Summertime and the livin’ is easy, runs the famous George Gershwin song – and nowhere more so than in Skopje, Macedonia’s small but buzzing capital. Except that here the summer vibe lasts well into autumn, with temperatures still hitting 25˚ Celsius well into October. The city’s vibrant bar and café scene, long appreciated by locals, is now attracting increasing numbers of visitors from elsewhere, drawn also by Skopje’s intriguing cultural heritage, the Ottoman Turks held sway here for over five centuries, and Macedonia’s growing reputation as the Balkans’ best-kept secret.
An obvious starting point for any exploration of Skopje is Macedonia Square, in which stands the enormous and, to some minds, controversial, Warrior on A Horse statue. Standing 22 meters high and surrounded by synchronized fountains and larger-than-life carved lions on sentinel duty, the statue is a thinly veiled representation of Alexander the Great, Macedonia’s famous son. Whether the eponymous hero actually hailed from here or from the neighboring part of Greece, as the Greeks claim , is a continuing source of debate, but his iconic status in both countries is beyond dispute. The city has a great local cuisine though, which reflects the complex cultural influences here. The trick is to know where to go for the local specialties. Head towards the banks of the River Vardar, which bisects the city center, and settle into one of the riverside restaurants. Skopje’s Ottoman heritage is immediately clear in the appetizer meze – luscious salads and freshly baked flatbread. Afterwards, stroll along the riverside, where new buildings and bridges are springing up seemingly overnight.
The city center is undergoing an architectural renaissance, part of Skopje 2014, an urban revamp that has already seen the installation of that statue, along with a triumphal arch, a string of brand new Neo-Classical buildings and an army of statues commemorating famous Macedonians. There’s a bit of everywhere in this project – Budapest’s waterfront, Paris’s Arc de Triomphe and London’s Trafalgar Square all spring to mind – and now, with the completion of Skopje’s new Bridge of Art, complete with statues dotted along its length, Prague and its famous Charles Bridge have become part of the mix.
The scale and cost involved are not without their critics, but there is no denying that the result will be a dramatic new face for Skopje. That Skopje is changing in other ways becomes clear when you go for a walk around Debar Maalo, an up-and-coming area near the city center. Skopje’s lively nightlife concentrates itself in three main areas: the Old Bazaar, Debar Maalo and around the city park. A cool place to visit is "The Shell", a free stage venue in the park where various acts are going through their moves. Old women with small dogs are as much a part of Skopje’s alfresco nightlife as their grandchildren, and entire families are enjoying homemade picnics on the grass around the stage. After this it’s time for a great late-night Macedonian tradition. Go for a small family run bakery where a wood-fired oven produces delicious flaky pastry pies known as burek. Filled with meat or cheese, they are baked and then cut into wedges. It’s a sort of high-octane pizza, Macedonian style.
Historical sites in Skopje
It is time to explore old Skopje and find some of the history. Before heading for the Old Bazaar, browse the stalls set up at the edge of Macedonia Square. Most are selling books. Then look for some antique shops in the Old Bazaar, and head over the 15th-century Kamen Most, or Stone Bridge, and into Skopje’s historical center. With its maze of atmospheric streets and cobbled alleyways, studded with mosque minarets and with the brooding Kale Fortress beyond, there’s a real feel of the old-style Ottoman Balkans here. A really must see is the Daut Pashin Amam, one of Skopjes' historical buildings. Now housing the national Macedonian art gallery, this former Ottoman Turkish bathhouse was built in the 15th century and is worth a visit for its stunning domed architecture alone (although it’s closed on Mondays).