Reasons to love Skopje, the unique capital of North Macedonia

Welcome to Skopje, the capital of the Republic of Macedonia, a city located in the heart of the Balkan Peninsula, a city with a 2000 years old tradition.

Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, is often described as kitschy. Many tourists say that Skopje became Europe’s new capital of kitsch. Are you asking yourself why?
In 2010, the government launched project “Skopje 2014” which produced many statues, monuments, facades, sculptures, fountains and other structures. There were two main aims. To draw in more tourists and to try to reclaim aspects of the country’s history from neighbouring Greece. This expensive development in the city has left many locals unimpressed and questioning their Government’s choices. With so many unemployed people, the locals want jobs, not statues and fountains.

Even though this isn’t my favorite thing about Skopje, this is the first thing most tourists notice. And to be honest, this is even the reason for tourists to come, so it isn’t that bad, right?

I wouldn’t say that it’s too kitshcy, but with so many contrasts, this is definitely one of the most unique capitals. That’s what makes it special and it’s one of the reasons why you should visit Skopje.

Over 100 monuments and statues in the city center are located within a radius of 2 square kilometers. I have to admit that some of them look pretty good, but a lot of them aren’t even related to North Macedonian history. 

Walk along the Vardar river towards the heart of Skopje and you will find yourself among neo-classical buildings that weren’t there before the project. At the heart of the centre there’s a high statue of Alexander the Great encircled by warriors and a fountain. Nearby, there are statues of former rulers and saints and it seems that they were crammed into every available space. The city even has its own Arc de Triomphe, called Porta Macedonia. It is a triumphal arch, dedicated to 20 years of Macedonian independence.

Porta Macedonia

Now with that being said, let’s start with everything Skopje has to offer and with list of what to see in Skopje. I will give you enough reasons to come to this unique European capital. And there are reasons why you’ll enjoy in every single day you’ll spend there. Find out what are the reasons to love this city, how many days you need, what to do there and how to get around.

Where to stay in Skopje

I am glad that Skopje was a part of our Macedonian itinerary. We arrived early with the morning flight from Istanbul and took a taxi to our Airbnb. There are a few budget places to stay in the city. We opted for Airbnb in Adora Flatiron building and we couldn’t be more satisfied. The host was the best host ever! If you’re looking for a place to stay, I strongly recommend this place. We had a great view of Mount Vodno and it was such a delight to spend some time on our french balcony. After unloading our bags and having a quick nap, we were off to explore Skopje.

They say that the city splits into two parts – the “border” is the Vardar river. On one side there is the modern, new area, when on the other side there is a completely different world. Old, ottoman-era bazaar and neighbourhood. Even the taxi driver who drove us from the airport told us that the river is the line between two sides. Developed and pretty normal one side, while there is a “wild West” on the other side of the river.

Skopje

What to see in Skopje

While most of the city is just a random area with blocks of flats and houses, the center is quite interesting. The old and new buildings, the uncountable number of statues and the brutalist architecture are something that would describe Skopje perfectly.

And if you go a little bit further you’re suddenly in the Old bazaar area, so you go back in time and you’re in a completely different place.

There are just so many things to do in Skopje, so you need at least 2 days to explore. 2-3 days will be enough to make the most of the city and visit the nearby natural wonder, the Matka Canyon.

I would encourage you to take a walk along the beautiful quay of the river Vardar, to stroll along the narrow streets of the Old Bazaar, which is the biggest bazaar preserved in the Balkans today, to climp up the Kale and enjoy the panorama of Skopje, to visit St. Pantelejmon church. After the day spent in Skopje city center, you can visit area Debar Maalo, where you can enjoy the tasty Macedonian cuisine and delicious wines.

Not so far from the city center is located Matka Canyon where you can enjoy the beautiful nature.

Here is my choice of top 10 things to do in Skopje.

Get the impression of weird “new-old” architecture

The first thing you will notice when you visit Skopje will be a crazy architecture. Most of the buildings were built recently, around 2010, as a part of Skopje 2014 controversial project. You can now admire all these ancient-looking buildings that are home to numerous cultural and political institutions. The downtown of Skopje is definitely an interesting experience. I’d love to know how Skopje looked like before this project.

As if that wasn’t enough, the brand new old-looking ships have been built too and they are moored on Vardar river. One of them serves as a hotel, so you can also spend the night on a ship Senigallia.

Macedonia Square

Macedonia Square is the main square of Skopje. Many attractions are located on the main square or near the main square – like the statue Alexander the Great, Macedonia Gate, Holocaus Memorial Center for the Jews, Stone Bridge, Memorial House of Mother Teresa, museums, etc.

Track down as many statues as you can

Skopje has many scultpures and statues and the biggest and the most iconic of them is the Alexander the Great in the middle of Macedonia Square. There’s no way you can pass the Warrior on the Horse (official name) without noticing it. It’s quite majestic, so it’ll definitely catch your attention.

Other than the biggest sculpture placed in the middle of the city square, you can find a number of other smaller statues around the city. They mostly represent major historical figures, Macedonian artists, or random shoppers, beggars, or divers. Searching for statues is one of the best things to do in Skopje – and there is fun guaranteed!

Memorial House of Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa was a Catholic nun and the sacred person of the Catholic world. She was born in Skopje and she grew up in a wealthy family with Albanian background. At the age of 12 she decided to live as a nun. Since that moment she spent the entire life helping the poor in different parts of the world. In 1979 she got the Nobel Peace prize. The memorial house was built on the popular Macedonia Street, on the very location where once the Catholic Church was before the earthquake, where Mother Teresa was baptized.

Old Bazaar

The Old Bazaar is one of the most popular attractions in Skopje. I can totally understand why is it like that – the bazaar is full of vibrant sights, smells and sounds. I really love old bazaars and whenever I am in a country or a city where the old bazaar is, I must go there.

The Ottoman architecture is predominant in the Old Bazaar, althoug remains of the Byzantine architecture are evident as well. It used to be an important center of commerce during the Ottoman period. You can see mosques here, as well as a few Turkish baths or hammas, mausoleum tombs and churches. The Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Macedonia is also located in this area.

The bazaar is situated on the eastern bank of the Vardar river, stretching from the Stone bridge to the Bit-Pazar. The Old Bazaar is one of the largest and oldest marketplaces in the Balkans. If you ever visit Skopje, you most stroll the narrow cobblestoned streets of this bazaar. There is something for everyone here. If you are not into small souvenirs, copperware or clother, there are coffee houses and traditional restaurants. Going there feels like going back in time and into completely different place – this area is such a strong contrast to the modern buildings and new sculptures which are only bridge apart.

Visit the Kale Fortress for the city view

The Skopje Fortress, commonly referred as Kale, is a historic fortress located in the old town. It is situated on the highest point in the city, overlooking the city and the river. The first fortress was built in 6th century on a land that was inhabited during the Neolithic and Bronze ages. Material for the fortress originated from the Roman city of Skupi, which was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 518.

Kale fortress

Spectacular views of the city and the Vardar river from the top are guaranteed. It’s free to enter and is worth a look but there’s not too much to do inside. It seems the city isn’t taking care of it and this is quite sad. During my travel I’ve heard the same thing about Ohrid – the goverment isn’t taking care of heritage and they don’t really care about it.

Check out the remaining brutalist architecture

Skopje has more socialist brutalist architecture per square kilometer than any other city in the world. Why does Skopje have so many brutalist buildings? The origin of this architecture was born out of suffering and sorrow.

Designed by Kenzo Tang the redevelopment of Skopje’s city centre after the earthquake of 1963 endowed the town with some of the oddest examples of Brutalist architecture anywhere. But, as the Macedonian goverment prefers tacky statues and buildings over geometric lines and raw concrete, Modernist architecture lovers from all over the world are now beginning to worry about Skopje losing its reputation as one of the best Brutalist architecture capitals in the world.

The Central Post Office is easily the most famous of Skopje’s brutalist buildings. The building’s structure is made of reinforced concrete in the shape of a lotus flower. Lotus shape was intended to symbolize the reconstruction of the city after the heavy earthquake in 1963.

Skopje Brutalism

Explore the bohemian part of Skopje – Debar Maalo

The laid-back neighborhood of Debar Maalo hosts some of the most hip cafés in town. One of the few areas of town that survived the earthquake is full of little cafés and restaurants. It’s peaceful, full of locals and full of tasty Macedonian cuisine. If you have enough time to do it, take a walk in the coolest, bohemian area of Skopje. It is within walking distance from the city center.

From there you can continue your walk to the Skopje City Park.

Skopje City Park

While green areas within the capital are vanishing one at a time, the Skopje City Park remain untouched. This is the largest nature hub, as well as the most beautiful park in the urban landscape of Skopje. The city park (also called Gradski park) was built by the Ottoman Turks at the beggining of the 20th century. City park Skopje is one of the best places to go if you want a quick getaway from the fast paced life in the city centre. The park is located between the city centre and Karposh municipality, at a 15-minute walk to the City Square, following the Vardar river. It’s the perfect place for having a picnic or any other outdoor activity. With several small lakes this natural area looks even more dreamy and picturesque.

Skopje City Park

Enjoy the views on Mount Vodno & Millennium Cross

Vodno is a mountain, located in the northern part of the country, to the southwest of Skopje. The highest point is at Krstovar peak, on 1066 meters. In 2002 the Millennium Cross was built to celebrate 2,000 years of Christianity in both Macedonia and the world and it is one of the biggest Christian crosses in the world. The Millennium Cross on Vodno is one of the first sights you’ll notice from almost everywhere in Macedonia’s capital city. The views from the base of the cross are impressive, althoug finding out how to get there isn’t exactly clear.

To Vodno you can go by bus no. 25 from the Central Bus Station or by taxi. The public bus no. 25 drops people off in the Visitor parking pot. At the drop off point, there is a recreational park, a water station, and access to the Vodno Mountain cable car.

Ofcourse, you can hike to the Mount Vodno as there are many different trails.

Make a day trip to Matka Canyon

Matka Canyon is the perfect choice for a day trip from Skopje, since it is only about 15 km away from the city centre. If you are visiting Skopje and you have enough time, this is definitely a thing to do. Matka Canyon is a gorge with dozens of caves and large numer of endemic plants and animals. Matka Canyon has a lot to offer – canyon boat trip, hiking, swimming, visiting caves, medieval monasteries, etc.

You can read all you need to know about Matka Canyon in my blog post here. You will find out how to get there and what to do to spend your time the best way possible.

Matka Canyon

How to get around Skopje?

The main bus station is located about 2km from the centre of the city and has connections to all around the Balkans, so you won’t have any bigger problems getting to neighbouring countries or even make a day trip from Skopje.

As the city of Skopje is relatively spread out, it’s worth remembering that there is an extensive local bus network to get around the city. Tickets cost around 35 MKD (about €0.50) on the bus. They are cheaper if you buy them in advance. I suggest you to buy the Skopska card, so you can top up the card and get the cheapest ticket. Skopje is connected by a network of red double-decker buses which will have you thinking you’re in London.

You’ll have no problem getting around on Skopje by foot as most of the city’s major attractions are grouped together and there are many bridger to get on the other side of the river.

Coming from Skopje Airport

You have two options – a reasonably expensive taxi or the cheaper alternative of a bus.

The taxi ride will cost you 20€.

Taking 30 minutes to reach the city, the bus stops at both the main bus station, as well as opposite the Holiday Inn Hotel which is closer to the city center. Tickets between the airport and city cost 180 MKD.

Is Skopje worth visiting?

All in all, Skopje is an interesting and unique place to visit and it’s worth spending a few days in Skopje. The best way to do it is to combine it with a trip to some other country in the Balkans or as a part of a North Macedonia trip. With its blend of tradition and unusual modern elements, the capital city of North Macedonia is an essential stop on any good Balkan itinerary.

What do you think about Skopje? Do you think Skopje is worth visiting? What are your favourite things to do in Skopje? Let me know in the comments below!

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