Arranging the perfect vacation package requires a lot of time, energy and money. Cost aware, most people usually settle for a tourist location that offers one type of adventure at the expense of another. To combine heavenly nature, delicious cuisine and cultural sites aplenty, one has to look for the road less traveled. Macedonia, a small country located in the center of the Balkans, is luckily an affordable traveling destination that perfectly fits this archetype.
Blessed by Mediterranean climate and 300 sunny days throughout the year, Macedonia is a heaven-on-earth for every outdoor aficionado. You get to choose from a range of activities, all taking place amidst breathtaking scenery. Kayaking along steep canyons, hiking formidable mountain terrain, biking a number of challenging and diverse trails – Macedonia gives you an endless menu you’ll never get bored scrolling.
For foodies and culture explorers, there’s another menu twice as colorful. With a unique geographical position, the small country has been part of several European conflicts, each reflecting on the cultural menu. Religion, architecture, ethno heritage and cuisine, all adopted foreign influence throughout the centuries, creating a wonderful blend only a Balkan nation can brag with.
The article below doesn’t choose a focal point. It walks you, instead, through this attractive destination one step at a time. From urban cities to charming countryside, the journey never seems to end. I will describe the most captivating Macedonian destinations, how to get there, and have the vacation you’ll never forget.
Start with Skopje
As the capital of Macedonia, Skopje is a proper European metropolis. Often described as the largest business, cultural and educational hub, it is home to nearly one third of the Macedonian population.
Thinking about Skopje from a tourist perspective, I’d like to describe the city as a prelude to the colorful Macedonian experience. Blending together cultural heritage with outdoor adventure opportunities waiting on the periphery, it provides an archetype that keeps repeating throughout the entire territory of Macedonia.
For the cultural explorer, there are a number of places worth visiting. A daily tour can take you from the renovated city center, to the Old Bazar on the other side of the river Vardar. There, the Ottoman influence is clearly visible, in what is perhaps the most charming part of the city. With small family workshops and storefronts, selling different types of Macedonian handicrafts and jewelry, the Old Bazar will take your breath away.
At the very edge of this traditional section, there is the entrance to the Kale Fortress. Once a medieval prison, it is now towering above the city granting spectacular views to tourists from around the world.
If history is your cup of tea, do visit the Monastery complex of Saint Marko, and the Roman Aqueduct near the village of Vizbegovo. Both equally impressive, they will set your expectations for the rest of the Macedonian journey.
Skopje is a very dynamic and vibrant city. If you love eating out, or enjoy the nightlife, this is one of the best places in Southeastern Europe. The Old Bazar transforms during the night, and you’ll hear contemporary music oozing from charming bars and cafes.
Vodno and Matka
Being within the territory of Skopje, Vodno and Matka start the outdoor adventure right at the doorstep to the countryside.
Vodno is the green and lush mountain towering above the city with dozens of hiking trails at what is only a 5 minute drive away from the city center. Granting panoramic views aplenty, it is one of the most picturesque mountains you’ll find in such a close proximity to a large metropolis.
If you are not excited for the climb, feel free to take the shuttle bus at the foothill of the mountain, near the school of Kocho Racin, and then the cable car taking you to the summit. A ticket in both directions will cost only $2.
Canyon Matka, on the other hand, is one of the most underrated attractions on the European continent. Located only half an hour drive away from the city center (take bus line 60), it is a sight to behold.
Home to three monasteries and some of the most scenic terrain on the entire continent, Canyon Matka offers a number of activities. You can take a boat ride down the river, or get your feet wet and immerse yourself completely by renting a kayak. It will cost you only $5 for every hour. Everything is accessible right on the spot.
Another boat ride can take you to the cave complex nearby. Said to be one of the deepest underwater caves, the Vrelo site is definitely worth visiting.
If you prefer to keep your feet dry, the hiking trail provides dozens of panoramic lookouts along the canyon. Stretching on the right, it follows the edge of the cliff for about 6 kilometers in one direction.
The observatory of Kokino
The Southeastern equivalent to Stonehenge, the observatory of Kokino is quite impressive. Less attractive than its western counterpart, it is still captivating once you think about the ancient people who lived here, trying to figure out the weather and simple astronomic events.
The massive rock formation is located in the middle of nowhere, but luckily a road passes nearby. You’ll have to climb less than 10 minutes in order to discover the observatory. Visible from every angle, it is towering above the region.
The Marble near Prilep
Taking the highway exit after you pass Pletvar, the road is ideal for hiking or cycling uphill. It goes on for 5 kilometers before reaching the marble mine. Hidden between steep hills and secluded from the rest of the region, the lake is a sight to behold.
Crystal blue water in the middle and white marble everywhere around, you can legitimately spend several hours just resting nearby, enjoying the sight.
For outdoor enthusiasts, the region around the village of Mavrovo is perhaps the most captivating part of Macedonia. Plenty of activities await, each of them more exciting than the next.
You can spend your entire day on a horseback riding tour, visiting one small village after another, before you reach the rustic village of Galicnik, or take a bike around the lake along the 33 kilometers paved road. The lookouts follow one after the other. The first experience will cost you around $25 and the second even less.
Also impressive is the submerged church, which a postcard-worthy attraction, so make sure to take pictures as well.
This region is ideal for enjoying traditional Macedonian food, so ask locals about the village of Jance. There, all sorts of Macedonian specialties are listed on the menu. A lunch for two would usually cost somewhere around $35, but it will be a royal feast you’ll pay lip service for years on end.
Order Tavce Gravce, Sarmi, Stuffed peppers, Ajvar and Makalo. Macedonian barbeque is equally impressive, but stick close to vegetable dishes that either come without meat or know how to combine the best from both worlds.
Dotting the map along the river Vardar, most Macedonian vineyards resemble Old Italian farms. Grape plantations grow as far as your eyes can see, and there are plenty of reasons why to book a daily tour.
Visit the wineries of Tikvesh, Stobi, Popova Kula and Sopot, and enjoy tasting fine domestic Macedonian red. A daily tour to any of these wineries, from the city of Skopje (transportation included) would cost around $25. Many competing agencies operate in the center of Skopje, but feel free to pick the first one you find. Wine tasting and complimentary snacks are usually always included in the price.
If you treat yourself with the full scope of the Macedonian experience, know for sure that the city of Ohrid is tying it up with a shiny ribbon on top. Home to more churches and monastery complexes that you can count, it is the religious cradle of Macedonia.
The lake provides a number of activities to enjoy, and the coast even more panoramic lookouts to visit. Make sure to take a daily tour to the monastery of Saint Naum. It is located on a high cliff right next to shore, and the area around it is one of the most attractive destinations near the city.
The lake springs create a surreal surrounding, with lush and dense forest, and crystal blue pockets of water. They, too, are nearby.
Ohrid is much closer to traditional Macedonian architecture, cuisine and ethno culture than any other part of the country, so take your time wandering around the city.
You can visit the Bay of Bones as well, which is a recently restored prehistoric settlement.
Wrapping up this guide, I hope that you can one day visit and appreciate the small yet breathtaking country of Macedonia. With friendly people and affordable prices, it is perhaps one of the best traveling destinations waiting to be discovered.
Author Bio: Slavko Desik is impressed with small countries that offer many adventure opportunities on a budget. He is writing about Macedonia, sharing lengthy guides on how to immerse completely in this colorful landscape, continually discovering every corner of this region, while traveling along with his wife.