Things To Know Before Visiting Skopje
A new and glittery city of buildings and statues, and random pirate ships. Skopje is making its mark with art and building pieces of its history back together to create a unique visit for those wanting to explore this new country. While you can just wing it with your visit with a 'come what may' attitude, for those solo female travelers or those with anxiety - here are a few things to know before visiting Skopje you should be aware of. From tour guide scammers, to smoking, to unique tidbits about the city and history that can start a fight keep reading to get the low down and make the trip pleasantly manageable and avoid heartache and frustration.
The Quick And Dirty
Skopje is a young country so a lot of the history is borrowed from other countries, but has been inhabited since 4,000 BC. The city has about 1/2 the population of North Macedonia in it. There was a massive amount of money spent for revitalization, but you have spots that look really run down and lots of garbage and graffiti. Smoking is allowed in indoors from restaurants to hotels. The nightlife here is bumping til 4 am and nothing opens before 10 am. Beware of people posing as tour guides that aggressively want to show you around-- it is a scam and they get angry if you don't pay them (like really mad).
The City Center Is Small
Well, the city itself is huge, but the major attractions within the city are within about a 2 km radius (minus Laramie Mosque and the National Parks of course). You can walk to all major sites in 39 minutes, if you don't enter any buildings or stop for lunch. You can easily spend one or two days here and see the whole city - my friends and I were able to tour it in about a 1/2 day but we didn't visit any museums.
Nothing Opens Early
We were staying on the Senegallia Hotel (aka the Pirate Ship Hotel) and were on the side of the ship that faced the streets. I had ear plugs in and still woke up to music bumping on Saturday night til around 4 am. Then got up at my usual early hour to get coffee and nothing was open and I didn't trust the water coming out of the pipes. It was a rough morning to say the least. If you try to look for something in the city before 10 am, there is NOTHING open and very very very few people that are milling about. It does make for a great opportunity to go and take some stellar morning time people free photos though.
The City Is Crowded
Most of the jobs are in the city centre, so you have locals who all migrate to the city to find jobs. More than half the population of North Macedonia is in Skopje. With crowded cities also comes crime though, when we were booking our hotel the major selling point was a 'garage with security and cameras'. When I see something like this it always makes my spidey senses perk up and be on alert of dangers I may not know about. Same thing goes with 'noise cancelling windows' or bars or nightclubs that are close - for us early to bed, and early to rise people - these are places to avoid.
If you are bringing a car, make sure you leave NOTHING of value in the car - including your rental packet and car insurance green card that allows you to cross the borders. Don't even leave car chargers or ANYTHING in your car - it is better to be safe than sorry.
The City Is Old The Country Is New
The city of Skopje has been inhabited since 4,000 BC and was once the capital of Macedon. Mother Teresa grew up in a home here so the North Macedonians claim her, while others argue she was an ethnic Albanian. They also claim Alexander the Great as a significant person in their history, but surrounding countries will also argue that. Most of the history that North Macedonia has and claims really ruffles the feathers of many many many MANY different surrounding countries- so just be aware that this is a touchy subject as far as historical figures.
The country is young and fairly new - they split from Yugoslavia in 1991 and declared their independence. They took the name Macedonia, which Greece didn't like, so they changed their name to North Macedonia in order to join the European Union in 1993. North Macedonia only joined NATO in 2020. There is still a lot of democratic backsliding, and economic troubles, organized crime and political corruption that is happening behind the scenes - but you also feel it a bit when you walk around the city because of some of the abandoned parts of that city that were supposed to help revitalize the city.
The City was Destroyed During The War
In 1963 there was a massive earthquake that destroyed about 80% of the city. More than 4,000 people were injured, 20,000 left homeless which garnered aid from 80 different countries that helped Skopje rebuild.
You can see how fresh some of the buildings are, with all the statues it feels a bit like walking around in Las Vegas if I'm honest. I lived in Vegas for about 7 years so this really had the same kind of feeling without the card flippers (as I call them) selling the risque women services (if you get my drift).
There are A LOT of Statues And Odd Pirate Ships
As part of the revitalization project North Macedonia decided to build a bunch of massive statues and two pirate ship hotels. There is rumored to be more than 284 statues within a 2 sq km radius that range from important figures in the areas history, to moving pieces about people, minds, and abstract designs.
There are two pirate ships that have a permanent placed on the Vdara river, but only one is operating as a hotel now. The other pirate ship looks like pirates actually looted the entire thing, and is completely abandoned and looks really sketchy. (I personally still think Captain Jack Sparrow would want to save it, but as for me - nope.) No one really knows why they chose pirate ships, because there really weren't any pirates or bandits that were in this area - but here we are with pirate ships now in Skopje.
Smoking is Allowed Indoors But Not In Public
Lots of people in the Balkans smoke, it is a big cultural thing here I think. This is actually one of the top five countries for cigarette consumption. As a Physician Assistant the rule of smoking being allowed indoors but not in public is really backwards to me - but it's not my country and I don't make the rules. While it is said that smoking in public is a rule, I really feel like I still saw it quite a bit despite that.
It will be important to expect a slight cigarette smell in your hotel rooms, see if you can ask for a non-smoking room too for those like me with Asthma. The non-smoking rooms aren't always as nice, but I will take a little drop in luxury to save me from an Asthma attack or migraines.
If you are going to eat at a restaurant, there are places that may or may not have non-smoking areas - you just have to ask. If they don't have one of those areas, then I would just opt for outdoor seating in the corner away from other tables in case someone whips one out outside.
This is an observatory that is over 4,000 years old atop a mountain that is recognized by NASA! It dates back to the 19th century BC, had two platforms with ceramic vessels and is being considered as part of a UNESCO site list for protection (and I'm sure for tourism). The observatory is about an hour west of Skopje, so would require either a tour or your own rental car. We weren't able to visit this one as we were at the end of the trip and still had a packed schedule. If you visit, please let me know how it was in the comments below. I really love history and UNESCO sites are always so fascinating to me.
Huge Romani Population
To help with tensions, the city of Skopje is sort of divided into different sections. One of those I found interesting was in Shuto Orizari section in Skopje where there is a huge population of Romani Gypsies. These gypsies come from Northern India and migrated here about 1,000 years ago, and were considered the greatest Nomads in history. I don't know why but I imagine the character in 'The Alchemist' book as being one of these people. There are about 20,000 Romani living in Macedonia today.
The Food is Super Salty In The Balkans
No matter what country we were in, in the Balkans, it seemed we always found the food to be oversalted - but this was especially true in Skopje. While we were technically only there for about two days, I think we managed to pick out the restaurants with the most salty food each time. Surprisingly the only place that I really thought 'ok this is tolerable amount of salt' was in the Pirate Ships restaurant.
I have my theory on this though, with a country that smokes so readily, smoking actually decreases the sensitivity of your taste buds. I imagine that both the cooks and the patrons have lost their a bit of their sense of taste, so make up for it by adding a intolerable amount of salt.
There aren't a lot of grocery stores we could find in the city center, so I would grab some things to eat on the way just in case you can finish the salty meals. There were about 3 of the 6 meals that I ate that were just so salty that I couldn't finish them. Also - with the increased salt, also comes increased poop in the form of diarrhea (I know tmi but I like being totally transparent about what you could face). There is nothing worse than the aforementioned while on vacation in a car, in a place where rest stops aren't exactly friendly for such instances. With how salty the food is, it messes with your osmotic balance in your gut, and water follows salt - so thus....diarrhea.
If you encounter diarrhea on the road, as long as it isn't an infectious nature, try doing the BRAT Diet (as us medical people call it). It is an acronym for Bananas, Rice, Applesauce and Toast and then stay away from super salty or super sugary foods as both of these can cause the osmotic imbalance (aka water follows higher concentrations of salt and sugar).
Avoid Aggressive Scammers
I do at least one month of research on each place I visit prior to going. It is a lot of work, maybe I miss out on spontaneous things, but as a solo traveler with anxiety about safety - it helps me have the illusion of control. When we went to Skopje, this was one of those instances I was grateful I knew about the aggressive tour guide scammers and knew how to deal with them without escalating the situation.
Like it or not, women in many of the Balkan countries are seen as a bit like medieval times in terms of ability to go out on their own, fragility, and sometimes even intelligence. There were several of countries were my friends and I just got quiet (because we knew something felt off but couldn't pinpoint it) and finally realized we hadn't seen any women out and about the whole day. While this isn't the case in Skopje, as there were loads of women about - I still think there is a underlying assumption that we don't know what we are doing and always need help.
While yes, I agree, this could just be people wanting to be helpful to foreigners who may appear lost - it is still true that solo female travelers have to be on guard a bit more regardless of the country.
That being said, when we were visiting Mustafa Pasha Mosque in Skopje, it is near the Old Bazaar and we were following the Google Maps directions on my phone. This was mistake number one, always walk like you know EXACTLY where you are going without hesitation. Mistake number two, we didn't divert when a man approached us asking us if we would like a tour. One of my friends engaged with him with a simple 'oh no thank you, I think we got it covered with our map'- for myself personally this was mistake number three. When you engage, it lets them know you speak English, understand them, and are polite so will have a hard time saying no.
We were 8 minutes away from the Mosque, he followed us, kept talking to us, tried to grab my friends elbow to help lead her to another way to the mosque. At this point I stepped in with a firm no, asked him to leave us alone and that I had done plenty of research and knew where we were going. He scoffed and didn't believe me. I quickly and quietly told my friends to walk ahead of me, and I would tell them where to go, and to walk quickly. He followed us the whole way, we ignored him the rest of the way, he kept talking and then we arrived at the mosque. I then pulled out my video camera, asked him to be quiet so I could record something and he laughed.
After I flawlessly recited the entire history of the mosque, he realized he had been thwarted and was silent. Still, he followed us into the mosque - tried to tell us some things and I asked him again to be quiet so I could enjoy the area. I think after this, he realized I wasn't someone to mess with and knew exactly what I wanted and didn't need aid.
If you encounter aggressive people like this, you don't have to be rude, but you need to match the escalation with escalation to a point. If you feel threatened, walk fast, find the nearest government building, museum, church or in this case mosque where you know local people will be - and just ask for help and let them know that the person who is following you is making you really uncomfortable and scared. This has usually worked for me.
I took my friends around back, the guy said he would wait for us out front, so we ended up finding a back exit and took that instead. It led us to a bit of a sketchy area, but we eventually made our way back to the Old Bazaar and then on our way to the Pirate Ship.
I had read about tour guide scammers that can get really angry and sometimes physical if you don't pay them after they claim to give you a 'complimentary tour' - please don't fall for this, and if you do, DO NOT let them lead you to an area that is secluded and they can hide their antics from locals who would likely call them out on it.
Guided Tours of Skopje (with legit guides)
Where to stay in Skopje
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My name is Janiel, a leader in the travel industry with over 20+ years of experience with international travel. I specialize in solo female travel, cultural connections, sustainable adventures, food and history to help make your travel experiences fun, meaningful, and delicious. My experience in travel, and my personal story have allowed me to get published in Fodor's Travel, Atlas Obscura, Metro.co.uk, Trip Advisor, and multiple Podcast interviews. You can find me on pretty much every social media channel YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, TikTok. To read more about me and my story click here. If you are a brand and would like to work with me, click here.