Submitted by Pip Strickland on August 24, 2016
Located on Southeast Europe’s Balkan Peninsula, Macedonia is landlocked between Kosovo, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Albania. It declared its independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991 and, despite boasting rich historical monuments and spectacular mountains, lakes and rivers, has remained largely undiscovered by tourism.
Macedonia’s culture combines long-established Macedonian traditions with Albanian, Turkish and Mediterranean elements, vividly displayed in its fascinating monasteries and religious archaeological sites. Remote mountainous regions offer superb hiking and skiing in the winter months, and are dotted with traditional Balkan villages each with their own story to tell. But it is Lake Ohrid that remains the center of Macedonian tourism, with its laid-back beachside ambiance juxtaposed against Byzantine churches, and lively festivals that display Macedonia’s strong cultural roots.
When to travel - weather
Macedonia experiences a dry Mediterranean climate, with distinct seasons that make it pleasant to visit year-round. Summer is the peak tourist season when both domestic and European holiday-makers are on their annual break, with hot temperatures at sea level and more mild weather in the mountainous national parks making it ideal for hiking and outdoor pursuits.
While fall often sees the capital blanketed in fog, in the rural areas the changing leaves are undeniably picturesque and the mountains provide a particularly scenic backdrop. Spring normally arrives in early March, with days becoming warm and sunny, making this an ideal time to visit if you want to avoid the peak crowds of summer.
If you are coming to ski, then December through to early April normally sees a good covering of snow in the mountains, although occasional snaps can see cities inundated and transport come to a halt.
Food and drink
Macedonia’s cuisine shares many similarities with that of the Southern Balkans, with both Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences strongly exhibited. The favorable climate provides ideal conditions for growing numerous vegetables, fruits and herbs, resulting in a flavorful array of dishes which also incorporate some Italian, German and Hungarian influences.
Grilled meats (skara) are particularly popular, with a range of side dishes and salads ordered separately. Look for ajvar made from roasted peppers and tomatoes, a yogurt, cucumber and garlic cold soup known as tarator, together with the famed shopska salata which combines cucumbers, tomatoes and local white cheese sirenje.
But Macedonia’s national dish is undoubtedly tavce gravce which combines beans, paprika and vegetables in a traditional earthenware dish. Although it is vegetarian, it is commonly served with sliced sausage and the sauce soaked up by a side serve of bread. Another hearty local dish is turli tava, which combines potatoes, rice, okra, eggplant, carrots, peppers and either pork, beef or lamb and is baked similarly in a pottery dish.
While Macedonia produces its own beer and has the largest winery in the Balkans, it is the strong grape brandy of rakija that is perhaps the country’s most well-known beverage, together with the liqueur Mastika, seasoned with the evergreen mastic tree.
Popular vacation spots
Skopje - Macedonia’s capital Skopje is the social, cultural and political heart of the country, home to numerous museums and galleries set within its historic old center. The skyline is dominated by the 6th century Kale Fortress, built by the Byzantines, while the Old Bazaar remains a vibrant legacy of the Ottoman Empire with its narrow streets and authentic shops. Don’t miss a visit to the impressive Mustafa Pasha Mosque, built by the Ottomans in the 15th century, or the Old Stone Bridge which spans the Vardar River and is considered the symbol of the city.
Ohrid - Located along the hilly shores of Lake Ohrid, this UNESCO World Heritage-listed town of the same name is often referred to as the “Jerusalem of the Balkans” for its high concentration of churches (once having one for every day of the year). Ohrid is dominated by Samuil’s Fortress which served as the capital of the Bulgarian Empire during the 10th century, while just below lies the holy archaeological site of Plaošnik, home to St. Clement’s Church. In addition to exploring the churches of St. John at Kaneo and Saint Sofia with its magnificent frescoes, Lake Ohrid is a stunning spot to relax on the natural beaches or go boating to the nearby springs.
Monastery of St. Naum - Located just to the south of Ohrid is the Eastern Orthodox Monastery of St. Naum, built on an elevated plain on the edge of Lake Ohrid. St. Naum was renowned as a healer and built the monastery at the turn of the 10th century in dedication to St. Archangel Michail and St. Archangel Gabriel. It is renowned for its frescoes and iconostases, together with the resident peacocks who strut through the grounds.
Monastery of St. Jovan Bigorski - Located along the road which connects the towns of Debar and Gostivar in the west of Macedonia, the Monastery of St. Jovan Bigorski dates to the early 11th century when it was built by Ivan I Debranin. Although the Ottomans destroyed the monastery in the 16th century, it was later rebuilt, and is today renowned for its wood-carved iconostases and holy relics, which include an icon renowned for its incredible healing powers.
Kruševo - Macedonia’s highest town Kruševo sits at an altitude of 1,350 meters in the Baba Mountains and once stood proudly within its own republic. Its 19th-century Macedonian architecture is the main draw for visitors to the town, together with its important role in the struggle against Ottoman rule. It is home to the Mečkin Kamen landmark which honors the location of the 1903 uprising against the Ottomans, and the August 2 Independence Day celebrations are marked with particular fervor here.
Pelister National Park - Situated within the Baba Mountain massif, Pelister National Park is Macedonia’s oldest protected area and home to an impressive collection of flora and fauna that includes the unique Pinus peuce, roe deer, bears and the endemic Macedonian Pelagonia trout. In summer it is a spectacular place to hike, with two picturesque mountain lakes (known as gorski oci or “mountain eyes”) to explore, while in winter it is one of the country’s most well-known ski resorts.
Berovo - Located near the Maleševo Mountains in the far east of Macedonia, Berovo is decidedly picturesque. Not only is it home to the Monastery of the Holy Archangel Michael and a nearby female monastery, but its on the doorstep of some of Macedonia’s finest hiking. Trails wind between mountain villages within the pine forests of Maleševo and to the spectacular Berovsko Lake. Berovo also lies on the Iron Curtain Trail cycling route which traverses 20 different European countries as it follows their Soviet-influenced history.
Monastery of St. Joakim Osogovski - Set within a lush wooded area near the town of Kriva Palanka on Macedonia’s border with Bulgaria is the Monastery of St. Joakim Osogovski. It was initially founded in the 12th century and is considered by many to be Macedonia’s most beautiful monastery. The complex includes the Church of St. Joakim Osogovski and the smaller 14th-century church dedicated to the Holy Mother of God, dormitories, a bell tower and residency, together with holy relics and impressive wall paintings.
Macedonia’s official language is Macedonian, a member of the South Slavic language group. Although other languages (such as Albanian, Turkish, Romani, Aromanian, Serbian and Bosnian) are commonly used for official purposes in certain municipalities with large ethnic minorities. While the younger generation of Macedonians commonly speak some English, German, Dutch and Russian may be more useful with older members of the population.
The official currency of Macedonia is the Denar (MKD), although many hotels, restaurants and shops in tourist areas will quote prices in Euro. ATMs are widespread which accept major debit and credit cards, while banks and exchange booths will change money. Changing money on the street or in shops is ill-advised as it is technically illegal to do so. It can be difficult to change Denar once leaving the country, so it is better to exchange your leftover cash before you depart.
Health and Safety
Macedonia is a relatively safe country to travel in, with only minor pick-pocketing crime which may affect unwary tourists. Always keep your valuables close by or secure them in your hotel safe.
The only shot travelers should really consider in addition to routine vaccinations is hepatitis A, with food safety standards in restaurants not always high, although water is safe to drink and widely available from public fountains. Travel insurance which includes medical is highly advised and you should check if your country has a reciprocal health agreement with Macedonia before departure.