Unlike many other Balkan capitals such as Belgrade, Sofia and Zagreb, which only grew to importance during the 19th century, Skopje is an ancient city dating back several millennia. As such it’s made up of many fascinating and often contradicting cultural and historical layers visible in everything from the architecture to the food. Many of the city’s museums are stuck in a Tito-era time warp, but don’t let this put you off. It’s impossible to come away from any of the sights listed below without having gained a deeper insight into the beautiful and complicated country that’s Macedonia. A small fee is charged for admission to several of the places listed here, so don’t forget to carry some cash with you when visiting.
Essential SkopjeThe following three choices are naturally subjective and are listed here partly because of their central location. If you’ve only got limited time to see Skopje, we recommend you try them not least because they’re all close to each other and are surrounded by a handful of other fabulous sights. If you’ve got a little more time on your hands, the frescos inside the small 12th-century church at the St. Pantelejmon Monastery are absolutely compulsory visiting.
Museums & Galleries
Places of interest
Ottoman SkopjeHundreds of years of Ottoman domination have left Skopje with a distinct Oriental look and feel, and many monuments from the period remain. You’re welcome to visit the mosques free of charge outside prayer times. Just ask around for the caretaker if the doors happen to be locked. To enter a mosque, you should take off your shoes outside, being careful not to place them on the carpet, and be modestly dressed.
Jewish MacedoniaThe first Jewish settlers arrived in what was then part of the Roman Empire seeking sanctuary from persecution faced in other Roman-occupied areas, and remained a small community right up until the Ottoman period. During the 15th century, large numbers of Jews arrived in Macedonia, again seeking sanctuary, this time in the form of Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal. Invited by Sultan Bayezid II (c.1447-1512), Jews under the Ottomans were granted a number of rights and privileges including permission to buy property, build synagogues and to trade freely throughout the Ottoman Empire. As in most large cities in Eastern Europe, many of the Jews of Macedonia prospered, notably in the cities of Skopje, Štip and, especially, Bitola. Many Jews attained high positions in such areas as banking, medicine and law. The Macedonian Jews, who were almost exclusively Ladino-speaking, lived more or less in harmony with their neighbours, and thanks to the liberal attitude of the Ottomans more Jews from around Europe came to settle in the country. In April 1941 the Bulgarians, who always had and who mostly still do consider Macedonia to belong to them, invaded Macedonia. Allied to Nazi Germany, from October that year, Bulgaria introduced the same laws and treatment of the Jews as the Nazis were implementing throughout Europe. Property was confiscated, ghettos were created, and finally in 1943 Macedonia’s population of over 7,000 Jewish men, women and children were rounded up and sent to Skopje where they were kept in a tobacco warehouse for several days before being sent to the death camp at Treblinka in Poland. Macedonia lost approximately 98% of its Jewish population during the Holocaust, the highest rate of any country during the conflict. Today there are an estimated 200 Jews living in Macedonia, most of them in Skopje. There are almost no visible signs to remind people of the centuries-long contribution to Macedonian life and culture made by its Jews either in Skopje or anywhere else in the country.
Parks & Gardens
Out of town
Guided toursLike many vibrant Balkan cities, Skopje is very much a destination for the flâneur. Wandering about without a care in the world, exploring the city’s hidden courtyards and venturing off the beaten track will all be rewarded with unexpected encounters with some fabulous buildings and a random sampling of its friendly inhabitants. For those who prefer more orderly tours, Skopje provides plenty of choice. Most hotels can arrange guided tours, plus there are one or two free walking tours that crop up from time to time if you look around. Visitors with hangovers and hip replacements will be delighted to learn that there’s also a daily tour on an open-top red bus (tel. +389 23 17 29 20) departing from several locations around the city.