Lake Ohrid is located on the mountainous border between southwestern North Macedonia and eastern Albania. It is one of the deepest (294 m) and oldest lakes in Europe, with a unique aquatic ecosystem that includes more than 200 endemic species. Due to its importance, the lake was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, along with the city of Ohrid, which is the largest city on Lake Ohrid and the eighth-largest in the country. At the same time, Ohrid today is one of the most famous tourist destinations in North Macedonia and a site of great historical and cultural importance for the entire Balkan region. In fact, due to the 365 churches that once existed in the city, it was characterized as the “Jerusalem of the Balkans”.
The city of Ohrid has a long history dating back to the 15th century BC and continues with the Romans, the Ostrogoths, the Crusaders, the Byzantines and the Ottomans. It reached its peak in the 9th and 10th century AD when it was the centre of Slavic literature with the founding of the first Slavic-speaking university by Saint Clement of Ohrid. As an important Christian place of pilgrimage, Ohrid became a place where new styles of frescoes and hagiography were invented (and, for some researchers, hid the first samples of the Renaissance that took place a little later), as well as specific styles of architecture. It has also always been an important centre of trade and handicrafts (a typical example being the famous pearls of Ohrid). Today, the city stretches along the lake and has a number of modern hotels, shops, and restaurants, but the most impressive part of it remains the Old Town (Varanasi), with the typical Balkan architecture that extends amphitheatrically on the hill of the city fortress. Although the entire Old Town is an attraction, there are a few things that need special attention.
THE OLD TOWN OF OHRID
The Lower Gate is located on the waterfront and very close to the main square. It is one of the two city gates that remain preserved today. The gate was used as an entrance point for the town in ancient and mediaeval times. Just next to the gate starts Tsar Samoil Street, one of the most picturesque parts of the Old Town with many traditional buildings. The town’s masonry history must take precedence over Ohrid’s historic urban design. In particular, there are many examples of well-preserved late-Ottoman urban residential architecture dating from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Along the street, you also come across the impressive Robev Family House. It was built in its current state in 1863–1864 and is a protected cultural monument as a typical traditional Ottoman Turkish building. The house consists of three floors and has a marble inscription on the flagstone that refers to the finishing of the buildings on April 15, 1827, by the rich merchant family of Robev. After that date, it has been destroyed and rebuilt several times, but it has maintained its original character. Today it houses a museum with epigraphic and archaeological findings from the broader area of Ohrid.
The magnificent Church of Saint Sophia (Sv Sofija) is located at the end of Tsar Samoil Street and is probably the most important Christian monument in the Old City. The church was built in the early 11th century as a cathedral and still contains fragments of rare 11th and 12th-century Byzantine frescoes. Unfortunately, much of the original frescoes were destroyed when the building became a mosque in 1466.
As a mosque, the walls had been whitewashed, but after extensive work during the second half of the 20th century, many frescoes were retrieved. Today, Saint Sophia is one of the two churches in the world with such a high number of 11th-century Byzantine frescoes. The mastery of the frescoes is unparalleled and they are considered great Byzantine works of art.
Another important site to visit in the Old Town is the Roman Theatre, located in the upper part of the town. It is a well-preserved 2000-year-old structure that came to light in the 1990s and is used during the summer months for outdoor concerts and performances. Finally, at the top of the hill, the Tsar’s Samoil Fortress is located and dates from the end of the 10th century. Today, most of the fortified walls have been preserved, but the inside of the fortress was destroyed. The fortress, with its strategic location, provides a spectacular panorama of the city and the lake.
THE OLD BAZAAR OF OHRID
Just next to the Old Town is the area of the Old Bazaar. It is the most lively and busy part of the city, especially on the so-called market days. It is a pedestrian street which starts at a small square with a fountain and a thousand-year-old tree and ends at the main square near the lake and the Lower Gate. Here you can buy mainly food products and various handmade items. The most famous local products are clay items, embroidery, silver filigree, and pearl jewellery. The pearls of Ohrid are unique and only two families (Talev and Filev) have the secret traditional recipe for Ohrid pearls, which has passed from generation to generation. The Ohrid pearl is produced by the Plashica fish and is protected by a Designation of Origin.
SAINT JOHN AT KANEO
Because of its beautiful location on the cliffs above Ohrid Lake, Saint John at Kaneo (Sv Jovan Kaneo) is the most visited church in North Macedonia and one of the landmarks of the country. You can reach the church by following the picturesque wooden boardwalk (known as the Ohrid Boardwalk) that starts from the Old Town near the church of Saint Sophia. The route is unique, and the path ends at the small beach and picturesque settlement of Kaneo. In the last part of the route, you will climb some stone stairs to reach the plateau where the church is located.
The church was built at the end of the 13th century and its characteristics show the influence of Byzantine and Armenian architecture. Inside, a fresco depicts Saint Erasmus (Sv Erasmus), who is believed to be one of the first missionaries to the area. The fresco, although created in the 13th century, was painted in the older style of pre-Byzantine Renaissance frescoes.
Behind the church, a small uphill path leads up to Saint Clement’s (Sv Kliment) Church at Plaosnik. The way up there offers unique views of the lake, the city, and the surrounding area. Finally, tucked away in the rock below the entrance to Saint John is also the small cave Church of Saint Bogorodica (Sv Bogorodica).
Lake Ohrid has an area of 347 square kilometres and is the deepest lake in the Balkans. It was created in a geotectonic depression around five million years ago, along with lakes Baikal, Tanganyika, and Titicaca. It is also connected by underground canals with Lake Prespa to the southeast. Lake Ohrid is known for its beauty and fishing, and there are several beaches, villages, historical monuments, and holiday resorts along its shores.
PESTANI AND BAY OF BONES
The most significant village on the east shore of the lake is Pestani, with a scenic lakefront promenade and various hotels and restaurants. About 2 km to its south is the archaeological site and open-air museum of Bay of Bones. It is actually a recreation of a 3.200-year-old Bronze Age village that was discovered in 1997. The museum is set on a stilted wooden platform and consists of a dozen huts built with mud and thatch that house a series of items that were discovered underwater.
TRPEJCA AND SAINT NAUM
The village of Trpejca is located 7 km after Pestani on a protected small bay. The small settlement has a few taverns but is well known for its beautiful beach with white pebbles and the clearest waters of the lake. After Trpejca and near the Albanian border, you come across the famous Byzantine monastery of Saint Naum (Sv Naum), which is a popular religious site. Apart from the imposing 16th-century church with Byzantine frescoes, its gardens are home to a spectacular flock of peacocks.
Struga is another interesting place on Lake Ohrid, 15 km northwest of Ohrid City. The first settlement in the area dates from the Neolithic times, and under the name Enchelon, it was an important ancient Greek city. Today, Struga is a minor city but an up-and-coming destination on the lake as a more peaceful alternative to the busy (especially during summer) Ohrid. The centre of the city is dominated by the River Drim, which flows out from the lake. Along the shores of the river, there are many cafes, restaurants, and shops that make a walk around the city very enjoyable.
WHERE TO EAT AND STAY
Although the suggestions for food in the wider area and especially in the city of Ohrid are many, we recommend two amazing places located close to each other, in the centre of the Old City in a unique location. The first one is the Restaurant Saint Sophia (Ресторан Света Софија), which is an excellent place to try the local cuisine and a very good variety of local wines. The other is Pizza Via Sacra, a fine pizzeria that also serves tasty local dishes like sarma (stuffed cabbage rolls with meat) and pastrmajlija (a variation of the popular in Eastern Europe peinirli). Both restaurants offer outdoor seating in the small square outside Saint Sophia.
At the same time, there are many solutions for accommodation in the city. From them, we suggest two hotels that guarantee a comfortable stay. Our first suggestion is Sky Corner (check prices and availability), a very good city hotel in the centre of Ohrid, very close to the Old City and the Old Bazaar. Our second suggestion is Aleksandar Villa and Spa (check prices and availability), a luxurious resort on the shore of the lake surrounded by beautiful botanical gardens on the road between Ohrid and Sveti Stefan.
The lake and the city of Ohrid are rightfully regarded as two of the most popular tourist destinations in North Macedonia. It is a place with unique natural beauty, a long history, and significant cultural value for the entire Balkans. If you visit North Macedonia, this must be one of the stops on your trip.