with the Disneyland in the center. While Debar Maalo is calm and quiet for most of the time you never know when you might stumble across the rock concert on the street or a party in one of the bars – it most certainly happened to me!
Enjoy the beautiful views on Mount Vodno
When arriving to Skopje you know you’re getting close to the city when you see a big Millennium Cross located on the Mount Vodno. It’s almost twice as big as the famous statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, visible from far away, also in the evening when it’s light up.
You might think that since you can see the cross from more or less everywhere the view from up there must be pretty stunning too. And you are right!
It’s actually really easy to get to Mount Vodno from the center of Skopje! You need to take one of those London-style duble decker buses that head there – they start the journey at the bus station and go through the center, you can catch it on 11th October street, close to the main – Macedonia – square.
The bus for Vodno has number 25 and it should be written (in Cirillic and Latin alphabeth) “Millennium Cross” or “Sredno Vodno”. The schedule online says there is one bus every hour, from 08.20 to 15.20 but I remember them running more frequently. But better stick to the online schedule, just in case.
The bus will take you to Sredno Vodno – Middle Vodno from where you need to take the cable car (or walk) to the top of the mountain. The cable car station is few steps away from the bus stop and it’s insanely cheap, less than 2€/return.
Once you are on top of Mount Vodno you can enjoy stunning views of Skopje on one side or the surrounding nature on the other, hike around a bit or enjoy the coffee in this amazing location. It’s such a beautiful and relaxing place!
Just keep in mind that the last bus back to the city leaves from Sredno Vodno at 17:00. If you miss it the taxi to the center should cost around 5€.
Escape to the nature at Matka Canyon
Another perfect nature getaway is Matka Canyon, a bit further than Mount Vodno but also easily accessible. You will get here by bus no 60 from the bus station or the center (close to the fortress), I chose the bus station stop to be on the safe side.
It’s quite a journey and from the bus stop you need to walk a bit up but eventually you will be greeted with the pristine nature and stunning views of Matka Canyon.
You can go kayaking, boat riding or hiking along the canyon – no matter what you choose you will love it, the place is just breathtaking and such a perfect nature oasis after crazy Skopje, it feels like a completely different world from what you’ve left behind.
You can go for an organized, highly rated tour and see both Mount Vodno and Matka Canyon at once. Click here to see the details, current deals and book the tour!
Go for a day trip to Pristina, Kosovo
During my first visit in Skopje I used the city as a base to go for a day trip to Pristina, Kosovo. The capital of the youngest country in Europe is only 2 hours away by bus and those run frequently making the trip easily doable.
Now Pristina is among my favorite cities and I’ve returned there few times ever since but I’m well aware it’s the city difficult to love and you must look behind the surface to fully enjoy it hence the day trip from Skopje is a perfect option. Hopefully it will make you fall for Pristina as much as I did.
The buses for Pristina depart from the main bus station, the one way ticket is 5€. I took the 8am bus and was in capital of Kosovo around 10am. Along the way you will cross the border between the countries so keep your passport ready, the whole process is really straightforward. From the bus station in Pristina it’s some 15 minutes along Bill Clinton boulevard to the center.
While in Pristina you should go up to the tower of Mother Theresa Cathedral to enjoy the amazing view of the city, you can admire yet another quirky architecture gem (if you’re not sick of those after Skopje) – the national library, you can see how the NEWBORN sign looks like this year but most of all you can walk along Mother Theresa Boulevard, enjoy the incredible cafes scene (it’s literally among the best I’ve ever experienced!) and do the people watching.
Pristina isn’t your typical beautiful city but it has a certain charm that I enjoy so very much! Just keep in mind that the last bus back to Skopje departs at 18:00 and you don’t want to miss that!
If you’d like to see more of Kosovo it is possible to go for an organized day trip from Skopje to both Pristina and Prizren (something you can’t do by public transport, you can’t even visit Prizren as a day trip from Skopje). Prizren is the prettiest town in Kosovo and combining it with Pristina would be a perfect way to get to know the youngest country in Europe. Click here to see the details and book the tour!
Skopje – the best getaway to Macedonia
I can’t say one of my favorite things to do in Skopje is to leave Skopje, I like the city way too much. But it is the perfect getaway to discover the rest of the country. Since my first visit I think Macedonia is among the most underrated countries in Europe, always in the shadow of more popular Balkan countries. But it has a lot to offer, really!
Lake and the town of Ohrid are on the very top of my list of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, Bitola is a vibrant town unlike any other, a mix of Balkan and Mediterranean vibe or Krusevo that looks like from a fairy tale and is home to one of the quirkiest buildings ever.
It is possible to go to Ohrid for a one day trip from Skopje. Click here to check the details, current prices and to book the tour!
There is so much to see and do in Macedonia and Skopje is a perfect starting point!
Is it worth to visit Skopje, Macedonia?
By now you should know that yes, it really is worth to visit Skopje, Macedonia. I can’t think of a more unique city than this one. It’s kitschy and quirky but at the same time cool and charming. It is full of contrasts, on every stop and that’s what make it so special. Don’t expect a typical beautiful city but one of a kind place. Visit Skopje with an open mind and chances you will fall for it are really high.
Just a friendly advice: it’s better to avoid visiting Skopje in winter. The air polution is really bad here at that time. I really enjoyed Skopje at the end of May and end of September when the weather was warm and sunny and it was possible to have a coffee or meal in one of the outside cafes.
Skopje – practical information
How to get to Skopje?
Skopje is fairly well connected with numerous European destinations thanks to low cost airlines. You can fly for as little as 10€ one way. When searching for the best deals on flights I always use Skyscanner or Momondo.
To get from the airport to the center you need to take the bus operated by Vardar Express. The bus schedule is connected with flights arrivals / departures, the journey takes a bit over 30 minutes and the ticket costs around 3€. In the center of Skopje the bus stops at the main bus station and next to Holiday Inn hotel, 3 minutes away from Macedonia Square.
The main bus and train stations are located in the same building (the train platforms are in the upper level, they are a good example of brutalist too), some 10-15 minutes walking from the center. Train options are very limited with only few destinations in the country and abroad (Serbia, Kosovo).
Bus network is much more developed, you can easily get to and from the main cities such as Ohrid, Bitola, Prilep and others. The buses are fine, nothing to fancy but decent enough to survive these few hours journey (it takes around 3 hours to get to Ohrid or Bitola). Skopje is also well connected with other surrounding countries.
How to get around Skopje
Walking is your best option as all the Skopje attractions are fairly close to each other. It gets trickier if you want to go somewhere by bus (Mount Vodno, Matka Canyon). Until recently it was possible to just buy the ticket from the driver but now you need to get a special card, called Skopska card.
It costs 150 MKD for the card and you already have some credit on it, one way bus journey within the city costs 30 MKD. You can get the card in newsstand booths.
Where to stay in Skopje
I have one favorite place where I always stay in Skopje – Main Square Apartments. Those private rooms are located in the block of flats right next to the river, few steps away from Macedonia Square. Since they are on the higher floors the view you get is pretty stunning, to all the quirky looking buildings Skopje is known for. The downside – it can be noisy in the warm days but still this view is worth it! That’s also one of the cheapest accommodation options in Skopje! You can check the details and current prices and book your accommodation here.
If you don’t mind splurging a little and staying at the unique place then you should go for the boat Hotel Senigallia, right in the center of Skopje on one of the boats that appeared there together with all the quirkiness around. Not very often you have such a chance! Click here for more details and prices!
If you’d like to see Skopje with a guide there’re few highly rated tours you can choose from:
- Half-Day Walking Tour of Old and New Skopje
- Full-Day Tour Best of Skopje
- Half-Day Tour of Skopje’s Surrounding Beauties
Click on each link to see the details and book the tour of your choice.
Where to eat in Skopje?
First of all – food in Macedonia is the best! Finally, as a vegetarian, I don’t need to go always for the same dishes but have more diversity when eating out! There’s tavce gravce, ajvar, shopska salad, fries topped with local cheese, stuffed paprika – and these are only vegetarian options! The selection for meat lovers is even bigger! And if you’re in hurry you can always grab a burek in one of the local bakeries, they are pretty amazing!
There are so many good restaurants to go to in Skopje I will just limit you to the areas: the old bazaar, Debar Maalo and the center. There you will find some good restaurants to check out! As always I recommend Foursquare for finding the best options!
Where to shop in Skopje?
For souvenirs your best bet is old bazaar. For just about everything else I go to GTC shopping center right next to Macedonia Square. On the lowest floor you will find supermarkets and all the other floors are occupied with all sorts of shops. I’m a huge fan of the paper shop there and always end up supplying myself with numerous notebooks and pens that I then have to take back home somehow. You will find other shopping centers next to the old train station and on the way from the center to the bus station.
Guide books for Skopje
I do like reading a guide book before and during the trip. Depending on the destination I usually buy either Lonely Planet or Bradt. You can get your guidebooks for Macedonia here: Bradt / Lonely Planet
I never travel without the insurance as you never know what might happen on the road (I’ve learnt my lesson). I can recommend World Nomads that offer the insurance dedicated to travelers just like you and me. Check the insurance options for your trip here!
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