Part Balkan, part Mediterranean and rich in Greek, Roman and Ottoman heritage, North Macedonia has a fascinating past and a complex national identity.
Glittering Lake Ohrid and its historic town have etched out a place for North Macedonia on the tourist map, but there is a wealth of natural beauty in this small country.
Dramatic mountains have blissfully quiet walking trails, lakes and riding opportunities. The national parks of Mavrovo, Galičica and Pelister are cultivating some excellent cultural and culinary tourism initiatives; these gorgeous regions are as yet little explored, so if you want to get off the beaten track in Europe – this is the place. Tourist infrastructure is scant, but locals are unfailingly helpful.
Skopje's centre has suffered from a building spree of grotesque faux-neoclassical monuments, buildings and fountains, funded by the previous government. Luckily, its Ottoman old town and buzzing modern areas are untouched and remain charming and authentic.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout North Macedonia.
Adrift on Lake Prespa, Golem Grad was once the king's summer playground but is now home to wild tortoises, cormorants and pelicans, and perhaps a few ghosts. A settlement endured here from the 4th century BC to the 6th century AD and during medieval times there was a monastery complex. The ruins, birdlife and otherworldly beauty make it well worth exploring. Vila Raskrsnica or Dzani Dimovski (070 678 123), who owns the cafe at Dupeni Beach, organise trips.
Sveti Naum, 29km south of Ohrid, is an imposing sight on a bluff near the Albanian border and a popular day trip from Ohrid. Naum was a contemporary of St Kliment, and their monastery an educational centre. The iconostasis inside the church dates to 1711 and the frescoes to the 19th century; it's well worth paying the fee to enter. Sandy beaches hem the monastery in on two sides and are some of the best places to swim around Lake Ohrid.
This 1974 monument, commemorating the Ilinden Uprising from 1903, is a marvel of Yugoslav architecture and a fantastic example of abstract historic symbolism. Designed by Prilep architects Iskra and Jordan Grabul, and commonly known as Makedonium, this otherworldly globular structure is meant to represent a 15th-century warrior mace. Inside is a series of stained-glass windows and abstract sculptures, each marking a turning point in North Macedonia's history.
This revered 1020 Byzantine monastery is located, fittingly, up in the gods along a track of switchbacks off the Debar road, close to Janče village. Legend attests an icon of Sveti Jovan Bigorski (St John the Baptist) miraculously appeared here, inspiring the monastery's foundation; since then the monastery has been rebuilt often – apparently, the icon has occasionally reappeared too. The complex went into demise during communist rule but has been painstakingly reconstructed and today is as impressive as ever, with some excellent views over Mavrovo's mountains.
A Bronze Age, archaeo-astronomical site, this megalithic observatory sits atop a volcanic hill, at an elevation of 1013m; it's a truly marvellous place. The cracked volcanic rocks were easily shaped for marking the points of the rising sun at the summer and winter solstice, and the spring and autumn equinox. You'll need your own transport to reach Kokino, 19km northeast of Kumanovo: follow the signs for Staro Nagoričane, then for Kokino. The observatory is signposted.
The 13th-century Treskavec Monastery rises from Mt Zlato (1422m), a bare massif replete with imposing twisted rock formations. One doesn't know which is more impressive – the bare granite boulder mountainside or the half-ruined monastery. Vivid frescoes, including a rare depiction of Christ as a boy, line the 14th-century Church of Sveta Bogorodica, built over a 6th-century basilica. Restoration work is slowly progressing, following a fire that ravaged much of the structure.
Propping up the base of Pelister, just 5km from Bitola, the 830m-high mountainside hamlet of Dihovo is a charming spot, surrounded by thick pine forests and rushing mountain streams. The village's proximity to the main access road into the Pelister National Park makes it a popular base for walkers, and locals have shown impressive initiative in developing their traditional community into a pioneering village tourism destination.
This magnificent monument to Prilep's Partisan soldiers who died in WWII is the 1961 work of one of the former Yugoslavia's most brilliant architects, Bogdan Bogdanović, who specialised in mixing up the historical with the antic and celestial. The eight marble monoliths, each between 3m and 5m tall, depict what is thought to be a traditional circle dance, with feminine bodies and double faces representing a continuity between beginnings and ends. Simultaneously modern and ancient, this is a treat.
Saluting the lake from Ohrid's hilltop, Plaošnik is home to the multidomed medieval Church of Sveti Kliment i Pantelejmon, the foundations of a 5th-century basilica and a garden of intricate early Christian flora-and-fauna mosaics. The central church was restored in 2002; though it lacks the ancient wall frescoes of many other Macedonian churches, it is unusual in having glass floor segments revealing the original foundations and framed relics from the medieval church, which dated to the 9th century.