Skopje is without a doubt one of the most peculiar cities in the Balkan region. With a history that dates back to the ancient times, the capital of North Macedonia is a diverse and modern European city, where different ethnic, religious and national groups cohabit in harmony.
Since the project Skopje 2014, which re-built the entire city to give it a more classical appeal, Skopje has become one of the most attractive European capitals. See what to expect from a visit to this unknown yet exciting destination of wonderful food and peoples, beautiful neo-classical buildings and statues… statues everywhere!
How to get to Skopje
North Macedonia is bordered by 5 different countries, so reaching Skopje couldn’t be any easier, either by land or plane.
I arrived in Skopje by bus from Thessaloniki. If you’re visiting from Greece, there is a single bus from the company Simeonidis tours leaving at 8 am from Thessaloniki bus station. It arrives in Skopje at around 8:30 am, the journey takes 4h 30m and has a cost of €40 return.
I was flying back home from Thessaloniki, so on the last day of my trip, I had to take the bus back from Skopje to make it to Thessaloniki airport. The journey back leaves at 5 pm from Skopje bus station and arrives in Thessaloniki at 9:30 pm.
If you’re arriving from any other neighbouring country, you’ll also stop at Skopje bus station, located 20m away by foot from the centre. If you’re taking a taxi, you should expect to pay from €2 to €5. I had the impression that taxis leaving from the bus station were more expensive than when I took then in the city centre, especially when they saw you’re a tourist.
There are multiple routes from Albania, Montenegro, Kosovo, Serbia or Bulgaria. You can check all the different times and prices from the site E-avtobuska.mk.
If you’re flying into Skopje, the TAV Skopje Airport is located 23km east of the city centre. There is an express bus that takes 30 to 40 minutes and has a cost of only 180 Macedonian dinars (approx. €3). Taxis have a fixed rate of 1220 Macedonian dinars (approx. €20). Make sure that you get one of the official, licensed taxis, recognisable by their white colour and the number on the side of the vehicle.
History of Skopje and North Macedonia
The origins of what is known today as North Macedonia date back to the ancient times when the country was part of the Ancient Kingdom of Macedonia.
The country, known as Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia only until 2018, is well known for the dispute with Greece due to its name. This comes by the fact that the use the ancient region of Macedonia as part of their name. Ancient Macedonians spoke Greek and had a Hellenic culture, while modern North Macedonians speak a Slavic language introduced in the area on the fifth century AD. But the main issue is not the language, but the fact that Greeks believe that Macedonia also encompasses most of northern Greek and an area of western Bulgaria, so this should not be used as the name of the country due to the territorial implications this had.
The country was known during most part of the 19th and 20th century as FYRM, short for Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. This dispute gave result to the veto of Greece to allow North Macedonia to join the NATO and the European Union. The Greek and Northern Macedonian governments finally reached an agreement in 2018 to rename the country to North Macedonia.
But the Greeks weren’t the only civilisation that inhabited North Macedonia. After the Roman expansion across Europe, North Macedonia was incorporated into one of their regions. When the Roman Empire was divided into western and eastern in 395 AD, the country became part of the Byzantine Empire.
The country was invaded by the Ottoman Empire from the 14th to the early 20th century when it became part of Bulgaria, Serbia and Bulgaria again before it joined Yugoslavia in 1945. It remained part of Yugoslavia until it gained independence in 1991.
In spite of its small population of only just over 2million people, North Macedonia is a very diverse country, with large communities of ethnic Macedonians (of Slavic origin), Albanians, Turks, Romani and Serbs.
Skopje is the capital and biggest city in North Macedonia. The city is one of the main attractions of the country due to the beautiful remains of the Ottoman times in the old bazaar, as well as the redevelopment that took place with the project Skopje 2014.
Skopje 2014 was a project by the Macedonian government to redevelop the entire city of Skopje, building museums, buildings and monuments that depicted the historical figures of the Macedonian region.
With the project, over 136 monuments and buildings were erected. With a cost of more than $700 million, the project was heavily criticised due to the excessive cost. It also sparked another controversy with Greece due to the use of numerous Hellenistic symbols, such as Alexander the Great and his father Philip II.
Skopje is a very compact capital, which makes it extremely easy to explore by foot. I decided to stay as close as possible to the city centre, right next to Porta Macedonia. This was my first encounter with the city, as it was located literally at my doorstep.
The Porta Macedonia is a triumphal arch constructed as part of the controversial Skopje 2014, a project to rebuild the entire city and give it a more neo-classical look. Finished in 2012, the arch has a height of 21 meters and is dedicated to the 20 years of Macedonian independence.
The arch is covered in marble reliefs that depict important scenes from the history of Macedonia, including images of Alexander the Great, which lead into an official complain by the Greek government.
As you cross the gate, you will enter the beautiful Macedonia Square, the main and biggest square of Skopje.
It was here that president Kiro Gligorov announced the independence of North Macedonia from Yugoslavia back in 1991. However, the square that you see today is completely irrecognisable, as dozens of statues, monuments and new buildings were erected in the last few years.
Right in the centre of the square stands a bronze equestrian statue of Alexander the Great, located on a pedestal in the middle of a fountain. This massive 24-metre high construction was seen as the culmination of the Skopje 2014 project, however, the statue didn’t come without criticism.
The statue was formally called Equestrian warrior to avoid any criticism from Greece for using the image of one of their main national heroes, which they consider cultural theft. However, placing a statue that clearly depicts a widely accepted Greek hero at the heart of the capital of North Macedonia was still highly criticised by Greece and the rest of Europe.
Locals didn’t think the same, as they welcomed the statue with tears of joy when it was installed in 2011. However, the astronomical cost of 8 million euros wasn’t appreciated by everyone in one of the poorest countries in Europe.
There’s much controversy around whether North Macedonia should use the image of Alexander the Great as their national hero, however, there is a very relevant Macedonian figure whose origins can’t be disputed: Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
Although she came from an Albanian-Indian family, she was born in Skopje in 1910. This is why the city is home to the Memorial House of Mother Teresa, a museum dedicated to this Catholic missionary.
The construction of the house finished in 2009, so the truth is that Mother Teresa never lived in this exact location: the house was constructed just east of Macedonia Square where the old Catholic Chruch Sacred Heart of Jesus used to stand. It was here that Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, who would later become Mother Teresa, was baptised after her birth.
The exhibit follows the life of Mother Teresa, from her childhood in Skopje to her last years spent as a missionary. The visit is free of charge, and you can also follow a guided tour that is offered for free.
Going back to Macedonia Square and approaching the Vardar River you will spot the Bridge of Civilisations in Macedonia.
Built in 2013, it symbolises the civilisation that lived and developed on the country. The statues erected on the bridge represent distinguished individuals from Macedonian and world history.
Numerous significant and invaluable archaeological finds dating from the time of their reign have been discovered on the territory of the present-day North Macedonia. Many of these artefacts are displayed in the Archaeological Museum of Macedonia, located right on the other side of the bridge.
I decided not to enter the museum as I thought that the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki had already given me a great understanding of the Ancient Kingdom of Macedonia. However, if you’re interested to visit, it has an entrance fee of 300 Macedonian dinars (approx. €5).
Crossing the bridge and on the left-hand side of the Archaeological Museum of Macedonia, there is a small square with another ensemble of statues that represent the ancient figures of Macedonia.
One of them is a round fountain known as Olympias Monument. Olympias was the wife of Philip II and mother of Alexander the Great, and she is depicted as a pregnant woman, expecting the famous emperor.
Just behind this fountain is the statue of Phillip II, her husband and Alexander’s father. He’s raising his right first in a symbol of power and victory.
These statues are the doorway to an area of Skopje that has nothing to do with these ancient times: the old bazaar.
It originates to the 12th century, but it became the main point of commerce during the Ottoman rule of Skopje. This can be seen by the remains of multiple mosques and caravanserais, but the earthquakes in the 16th century and 1960s, as well as the two big wars.
Today, the bazaar is not only a huge tourist attraction, with hundreds of options for shopping, eating out and drinking, but it has also recognised as a cultural heritage site by the Northern Macedonian government.
Overlooking the bazaar and Macedonia Square is the Skopje Fortress, also known as Kale (from the Turkish word for "fortress"). The fortress is an important symbol of Skopje and is even depicted on the coat of arms of the city.
The first construction was built in the 6th century, but it was reconstructed in numerous occasions up until the 11th century. The fortress was severely damaged by an earthquake in 1963 that destroyed 80% of Skopje and reconstructed only recently.
In spite of the extensive history of this fortress, it does look quite new. Although the restoration did a great job, I particularly felt that it looked a very recent construction. I couldn’t find any access to the interior, so I could enjoy the exterior walls.
You may have noticed by now that Skopje is full of statues. The truth is that you will find statues absolutely everywhere around the city: bridges, streets, fountains, buildings…. there are hundreds of statues in the city centre alone!
The reason for so many statues is once again the ‘Skopje 2014’ redevelopment project. After the 2008 crisis, the government decided to redevelop the city to make it more appealing to tourism. In addition to building multiple neo-classical buildings, hundreds of statues were placed all over the city.
The statues depict anything that you can imagine: from notable characters of the history of the country to animals and scenes of daily life. On my way back from the fortress to Macedonia Square, I stopped to enjoy some of the statues and see if I could count how many I saw… but I lost count very soon!
I crossed back to Macedonia Square by another important bridge over the Vardar River: the Stone Bridge.
This 214 meters long bridge made of solid stone blocks with 12 semicircular arcs is another symbol of Skopje and appears as the main element on its coat of arms.
The current construction was built by Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror on Roman foundations between 1451 and 1469. Its origins date to the Ottoman period, but it has been reconstructed throughout the centuries.
This bridge, as well as Vardar River, divides the Ottoman historical area, mainly inhabited by Albanians, and the modern and more socialist part of the city with a Macedonian majority.
Skopje has many museums that well worth a visit, especially if you have some extra free time.
In addition to the Archaeological Museum of Macedonia, another very visited museum is the Museum of Macedonian Struggle, which covers a more recent period that comprises the resistance against the Ottoman rule until the declaration of independence from Yugoslavia on September 8th 1991.
Since I had already visited Greek Macedonia during my days in Thessaloniki, I decided to skip the Archaeological Museum and only visited the Museum of Macedonian Struggle. There is an entrance fee of 300 Macedonian dinars (approx. €5).
I didn’t particularly enjoy the museum very much. The exhibition was some sort of wax museum of all the relevant characters of Macedonian history after the Ottoman invasion. The information displayed was quite hard to follow if you’re not familiar with the history of North Macedonia, so I felt that it was more catered towards locals even though most signs were translated into English.
I was pleasantly surprised by Skopje; the capital of North Macedonia is a very lively and modern city and I enjoyed every second that I spent there.
Although all the impressive new buildings in the city centre do give a fake impression at some points, the recent redevelopment of Skopje has definitely made it a more attractive tourist destination.
Skopje is a great camp base to visit some nearby destinations in North Macedonia, such as the impressive Matka Canyon, the beautiful lake city of Ohrid or even take a day trip to Kosovo, the newest country in Europe. You should definitely visit this unknown yet modern European capital before it becomes an overcrowded tourist destination!
Sleep in Skopje
If you’re looking for a central and cosy apartment, Skopje Arch Residence is a perfect choice. Located right next to Porta Macedonia and less than 3 minutes away from Macedonia Square, you’ll have every tourist attraction at your doorstep.
Check-in was extremely easy; a representative met us at Porta Macedonia, which is located just across the street, and quickly gave us the keys of the apartment. All rooms include a private bathroom, a flat-screen TV with cable and air conditioning.
If you prefer a hotel for your stay, during my last night in Skopje I stayed at the Elsa Hotel, located right in the city centre less than 500m away from Macedonia Square.
This 4-start luxury hotel offers a 24 hours desk service, as well as baggage storage, parking and currency exchange. All rooms include a mini bar, a safe and a personal computer that all guests can use.
The hotel offers very competitive rates considering its 4-star status, so it’s the perfect choice if you’re looking for a more fancy stay in the capital of North Macedonia.
All opinions are my own.