Unless you are a European native, chances are, you might not even know that there’s a country named Macedonia in the southern part of the Balkan Peninsula.
Hence, there aren’t a lot of articles on the internet regarding traveling in Macedonia except for a handful of articles about Lake Ohrid and the country’s capital, Skopje. Landlocked and nestled between mountains from all four sides, Macedonia is one of the least visited countries in Europe.
Not because there’s nothing to see but simply because it’s off most people’s radar.
Some of the highlights that this small piece of land includes are the oldest lake in Europe, the deepest underwater cave in the world, a piece of the cross Jesus was crucified on, and its own Snake Island.
If this sounds interesting already, keep reading: here are the 13 useful things you must know before you visit Macedonia.
It’s Not In Greece
I’ve met a countless number of people while traveling who thought that Macedonia is a part of Greece and it’s not even a country. That’s why I feel I have to start this article by addressing this question.
I really don’t like to involve politics in my travel articles but I’ll do my best to explain this as unbiased as I can. Greece and Macedonia have had a name dispute for the past 26 years, which is the main reason why Macedonia is not a member of the EU. When Macedonia got its independence from Yugoslavia after the fall of socialism in 1991, it chose the Republic of Macedonia as its constitutional name.
The problem Greece had with this was that this name relates to the ancient kingdom of Macedon, where Alexander the Great descended from. The problem lies that both countries trace their heritage to the empire that Alexander established, hence the name dispute.
That’s why when researching about Macedonia you will come across the reference FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) which was practically forced upon Macedonia before entering the UN. Macedonia was also pressured to change its flag (historic disputes again) and was actually vetoed by Greece in its last attempt to join the EU. The sole reason was the name dispute, which makes this one of the most peculiar disputes between two countries in the world. With that out of the way, let’s get into the more important things.
Getting Entry And Visas
Before you visit Macedonia, it is important to know how to enter legally. Macedonia is not part of the EU or the Schengen area but if you come from any European country, you can enter Macedonia only with your passport. If you’re coming from outside of Europe, then you might need a visa depending on your nationality.
I’ve come across some not-so-reliable sources regarding a Macedonian entry visa online so if you want to be on the safe side, check this official government site to see whether you are required to get an entry visa or not.
Arriving And Getting Around
Like I already mentioned, Macedonia is a very small country and it has only two airports: the international airport in Skopje and the local one in Ohrid. The lowest flight fare is provided by Wizz Air 90% of the time but this low-cost carrier only flies around Europe.
My point here is if you’re flying from outside of Europe consider flying to a bigger airport in Europe and then get another flight with Wizz Air. I’ve done this several times and I actually saved some money. You will most probably land in Skopje and if you don’t have a friend picking you up, I suggest you take the bus because taxi driver ripping off foreigners coming from the airport is not an uncommon thing.
As for traveling around the country, the best way to go is the bus. It’s a bit more expensive compared to travel by train but it’s much faster. There are also a lot of tour operators that offer shared rides to places off-the-beaten-track and they aren’t expensive either.
The best part? A one-way ticket to the two most distant places in the country will not cost you more than €8. Alternatively, Macedonia is a great country for hitchhiking so if you’re feeling adventurous, give it a shot. You will meet people on the road that will be happy to give you a ride. With the basics covered, let’s dig into the most interesting sights Macedonia has to offer!
It Has The Oldest Lake In Europe in The Town Of 365 Churches Where The First European University Was Formed
The Ohrid Lake is estimated to be more than 4 million years old and it’s also one of the deepest lakes in Europe with a maximum depth of 287 meters. The lake is home to more than 300 endemic species and it has been a UNESCO Heritage Site since 1979.
The city on the coast of the lake is similarly named Ohrid. It’s a city where you can literally breath history and is also known as the Jerusalem of the Balkan. At one point in time Ohrid had 365 churches: one for every day of the year but during the Ottoman era, many of them were destroyed.
Ohrid also supposedly hosted the first university in Europe founded by St. Clement of Ohrid. 3,500 students studied the Cyrillic script and Slavic literature here more than 100 years before the creation of the universities at Bologna and Oxford.
It Has Monasteries And Pieces Of The Cross At Which Jesus Was Crucified
This is a must if you’re a history fanatic. There are three pieces of the legendary cross in three different monasteries in the western part of the country. One is in the monastery of St. Bogodorica Prechista is located near Kicevo, a town in the western part of the country, only an hour drive away from Ohrid.
The other one is in the monastery of St. Georgij Pobedonosec in Debar, and the final one is in the monastery of St Jovan Bigorski, between the cities of Debar and Gostivar. Orthodox Christianity is the main religion in Macedonia and you will find over 1,000 churches and monasteries spread out across the country, some of which tucked away in the most impossible locations.
It Has The Deepest Underwater Cave In The World
Well, even we’re not quite sure about this one. Officially, the world’s deepest underwater cave is Hranicka Propast in the Czech Republic (402 meters). The cave Vrelo in the Matka Canyon near Macedonia’s capital was until recently estimated at 212 meters.
However, the last expedition reached a depth of 240 meters and because of technical issues couldn’t fully explore this cave. Hence, no one really knows how deep Vrelo Cave actually is. Nevertheless, visiting it will certainly be worthy of your time since the Matka Canyon is one of the most beautiful places in the Balkan Peninsula and is regularly overcrowded with tourists.
The canyon is famous rock climbing, kayaking, the iconic view of Skopje and several medieval monasteries, so the cave just adds to its popularity.
It’s Arguably The Cheapest Country In Europe
It’s generally known among travelers that Eastern Europe, and especially the Balkans have the lowest prices in Europe but it wouldn’t be an exaggeration saying that Macedonia leads the way. The most expensive cities are Skopje and Ohrid (in the summer) but they are still far from what you would call expensive. As for the other cities: the prices are ridiculously low even for people from Skopje.
This is mostly due to the horrendous mismanagement of local development by the government which is practically non-existent. Skopje has been turned in the absolute “hub for everything” of the country and today is a home to almost one million people, which is half of the population of the country!
Nevertheless, there are so many more places to see than just Skopje and Ohrid and my point is that prices are working to your advantage. In Skopje, you can get a decent meal for 3-5 euros and in the other cities: 2-3 euros. In average, a cup of coffee won’t cost you more than 1 euro, a spacious hotel room around 20-25 euros, and you can make a circle around the country with a bus for 25 euros!
It Has Mountains That Will Blow You Away
If you are a fan of hiking, you’ve come to the right place. Macedonia might not have Mt. Everest or Mt. Blanc but the country is completely surrounded by mountains, out of which most are pristine and vastly unexplored.
There are 34 mountaintops higher than 2,000 meters and more than 50 jaw-dropping ice lakes at the same altitude. With an average elevation of 741 meters, this makes Macedonia the fourth highest country in Europe after Andorra, Switzerland, and Austria. This also makes the winters freezing cold and the summers- scorching hot. That’s why the best time to visit, in my opinion, is during the spring.
Skopje Is The Ultimate City Of Contrasts
Many travelers I met say that their favorite part of Skopje is the Old Bazaar. It’s very different and much smaller than the one in Istanbul but it’s definitely worth visiting. A lot of travelers are dazzled by the sudden change of environment when walking in the center of the capital.
If you’re walking in the ‘modern’ part of the capital and you cross the Stone Bridge, you will start wondering what the hell is going on. A friend of mine said that he felt like being in Paris, with all the tall buildings and monuments but suddenly after crossing the bridge he felt like being in Karachi (Pakistan). As you can see in the pictures, Skopje has a strong Ottoman vibe in the city’s center and visiting it will certainly be a memorable experience.
It Has The Largest Roma Community In Europe
As you may or may not know, Romani people, also known as Gypsies are a nomadic group that’s believed to arrive in Europe from Northern India roughly one thousand years ago. Even today, they are still considered to be the great nomads of Europe, with many of them traveling around the continent searching for a better life. However, the municipality of Shuto Orizari in Skopje is an exception.
A lot of them (around 20,000) seem to have found a home here, making this the largest Roma community in Europe and I believe, in the world. If you’re looking for a different experience, make sure to visit. The place is completely safe and you can buy practically anything for half the price compared to the rest of the city, especially if you bargain. This obviously isn’t the most charming part of Skopje but it certainly adds to the capital’s staggering contrasts.
It Has The Most Underrated Wine In Europe
If you’re visiting, you absolutely have to try Macedonian wine, one of the most underrated ones in Europe. Our two traditional drinks are rakija and wine. You might not like the first one but you will definitely love the second one. You can get a bottle of wine starting from 1.5 euros!
We always joke that one of the reasons why there isn’t more Macedonian wine outside our country is because we drink it all before it reaches the border. However – before you visit Macedonia expecting wild parties – keep in mind that we also have arguably the dumbest alcohol regulation in Europe. You can’t buy alcohol after 9 PM in the winter and 7 PM in the summer. Why? I really don’t have a clue, so you’ll have to ask our government…
It Has A Space Observatory Which Is 4,000 Years Old
Less than an hour drive away from Skopje, near the Serbia border, you will find Kokino, one of the world’s oldest observatories as recognized by NASA. The oldest archaeological findings of this marvelous place date back to 19th century BC or to the early European Bronze Age. Kokino consists of two platforms that cover an area of about 5,000 square meters and here you can also find an abundance of fragments of ceramic vessels, dating back to between the 19th and the 11th century BC.
The claim that Kokino is, in fact, an astronomical observatory was made back in 2002 when it was proven that the site includes special stone markers which were used to track the movement of the Sun and Moon on the eastern horizon. Shortly afterward, Kokino was added to UNESCO’s tentative list of protection.
It Has Its Own Snake Island
Yes, you heard it right: Macedonia is landlocked but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its own island. This makes Macedonia (in my experience) the only landlocked country in the world, together with Laos that includes islands in its territory despite being landlocked.
Golem Grad or Snake Island is an island located in the Prespa Lake which is a part of the National Park Galichica, one of the three national parks in Macedonia. The only residents on the island right now are the snakes but there are traces of human presence. Supposedly, during ancient times, the island was inhabited by the Macedonian tribe Oresti and there are several ancient and not-so-ancient artifacts at Golem Grad. The island was opened for curious souls and researchers in 2008 but it’s still not recommendable to visit during the snakes’ mating season.
Those were the 13 things I think you must know before you visit Macedonia, even though it was difficult to keep this at 13! Macedonia might be a very small country but it has a lot to offer.
Does Macedonia sound like a country you would visit? Let me know in the comments!