I ended up spending the most time in Macedonia on my latest Balkan trip and seriously had so much fun. Places are always that much better when you are hanging with homies so really glad I was able to meet the cool people who I did while I was there (big shoutout to my friends from Shanti Hostel!).
Even while I was on my own, I really enjoyed myself and felt comfortable everywhere I went. Macedonia struck me as being the most prepared for international tourists in comparison to the other two countries I visited (Kosovo and Albania) though it’s only a matter of time before all three are totally ready and getting bombarded by backpackers and jet setters alike. There is just so much to see!
Now I rocked up not really knowing a single thing about any of these lands, and while that’s totally fine to do, I compiled a list of 15 things I think you should know about each before you go in case you were curious – starting with Macedonia.
1. The name of the country and some of its national heroes are contested
The fact of the matter is I’ve probably already offended someone with the title of this post. You see, there are some people out there (a large portion of them Greek, though there are others) who are adamant that the country be referred to as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), not Macedonia. To them, Macedonia is an ancient region within Greece and for Macedonia to call itself as such is claiming a stake on their territory. The two countries are also at odds over national heroes, especially Alexander the Great. Read about it if you’d like, I’m not going to attempt a neutral explanation though it’s definitely something you should be aware of.
Warning: I will not approve any politically charged comment left here so don’t even think about it. I’m here to talk travel, not politics.
2. Skopje is currently undergoing a very costly and very controversial makeover
If you arrive in Skopje before 2014, expect to see quite a bit of construction as the city is currently undergoing a massive transformation thanks to the aptly named “Skopje 2014” project. The project was launched in 2010 by the Macedonian government in an effort to make its capital more visually appealing though many critics cite is as just an expensive and frivolous display of nationalism – especially aimed towards Greece and the ethnic Albanians in Macedonia.
From a traveler’s perspective and politics aside, I have to say I do feel like they are overdoing it a bit. With 1/3 of the country still living below the poverty line, one can’t help but be baffled and even annoyed by the excessive amount of new statues and monuments that have gone up or are going up every which way you turn.
Its comparison to Las Vegas is dead on and my only fear is that this crazy project is going to overshadow the inherent attractiveness of the place. It’s hard to deny that it is a strange situation, but overall it shouldn’t take away from what really matters here and that is Skopje is a cool city to visit and is full of cool people. You’ll just have to mind the government’s (hopefully) temporary mess.
3. Skopje has the largest bazaar in the Balkans outside of Istanbul
This is frequently mentioned fact though to tell you the truth, it wasn’t that obvious to me. When I think of Istanbul’s bazaar, I think of the covered and enormous Grand Bazaar which Stara Charshija is nothing like. Anyway, I didn’t expect to feel such a strong Ottoman vibe in the center of Skopje and that I did. It’s hands down my favorite part of the city no matter how confused I look in this photo.
4. The U.S. Embassy in Macedonia is a monster
The U.S. Embassy in Skopje is one of the biggest in the Balkans and seriously frightening. I don’t know if this is an accurate number, but I heard that it is something like 13,000 square meters. This photo doesn’t do it justice but at least you will know what you’re looking for. Really can’t miss it.
(Note: It’s the building in the distance on the left, not the one closest)
5. The largest Roma community in Europe is just outside of Skopje
Šuto Orizari, or Shutka, is a municipality just 5 kilometers from the center of Skopje and is home to an estimated 20,000- 50,000 gypsies depending on who you ask. With its own Roma mayor (named Elvis, I might add) and Romani as an official language, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it is the largest “official” Roma community in the world. It’s a really interesting place to spend a couple of hours and is completely safe to visit.
*Side note: I was informed by a reader that Romani is actually an official language of the entire country and one of the rare places where Romani language has been standardized for the purpose of teaching it in schools. Pretty cool.
6. Bitola is Macedonia’s THIRD largest city and it goes off
Bitola, Macedonia’s third largest city (not second like I had initially reported), seems to be completely devoid of foreign tourists even though it is probably the most European-looking in terms of architecture and there is actually a lot to see. We’re talking ancient ruins, old bazaar, busy pedestrian street, lots of shopping, crazy nightlife, and gorgeous Pelister National Forest sitting in its backyard. Definitely worth a visit.
7. Ohrid is dead in the winter (but it’s also a great time to go)
In typical summer resort fashion, Ohrid becomes a complete ghost town during the colder months. Though I was bummed to have missed the place in its prime, I enjoyed the absence of an excessive amount of tourists tremendously. Especially on those evenings I climbed up to Sveti Jovan Kaneo to watch the sunset. I can’t imagine what a different experience it would be with 500 other people standing around. Same goes for my visit to Sveti Naum – another monastery 30 km away that I highly recommend you get out and see.
8. The food is great and the water is clean
Perhaps one of the biggest perks of not being a member of the European Union is that Macedonian farmers don’t have to abide by often ridiculous standards. That is not to say the standard of agriculture or food production there is lower; on the contrary, it might even be higher. I’m not kidding when I say I’ve had some of the best salads of my life while in Macedonia. The water there is also clean so feel free to drink straight from the tap.
9. It has amazing wine
Seeing Macedonian wine outside of Macedonia is rare, but that isn’t because they don’t produce any that is worthy of being exported. No, no, no….Macedonian wine is GREAT. If anything, it’s because all of it is being consumed before it even has a chance to cross the border. Tikveš is a really good brand and happens to produce one of my new favorite rosés in the world. You can find it in most stores and it probably won’t cost you more than 99 denars (€1.50) for a liter. Yes, I was in heaven.
10. You technically can’t buy alcohol in shops after 7pm or 9pm depending on the season
Alcohol is off limits to buy after 7pm in winter and 9pm in summer. It’s a lame law but not unheard of, especially where I semi-come from (hello, Sweden). It’s also an easy law to get around as any local you meet will probably be able to direct you towards a shop where you can buy some black market booze after curfew – hence “technically”.
11. Rollerblades, dogs and guns are not allowed in clubs, but high heels are required
Was pretty bummed to learn that I couldn’t wear rollerblades or have a dog with me when I went clubbing. Overjoyed, however, at the fact that guns are generally prohibited.
Oh and high heels are actually not required. I was just told by a Macedonian dude that he wouldn’t look twice at a girl if she wasn’t wearing them, he’d probably even call her “ugly”. Something to think about for all the ladies out there headed to Macedonia looking to attract local men….
12. People smoke everywhere
People smoke everywhere, and when I say everywhere, I mean everywhere. A lot of places do have designated smoking areas (most restaurants), but the effectiveness of that has always been lost on me. Welcome to the Balkans.
13. It is incredibly cheap
I knew Macedonia was going to be cheap, but I didn’t expect it to be that cheap. I found it to be even slightly cheaper than Kosovo and Albania. You can get a great meal for €5 or less, and for €10-15 you can eat and drink like a queen. Transportation is cheap and so is accommodation. It’s really a great place to go if you’re on a budget.
14. It is extremely rich in nature
Macedonia’s nature is unbelievable. Countless mountains, 3 national parks, 53 lakes, the Vardar River, valleys, caves…it really has it all so no shortage of things to do if you are a fan of the great outdoors.
One warning though, you will also notice a lot of trash (mostly on the side of the road) which sadly is a recurring theme throughout the entire region and not just limited to Macedonia. Let’s hope the situation will improve – whether it be the government putting in more effort to clean it up or litterers getting punished like they should.
15. The people there are awesome
Most Balkan countries I’ve found are warm in general, but there’s something about Macedonians that I really like. They have a good sense of humor and were just so damn welcoming everywhere I went. Even when we couldn’t understand each other, the Macedonians and I got along which means a lot as a traveler.
To anyone who is from Macedonia or who has traveled there before – something you think I need to add to this list? Interactiveness is one of the beauties of blogging, don’t you know. Also feel free to correct me if I am wrong on anything, but know all opinions here are my own and coming from what I experienced first hand during the 10 days I was there.