Skopje is the scarcely visited capital city of North Macedonia, a landlocked country in the Balkans that is bordered by Greece, Albania, Kosovo, Serbia and Bulgaria. It’s from the Bulgarian capital Sofia that I took a private day trip to Skopje.
If you want to travel alone, there are bus routes that run between Sofia and Skopje. But I was short of time and couldn’t really justify an overnight stay. Plus, it was a pretty last minute trip for me as I was filling a Tel Aviv shaped hole in my itinerary.
My expectations of Skopje were low, but I hadn’t really had the time to do any research. Plus, I didn’t know too much about North Macedonia anyway. In brief, Skopje has a population of about 620,000. North Macedonia as a whole has one of just over 2 million. The country declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. It uses Macedonian Denar as its currency (£1 = 75 Denar). Whilst North Macedonia wants to join the EU and NATO, it is unable to if it keeps its current name. Greece believes that the countries name puts territorial claims on Greek Macedonia, a region of Greece that borders North Macedonia. In 2018, a referendum was held which overwhelmingly decided in favour of renaming North Macedonia and the Macedonian Assembly voted to start the renaming process.
From Sofia to Skopje
The private tour I took was exceptional value for money, I paid £45 for it. The pickup was from my hotel at 7am and I was back at just after 7pm. The drive from Sofia to Skopje took just over three hours. Because North Macedonia isn’t an EU member, passing the border took a little while but nothing excessive. As a British citizen I didn’t need a visa.
The extra great thing about this tour was the amount of free time. After a quick guided tour of the Fortress and the highlights of the city, with a bit of a history lesson, I was given a few hours to wander myself.
North Macedonia only really accepts Macedonian Denar, whilst you can pay in euros in some places, it’s not good value to do this. You can exchange euros for Denar easily. For a day, I only exchanged 15 euros and had change leftover.
There are some pretty amazing views across the city from the top of Skopje Fortress, but there isn’t much left of the actual fortress. Getting to the best viewing point is also a bit of a health hazard – there are few railings, the path and walls have crumbled away in part, and there’s a mishmash of barbed wire. So be careful if you visit, and take extra care if its slippery underfoot.
The Fortress itself dates back to the Sixth Century, and has been developed further over the years. It appears on Skopje’s Coat of Arms and the city’s flag. As the Fortress fell into decline, it was partially destroyed by conflict, and then destroyed further by an earthquake in 1963. The same earthquake devastated much of Skopje and completely destroyed Mother Teresa’s Birth House. Restoration started on the Fortress began in 2006.
At the actual Fortress, there isn’t too much information about the site, so it pays to do your research beforehand.
The Old Bazaar is the largest bazaar in the Balkans and dates to the Twelth Century. The old architecture blends with the new, and it’s just enchanting to walk around and get lost. There are various shops that offer money exchanges here if you need to get Macedonian Denar, most offering a similar rate.
There’s also a multitude of Turkish restaurants and sweet shops where you can get Turkish sweets (you definitely have to) and Turkish coffee (which is honestly the best coffee ever, it’s strong and fruity and you’ll never go to Starbucks again).
Beware of pickpockets though, they do operate frequently here. Much of the Bazaar is also geared towards tourists, so if you do buy anything, keep in mind that you could probably get it cheaper elsewhere.
Memorial House of Mother Teresa
Mother Teresa was born in 1910 in what is present day Skopje. Although her birth house was destroyed in the 1963 earthquake that devastated much of Skopje, a plaque can be found on the site, and a Memorial House has been built nearby.
The Memorial House was opened in 2009 and whilst it only has a small collection, it contains several important items that were either owned by or are strongly associated with Mother Teresa. The collection includes her white and blue sari, a copy of her Nobel Peace Prize and a copy of the Baptism certificate from the Catholic Church Sacred Heart of Jesus. There is also small chapel within the House. Holy Mass is performed Tuesday at 8am.
Entrance to the museum is free, and you can also get a tour guide free of charge. You can make arrangements on their website.
Part of the Skopje 2014 Project, the Art Bridge connects the Old Town with the New Town across the Vardar River. It is adorned by 29 different sculptures. There are 14 on one side and 14 on the other, with one in the center. The statures are all of notable Macedonian artists.
The Eye Bridge leads to the Museum of Archaeology. I personally didn’t get the chance to visit the museum. If you’re in Skopje for longer than a day I hear it’s definitely worth the visit. It’s housed in a pretty beautiful building too. Like the Art Bridge, the Eye Bridge is also adorned in sculptures.
The official name is the Bridge of Civilisations, but it’s adopted the Eye Bridge title because it is designed like an eye with the fountain that it has.
Visiting Skopje in a day is something you could even do from the more fashionable Lake Ohrid. If you’ve got the time, the city is definitely worth the visit. I didn’t get the chance to do everything on the day trip that I took. But the history of the city is really interesting, as is how it is continuing to be developed going forward. If you’re based in Sofia, this is the tour that I took.