Macedonia might be one the world's most fascinating, and underpublicized, places. A former Yugoslavian republic, this tiny country—barely bigger than Vermont—is tucked between Greece, Albania, and Bulgaria on the Balkan Peninsula.
Modern-day Macedonia is a melting pot of Persian, Greek, Roman, Ottoman, Serbian, and Soviet flavors. Friends linger over coffee in outdoor cafes as throaty Slavic chatter drifts amid curls of cigarette smoke and clinking glasses of rakija. Rounded domes of Orthodox Christian churches share the skyline with towers of Muslim mosques, limestone-crusted mountains rise over quiet villages, and glittering lakes punctuate the wild countryside.
Whether you’re a city-dweller or outdoor adventurer, here are 10 reasons to plan a trip to Macedonia:
Hike Mount Ljuboten
The Shar Mountains rise to the clouds for 994 miles along northwestern Macedonia, reaching upwards of 8,000 feet. Mount Ljuboten’s prominent pointy peak (8,196 feet) demands attention. The five-hour hike to the top can be completed in a day. Villa Ljuboten Mountain Resort, a simple guesthouse perched at the treeline, at an elevation of 5,500 feet, is a great base. From there, follow soft, wildflower-dotted meadows to the windy summit. Soak in fantastic views of Macedonia and Kosovo before returning to the villa, where a warm fire and the hearty aroma of a home-cooked feast greet weary hikers.
Home to more than half a million people, Macedonia’s capital is a quirky blend of old and new. The first landmark to catch your eye is the 217-foot-high Millennium Cross, which crowns Vodno Mountain. A cable car whisks sightseers to the summit for easy viewing.
Also commanding attention is Kale Fortress, which has been presiding over the city since the sixth century A.D. Amble up the hill to venture inside the walls, partially built with stones from Scupi, a nearby ancient Roman city that has been crumbling into red poppy fields since an earthquake in A.D. 518.
A short stroll brings you to Skopje’s downtown square, a unique medley of architectural styles. The scene is a product of Skopje 2014, a $700 million government project intended to spruce up the city. Instead, it earned kudos for being kitsch. Looming statues—including a huge Alexander the Great—are juxtaposed against baroque and neoclassical buildings and an Arc de Triomphe. Spouting fountains and colored lights add to the pizazz.
Cross the Stone Bridge and explore the Old Bazaar, where narrow, cobblestone streets have been alive with commerce since the 12th century.
Slither through a cave
Macedonia's limestone karst landscape is like Swiss cheese, riddled with more than 300 caves. Don a spelunking suit and squeeze through a small hole in the rocks to enter the underworld at Gorna Slatinska, a quarter-mile labyrinth that lets you through only if you’re willing to slither. By light of a headlamp, duck under eerie stalactites and dodge tiny bats that dangle from the ceiling. The local caving society, Ursus Speleos, researches caves in the area and can show you what they’ve found.
Rock climb or kayak in Matka Canyon
Less than 10 miles from Skopje is Matka Canyon, where the Treska River weaves past limestone cliffs before pooling in the emerald Matka Lake. Drive to the end of the road and nab a table on a stone terrace at the Canyon Matka Hotel’s lakefront restaurant. Rent a kayak and paddle upriver to Vrelo Cave, a deep chasm with lit pathways and wooden steps that leads to underground lakes. For those with less pep, motorboat tours are available.
Matka Canyon is also a magnet for rock climbers. A 40-minute hike leads to popular routes, many near the tiny Monastery of St. Nicholas Shishovski. If you’re not up for scaling rock walls, take a seat on the cliffhanger deck and watch. Macedonia Experience can show you around.
Hike the hills of Mavrovo National Park
Mavrovo is Macedonia’s largest national park, cradling the country’s highest peak: the 9,068-foot Mount Korab. Bears, lynx, wolves, deer, and 129 bird species roam the rolling forest and highlands of the park. Base yourself at Hotel Tutto, which is tucked into a hillside in the Radika River Valley. From there you can explore the park by foot, horse, mountain bike, or kayak. Winter is also a good time to visit—with your skis in tow.
Dive into history in Ohrid
Click your heels in Ohrid and you might think you’ve been transported to the Mediterranean. The crystal clear waters of Ohrid—one of the world’s oldest lakes—date back more than a million years. Tucked along the lush, hilly shore is the city of Ohrid, home to 56,000 people and one of the oldest settlements in Europe. The entire region is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage property.
Ohrid’s importance in religious history is evident in dozens of historic churches and monasteries, such as the Church of Saint John at Kaneo, which occupies a prominent perch on the edge of the lake. While stunning, it might be outdone by St. Panteleimon, the world’s oldest Slav monastery, where the intricate rockwork has been meticulously restored.
Wander the bustling streets of the Old Bazaar before venturing farther afield. To the south, Galicica National Park straddles a big hump between Ohrid and Prespa Lakes, which can be viewed from the 7,395-foot peak of Magaro Peak. Afterward, hop on a boat at Prespa Lake to Golem Grad, also called Snake Island. Yes, there are snakes, and more than 200 species of birds, including pelicans. Also check out the beautiful frescoes in the 14th-century St. Peter’s Church.
Paraglide Krusevo’s thermals
Krusevo, Macedonia’s highest city at an elevation of more than 4,400 feet, is nestled along a ridge that rises from the broad Pelagonia Valley, a geography that creates steady updrafts perfect for paragliding. Colorful wings paint the sky like brushstrokes—swirling, climbing, and gliding. Conditions are so prime that the World Air Sports Federation held the European Paragliding Championship here in 2016. If you’re looking to learn or give it a whirl, Heli XC can assist.
Visit the Painted Mosque
Every other religious monument in Macedonia might pale in comparison to the Painted Mosque, a 15th-century masterpiece in Tetovo. The exterior’s vibrant pattern of rectangular paintings framing lattice windows is just a hint of the grandeur within. Slip off your shoes and step inside. Your jaw might drop at the sight of the swirling geometric artwork that covers every inch of the walls and balconies.
Indulge in food and drink
One thing is for certain in Macedonia: You won’t go hungry. Forget about the clock at mealtime and prepare for a feast. Macedonian cuisine blends Turkish, Mediterranean, and Balkan themes. Burek, or “salty pie,” is a mainstay— a warm, doughy treat filled with spinach or cheese. It often starts a meal, along with ajvar (a red pepper and garlic sauce) and shopska salad of tomato, onion, cucumber, and green pepper topped with tangy sheep cheese.
Don’t be fooled into thinking the starters are the whole meal. The main course might be a hearty bean stew, peppers stuffed with ground meat, grilled lamb, or perhaps all three. Pair it with fine wine from one of the country’s 84 wineries—or your host’s home brew.
The national drink is rakija—a fiery brandy that burns your throat. You might have one too many, as Macedonians seem to find many reasons to say cheers.
Meet for coffee
“Meet for coffee” in Macedonia is actually code for coffee, beer, dinner, or even just hanging out. Macedonians love to socialize. Meet someone new, and you might make a friend for life.