Skopje, Macedonia
Macedonia, Travel Tips

5 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Skopje, Macedonia

Heading into Skopje, Macedonia by train from Greece, I quite literally knew nothing about the place.  I didn’t even know how to properly pronounce its name, much less what I could expect to find there upon arrival.  Call me sheltered, call me an ignorant American, call me whatever you want.

Truth be told, I didn’t know I was even going to Skopje until the day before.

Even still, I’m not proud of the fact that the tumultuous history of the Balkans or the fascinating cultural idiosyncracies of Macedonia never found their way into my consciousness.  Nor am I particularly proud of the fact that I didn’t know Macedonia had its own language and that the billboards were not, in fact, written in Greek or Russian.  But, as I always say, these opportunities to learn about places so foreign and strange to me are precisely the reason I travel to begin with.

So, if you’re as sheltered and ignorant as I was about Macedonia, never fear!  I’ve done the legwork for you.  Here are several of the things you probably still don’t know about the place.

It’s actually pronounced…

Alright, let’s get this out of the way first and foremost–the correct way to pronounce Skopje is “SKOPE-yey.”  If you want to hear it in action (that always helps me immensely), click here.

It’s known as the Capital of Kitsch

A quick wander around the main square of Skopje will reveal a collection of statues and structures–ridiculously grandiose ones–that are part of a project undertaken in 2008 to restore a former version of the city that was destroyed by earthquakes in 1963.  Local citizens have denigrated the project as nothing more than an attempt to distract from a crumbling economy and a struggling population with nearly 30% unemployment; the construction cost associated with this project (between 80 million and 500 million Euros, depending who you ask) has been the source of major controversy as well.  Any way you slice it, this restoration project is indeed quite laughable and well-deserving of the “kitsch” title it has earned.

Freedom Square and Alexander the Great, Skopje, Macedonia

Freedom Square and Alexander the Great, known officially as “Warrior on a Horse”

Warrior statue in Skopje, Macedonia

A statue named simply “Warrior” and a fountain surrounded by more figures

In Freedom Square, a large plaza still under heavy construction, you’ll first notice “Warrior on a Horse,” a towering likeness of Alexander the Great atop his powerful steed (though not officially named Alexander the Great so as to avoid controversy with neighboring Greece; see photo above).  Heading northeast across the square, you’ll the figure of Goce Delcev, a well-known revolutionary.  Among the many other iconic figures you can find around town are former British prime minister Winston Churchill and United States presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

A statue of well-known revolutionary figure Goce Delcev and the "Boatmen of Thessaloníki" monument in front of the newly-built Museum of Archaeology

A statue of well-known revolutionary figure Goce Delcev and the “Boatmen of Thessaloníki” monument in front of the Museum of Archaeology

Maria Teresa monument in front of the National Museum, Skopje, Macedonia

Maria Teresa monument in front of the National Museum of Archaeology

It’s in the midst of political turmoil

Perhaps you gathered this much from the previous paragraphs, but corruption is rampant in Macedonia (money laundering from these unnecessary construction projects was just one example that was explained to us) and the political party currently in power faces great opposition.  In fact, we arrived to our hostel to find that we were exactly opposite the main government building of the Republic of Macedonia…as well as the occupy movement that had taken over the street, pressuring the current leader to step down.

The peaceful protest taking place in front of our hostel, Skopje, Macedonia

The peaceful protest taking place in front of our hostel

We were lucky enough to be invited into one of these tents for a few meals one afternoon and had the rare opportunity to find out what this occupation was all about, straight from the horses’ mouths.

Err, unfortunately, due to a pretty significant language barrier, we didn’t learn much, but we were able to make a few interesting observations.  These protestors were primarily middle-aged; very few young people seemed to be present.  They were incredibly friendly, outgoing gentlemen who fed us food and booze as if we’d been friends with them for ages.  They simply could not, would not comprehend why my travel companion and I were not married (not all that surprising, really).  They were passionate about their cause, repeatedly saying that they would remain there for as long as it took for this leader to step down.

When we asked who was funding this occupation (there were often meals provided for participants and portable toilets sat at either end of the street, among other obvious signs of financial support) the answer was quite simple: the opposition party.  And on the other side of town, we later learned, anti-opposition protests were taking place.  To clarify, I’m talking about protests in opposition to the protests opposing the current party.  Sponsored by…I’m sure you can figure this one out.

A political protest in Skopje, Macedonia

One of the meals we were invited to

I’ve since done some rudimentary research on this topic and discovered that the current president, Dr. Gjorge Ivanov, is a member of the party known as–deep breath in–the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (or just VMRO for short).  This party is self-described as “Christian democratic,” described often by others as “nationalist,” and described by our friends at the protest that day as “fascist.”

It’s home to the second-largest bazaar in the Balkans

You geography buffs may have guessed that the title of the largest bazaar in the Balkans belongs to Istanbul, Turkey. You history buffs may have guessed that Skopje’s Old Bazaar underwent rapid development to become the city’s main economic center during Ottoman rule.  What none of you probably guessed is just how dead the place is on a Sunday afternoon.

Skopje's Old Bazaar on a Sunday afternoon

Skopje’s Old Bazaar on a Sunday afternoon

Skopje's Old Bazaar on a Sunday afternoon

Oh look, a store that’s open!

Yes, the Old Bazaar is one of Skopje’s main tourist attractions, but make sure you hit it on the right day, otherwise you’ll find nothing but shuttered windows and young kids kicking around soccer balls.  Of course, it does have a lively nightlife scene including plenty of live music, so if you aren’t in need of inexpensive tapestries, ball gowns, or beautiful leather shoes, head to the Old Bazaar at night for a few beers.

Skopje's Old Bazaar on a Sunday afternoon

Traditional garb

Skopje's Old Bazaar on a Sunday afternoon

Ghost town

It’s incredibly beautiful

The city itself, to be fair, is nothing to write home about–the combination of communist and kitsch leaves much to be desired when it comes to Skopje’s design.  But there are mountains in just about every direction you look…

Skopje, Macedonia

And mosques…

Skopje, Macedonia

And strange architecture…

…a beautiful fortress that looks down over the city…

Skopje Fortress

Skopje Fortress

Skopje Fortress

Skopje Fortress

…and if you hop on a bus and head about an hour outside of town, you’ll find the most impressive natural attraction of all, Matka Canyon.  This lean, mean, tourist ravine can be seen in a mere day trip, and is well worth the few dollars the bus and boat rides will cost you.  The boat will take you into the canyon, stopping off at a few points to let you explore natural caves.  It’s far from strenuous, and you can even enjoy a meal or a drink once you’re back at the one and only restaurant.

Matka Canyon, Macedonia

Beautiful Matka Canyon

The restaurant at Matka Canyon, Macedonia

The restaurant

Matka Canyon, Macedonia

Flower and boat rides

Matka Canyon, Macedonia

The sweet life jackets might be the best part

Or, if you’d rather throw some exercise in the mix, you can ask your boat driver to drop you off on the bank opposite the restaurant where you can access a hiking trail that will bring you back to the bus station, giving you incredible views along the way.  We opted for the hike, and it turned out to be a pretty solid choice.

Matka Canyon, Macedonia

The restaurant seen from the opposite bank

Matka Canyon, Macedonia

The restaurant from above

Matka Canyon, Macedonia

Gotta love dramatic clouds

Pin It!5 things you probably didn't know about Skopje, the fascinating capital city of Macedonia

So, what do you think?  Did you know anything about Skopje before reading this post?  Would you ever visit?

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13 Comments

  • Reply Nick September 30, 2015 at 8:17 am

    Any tips on what are the prime bazaar times? Pending job news, I may be on a spontaneous trip that way in just over a week, and would love some intel!

    Also, you had me at “Capital of Kitsch.” 🙂
    Nick recently posted…How to Shop for Kitsch in Vilnius, LithuaniaMy Profile

    • Reply Leah Davis September 30, 2015 at 8:50 am

      Hm, I actually don’t have a good answer to that, but if I had to guess, I’d say middle of the day (during the week, of course) would be best. I have a feeling the shops close pretty early, like 5 or 6 pm. Again, just a guess, but definitely not Sunday! 😉

  • Reply Lavi September 30, 2015 at 1:55 pm

    I’d been pronouncing Skopje incorrectly in my head this entire time! I just love your photos of this city, especially those in which the city looks quiet and empty. Looks like an awesome experience! 🙂
    Lavi recently posted…Shattering Misconceptions about MexicoMy Profile

    • Reply Leah Davis September 30, 2015 at 7:32 pm

      It was a really interesting experience to say the least 🙂 And one that was completely unexpected, kind of like my entire summer in Europe haha.

  • Reply Anca | Globaloud October 1, 2015 at 5:31 am

    I was there two years ago and couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw all those kitschy monuments, statues and gypsum facades all over the city. It’s ridiculous that’s happening in Europe in 21. century while there are people begging on the street just around the corner and so many young unemployed people in the country.
    Anca | Globaloud recently posted…Koh Kradan: La isla bonitaMy Profile

    • Reply Leah Davis October 1, 2015 at 7:18 am

      Agreed, Anca! It’s a tragedy that this money is being wasted on meaningless projects like this when citizens are suffering. I hope a change comes about for this country, but I have my doubts unfortunately.

  • Reply Laura June 7, 2016 at 9:42 am

    I’m headed there in July. Thanks for the insight on what to expect (and the pronunciation) 🙂
    Laura recently posted…10 Life-Changing Travel ExperiencesMy Profile

    • Reply Leah Davis June 7, 2016 at 11:21 am

      Haha of course! I hope you enjoy it, it’s a very unique city! 🙂

  • Reply Anne October 13, 2016 at 11:20 pm

    I actually bumped into the president at a monastery in Ohrid but likewise was pretty ignorant of the situation there. I loved Skopje for those mind blowing, OTT monuments but can understand why locals might not be a fan. It’s nice to see what Matka Canyon looks like on a sunny day as we sat through a downpour there but I still thought it was beautiful.

    • Reply Leah Davis October 14, 2016 at 8:41 am

      I loved Skopje too, the over-the-topness made it one of the most unique places I’ve ever traveled! The first time we wandered into the main square, there was classical music blasting from the enormous speakers overhead…it was like something out of a movie!

  • Reply Why Skopje should be on the top of your bucket list December 13, 2016 at 10:11 am

    […] Turkish Bazaar courtesy of The Sweetest Way […]

  • Reply A Month-Long Balkan Road Trip Itinerary, from Albania to Croatia February 6, 2017 at 12:47 pm

    […] The small lakeside villages are great for exploring and there are plenty of water activities to fill the days. Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, is known as the ‘Capital of Kitsch’ which is reason enough for me to be interested in a visit. Nearby, a day trip into Matka Canyon, will round out our visit. On the research front, Leah at The Sweetest Way has published a lot on her visit to Macedonia, including deep dives into both Lake Ohrid and Skopje. […]

  • Reply What To Make Of The Fabulous, Frivolous Skopje Fountains February 7, 2017 at 8:20 am

    […] Alexander the Great Fountain, Skopje, Macedonia courtesy of The Sweetest Way […]

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