Skopje is an unusual city. Walking along the banks of the Vardar River and seeing the large Neo-Classical style buildings you could be mistaken for thinking this city is similar to Paris or Budapest or other grand European cities that are based along a grand river. However, there are two crucial things that you realise when you visit Skopje that make the Macedonian capital different: the fact that the majority of these buildings were built in the last decade and the distinct lack of people along the waterfront.
What you should know before you visit Skopje
Ten years ago, the government of Macedonia invested over €200m to build several large old-fashioned government buildings and statues across the centre of the city in a bid to encourage more tourists to visit Skopje and as a way of creating a sense of patriotism amongst locals. The buildings are hugely controversial with locals as many see it as a waste of money that should have been diverted into public resources with more tangible benefits.
Some of the frustration with the government was evident during my visit to Skopje in April 2016 which coincided with the predominantly peaceful protests dubbed as the colourful revolution. The protests, which originally started in 2015 due to continued government corruption and allegations that locals had been wiretapped, resulted in thousands of protesters taking to the streets and throwing paint bombs at the newly built government buildings and statues.
A lot of the mess from the paint bombs wouldn’t last more than a day or two as the government frantically tried to cover up the protests by constantly cleaning any remnants of the paint. Speaking to locals in the city, the frustration was clear and the protests eventually led to the resignation of the president in June 2016 and new elections later in the year.
Whether these buildings have worked as a tourist attraction I think is also debatable.
Walking along the riverbanks in the evening, I didn’t see many other people despite the weather mild. There was an undeniable lack of magic or charm that you feel when you visit Skopje compared to walking through other grand European cities.
So is it still worth it to visit Skopje?
Despite the controversy associated with the government buildings, I think it’s still definitely worth visiting the Macedonian capital and making up your own mind about the city as well as exploring some of the other Skopje attractions.
Out of all the recently built monuments, the statue of Alexander the Great in the centre of Macedonia Square is an interesting place to visit as it’s a central meeting point for locals. This makes it a great place for people watching area and ensures it does have a pleasant atmosphere as the sun goes down in the evening.
The Kale Fortress, which is slightly dilapidated compared to other Balkan fortresses, does offer nice views over the city with lasting remnants of the Byzantine and Ottoman eras. The paths leading up to the fortress have, however, sadly become the camping grounds of displaced Syrian refugees.
The Stone Bridge which is 214m long and has 12 arches is the main connecting path of the two banks of the river and a proud symbol for Macedonians as it has stood in one form or another since the sixth century. Crossing the Stone Bridge to the east bank of the river leads to the Old Bazaar which, during Ottoman times, was the centre of business in the city. These days it lends itself to being one of the main tourist hangouts with its plethora of restaurants, cafes and street markets.
If you want to see all of these sites and also learn more information about the history of Skopje then it’s worth taking a free walking tour run by Free Skopje Walking Tours. They have daily tours beginning at 10 am plus additional afternoon tours on demand. Remember to leave a tip if you enjoy the tour!
After you’ve spent a day exploring the centre of town, one of the best things to do in Skope is to get out into nature and see the two main natural attractions near Skopje: Vodno Mountain and Matka Canyon. For the more active traveller, you can combine these two attractions into a single day-long hike.
First, take a public bus to the middle of Vodno Mountain and then either take the cable car to the top or if you’re feeling like all that burek you’ve been eating is weighing you down then you can hike up the one-hour long steep path to the top of the mountain. Once at the summit, you can see Millennium Cross which is the largest Christian Cross in the world and enjoy a cup of tea or coffee at one of the cafes.
From there, there is a 13km hiking path that leads directly to Matka Canyon where you can relax by the beautiful lake and explore Vrelo Cave. During the summer months, this is an extremely popular spot for locals who will often come with a picnic and make a day out of it!
If you’re not feeling up to a big day of walking then you could easily split this trip into two days and take a bus from the centre of Skopje to Matka Canyon instead.
Additional information for visiting Skopje
- The main bus station is located about 2km from the centre of the city and has connections to all around the Balkans including Serbia, Albania, Bulgaria and Kosovo.
- 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 Macedonian Denar (about €0.50) on the bus however they are cheaper if you buy them in a kiosk before boarding.
- I stayed at Lounge Hostel which is a clean and comfortable place to stay near City Park. They have a range of private and dorm rooms as well a very large common room and kitchen area.
All in all, Skopje was an interesting and unique place to visit but probably not for the reasons that the government initially had in mind. It’s worth spending a couple of days to see the main Skopje attractions during a longer Balkan trip but it certainly doesn’t rank as highly as some of the other gems in the region.
Have you been to Skopje? What was your impression of the city and some of your favourite things to do in Skopje? Let us know in the comments below!