Macedonia Things to Do: Bunny’s 7-Day Itinerary
Bunny has some diverse travel experiences from the Balkans. She has been taken aside at the airport in Tirana for having ammunition in her luggage (long story), she has spent a week in sweltering heat in Montenegro without her suitcase (lost by the airline) and she was once almost eaten by a bear whilst hiking in Croatia…
On her recent Balkan expedition, Bunny wanted a scare-free, pleasant experience. She had a full week to spend in North Macedonia and she wanted to make the most of her first visit to the country. She was looking forward to some great scenery, ancient architecture, hiking, wine-tasting, tasty food and more.
Day 1: Arrival in Skopje
Bunny arrived in Skopje, the capital, in the early afternoon. She had booked a night at the London Bed & Breakfast in the city centre to have easy access to all the main sights.
Skopje city centre is quite eccentric, thanks to the Skopje 2014 project which saw the construction of a host of neo-classical government buildings and museums and the erection of dozens of new statues around the city. From her room in London Bed & Breakfast, Bunny had a direct view of the centrepiece of the new construction, Macedonia Square, which boasts a 22-metre high statue of Alexander the Great.
Bunny’s favourite part of the city was the Old Bazar. It is a pleasant maze of narrow cobblestone streets, with an abundance of vendors, jewelry shops, cafes, restaurants and mosques. Bunny was happy to hop around and even happier to have stumbled upon Ristorante Don Giovani. This excellent pizza place is located in the heart of the Old Bazar, on a picturesque street full of colourful umbrellas hanging overhead. This is where you should take your Instagram shots in Skopje, Bunny says.
Day 2: Gorgeous Canyon Matka
The next morning, the Bunnies had an excellent (and big!) Macedonian breakfast at the hotel. Then it was time to leave Skopje behind and start exploring the rest of the country. Luckily, the Bunnies were able to pick up their rental car at Sixt in the Marriott Hotel, right next door to their accommodation.
It was an easy, 35-minute drive to their next destination: Canyon Matka. Canyon Matka is a very popular day trip destination from Skopje because of its stunning landscape and multitude of outdoor activities on offer. Bunny opted for an overnight visit as she wanted to enjoy the place in peace and quiet after the throngs of day visitors had left.
Despite its popularity, there is only one hotel in Canyon Matka, the appropriately named Canyon Matka Hotel. Canyon Matka Hotel is a bit of a walk from the parking lot along the river - or damn long walk, if you ask Mr. Bunny, who carried the suitcase - but the setting is truly spectacular and the hotel offers great value. There is a closer parking lot, but it is always jam-packed, including with local taxis who hog spots for themselves en masse.
After settling in, the Bunnies started their exploration with a boat ride along the pleasant canyon river. The one-hour excursion was a nice introduction to the area and included a visit to the surprisingly impressive Vrelo cave. From the boat, a hiking path hugging the canyon walls caught Bunny’s eye.
In the afternoon, Bunny dragged Mr. Bunny on that very hike. A reasonably well-maintained hiking path along the length of the canyon starts directly from the Canyon Matka hotel. There is no danger of getting lost, but there are some hairy sections along the path including a few partially exposed steep drops. Afternoon was a good time to go as there was already some shelter from the blistering sun.
The Bunnies kept their hiking expedition under two hours to allow time for a short kayaking trip before sunset. Single and double kayaks with all the necessary equipment are for rent right next to the Canyon Matka hotel. The waters at the canyon are calm and inviting so you can just glide along and admire the scenery. It is possible to kayak all the way to the Vrelo cave, and even further, but the Bunnies settled for some gentle paddling instead.
Dinner at Canyon Matka was a highlight as the hotel has an excellent restaurant with views overlooking the lake. It’s a very romantic setting with nice decorations and plenty of candles. The feeling of romance is further enhanced by the complimentary bottle of wine that is included in the room price (a very good idea, Bunny says).
Day 3: Mavrovo National Park
After one night at Canyon Matka, the Bunnies were ready for their next destination: Mavrovo National Park. It would not be a long drive - it is a compact country after all - but Bunny had planned a couple of detours along the way…
First up was Tetovo, a slightly chaotic Northern city, approximately 35 minutes from Canyon Matka. The Bunnies are generally not big fans of busy cities but their short visit to Tetovo had a specific purpose: Bunny had read about Šarena Džamija, the famous Painted Mosque, and wanted to check it out.
With the help of Google Maps, the Bunnies were able to locate the mosque and find street side parking nearby. The mosque, with its unusual floral paintings, was beautiful inside and out. Bunny particularly liked the story behind it. Interestingly, this striking building was commissioned by two sisters in the 15th century, instead of the usual suspects, sultans and pashas and the like. Girl power, Bunny says!
After Tetovo, the Bunnies entered Mavrovo National Park. They started by dropping in the tourist information point at Mavrovi Anovi. Sadly, the staff did not speak a word of English or any other language that Bunny understands, so she had to perform a little pantomime to get her questions understood.
The Bunnies wanted to find the sunken church on the lake, another site Bunny had read about in advance, and finally learned that the Old Mavrovo Church was located at the Southern tip of Mavrovo Lake. The church was submerged in 1957 when the artificial lake was created and remains partially submerged today, depending on the season and water levels.
When the Bunnies visited, the water levels were very low and the church was completely dry. While this made for less dramatic photos, Bunny was able to hop inside to check out the rubble. It was a very atmospheric place to visit, completed by a few horses grazing nearby. Plus, no other people were around, just fresh wind and amazing views of the lake. This is the kind of tourism Bunny loves!
After their church interlude, the Bunnies headed for their next accommodation, The House of the Miyaks, deep inside the national park. Bunny chose this accommodation because of its good reviews and convenient location next to the main draw in the area: The Monastery of Saint Jovan Bigorski. The House of the Miyaks is actually better known for its superb restaurant, which is very popular with big tour groups during lunch time. Luckily it was blissfully quiet and peaceful after the tour groups left.
The Monastery of Saint Jovan Bigorski is located a 15-minute (uphill) hike from the hotel. The Bunnies made the trek in the late afternoon and found the place almost empty. There were no other visitors in sight, just the soothing sound of a water feature in the garden and the occasional sight of a black-clad monk hurrying across the courtyard.
The monastery complex is particularly known for its spectacular iconostasis. Unfortunately, it was a bit too dark inside the church to properly appreciate it, so the Bunnies decided to return the next morning to get a better look.
The House of the Miyaks restaurant lived up to its reputation, both at dinner and breakfast the following day. Great food (including for vegetarians), delicious wine and amazing views to the surrounding mountains were clearly a winning concept. And apparently the tasty cheese pie and bread served at the restaurant are freshly hand-baked by the monks in the monastery. How handy!
Day 4: Onwards to Ohrid
As planned, the Bunnies returned to the monastery after breakfast, this time by car. The sunny daylight let them properly admire the intricate iconostasis as well as the gorgeous views to surrounding mountain villages.
Then it was time to start the drive towards the most popular tourist destination in the country: Lake Ohrid. The road had them passing a number of picturesque mountain villages along the way. They also drove through Debar and enjoyed wonderful views of the Black Drin river.
Bunny had reserved accommodation in Lake Ohrid at My Grandparents House for two nights, to allow them enough time for sightseeing in and around Ohrid. The drive into the old town on busy, narrow streets was just the kind Mr. Bunny enjoys behind the wheel (not!)… Thankfully, there was parking just outside their accommodation and My Grandparents House turned out to be just as cozy and lovely as its name suggests.
The weather, on the other hand, did not want to cooperate and the Bunnies ended up hopping around the town in anticipation of a storm that was slowly but surely approaching. Despite the looming prospect of poor weather, the Bunnies managed to get their first taste of Ohrid that afternoon.
Ohrid is known as the Jerusalem of the Balkans for its numerous, beautiful old churches and monasteries. The most famous, and most photographed, of Ohrid’s churches is St. John at Kaneo. This is the photogenic church you always see in tourist brochures of North Macedonia. In reality, it is quite a simple structure but it does command a spectacular position on the top ridge of a hill right by the lake.
Day 5: All the Churches of Ohrid
Day 5 on the Bunnies’ Macedonia itinerary was a day off for the hard-working driver! The car stayed in the parking lot while the Bunnies made the most of the newly emerged sunshine and set out to explore all the nooks and crannies of Ohrid.
They started with breakfast by the lake at Kaneo restaurant, then ventured inside another religious site, the Church of St. Sophia, which is known for its impressive frescos from the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries.
Walking up the hills surrounding the Old Town, the Bunnies also checked out Church of Saints Clement and Panteleimon, and then hopped around Samuel's Fortress, with excellent views to the Old Town and beyond.
Descending back into the town, the Bunnies grabbed lunch on the high balcony of the Gladiator Restaurant. The setting, with views to the well-preserved Ancient Theatre and the old town below, was lovely and the veggie plate with cold beer was just what the doctor ordered…
Afterwards, yet another church on yet another hill awaited: The Holy Mother of God – Peribleptos. It is one of the oldest churches in Ohrid and another place to admire stunning frescoes inside.
Almost churched out at this point, Bunny was delighted to find passionfruit margaritas (her favourite drink!) in one of the lake-side restaurants. There was no better place to enjoy lake views so the Bunnies lingered a bit longer before hailing a boat ride - a must in Ohrid - on the lake.
There are plenty of boatmen offering their services around town and the excursions are fun and fairly priced. The Bunnies settled for a short ride along the coast but you can also go further afield, a good option if you want to explore more of the lake and don’t have your own car.
Day 6: Drive to Bitola
The Bunnies’ next destination was The City of The Consuls - Bitola. It would normally be an easy drive of little over an hour from Ohrid to Bitola but Bunny is not in the business of doing easy travel. She wanted to experience a bit more of Lake Ohrid and instead take a winding mountain road to Bitola. Mr. Bunny agreed (what else can he do?).
So, the Bunnies first headed south of Ohrid, towards the small fishing village of Trpejca. They arrived to find the village practically abandoned but oh-so-idyllic. They stumbled upon a cute little place for brunch on the pebble beach and took their sweet time enjoying the omelets and the excellent coffee. One of the Bunnies (the one who is not a wimp, Bunny says) even went for a dip in the crystal clear waters of the lake.
It was very easy to fall in love with Trpejca, even on a short visit. It was very peaceful, authentic and beautiful, like a little Greek village on the Mediterranean. If you have an extra night in your Macedonia itinerary, this is where you should stay, Bunny says.
In contrast to Trpejca, Bunny’s next stop en-route, Sveti Naum, a famous monastery complex close to the Albanian border, seemed like Disneyland. There was a huge parking lot, throngs of people, boats of all sizes coming and going, a plethora of restaurants and souvenir shops… In short, it was all a bit much for Bunny, who much preferred the quiet beauty of Trpejca.
That said, the Bunnies felt compelled to check out the famous monastery in the complex since they had driven all the way there. It was pretty, for sure, but less than an hour after arriving the Bunnies were ready to leave the hullabaloo behind and continue their journey.
The winding mountain road to Bitola, through the beautiful Galicica National Park, was a great option, despite the small entrance fee that was collected at the start of the route. The scenery was spectacular, the traffic minimal and even the roads were in decent condition.
In addition to Lake Ohrid, the Bunnies were able to marvel at Lake Prespa, another one of Macedonia’s big lakes that gets only a fraction of the attention and tourists that Lake Ohrid commands. Bunny particularly loved the extensive orchards of trees hanging heavy with ripe apples that lined the banks of Lake Prespa.
Bitola itself is the second biggest city in North Macedonia. It used to be an important political and economic hub during the Ottoman period. Nowadays, it is pleasantly quiet and was almost devoid of tourists (or at least obvious ones) during Bunny’s visit.
For her stay, Bunny reserved Airbnb accommodation, Soho Apartments, close to the historic centre. Although one night in Bitola should be sufficient if you are on a short itinerary around Macedonia, Bunny decided to stay for two nights to be able to venture on a major hike in the nearby Pelister National Park.
There are a number of sights to check out in Bitola, both inside the city and in its immediate surroundings, but the Bunnies were happy to just hop around the town. Sirok Sokak, the town’s long and bustling pedestrian street, is lined with cafes and restaurants, and has quite a lively buzz to it. The nearby Magnolia Square and the Clock Tower were some other places the Bunnies checked out during their evening stroll.
Day 7: Pelister National Park
When planning their 7-day itinerary around Macedonia, Bunny had set her eyes on a particular hike in the Pelister National Park: she wanted to go see the Pelister Eyes, picturesque glacial lakes at 2000 metres above sea level. Since the Bunnies’ navigational skills sometimes leave much to be desired and the hike is known for not being well signposted, Bunny was happy to retain the services of a local guide through Pelister Guides for the hike.
Jonce from Pelister Guides picked up the Bunnies right from their accommodation in Bitola at 8am sharp and drove them to the start of the hike. Jonce was friendly and a very experienced guide and mountaineer who had lots of stories and information to share during the day. The first part of the hike, all ascent, just flew by while Bunny admired the scenery, enjoyed the fresh air and picked (and ate) fresh berries and wild apples along the way.
Arriving at the Big Pelister Eye, Bunny still had a lot of strength left but nevertheless welcomed a short lunch break at the mountain hut. Afterwards, Jonce took the Bunnies higher still, all the way to the peak of Veternica at 2420 metres above sea level.
It was well worth the effort, with incredible 360-degree views of North Macedonia, Greece, Albania and the surrounding lakes. A particular highlight for Bunny was catching clear views of Mount Olympus, the legendary home of the Greek gods, in the distance.
Going back down the same path was considerably harder. The distance and the hot sunshine they had enjoyed all day started to tire out poor Bunny. When they finally returned to the parked car at the trial head after 7,5 hours of hiking, Bunny was positively exhausted.
Back in Bitola, showered and changed, the Bunnies were so spent that they could barely drag their bones back to Sirok Sokak to grab some wood-fired pizza and well-deserved cold beers at Pizza Metro (kudos to Jonce for recommending this local favourite). The Bunnies had had a wonderful day and felt quite accomplished after having survived the long hike.
Day 8: Drive Back to Skopje
Hang on, you are reading about Bunny’s 7-day itinerary in North Macedonia and we have just entered day number 8. What is going on? Well, since Bunny’s first day in Skopje was only half a day, she reckons she can squeeze in another half a day to make it a full week…
Before leaving Bitola, the Bunnies wanted to go see the archeological site of Heraclea Lyncentis, just outside of town. This ancient Macedonian town includes extensive ruins with intricate floor mosaics and a well-preserved Roman amphitheatre. Well worth the modest entrance fee, Bunny says.
The drive from Bitola to Skopje is just under 2,5 hours. The Bunnies were recommended to stop by the Popola Kula winery on the way but, unfortunately, there was not enough time to do so. The winery did look quite appealing when Bunny had a peek at it online so if you have the time, go check it out.
The Bunnies’ drive to Skopje, past Prilep, most famous for its tobacco production, numerous salt mines, mountain scenery and being part of Macedonia’s wine region, was uneventful but quite pleasant. They were able to return the car in Skopje on time and intact (hallelujah) and both agreed that their week in Macedonia had been a very good one indeed.
Bunny’s Macedonia Conclusions
- North Macedonia is a diverse, affordable and safe travel destination in the Balkans, offering plenty of activities and sights for a full week of exploration.
- To get a holistic picture and flavour of the country, it is best to rent a car and venture outside the most popular tourist destinations. Most of the roads are in good condition, the style of driving is reasonable (compared to some neighbouring countries) and car rental is fairly cheap.
- Being a vegetarian in North Macedonia is no hardship. Food and wine are delicious all around the country. This was one of Bunny’s nicest surprises during the trip.
- It is best to visit just outside the busiest tourist season (Bunny went in mid-September) as you’ll still benefit from the excellent weather but have much fewer crowds.