The cheap city break you should try in 2024 – before everyone else catches on

“If you haven’t been to the Old Bazaar, you haven’t been to Skopje at all,” says my guide, Zoran Stavrevski, as he leads me towards a jumble of low-rise buildings. I shield my eyes against the sun and notice faint whisps of smoke rising from the chimneys scattered across the terracotta rooftops.

Behind me is an array of neoclassical buildings and a triumphal arch. When blended with the brutalist tower blocks that dominate the skyline, a remnant of communist rule, it’s a compelling backdrop for first-time visitors to North Macedonia’s capital.

SKOPJE, NORTH MACEDONIA - JUNE 15: A view of the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge over the Vardar River, which has connected the two sides of the city for centuries, in Skopje, North Macedonia on June 15, 2023. The Sultan Murad Mosque overlooking the city from the hill, the first clock tower of the Ottoman Empire, which is about 40 meters tall, and the Turkish Bazaar, which resembles an Anatolian city, are among the most visited places in Skopje. Sculptures built in the post-Ottoman period also attract the attention of tourists. (Photo by Arif Hudaverdi Yaman/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
The Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge over the Vardar River in Skopje, North Macedonia (Photo: Arif Hudaverdi Yaman/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Britons made up 2.1 per cent of the 537,000 overseas arrivals to the Balkan country in 2022. Those who have visited may have stayed close to Lake Ohrid to which Europe’s biggest tour operator, Tui, launched holidays in 2023.

The lake, which straddles the border of North Macedonia and Albania, is around two-to-three hours’ drive from Skopje. But, with the city having been named a European Capital of Culture for 2028, it is forging its own place on the tourist map. Given that there are direct flights from London (flight time 3 hours, 30 minutes) and the country has one of the continent’s lowest costs of living, it’s appealing for a cheap break.

I get acquainted with Skopje in the bazaar, which is a narrow maze of cobbled streets, cafés and caravansaries (former inns that date to the Ottoman period).

SKOPJE, NORTH MACEDONIA - JUNE 15: People walk between shops lined up on both sides of the street at the Skopje Turkish Bazaar, one of the busiest spots in the city center, in Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, on June 15, 2023. Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, welcomes tourists at all times of the year with its historical buildings belonging to different cultures and periods, especially the Ottoman Empire. Artifacts from the Ottoman Empire period, which defy the years, are flooded by visitors. Every inch of the city, where different cultures and religions continue to exist in the same atmosphere, bears the traces of the Ottoman Empire. (Photo by Arif Hudaverdi Yaman/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Skopje’s Bazaar, one of the busiest spots in the city centre (Photo: Arif Hudaverdi Yaman/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The area’s attractions include the National Gallery (100 denar/£1.40 entry), where artworks hang among the storied walls of the 15th-century Daut Pasha Hammam, while further up the hill is Mustafa Pasha Mosque, built in 1492. A slender limestone minaret rises above the domed rooftop, and the building is surrounded by gardens.

A five-minute walk from here, Sveti Spas Church (entry £1.70) has an ornate wooden 19th-century iconostasis, a wall of icons that divides the sanctuary (the area with the altar) from the nave.

Away from the Old Bazaar, there’s plenty to see in Skopje’s newer quarters. I cross the River Vardar via the Stone Bridge, which dates to 1469.

SKOPJE, MACEDONIA - JANUARY 21: Asan prepares Turkish coffee in the old bazaar on January 21, 2022 in Skopje, North Macedonia. The new governments of latest NATO member North Macedonia and EU member Bulgaria are improving relations with working groups and joint governments sessions. Bulgaria blocks North Macedonia's bid to join the European Union as a dispute on shared history and language remains unresolved. (Photo by Pierre Crom/Getty Images)
Asan prepares Turkish coffee in Skopje’s Bazaar (Photo: Pierre Crom/Getty)

Halfway along the bridge, you can see tens of tourists taking photographs in front of the Archaeological Museum. It has a pearly-white façade complete with two domes and vast glass windows behind dozens of ionic columns. Like many of the grand buildings lining the river banks, however, the museum is a recent addition to the city.

It was part of Skopje 2014, a government project that aimed to create national pride and attract visitors through the construction of dozens of structures, from government ministries to new bridges lined with statues. Its centrepiece is the 80-foot-high monument in Macedonia Square that, unofficially, depicts Alexander the Great.

While the newer structures do appear to attract visitors, Skopje’s air quality could be a deterrent to some Britons – it has neighbourhoods that suffer from some of Europe’s worst pollution levels. However, during my stay, a steady breeze seemed to help and I didn’t see anyone in masks (the AirCare app informs residents about the quality of the air).

Tetovo's painted mosque, Xhamia e Larme, was built in 1438 (Photo: Andrea Pistolesi/Getty)
Tetovo’s painted mosque, Xhamia e Larme, was built in 1438 (Photo: Andrea Pistolesi/Getty)

Another stop on Skopje’s tourist trail is the Memorial House to Mother Teresa, which stands on the site of the church where she was baptised (entry is free).

From here, I head to the City Museum. It is in an old train station, which was partially destroyed during the 1963 earthquake that devastated much of Skopje. The clock on the façade is frozen at 5.17 am – the moment the earthquake struck.

A concrete-clad bus and rail terminal replaced the old station and is the starting point for day trips, including to the city of Tetovo, known for its elaborate Painted Mosque, and the Matka Canyon, where visitors can hike between, or kayak among, cliffs.

Matka canyon in Macedonia near Skopje, boat on the lake. Visit the beautiful places in the world, experience and learn what travel teaches.
Matka Canyon near Skopje (Photo: mbrand85/Getty)

The busy boulevard leading from the City Museum to Macedonia Square is a perfect spot for a break with a £1 espresso, after which I stroll towards the narrow labyrinth of the Old Bazaar in search of food.

Dining tables spill out onto the cobbles, leaving no space unused. The faint smell of grilled meat floats through the air from grill houses, carried by a warm breeze.

Skopje’s grill houses are no-frills restaurants where service is quick, clatters and sizzles ring out from the kitchens, and meals are available at bargain prices. I stop at one and watch as neighbouring groups tuck into plates piled high with meat and salads. Two common dishes are kebapi, ground meat sausages popular across the Balkans, and tavce gravce, a sizzling bean stew cooked and served in traditional clay pots (neither should cost more than £3).

No visit to Skopje is complete without walking to the sixth-century fortress at sunset. On my way, I pass the Old Town Brewery, where £2.50 buys me half a litre of its craft beer. At the fortress, the entire city, with its centuries of history, stretches beneath me.

Once the heat of the day fades, I make my way down from the walls and into the melee of the Old Bazaar once more.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Wizz Air has return flights from Luton to Skopje with return fares starting at £44.

Staying there

Self-catering apartments are available from around £30–£40 a night.
Hotel Macedonia Square has doubles from £60, room only.
Marriott Skopje has doubles from £109, room only.

More information

macedonia-timeless.com
skopje2028.mk
freeskopjewalkingtours. com