Skopje: The Most Interesting looking Capitals in The Balkans
Before I went to Macedonia, I didn’t really know much about it. I went on a few dates in LA a decade ago with this guy from there, and back then I couldn’t even locate it on a map. I knew nothing. Years later, here I am on my mission to visit every country, and that means Macedonia.
It was foreign to me. At least now I can locate it on a map, know it’s in continental Europe, and know from its alternate name that it is the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which means it was basically part of Yugoslavia back when Yugoslavia existed. The one thing I love about all the Balkan countries is they are so rich in history, political disputes, wars, and territory changes. There is truly so much to learn about these countries.
After hearing mixed reviews on my travels of Skopje, I didn’t know what to expect. I heard it was very interesting and full of serious monuments, fountains, and statues. The whole city was renovated on taxpayer dollars and was made to look a little inauthentic and almost “Vegas-like”. I didn’t even know what that meant. It didn’t seem realistic for such a city rich in history to be “Vegas meets Athens,” as one woman said, but I was intrigued nonetheless.
My bus left from Lake Ohrid in Macedonia, which I might add is truly stunning and I really recommend visiting there before or after Skopje by bus.
Imagine my luck and surprise when I arrived at the main bus station in Skopje and my hotel was one block away! I didn’t even need a cab. I was staying at the brand new Astera Apartment Hotel. The city was undergoing some construction in front of the hotel, which made the front a bit muddy and bleak. However, this is obviously not something the hotel can help. I believe they were finishing up when we were leaving, as a matter of fact. The building itself is brand new, beautiful, has colorful rooms, and a very attentive and hospitable staff. My most favorite thing about Skopje was the hospitality. But I’ll get to that.
When Ashli and I arrived, we were shown to our room. It had a large balcony, kitchenette, and seating area and two cute beds with whimsical design. They had roses, cake, and champagne waiting for us in our room. Three of my favorite things!
Ash and I arrived quite late, and we were starving. The hotel has a little café downstairs for breakfast, but it was late and not breakfast time. Our intention was to walk around until we found something, but it just so happens that the owner of the hotel also owns one of the best cafés. He ordered us some salads for take-out and even went and picked them up for us. This is where the impeccable and amazing hospitality started. And this was only the beginning. The salads were amazing, might I add. We gobbled them up and went to bed. The beds were smaller but the mattresses were super comfy so we got a great nights sleep.
The next morning, we got a ride into the city to the fortress. It was really invigorating to be surrounded by so much history and character. I advise walking all around it or you will miss out on some of the incredible views of the city.
After that, we walked to the old bazaar. I love bazaars, and I’ve been to many. I must say, this one didn’t have as much of an atmosphere like the ones in Morocco or even neighboring Bosnia, but it was still well worth a visit. There were still some incredible treasures to be found. I would also recommend sitting in a café and people-watch. Like I’ve said in a few of my previous blogs, people in this region live for sitting in cafés, drinking good coffee, and socializing. You almost wonder why everyone isn’t at work, but it’s a great vibe so I certainly don’t blame them.
Further into the city outside the bazaar and across the river, you start to get a completely different vibe and feel for the city. It becomes very eclectic, new, and grand-looking. The ground is marble, and you will see a 22-meter-high Alexander the Great Statue. You’ll see many other huge statues, actually.
It’s like a whole new city inside an old city. There were beautiful new statues and monuments, a beautiful fountain that I just could not stop staring at, and large Greek columned buildings. There were gold-plated lion statues on the bridges and huge statues on the roundabout. It was slightly bizarre but equally beautiful. It’s definitely an amazing place for a tourist like myself to visit, as it was so unique.
The city underwent a remodel to drive tourism because the economy is in a slump. However, the locals I spoke to seem to find the 300 million euro price tag for the remodel to be a bit extravagant. I tend to agree with them when the country is so poverty stricken and people don’t even have jobs and money to feed their families. Although everything is gorgeous, it’s hard to see it as anything other than a little over the top. I truly don’t know enough about it all to voice a true opinion, though.
It’s a very cheap city to visit as a tourist. There is a lot to see as far as cool stuff in the city, and it is very picture worthy. It just feels very new, which is not what I expected being in such an older country.
One of the really cool things Ash and I did was visit the Mother Teresa museum. Did you know Mother Teresa was born in Skopje? Me either until I visited a whole museum dedicated just to her. She truly was a remarkable woman.
We went into the old train station that is now a museum, which is cool. It was damaged in an earthquake in the ‘40s, and to this day, you can still see some of the rubble and damage.
During our exploring, Ash and I had a huge craving for dessert. Walking all over the city will do that to someone. We stopped at a bar and asked if they had any cakes. The man said no, only drinks. So we said, “Okay. We will go across the street, then, and buy some chocolate at The Lindt store and come back for a drink.”
We did just exactly that and ordered two teas. The next thing you know, the guy sent one of his employees out to find us some cake. That employee came back with three different selections, and gave us their specialty cocktail. I was astonished. I mean, to me it was insane that a stranger had gone so completely out of his way to find us cake. To Macedonians, though, it’s just their hospitality and their way of making tourists feel good for being there. I’m sure it helped a little that Ash and I are kind of cute, too. Haha!
After our dessert, I was desperate for a trip to New Yorker, so we went to a local mall. It’s one of my favorite Eastern European clothing stores. We mentioned this to the manager of the café and asked if he could get us a taxi. Instead, he said, “Just jump in. I can drive you there quickly.” And drive us there he did, with no ulterior motives, just being a nice guy. We never saw him again, but he was so sweet for that. Macedonians show true hospitality, that puts Americans and Brits to shame.
There are a few malls, and we had a lovely shop in the mall. After shopping, we then went back to the city to just walk around and explore more. That evening, we had dinner at Astera Café. I, of course, had to have the salad again because it was just so good, but I also tried some of the local cuisine. The ones without meat, anyway. They were also lovely.
The restaurant is out of the city center, is nice inside, and has a place in the basement where the kids can play. There are even TV screens so you can occasionally check to make sure they’re playing nice while you dine.
Prices were so cheap here, as well. Especially for all the food you get. The food in the city center was a lot pricier. This is because you are near tourist attractions. In any city, they always inflate their prices. This is why I always suggest going out of the city center or away from super touristy areas for cheaper food and – a lot of times – better quality.
The next morning Ash and I had Astera Hotel set us up with a driver to take us to Canyon Matka. Matka Canyon is a gorge, lake, and land area west of Skopje with churches and monasteries, a hotel, and restaurant. It’s simply stunning to walk around or hike. There are also boat trips you can take down the river and into some cave. The prices are cheap, and the scenery is so fascinating. I would say Matka Canyon is something in Skopje you just can’t miss. It’s for both nature lovers and city slickers as it really is beautiful and well maintained. The rocks there, look almost like fool’s gold when you pick it up. It’s really interesting. When we were there, there was a Red Bull sponsored event going on. It was pretty neat to watch different countries competing in Kayaking. It was definitely something different for us to watch.
I would also suggest a hike up to St. Nicolas Monastery. There is so much beauty here, and it’s only about 30 minutes outside of Skopje. Cabs are cheap in this city. Ash and I had such a nice time here.
All in all, Skopje really did impress us from the golden lion statues to the lovely Matka or Millenium cross at the top of the mountain you can see from all over the city. It’s truly a place to put on your list to visit.
Special Thanks to Astera Apartment Hotels for an amazing stay and their true knowledge in guest hospitality. Thank you for making our trip unforgettable and so personal. We loved it and look forward to staying with you again one day!
In Summary, here are 10 things to do in Skopje.
1. Matka Canyon: Hike, eat in the restaurant for some nice wine, and visit its cellar. Visit the monasteries, churches, and cave by boat ride. Take some cash for cabs and for some of the goodies people are selling and cooking out there. I got the cotton candy.
2. Millenium Cross: A 66-meter-tall cross on top of Vodno Mountain. Travel by cable car and get insane views over all of Skopje. You can cab up to the top for cheap.
3. Kale Fortress, also called The Skopje Fortress. It dates back to the 6th century and you’ll feel like a real Roman emperor inside the walls. You also get amazing views over the city and the Vardar River.
4. Mother Teresa’s Memorial House. It’s full of photos and memorabilia dedicated to the lovely selfless woman born in Skopje, who changed the world and many lives around her.
5. Take a stroll to the old Bazaar in the Ottoman part of the city. This is right near the fortress. Find some treasures and be sure to haggle. Also, try some tea and local cuisine while you’re over in this area. You will see some Turkish/Ottoman type mosques and bath houses here.
6. Have a drink in Plostad Makedonija. The main square of Skopje full of large monuments and fountains. The Alexander the Great fountain is remarkable.
7. Walk over the bridges and take in the city and all of its “old meets new”. Admire the statues and monuments and just people-watch.
8. Check out the churches in Skopje. They’re beautiful and I loved the style of them. Byzantine architecture is truly one of my favorites.
9. Stay at Astera Apartment Hotels and experience real family-like hospitality. You are a friend there, not just a guest and tourist!
10. If you have time, take a day trip over to Kosovo and visit Prizren and Prishtina. You can easily get a bus to and from Skopje. No visa needed.