Macedonians will proudly reel off to visitors that Ohrid once had 365 churches – one for every day of the year. Yet in truth, the church spires and their bellowing bells are just one facet of this lakeside diamond, which lures city-dwelling locals for summer hijinks and Balkans backpackers gasping for a splash of water in a landlocked country.
Although Ohrid town is the beating heart of the lake, the area’s charms extend well beyond its beloved old quarter. At 300m deep, 34km long and three million years old, Lake Ohrid is among Europe’s oldest and deepest lakes. Surrounding its shores, ancient settlements, mountain villages and glorious monasteries whisper stories that have endured more than a thousand years. No trip here would be complete without some out-of-town exploration.
Spend the morning climbing and tumbling back down Ohrid’s cobbled lanes. This town was made for strolling, and most streets gravitate back to the water. As you explore, take notice of the delightful ‘mini-me’ street lights, which mimic the town’s distinctive traditional houses. Also look out for its one-of-a-kind pearl shops, particularly Antica (ohridpearl.com) on Kosta Abras. Ohrid’s unique simulant of the gem is created using the scales of a fish endemic to the lake.
Morning is the best time to catch the unusual bolnička (hospital) churches with their doors open. These low-lying, high-walled adjacent structures are thought to date from the 14th century and barely look like churches at all, though their insides are heaving with frescoes and icon figures. A grim fact, given how petite they are, is that the churches were used as quarantine facilities in times of plague.
Grab your swimwear before heading out for lunch in Kaneo, a traditional fishing village that has long since been swallowed whole by Ohrid’s old town boundaries. Work up an appetite by tackling the gorgeous water-licking boardwalk en route; its start is hidden down an alley behind the Sveta Sofija cathedral, like a door to beachside Narnia. Take a dip or grab a deckchair along the shingle beach, but when hunger calls head to Letna Bavča Kaneo and order a dish of diminutive fried plasnica, the selfsame fish that’s used to make Ohrid’s famous pearls. Locals eat them whole – like whitebait, but meatier.
After lunch, make the westerly ascent up to Ohrid’s pin-up Church of Sveti Jovan to contemplate the view and admire the frescoed interior (dress respectfully). Continue up to Plaošnik, where the pretty Church of Sveti Kliment i Pantelejmon plays second fiddle to some remarkable 5th-century basilica ruins and a garden of mosaic relics. Church-hopping sated, return to Kaneo for a quick boat ride back to Ohrid’s harbour area.
In the evening follow the Europop sounds to the small crowd of lake-lapping bars on Kosta Abras: Liquid is undoubtedly the classiest of the pack, perfect for sunset drinks and beyond with the style-hunters of North Macedonia. If this feels too try-hard, make for prohibition-style Jazz Inn (en-gb.facebook.com) down a nearby back alley instead. During Ohrid’s extremely popular Summer Festival, seemingly the whole country descends to catch a concert at one of the historic venues around town – join them at Ohrid’s Hellenistic hillside amphitheatre, if you can.
Hop on a morning bus headed for Sveti Naum Monastery – your ultimate destination – but ask to be let off at the Bay of Bones for some time travel at the Museum on Water. This remarkable place is a reconstruction of a prehistoric pile settlement, the remains of which have been uncovered at the bottom of the lake beneath the site. If this has your interest piqued, Diving Center Amfora (amfora.com.mk) can take you down below (beginners welcome) to sniff out relics on the lake bed.
Continuing south, Sveti Naum is surrounded by some of the lake’s sandiest beachfront and one of the best swimming areas. Consequently, the monastery site slightly unexpectedly pits holy reverence against deckchairs and buzzing summer beach cafes. But – dare we say it – that’s what makes it such a fun day out. The church itself is a multi-domed Byzantine goody with a 17th-century iconostasis, 16th- and 19th-century frescoes and some (slightly cranky) guardian peacocks. Outside, boatmen run trips to irrepressible natural springs bubbling up from the nearby lake bed. Restaurant Ostrovo (restoranostrovo.com.mk), within the complex, is right by the entrance to the springs and offers the wistful experience of dining on a moored pontoon.
Boats return to Ohrid directly from the monastery at 4pm. Travelling by car? You’re in luck: the coastal road back to Ohrid is ripe for exploration. The hidden bar at Orevche beach, down a snaking shrubby coastal trail off the road (look for the sign), is a real find. Take another dip accompanied by prowling petite fish, grab a day bed for sunset with the local Zlaten Dab beer and feel a bit smug that you’ve managed to escape the crowds.
Crowned by the walkable Magaro peak (2254m), the shaggy mane of Galičica National Park unfurls east of Lake Ohrid, putting mountainous villages and hiking trails within half an hour’s touch of Ohrid town. Here it’s possible to cast yourself adrift by paraglide – the biggest adrenaline rush you’re likely to get on a lake with no water sports. Or you can visit a lake-view Galičica village for lunch or a sunset dinner of Macedonian specialities such as pita (a flaky coiled pastry stuffed with cheese and spinach) and tavče gravče (spiced baked beans served in earthenware). Book through Free Pass Ohrid (freepassohrid.mk).
Food is one of North Macedonia’s crowning glories, but if you want to taste traditional cuisine there are better places than Ohrid’s old town: how about a secluded mountain village famed for its homemade sausage, nettle pies and slow-roasted meats? Welcome to Vevčani – an underrated rural bolthole north of the lake where locals quietly disappear to eat and stroll amid gurgling springs. Packed with creaking historic country houses, home to a rambunctious annual carnival (exploringmacedonia.com/vevcani-carnival) and watched over by a pretty church, it’s a window into a very different side of life around the lake. Eat at wood-beamed Kutmichevica (kutmicevica.com.mk) in the upper part of the village, from where sublime views enable you to survey Lake Ohrid one last time before you travel home.
Make it happen
Lake Ohrid’s St Paul the Apostle Airport, 10km north of Ohrid town, is handling a growing number of international flights, particularly from the UK. The town is also well served by frequent daily buses from the capital Skopje, and daily international buses to Albania, Serbia and Montenegro. Of all Ohrid’s old town hotels, Villa Jovan has the most character and the best location. No matter where you stay, book well ahead for travel during the Summer Festival (12 July to 20 August).