A city of many cultures, Skopje is worth at least a couple of days’ exploration. Combining an electic mix of archaeological treasures and architectural landmarks with a bustling modern city centre, North Macedonia’s capital is the ideal place for a varied and vibrant weekend break. Fill your time exploring the mosques and museums of the compact central district, before heading away from the centre to take in some of the spectacular surrounding scenery at Mount Vodno and Matka Canyon. Here’s our handy guide on what not to miss on a weekend visit to North Macedonia’s fascinating capital.
After landing at Skopje International Airport, which lies 25km east of the main city along a good highway, take a taxi or the reliable Manora Shuttle Bus to reach the bustling centre. Accommodation both in the modern centre and around the old town of Čaršija is varied and plentiful, meaning you can take your pick from a number of hotels to suit every taste and budget. Skopje even has a thriving and fast-growing backpacker and hostel scene, making it the ideal weekend break for those travelling on a shoestring.
Despite its official name, it is clear that the warrior is Alexander the Great on his horse, Bucephalus © Philip Briggs
After checking in, we suggest a stroll or short taxi ride to Makedonija Square, which hosts the row of attractive terrace eateries that lines the South Bank of the Vardar running east towards the Holiday Inn. Shaded by plane trees and cooled by a river breeze, these riverside restaurants are a most agreeable place to sit and sip a chilled draught beer, cocktail or glass of wine on a balmy summer evening. After dinner, take a stroll around the square itself, which is littered with several extravagant statues, a clear mark of the Skopje 2014 project. The project was an ambitious and hotly disputed urban renewal programme instigated by the centre-right government in 2010, and most controversial among the additions to Makedonija Square is the 24m-high Warrior on a Horse. This statue was unveiled on 8 September 2011 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the referendum that gained Macedonia its independence from Yugoslavia. The square’s most prominent feature, the statue stands in a fountain decorated with bronze reliefs depicting the life of the warrior, and bathed in lurid coloured lights.
Most of Skopje’s major museums and historic buildings are clustered in a compact and largely pedestrianised central district bisected by the Vardar River as it flows eastwards below the elevated stone walls of the hilltop Kale Fortress. We suggest taking the morning to explore the new city centre. An excellent little guide to discovering Skopje on foot is Skopje City Walk (2014), available from www.walkingmacedonia.com in English or Dutch, either as a printed booklet or a PDF download.
Probably the most important and broad-ranging museum in the country, the Archaeological Museum of Macedonia is worth at least an hour of your time © zefart, Shutterstock
Once you’ve had your fill of the south side of the Vardar, cross over to the North Bank via the historic stone bridge, Kamen Most, which was first built in the late 15th century under the orders of Sultan Mehmet II the Conqueror, and head for one of the plethora of museums in the vicinity. Our pick of the crop is the Archaeological Museum of Macedonia, a superb establishment opened in 2015 in the same imposing building, replete with Corinthian columns, that forms the new seat of the Supreme Court and home of the National Archives. Extending over two floors, it comprises a series of halls that are arranged in broad chronological order, from the Neolithic era to Byzantine times via the Hellenistic, Roman and Ottoman periods. The single most astonishing item on display, in our estimation, is an 8,000-year-old clay altar of a point-breasted fertility god dubbed the Golemata Majka (Great Mother) found at Madžari, a mere 5km to the east, back in 1981.
After a quick lunch stop at any one of the myriad eateries in the centre, head to by far the most compelling sector of the city, the old Turkish quarter of Čaršija. A mercantile centre since the 12th century, Čaršija took its present-day shape in the early Ottoman era and is studded with venerable Turkish trading inns, baths and mosques, many dating to the 15th century or thereabouts. There is much to be said for simply wandering the maze of cobbled pedestrianised streets and alleys whose organic layout and lived-in feel is typical of Islamic quarters of its vintage; however, if you do want to go in somewhere, we’d recommend the Monastery of Sveti Spas (Holy Salvation). This is the only remaining monastery in the centre of Skopje and houses one of its most beautiful churches. Some of the foundations of the monastery date back to the 14th century, before Ottoman times, but under Ottoman rule it became illegal for a church to be taller than a mosque, and so the church was mostly rebuilt from below ground in order to accommodate the height of the original church belltower.
The views from the walls of Kale Fortress are quite magnificent © saiko3p, Shutterstock
We’d also suggest combining an afternoon in Čaršija with a visit to nearby Kale Fortress. This site has seen some sort of occupation since 4000BC and has been a working fortress since the 6th century AD, although it is only now undergoing restorations. Consequently, the fortress has been a bit of a building site for some years, but it is still worth a visit and the views from the walls are wonderful.
If nothing else, Čaršija is undoubtedly the best part of Skopje for cheap eats – every other building seems to be a terrace café or kebapcilnica serving freshly grilled kebabs, Macedonian burgers and salads, and other traditional fare. Make the most of this abundant feast and grab dinner before settling down for a nightcap. Unexpectedly, perhaps, given the old town’s strong Islamic flavour, beer and wine is served freely at most such establishments – indeed, North Macedonia’s only craft brewery serves a great selection of cheap and tasty draught beers on the edge of Čaršija, next to Sv Spas.
The summit of Mount Vodno provides stunning aerial views of the capital © Teoman Maksut, Shutterstock
Topped by the 66m-tall Millennium Cross, Mount Vodno is the prominent 1,066m summit that dominates Skopje’s southern horizon. The panorama from the summit – embracing Skopje and Skopska Crna Gore to the north and Mount Kitka to the south – is stunning and all the main sites of the city can be viewed easily. We suggest visiting Mount Vodno as a half-day trip using the cable car, a spectacular ride that is arguably a great deal more compelling than the summit itself, but if you have more time to spare you could always try the 3-hour hike that leads up to the summit from the city centre, a popular walk with Macedonians on a sunny weekend.
Offering an abundance of water-based activities, spectacular Matka Canyon and Lake is an enjoyable day trip from Skopje © mbrand85, Shutterstock
Hikers may like to pack a picnic lunch, and carry on with their walk from the summit of Vodno to Matka Canyon. Otherwise, head down the mountain and hop in a car to make the half-an-hour drive out of the city limits to reach this beloved getaway retreat of Skopjites. Alternatively, Bus 60 from the main bus/railway station does the return trip around a dozen times every day of the week. Activities on offer include hiking, canoeing, motorised boat excursions, cliff-climbing, and visits to caves and monasteries, and as such there is plenty to fill an afternoon here.
The canyon entrance is also home to a characterful old hotel and at least half a dozen restaurants, and you may like to eat or spend the night here before heading back to the capital or continuing with your onward journey in North Macedonia.
Want to find out more about everything Skopje has to offer? Check out our comprehensive guide: