North Macedonia is, on paper anyway, a new country. In 2019, this mountainous swath of land in the heart of southeastern Europe’s Balkan Peninsula changed its name. In doing so, the nation – bordered by Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece – shone a novel spotlight on its diverse metropolis capital, historic and protected lakes, hiking trails, national parks and ancient, old-world culture.
The country previously known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which most just called Macedonia, is not new, of course. Settlements can be traced back more than 5000 years. What the recent name change provided – beyond political implications opening the door for European Union-accession discussions – is a chance for the freshly minted North Macedonia to repackage itself. For travelers greedy to explore the ‘next great spot,’ this repackaging means a refocused opportunity to discover one of the continent’s most authentic and locally grown adventure destinations.
‘For a relatively small country, North Macedonia is incredibly dense with landscapes, adventure possibilities, and culture,’ said Antonia Sisak, director of the Local and Regional Competitiveness Project (LRCP) – an EU-funded initiative.
The LRCP provides support to community-based and responsible tourism development in North Macedonia.
‘Travelers will find their own special place for discovery whether they are in the capital of Skopje, on our famous Lake Ohrid, or anywhere in the mountains, which are some of the most dramatic in the region,’ Sisak said. ‘And, don’t even get me started about how great the food and wine is.’
To match North Macedonia’s rebranded handle, travel operators are offering a slew of unique and active ways to see the country. Horseback riding, e-bikes, hikes, cycling, paragliding and mountaineering are paired with city life and tables of homemade specialties to round out a visit to one of Europe’s most underappreciated destinations.
Scratching Skopje’s surface
Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, with a population of around half a million, straddles the Vardar River. To either side, the city is a combination of ancient history and cutting-edge modernity. A walking tour of the extended downtown area leads to the Ottoman-era bazaar, known as Čaršija, with its shops, restaurants and cafes connected by stone promenades and twisting alleys.
A visit to the Kale Fortress, which has 6th-century foundations dating to the Byzantine Empire, provides a strategic view across the city. Above both the fortress and the bazaar, the Museum of Contemporary Art – a minimalist glass building housing some of the 20th century’s most important artists, such as Picasso – supplies a modern balance to a visitor’s sense of time travel. Finish the day with dinner and drinks in the relaxed Debar Maalo neighbourhood, where traditional restaurants and cosmopolitan lounges leapfrog each other down tree-lined avenues.
‘My impression is that people never quite know what to expect, and then Skopje blows them away,’ said Aleksandar Donev, founder of Mustseedonia, an eco-tourism operator based in the capital.
The company creates custom tours along North Macedonia’s section of the Via Dinarica hiking trail, which crosses eight Balkan borders, as well as culture-and-adventure itineraries across the country.
‘The city is so easy to navigate and everywhere you look a new part of history is uncovered – dating back several millennia,’ Donev said.
Diving into majestic Ohrid
Lake Ohrid, and the town that shares its name, are the country’s postcard symbols. The historic landscape is crowded with ancient monasteries, churches, chic beach bars and superb fish restaurants that surround the tectonic lake, which is among the oldest (estimated to be three million years old) and deepest (300m) inland bodies of water on the continent. Listed as a Unesco site for both its natural and cultural significance, the region is a rare, fragile confluence of traditions, architecture and natural wonder.
Tourism operator Mustseedonia offers multi-day adventures that allow visitors to discover the nuances of the entire Ohrid Valley from the ground, atop summits, in the sky and around the dinner table. The tours are custom and include guided boat excursions, trips to the Church of Sveti Jovan and the nearby Sveti Naum Monastery, tandem paragliding flights, mountain e-bike expeditions, lakeside cooking classes and workshops and hot-air balloon rides.
The multi-activity packages are meant to serve up one of the most dramatic stretches of Europe and expose its many layers while taking in the surrounding area, including the adjacent Galičica National Park, where peaks guarantee breathtaking views of both Ohrid and Prespa Lakes.
National Park adventures
About 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of Ohrid, National Park Mavrovo is a secret find in a country crowded with them. Protected 70 years ago, the area, centered on Mavrovo Lake and surrounded by mountains, covers some 730 square kilometers (180,387 acres) and brims with nearly 1500 plant species as well as bears, wolves, lynx and chamois.
Adventure travellers will find a resort with a world-class ski area, as well as remote trails and routes, which can be hiked, biked and explored on horseback. Sherpa Horse Riding takes wranglers from Galičnik – a village within the park famous for its wedding festival held every July – to nearby peaks before finishing the day with a feast at the ranch.
‘Mavrovo is like the glue that connects North Macedonia,’ said Ognjan Cigovski, director of Mavrovo Ski Center.
The resort, which has three hotels, offers skiing and snowboarding in the winter and trekking and mountain biking in the summer.
‘Here, people can ski, hike, swim, enjoy incredible local food and wine, and be within a short drive to the north or south from all of the best sights in the region,’ Cigovski said.
Trekking and biking in the Macedonian mountains
In a place filled with natural superlatives, trekking and mountain biking options here are, arguably, as good as anywhere in this portion of Europe.
North Macedonia’s multiple ranges, which are dominated by the country’s iconic Šar Mountains, are riddled with giant peaks and hidden, yet welcoming, villages. They are also crisscrossed by thru-hikes, single-day walks and adrenaline-charged trail rides.
A new collection of self-guided tours, launched in a partnership between tourism operator Macedonia Travel and the National Association for Incoming Tourism of North Macedonia, take travelers on journeys that combine adventure and culture across the country.
Explorers can choose to hike into the hills around Skopje, take a challenging trek to Titov vrv, the Šar Range’s highest peak at 2747 meters (9012 feet), or combine mountains and lakes on a multi-day bike ride. For travellers who want direction, but also prefer independence, the itineraries, 27 in total, bring the newly named, but ancient, North Macedonia into sharper focus.
‘Hiking and cycling trips here are incredible because of the diversity of routes, beauty of the mountains, and easy accessibility,” said Emilija Fildishevska, founder and managing director of Macedonia Travel. ‘But still, even on the trail, you are never far from culture that has remained the same for centuries.’