Hard to locate on the map, the Balkan Peninsula seems hidden away. Once home to the mighty federation of Yugoslavia, it was fragmented into nation states by the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. But even political conflict and decades of stigma couldn’t erase the hospitality of the region. Rebuilding after the war, they are once again open for exploration.
North Macedonia, perhaps, is the most underrated destination of all the Balkan nations. Despite being the only country to escape the bloody conflict, it stagnated under political neglect. Largely forgotten by travel agencies, it took years to finally take its place in the spotlight. Plus, with a southern location immediately north of Greece, it’s pretty easy to visit.
Basking in sunshine for about 300 days per year, North Macedonia enjoys a Mediterranean climate. If you are an outdoor aficionado, North Macedonia is a nature paradise. Food and wine abounds — and it’s delicious too. And thanks to ridiculously slow euro-integrations, has a fantastically low cost of living.
This affordability means your time here can comfortably extend to several weeks, or more, without hurting your pocket.
North Macedonian geography
Much of the territory is covered with densely forested mountains, but there are quite a lot of picturesque valleys, crystal blue lakes and vast vineyards to be seen.
Home to two million people, the country is thinly populated. Most of the population resides in the capital city of Skopje, which is by and large the centerpiece of the country. As the administrative, educational and business hub, Skopje is a proper metropolis.
Where to stay
While you should definitely visit the colorful countryside, make sure to book your accommodation in Skopje or Ohrid. North Macedonia is a small country, so driving from one end to the other takes less than three hours. It is quite reasonable to stay in the capital, and head out on day trips to explore the rest of the country.
Look for hostels at first – they are far more affordable than hotels, yet equally comfortable. AirBnb listings are decent as well. The sharing economy fits perfectly with North Macedonian entrepreneurial spirit, and hundreds of offers have recently become available, all competing when it comes to price.
If you decide to have a weekend gateway in the countryside, and would like to enjoy a luxurious resort, look for Hotel Radika in Mavrovo, and Aurora Resort in Berovo.
What to eat
Food being ridiculously affordable, you can dine in restaurants throughout your entire stay. If you’d like a gourmet experience on a budget, this is definitely the place to be!
North Macedonian cuisine is a mix of several different cultures, influenced largely by conquering campaigns of the past. The Ottoman Empire brought the taste of the orient, while Slavic tradition took over at the beginning of the 20th century, promoting the food of the Balkan region, most notably Serbia.
Try, therefore, the specialities Tavce Gravce, Stuffed Peppers, Turlitava, Sarmi, and Shopska Salad. These are all dishes that are native to the North Macedonian region.
The widely known North Macedonian speciality you have to try is called Ajvar –perhaps the most delicious red pepper mash you’ll ever taste in your entire life. North Macedonian cheese is also delicious, so make sure to order some whenever you can. If you’d like to taste the influence of the orient influence, make sure to have Burek (a savoury pastry), and then a sweet piece of Baklava.
Also make sure to enjoy local wine as much as you can!
How to get around
Interstate transport is very affordable, and you’ll be able to find all the information you need at the Skopje city bus station. Small shuttle bus companies operate frequently as well — you’re sure to be given a card or two from some of these companies when you arrive at the airport!
As for urban transport within the city, a large bus network covers every corner of the city and operates all day. Purchase a pre-paid card, and load it with 20 tickets. This is the most affordable form of transport and costs around US$12.
Calling a cab is still affordable when compared to western Europe, averaging around US$4 per ride. Always make sure to ask the driver to activate the meter. Avoid travelling by taxi during the rush hour between 3-5 PM, since the infrastructure of the city doesn’t cope very well with the sudden movement of one third of the entire population!
If you arrive during the spring or summer season, renting a bike is a great way to familiarize yourself with the city, while saving on transport expenses. Bike stations are to be found around the city square and in the beautiful city park.
What to do in North Macedonia
If you arrive in summer, and you are staying in Skopje, make sure to visit the nearby mountain of Vodno. It is a short walk away from the city center. You’ll have a sensory overload of another kind when you realize you’ve replaced the urban jungle with a picturesque forest in less than 15 minutes.
Take the cable car to the top of the mountain, and enjoy the beautiful scenery unfolding below.
Another place you’ll definitely want to visit is Canyon Matka. It is, by and large, one of the most underrated nature destinations on the entire European continent. You can kayak down the river, enjoying surreal views, or hike on the side. The deepest cave complex in Europe is down the canyon as well.
Visit also the village of Mavrovo to cycle around a breathtaking lake, and book a horseback riding adventure that takes you from Mavrovo to the village of Galicnik – one of the most scenic roads you’ll ever enjoy. For the cost of $25 this tour takes you from one village to another, while tasting North Macedonian cheese along the way.
Also visit the natural observatory of Kokino – a phenomenon, similar to that of Stonehenge, it is a sight to behold.
For those of you seeking adventure, paragliding world cups are held in Krushevo — and the food there is spectacular! If you’d prefer a mountain getaway, make your way to the lake of Berovo.
The town, however, that dwarfs every other in significance is Ohrid. Located on the shore of a heavenly lake, it is where every nature enthusiast dreams of being. With 365 churches, Ohrid was once the spiritual center of the region. Many of them are functional even today, but most became art galleries and classical recital podiums.
As far as the winter season goes, avoid staying in Skopje, due to pollution. Instead, escape to either Mavrovo or Shara Mountain. Both offer secluded ski resorts, with vast and uncharted slopes to enjoy, as well as beginner-friendly trails.
Where to next?
Firstly, don’t plan to leave too soon. Your stay can stretch for weeks or even months — I’ve mentioned how affordable the country is. Whatever else might be said, discovering North Macedonia is an experience of a lifetime.
Once ready to depart though, you could consider heading to Greece with its heavenly shore, or take a ride along the Adriatic Sea, discovering the rest of the Balkans. Bon voyage!