Breathtaking Balkans: The Best of Ohrid, Macedonia

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Breathtaking Balkans: The Best of Ohrid, Macedonia

On the shores of one of Europe’s oldest and deepest lakes, you will find a confluence that defines the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia: cobblestoned paths lined with ornate churches lead to lakeside beaches and cafes that fill with sunbathers each summer. Legend has it that at one point, Ohrid, the largest town on the eponymous lake that forms Macedonia’s southwest border with Albania, was home to 365 churches: one for every day of the year.

While the many churches and monasteries that dot the lakeshore boast some of the best examples of Macedonian Orthodox iconography—and the seat of the religion has rested here since 2005—Ohrid and the surrounding region have plenty to offer believers and non-believers alike. For adventure enthusiasts, the town sits between three of Macedonia’s national parks where one can find great hiking, biking, rock climbing and paragliding. For the oenophiles, Ohrid is an easy day trip to many of the 84 wineries that make up Macedonia’s up-and-coming wine industry. To discover these wineries, and get an insider’s take on any activity, look up local tour operator Time for Macedonia can help organize activities to suit anyone’s interests around Ohrid and beyond.

For those looking to party as the locals do, visit during the annual Ohrid Summer Festival, which takes place from July 12 to August 20 this summer and will be capped off with a Prodigy concert that is expected to draw 15,000 visitors to the region. One can happily spend a weekend at the summer beach parties on Gradiste Beach or Plaza Orevce, but check out our other recommendations for a two-day stop in Macedonia’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site that are good for spring and fall as well.

Day One

The morning light makes for some of the best views over the lake, so head over to the family-owned Gladiator Restaurant to sip a macchiato or cafe frappé from the balcony, which sits just above the western side of the Ancient Theatre. The theatre, originally built in 200 BC, has hosted everything from gladiator fights during the Roman times to high-profile classical music concerts during recent summer festivals. The restaurant manager will be glad to share local advice for your stay in Ohrid. His wife’s family has lived in the building that houses the restaurant for generations.

Church of St. John at Kaneo Photo: Nikolovskii, CC-BY

After coffee, make your way over to one of Ohrid’s most iconic landmarks: the medieval Church of St. John at Kaneo. You will likely be approached by a local guide offering a half-day tour of the church, as well as the archeological site of Plaošnik, the rebuilt Church of Saints Kliment and Panteleimon, the 10th century Samuil Fortress, and any other sites you care to squeeze in. You’ll be expected to negotiate the price, but plan to settle somewhere around 3,000 MKD ($55) for your group—the unofficial price agreed by the local guides.

No doubt famished from your morning of climbing from church to fortress, make your way down the winding stairs to Kaneo Beach, the site of one of Ohrid’s original fishing villages and the modern location of one of its best fish restaurants. Take a dip in the lake directly from the restaurant’s “summer terrace” as you await your meal of fried lake fish—plasica (eaten whole like sardines)—or the famous Ohrid brown trout.

After lunch, take time to get lost in the city’s old town. If you haven’t yet, make sure to visit St. Sofia Cathedral and its beautifully preserved frescoes from the 11th to 13th centuries. From there, take Tsar Samuil Street to the National Workshop for Handmade Paper to buy a leather-bound book or simply to see a copy of the Gutenberg Printing Press in action. Continue on to the left for a wander through the Old Bazaar until you get to one of Ohrid’s quirkier sites: a 900-year-old cinar, or plane tree, which is held up by a combination of padded boards and a soda stand.

Many of your queries about the town are likely being answered at this point, but if you have a question about Ohrid, head back down to Tsar Samuil Street to Cultura 365, which hosts regular photo exhibitions and offers books and information on the region. Culturally overloaded? Opt instead for a nice glass of Macedonia’s staple red wine, Vranec, as you watch the sunset from the lakeside terrace at Liquid Cafe.

For dinner, there is no better choice for traditional food than Restaurant Antiko, an old mansion on Tsar Samuil Street that serves some of the city’s tastiest ajvar (a roasted pepper spread) and sarma, cabbage leaves stuffed with minced meat. If you’ve somehow managed to avoid a taste of rakija, the local fruit-based liquor, head over to NOA Lounge Bar for a dram or a cocktail from their extensive list. Wind up the night with a rakija or two more at Jazz Inn, a cool live music venue with a hip crowd.

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