From the golden statues of Skopje to the ancient banks of Lake Ohrid, here are the best places to visit in North Macedonia.

North Macedonia might be a land where millennia of history, from Alexander the Great to Tito’s Yugoslavia, converge under the soaring Sharr Mountains, but it’s also one of Europe’s less-trodden paths and a destination that I believe is ripe for exploration.

I’ve journeyed into the Balkan heart of North Macedonia, visiting the golden statues of Skopje and the ancient banks of Lake Ohrid. A relatively new nation – North Macedonia isn’t to be confused with the Greek region of the same name to the south – I truly believe this is one of Europe’s soon-to-be great, up-and-coming destinations.

That means you’ll want to get in quickly before the budget flights draw in more tourists, and the streets of Skopje’s Old Bazaar become a blur of tourist shops. If you’re planning a trip to the Balkans, keep reading, as I explain the best places to visit in North Macedonia.

Best places to visit in North Macedonia

I’ve visited North Macedonia twice now. The first time was way back in 2015, when ‘North Macedonia’ had yet to even change its name. After declaring independence from the collapsing state of Yugoslavia in 1991, the breakaway country was known by the consulted name, ‘The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ (or FYRM for short).

The Greeks didn’t like this, as they claimed that Macedonia (which historically, was a Greek-speaking region) was theirs, and indeed, there is a large portion of modern-day Greece named ‘Macedonia’. This naming dispute was eventually resolved in 2019 when the nation was reborn, yet again, as North Macedonia.

So, when I visited in 2022 on an assignment for BBC Travel that delved into the quirky history of Vevcani, a village that claims to be an independent micronation, I was technically visiting a ‘new’ country! Or at least, a newly named country.

And things had noticeably changed. There were more tourists in Skopje’s Old Bazaar, where Ottoman influences merged with Yugoslav brutalism, and Lake Ohrid, on the border with Albania, was positively buzzing. I’d recommend at least a week to see the major highlights, but if you’ve got longer, there are worse places in Europe to have a holiday!

Skopje, one of the best places to visit in North Macedonia.

1. Skopje

Skopje is the nation’s capital, and the city stands as an enduring tribute to the empires, kingdoms and peoples that have shaped the Balkans. Tracing its origins back at least 4000 years, Skopje’s history is marked by larger empires wielding their power over the region, including Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and Yugoslavs. Each era has left an indelible imprint on the city’s cultural and architectural landscape, which is best seen in the Old Bazaar.

The Old Bazaar, on the eastern bank of the Vardar River, offers a glimpse into the city’s Ottoman past. This historic market area, with its narrow cobblestone streets, mosques, and caravanserais, is seriously out of place in Europe, and more akin to a destination you’d expect to find in Turkey.

In contrast, the modern part of the city underwent a significant transformation under the ‘Skopje 2014‘ project, which aimed to rejuvenate its appearance. This initiative saw the construction of neoclassical buildings, bridges, and an array of statues, including a towering figure of Alexander the Great, which has sparked both admiration and controversy (it was incredibly expensive to build, with some reports putting the cost at 560 million Euros!).

Another significant historical site I’d suggest visiting is the Kale Fortress, that’s perched atop a hill overlooking the city. This historic fortification provides insights into the city’s strategic importance through the centuries. Nearby, the 15th-century Stone Bridge, a symbol of Skopje, connects the old and new parts of the city.

Skopje also pays tribute to one of its most famous former residents, Mother Teresa, with a memorial house dedicated to her life and work. Born in Skopje in 1910, Mother Teresa’s humanitarian legacy is celebrated in this modern and informative museum. I’d recommend taking a Free Walking Tour of Skopje to uncover these fascinating layers of history.

Skopje, a city of statues.

Read more: Skopje: The City of Statues

2. Vodno

Vodno is a prominent mountain located immediately to the south of Skopje. Rising to a height of 1,066 meters, its peak, known as Krstovar, is crowned by the Millennium Cross, one of the largest Christian crosses in the world. This towering structure, erected to commemorate the Millenium, is visible from almost anywhere in Skopje.

Accessible by a cable car or hiking trails, Vodno offers a delightful retreat from the capital The mountain’s terrain, blanketed with lush forests and rich biodiversity, makes it ideal for hiking and mountain biking. The panoramic views from the top are awesome, offering a sweeping vista of Skopje and the surrounding landscapes.

The Millenium Cross can be seen in the distance. Photo by Aleksandar Kyng on Unsplash.

3. Vardar River Valley

The River Vardar flows through the heart of North Macedonia, and it’s a vital lifeline that’s fostered an ever-flourishing wine industry.

Wineries along the Vardar River Valley benefit from the unique microclimate created by the river, which moderates temperatures and provides ideal conditions for viticulture. The region predominantly cultivates indigenous grape varieties like Vranec and Smederevka, alongside international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Vranec, in particular, is a local star, known for producing deeply coloured, robust wines with a distinctive character.

Visiting these wineries is a chance to immerse yourself in North Macedonia’s rich oenological heritage (that’s winemaking!). Many wineries combine modern and traditional techniques, reflecting a deep respect for both innovation and history. You can tour through vineyards – including the Tikves Winery – to learn about the winemaking process, and of course, sample more than a few wines.

Photo by Andrea Cairone on Unsplash.

4. Prilep

Prilep is a city in North Macedonia that’s often named the ‘City Under Marko’s Towers’, because famously, it’s associated with King Marko, a medieval prince and folk hero. The city’s landscape is dominated by the remains of Marko’s Towers, set atop a hill, which are remnants of a medieval fortress offering panoramic views of the city and its surroundings.

Another highlight is the Treskavec Monastery, that’s hidden away in the mountains near Prilep. This Byzantine-era monastery, dating back to the 12th century, demonstrates the city’s religious significance. Its remote location and ancient frescoes attract pilgrims and tourists seeking tranquillity and spiritual connection.

Prilep. Photo by Helmut Liebelt on Unsplash.

5. Tikves Lake

Tikveš Lake is the country’s largest artificial lake, and it was created by the damming of the Crna River. This expansive body of water is not only vital for irrigation and electricity generation but has served to cultivate an impressive wine region.

Surrounded by picturesque hills and vineyards, Tikveš Lake’s environment supports a rich biodiversity. It is a haven for birdwatchers, with numerous species of birds, including rare and endangered ones, thriving in this habitat. The lake and its surroundings are part of the Tikveš Nature Reserve, emphasising its ecological importance.

Visitors often combine trips to the lake with wine tastings at nearby wineries, making it an integral part of the ecotourism experience in North Macedonia.

Tikves Lake. Photo from Wikipedia by Pero Veliki.

6. Veles

Veles, a city in central North Macedonia, gracefully straddles the Vardar River. Historically known as a significant trading centre during the Ottoman period, Veles’ legacy is evident in its well-preserved old town, where narrow, winding streets and traditional Balkan architecture still survive to this day.

The city is celebrated for its contributions to Macedonian culture, particularly in literature and music. It was the birthplace of Koco Racin, a revered Macedonian poet, whose work is honoured with a memorial house in the city. Apart from its cultural heritage, Veles is surrounded by picturesque landscapes, including Lake Mladost.

Read more: Is Macedonia a Country? Everything You Need to Know.

7. Kuklica

Kuklica, located near the town of Kratovo in North Macedonia, is a remarkable natural sight often referred to as the ‘Stone Dolls’. This unusual and striking geological formation consists of over 120 naturally formed stone pillars, created by erosion over millions of years. The pillars, varying in height from 2 to 10 meters, resemble human figures and are set in a dramatic landscape that captivates the imagination.

Local legend adds a mystical dimension to Kuklica, with tales of a man who turned his guests to stone to avoid marrying multiple women on the same day. The area around Kuklica is also of geological interest due to its volcanic origins, adding another layer to the region’s natural history. Visitors to Kuklica can explore the site via a network of paths, offering different perspectives of the stone figures and the surrounding landscape.

Kuklica’s Stone Dolls. Photo by ДАБ. From Wikipedia.

8. Lake Prespa

Lake Prespa, divided between North Macedonia, Albania, and Greece, is a massive freshwater lake known for its biodiversity. It’s one of Europe’s oldest and deepest lakes, creating a unique ecological niche that supports a wide array of wildlife, including over 200 bird species.

The lake is divided into two parts: Greater Prespa (shared by all three countries) and Lesser Prespa (mostly within Greece). The area around Lake Prespa is marked by picturesque villages, orchards, and old churches, offering a glimpse into the traditional lifestyle of the region. The lake’s most intriguing feature is its floating reed islands, which are of particular interest to biologists and ecologists, being home to rare species like the Dalmatian pelican.

Lake Prespa. Photo by Boban Stojanovski on Unsplash.

9. Matka Canyon

Matka Canyon is a seriously spectacular gorge found just outside Skopje. This remarkable area, carved by the Treska River, is renowned for its deep waters and steep sides, with cliffs rising up to 1,000 metres.

The canyon is also home to several medieval monasteries, such as St. Andrew’s Monastery, that are built into its cliffs and accessible by hiking trails or boats. The canyon is known for its cave systems, with Vrelo Cave being one of the deepest underwater caves in the world, attracting divers and speleologists to its depths.

Best of all, Matka Canyon is an easy day trip from Skopje. I even took the local bus here from the capital when I was visiting for the first time in 2015. There are organised day tours too, if you don’t fancy making your own way to the canyon.

Matka Canyon. Photo by Stefan Petrushevski on Unsplash.

Read more: Macedonia’s Matka Canyon

10. Lake Ohrid

Lake Ohrid is one of the best places to visit in North Macedonia. Straddling the border with Albania, this is one of Europe’s deepest and oldest lakes, and I was surprised at both its clarity and the surrounding history. Estimated to be over 4 million years old, Lake Ohrid is home to unique species of aquatic life found nowhere else in the world, such as the Ohrid trout.

The lake’s shores, particularly on the Macedonian side, are dotted with historic destinations, with the city of Ohrid being the most prominent. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is often referred to as the ‘Jerusalem of the Balkans’ due to its abundance of churches, with more than 365 historic churches around the lake, offering a wealth of history and spiritual significance.

Lake Ohrid is the start of the new High Scardus Trail, a long-distance walking route which stretches across North Macedonia, Albania, and into Kosovo.

Lake Ohrid, North Macedonia.

11. The Bay of Bones

The Bay of Bones is a remarkable archaeological complex on Lake Ohrid’s shores in North Macedonia, that offers a fascinating glimpse into prehistoric lake dwellings. This reconstructed site represents a Bronze and Iron Age settlement, initially discovered through underwater excavations. The name ‘Bay of Bones’ aptly reflects the numerous animal and human bones found during these explorations.

Covering an area of 8,500 square meters, the complex is an authentic reconstruction of pile-dwelling settlements, where houses were built on platforms supported by wooden stakes driven into the lake bed. This type of construction is indicative of the prehistoric communities that lived in the region between 1200 and 700 BC.

Better yet, the Bay of Bones is a fascinating Scuba Diving destination (yes, you can dive in North Macedonia!). I went below the water (it’s freshwater, so your buoyancy will be all over the place) with local outfit Amfora Diving, who were nothing but professional.

The Bay of Bones. Photo by Xhiliana on Unsplash.

12. Vevcani

Vevčani is one of the most intriguing places I’ve visited in North Macedonia. A small village in the mountains north of Lake Ohrid, Vevčani is known for its healing hot springs and satirical carnival.

The village is famous for the Vevčani Carnival, a centuries-old tradition held annually in January. This mad event features elaborate costumes, masks, and satirical performances, drawing participants and spectators from across the region who basically take the mickey out of the government.

This satirical fire came to a head several times during the Yugoslav era when the village declared independence. They even claim to be an independent micronation (named the Republic of Vevcani), and you can buy yourself a Vevčani passport when you’re visiting!

The Republic of Vevcani.

13. Tetovo

Tetovo is a city in the northwestern part of North Macedonia, in the foothills of the Sharr Mountains. The city is a melting pot of ethnicities, primarily Macedonians and Albanians, that contributes to its unique cultural makeup.

One of Tetovo’s most famous landmarks is the Šarena Džamija, or Painted Mosque. Built in the 15th century and renovated in the 19th century, this mosque is renowned for its intricate and colourful exterior and interior decorations, reflecting the superb artistry of the Ottoman period.

Another significant site is the Arabati Baba Tekke, a well-preserved dervish monastery representing the Bektashi order, a testament to the city’s religious and cultural plurality. But Tetovo is not just about historical sites; it’s also a centre of contemporary education and culture. It hosts the South East European University, which contributes to the city’s youthful and dynamic atmosphere.

Tetovo. Photo by Elion Jashari on Unsplash.

14. Stobi

Stobi is an ancient city of significant historical and archaeological importance. Once a prosperous urban centre, it was strategically situated at the confluence of the Crna and Vardar rivers, making it a crucial trade and military hub throughout various periods, including Hellenistic, Roman, and early Byzantine times.

Today, Stobi is one of the most prominent archaeological sites in North Macedonia, offering a window into the past with its well-preserved ruins. Visitors can explore a variety of structures, including a Roman theatre, several lavish villas with intricate mosaics, public baths, and a number of early Christian basilicas. These remnants illustrate the city’s rich architectural and cultural heritage.

Read more: Where are the Balkans? Everything You Need to Know.

15. Pelister National Park

Pelister National Park is located in the Baba Mountain range in southwestern North Macedonia. Established in 1948, it’s one of the country’s oldest and most significant national parks. The park is famous for its two glacial lakes, known as the ‘Pelister Eyes’, and its unique, ancient Molika pine trees.

Pelister’s diverse landscapes range from rocky peaks to lush forests, providing habitats for various wildlife, including wolves and bears. The park is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts, offering hiking, mountain biking, and skiing opportunities, along with amazing panoramic views of the surrounding region.

Photo by Kristijan Arsov on Unsplash.

16. Kokino

Kokino is an ancient astronomical observatory and megalithic site dating back to the Bronze Age, around 1800 BC. It ranks alongside Stonehenge as one of the most significant archaeological sites of its kind, yet it’s little known outside of the Balkans.

Kokino’s main function was to track celestial movements; its markers align with the sun and moon’s positions at significant times like solstices and equinoxes. This remarkable site comprises stone markers and thrones carved into the rock, offering insights into the advanced understanding of astronomy by ancient civilizations.

Kokino, one of the most under rated places to visit in North Macedonia. Photo by Tomica S. on Unsplash.

17. Kratovo

Kratovo, a small but historically significant town, is found within the crater of an extinct volcano. Home to medieval stone bridges and towers, which are the remnants of a once-fortified city, Kratovo is famous for its old, deep mines, reflecting its past as a major mining centre during the Middle Ages.

The town’s architecture is a blend of traditional Balkan and Ottoman styles, with its houses perched on the steep slopes of the volcanic crater. Kratovo’s unique setting and history make for an unusual North Macedonian destination.

Read more: Is Yugoslavia Still a Country? Everything You Need to Know.

18. Mavrovo National Park

Mavrovo National Park is the largest national park in North Macedonia. It’s renowned for its dense forests, alpine meadows, and the artificial but stunning Mavrovo Lake. The park is a haven for wildlife, including the rare Balkan lynx.

The diverse landscape offers a variety of outdoor activities such as hiking, skiing, and mountain biking. Mavrovo is also known for its cultural landmarks, like the half-submerged church in Mavrovo Lake and traditional villages.

Photo by Kristijan Arsov on Unsplash.

19. Galicica National Park

Galičica National Park is located between Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa. Established in 1958, the park spans an area of over 227 square kilometres, featuring a range of ecosystems from Mediterranean to alpine climates.

It’s famous for its rich flora, with over 1,600 plant species, some of which are endemic. The park’s high ridges provide breathtaking views of both lakes and the surrounding landscapes. Hiking, mountain biking, and paragliding are popular activities.

Photo by Antonio Janeski on Unsplash.

20. Strumica

Strumica, a city in the southeastern part of North Macedonia, is renowned for its rich cultural heritage and natural beauty. Hidden away in the Strumica River Valley, it’s surrounded by mountains, making it a spectacular location to visit.

One of the city’s most notable events is the Strumica Carnival, held during Orthodox Lent. This festival, steeped in tradition, attracts thousands of visitors with its colourful parades, elaborate costumes, and lively atmosphere.

Strumica is also known for its thermal spas and Roman baths, particularly in the nearby village of Bansko. These spas are a testament to the region’s long history of thermal bathing, dating back to Roman times.

Map of the best places to visit in North Macedonia

Here’s a map of the best places to visit in North Macedonia:

FAQ: Places to visit in North Macedonia

Here’s an FAQ on the best places to visit in North Macedonia:

Q1. What are the top attractions in Skopje, North Macedonia?

Skopje’s must-visit sites include the Old Bazaar, Mother Teresa Memorial House, and the reconstructed Stone Bridge. The city’s unique blend of historical and modern architecture, especially seen in the ‘Skopje 2014’ project, is also noteworthy.

Q2. Is Lake Ohrid worth visiting?

Absolutely. Lake Ohrid is one of Europe’s oldest and deepest lakes, known for its crystal-clear waters and historical significance. The town of Ohrid, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is famed for its ancient churches and picturesque setting.

Q3. Can you recommend natural attractions in North Macedonia?

Matka Canyon near Skopje offers stunning landscapes, ideal for hiking and boat trips. Mavrovo National Park is perfect for skiing and mountain biking, while Galičica National Park provides excellent hiking trails with views of Lakes Ohrid and Prespa.

Q4. What historical sites should I visit in North Macedonia?

Stobi, an ancient city with well-preserved Roman ruins and mosaics, is a must-visit. The Bay of Bones on Lake Ohrid offers insights into prehistoric lake dwellings.

Q5. Are there any unique cultural experiences in North Macedonia?

The Vevčani Carnival, celebrated annually in January, is a vibrant and unique cultural event. Also, the Tikveš wine region provides excellent opportunities to taste local wines and understand the region’s winemaking tradition.

Q6. What are some lesser-known but interesting places in North Macedonia?

Kratovo, known for its medieval towers and bridges, and Kuklica, famous for its natural stone pillars resembling human figures, offer unique experiences off the beaten path.

Q7. What activities are recommended for adventure seekers?

Hiking in the Šar Mountains, exploring the Vrelo Cave in Matka Canyon, and paragliding in Galičica National Park are perfect for adventure enthusiasts.

Q8. Is Tetovo worth visiting?

Yes, especially for its Šarena Džamija (Painted Mosque) and Arabati Baba Tekke, showcasing the city’s rich cultural and religious diversity.

Q9. Are there any family-friendly destinations in North Macedonia?

Lake Mladost near Veles offers a family-friendly environment with opportunities for picnics and water activities. The Strumica Carnival is also a fun experience for families.

There you are, the best places to visit in North Macedonia. Where will you be going first?