Skopje, an underrated European capital worth discovering

Skopje is the capital and the political, cultural, economic, and academic centre of North Macedonia. It is an up-and-coming city with a population of 550.000, which represents one-quarter of the total population of the country. It has a strategic location on the River Vardar and has been an important trading centre for many centuries. Skopje is a city surrounded by high mountains and unique natural features. It has wide streets, and a large part of its centre is pedestrianised. Although Soviet influences can still be found in many constructions, a large number of contemporary buildings have been built in recent years. Despite the city’s and country’s turbulent recent history during and after the Yugoslav war, it is now a welcoming city that has sought its place among the other European capitals.  

The Bridge of Civilisations

The story of Skopje starts in Neolithic times, but it evolved into a major settlement around 500 BC, as one of the outer reaches of the Illyrian nation. Later, it became part of the Roman Empire and took the name Skupi. After the Byzantine period, in 1392 began 520 years of Ottoman rule. In comparison to the fashionable Monastir (now Bitola), it became a secondary trading station during this period. It became the capital of the autonomous Republic of Macedonia after its incorporation into Federal Yugoslavia in 1944. After the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991, it remained the capital of the now-independent country of the Republic of Macedonia.

The Bridge of Art

After several political and social problems in 2011, the government started an ambitious programme (named Skopje 2014) to revamp the centre of Skopje. Several monumental public buildings were constructed, over 120 statues were placed in various locations, a large part of the city centre was pedestrianised, and the old town (Carsija) has been renovated. Although now the programme is put on hold, it was enough to transform the city into a more modern capital.

Makedonija Street on the South Bank

Skopje is a city of many cultures. The River Vardar divides the city into a predominantly Muslim northern half and a predominantly Orthodox Christian southern half. On the north side of the river lies the old town, named Carsija, and the imposing Kale Fortress. This part of the city houses a large bazaar, many Ottoman buildings, and a buzzing cafe and nightlife scene. The south part of the city, developed around Makedonija Square, houses most of the government offices, hotels, and shopping areas. Finally, in the centre of the two sides of the city and along the banks of the river, all the new spectacular buildings have been constructed, along with a number of iconic bridges.

Bitpazarska Street in the Old Bazaar
Kamen Most (Stone Bridge)

Kamen Most (Stone Bridge): The 214-metre-long Stone Bridge, which joins the two parts of the city, is the emblem of Skopje. It was first built in the late 15th century and helped the development outside the city walls to expand in the south and made trading easier. The original stonework of 13 arches still stands, although the top of the bridge has changed many times in the course of time. Today, the bridge is an amazing place for a stroll and offers spectacular views of the city and the banks of the river.

Kamen Most (Stone Bridge)
Makedonija Square

Makedonija Square: Extending south of the Stone Bridge, it is the city’s main square. It is lined with cafes, restaurants, and hotels, most notably the Neoclassical Marriott Hotel. The centre of the square is dominated by the 24-metre-high statue of the Warrior on a Horse, which was unveiled in 2011 for the 20th anniversary of the country’s independence.

Makedonija Square

Also, the square and the area around it are the main places where many of the statues of the project Skopje 2014 have been placed (among them the statues of Tsar Samoil and Justinian). The statues have raised controversy about their aesthetic values, but nevertheless, they give the square a monumental character. Not far from the main square, Porta Macedonia on Pella Square is a memorial arch dedicated to 20 years of Macedonian independence, and it is covered with reliefs carved in marble, depicting scenes from the history of North Macedonia.

Archaeological Museum of the Republic of Macedonia

North Bank: The Stone Bridge and three pedestrian bridges, each bearing statues of national heroes, connect the North Bank of the River Vardar to Makedonija Square. Awesome Neoclassical structures built in the framework of Skopje 2014 line the riverbank. The National Theatre and the Archaeological Museum of the Republic of Macedonia stand out among them.

Mother Teresa Square

The contemporary Macedonian Opera and Ballet complex is situated next to the Archaeological Museum in Mother Teresa Square. In addition, a large open space directly behind the North Bank is surrounded by museums, monuments (including the striking Man Without a Horse), and the Orthodox Christian church of Sv. Dimitri, which was once Skopje’s cathedral.

Old Bazaar

Carsija (Old Bazaar): The city’s Old Bazaar has been a hub for trade since the 12th century, but the Ottoman era is credited with giving the area its current appearance. The majority of the baths, mosques, inns, and houses here are from the 15th century. The Old Bazaar is a maze of narrow cobblestone lanes dotted with shops, cafes, bakeries, restaurants, and, of course, typical pastry shops providing distinctive regional delights.

Cifte Hamam

The Mustafa Pasha Mosque, the Cifte Hamam (the old baths of the bazaar), the covered market of Bezisten, and the Kapan An, a superbly maintained traditional inn, are just a few of the historically significant buildings in this part of the city. The Old Bazaar is the most touristy area of the city but it is very well preserved and has a really authentic ambience.

Memorial House of Mother Teresa

Memorial House of Mother Teresa: Gonxca Bojaxhiu was born in Skopje before becoming Catholic and world-famous as Mother Teresa. Her Memorial House in Skopje, which opened in 2009, is not a replica of her actual house (which was in this location), but it is designed to give the visitors a general idea of how she lived and at the same time introduce them to her ideas and beliefs.

Kale Fortress

Kale Fortress: Since 4000 BC, people have lived in the area around the Kale Fortress, which is situated on a hill behind the Old Bazaar. Up until an earthquake destroyed it in 1963, it served as a stronghold for the Romans, the Byzantines, the Ottomans, and lastly the Yugoslav army. Since then, restoration efforts have been ongoing. Even though some of its parts are currently closed, the visit is nevertheless worthwhile because it is still a striking structure and provides a stunning view of the city and its surroundings.

Skopje East Gate Mall

Today, the city is in an effort to become a modern capital despite the economic problems of the country. Modern buildings have been built in the city centre, and shops, restaurants, and cafes have acquired a more contemporary character. Large shopping centres have been constructed on the city’s outskirts, and everything indicates that the city is progressively evolving into something modern and fresh. However, it still maintains strong ties to the nation’s long history and heritage.

Baklava Nexho at the Old Bazaar

The cuisine of North Macedonia has its own characteristics and, like the country, it is a harmonious combination of western and eastern influences. In Skopje, the visitor has many opportunities to taste good food and traditional dishes. Some of the most typical dishes are the sarma (stuffed cabbage rolls), the pastrmajlija (a kind of pizza with diced pork or chicken meat on top) and the ajvar (pepper spread). At the same time, there are local variations of well-known oriental dishes such as kebapi (a North Macedonian variation of the kebab made with pork, beef, and lamb meat) and baklava.

Soul Kitchen Bar

Among the city’s restaurants, Soul Kitchen Bar (Kej 13-Ti Noemvri) is a modern place next to the main square on the South Bank where you can try a range of modern and traditional dishes in a pleasant atmosphere. At the Skopski Merak restaurant (51 Debarca Street), not far from the centre, you will try excellent local cuisine in a more traditional setting. Finally, in the narrow streets of the Old Bazaar, you will eat the best kebab in Destan the oldest restaurant in the city since 1913 (Kazandziska Street), while a stop at the Nexho (Bitpazarska Street) is essential for excellent baklava.

where to stay

Skopje has a range of new hotels that can satisfy every traveller’s needs. Two of the best choices are the Hotel Tim’s (Orce Nikolov Street 120) [check rates and availability] and the Limak Skopje Luxury Hotel (Zeleznicka Street 31) [check rates and availability]. Both hotels are new and offer excellent accommodations and various amenities.

Porta Macedonia

Few tourists today consider Skopje a destination in Europe, yet it is unquestionably worthwhile. It is a welcoming and pleasant destination with a wide variety of activities and sights for the visitor. It is a city where Christianity and Islam, as well as Western and Eastern civilizations, converge and harmoniously blend to give the city its own personality.

The article has been published also in the 19th issue of the digital travel magazine Voyagers Voice