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When it comes to tourist hotspots in North Macedonia, it’s hard to go past the majestic Lake Ohrid. This vast lake lies in the southwestern corner of the country on the border with Albania. As a landlocked country, Lake Ohrid is the closest North Macedonia comes to having a seaside. It’s for this reason that Ohrid has become popular as a summer resort destination, favoured by local North Macedonians and other regional/European holidaymakers. I ended up spending 6 days here and thoroughly enjoyed its relaxing atmosphere and natural beauty.
On the shores of Lake Ohrid, the main settlement is the small city by the same name. Aside from providing tourists with somewhere to stay by the water, Ohrid happens to be a fascinating destination in its own right. The city has some fascinating historic pedigree earning it a place on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1980. Additionally, for those looking to see more of the region, Ohrid makes a great base for day trips to other lakeside spots. So, here are 9 activities and places to go to make the most of your time in the “Jewel of North Macedonia“.
1. Stroll through Ohrid Bazaar
Certainly the most busy part of the city of Ohrid is the bazaar that runs up from the waterfront and ends at the small city market. This lovely pedestrian street named after St Clement of Ohrid is lined with plenty of shops and stores, from cafes and ice-cream parlours to boutique clothing stores.
There aren’t too many old buildings of the bazaar still standing, but there a few and the streets are still lined with local Macedonian marble. At the northern end of the bazaar there is a small square, with a water fountain and the historic Chinar Tree, said to be over 1000 years old. Around the square are also several of the city’s mosques.
2. Explore Ohrid Old Town
One of Ohrid’s big draws is the city’s Old Town that covers the hillside west of the city centre. It is here in the Old Town where you will come across wonderful old Ottoman houses and narrow cobbled lanes. Venturing uphill from anywhere in the Bazaar will soon bring you into the streets of the Old Town, where the crowds of tourists fade away.
Here you’ll see lovely old and quaint houses and feel a far more relaxed atmosphere. It really is just nice to walk about and appreciate what the city could have once been like.
The Old Town is also home to some significant historical landmarks. For starters, there are the remnants of the old city fortifications including several remaining gates. The best preserved of the gates is the Upper Gate found close to the city market. Just nearby the Upper Gate is the city’s last ancient site, the Ancient Theatre.
The theatre is currently undergoing considerable restoration but you can still see parts that show what the theatre used to look like. There are also many historic churches as mentioned below.
3. Climb Samuel’s Fortress
Without question, Ohrid’s most dominant landmark is the mighty fortress that sits on the hilltops over the old town. Known as Samuel’s Fortress after the Tsar Samuel, the fortress was the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire at the end of the 10th century. Archaeological evidence also suggests there was an even older fortress built on the same spot.
Thanks to renovations in 2003, visitors are able to visit the fortress and climb up the steep stairs to walk along its ramparts. The views from the fortress are tough to beat as you can see all of the old town and look out at the lake in both directions. It’s a little light on information, but well worth a visit. Entry costs 30 denar (July 2016).
4. See the Church at Kaneo
Throughout Ohrid you will come across quite many historic Orthodox churches in the Byzantine style. Each has its own interesting aspects from the painted frescos inside the Holy Mary Perivlepta Church to the lengthy history of the Church of St Sophia. This means that if you’d like to visit and explore some medieval churches, you have plenty to choose from. Please note that each church has an entry fee (generally 100 denar), so if money is tight choose wisely.
Arguably the most popular and scenic is the Church of St John the Theologian at Kaneo. This icon of Ohrid sits on the very point of the headland, concealed by the forests below Samuel’s Fortress. Following paths either coming down from the fortress or that run along the coast, you will arrive at this wonderfully picturesque church.
The cliff top church is quite small in comparison to some of Ohrid’s other churches, but its view definitely trumps all others. The best spot to view the church at Kaneo is from the small lookout point directly above the church, allowing you to capture the classic shot of the church over the lake.
5. Sunbathe at the Beach and Swim
The most obvious of activities for tourists in Ohrid is of course swimming in the lake and basking by the shore. As such, there are a number of spots close to the city centre where visitors can do so. Between the Port of Ohrid and Kaneo Church are a number of small public stone beaches.
If you’re visiting in summer, it should come as no surprise that the city beaches will be quite busy. At the beaches closer to Kaneo, there are also some floating pontoons for sunbathing and swimming that are a little quieter. Generally, the further you get from the city centre the quieter things will be.
Many hotels, such as Villa Milka where I stayed, also have pools if the lake is too far. For another level of relaxation, there are a number of resorts found on the shores of the lake. As you head south down the shore from Ohrid, there are plenty of more self-contained resorts to choose from. While many are on the outskirts of Ohrid, there are more further south in small villages like Peštani and Lagadin.
6. Dine by the Waterfront
With so much waterfront at its disposal, it only makes sense that there are plenty of places to eat at by the water. That’s not to say there aren’t decent restaurants away from the shoreline like Restaurant Belvedere, but it’s nice to sit by the shore at least once.
A really comfortable dining option that I tried for dinner was the Restaurant Kaj Kanevche right near the Church at Kaneo. Although the wind had really picked up and was whipping the waves in, it was nice sitting over the water and being able to look out across the lake. The restaurant had a homely atmosphere and personable staff. While a little out of the way, it was worth the walk. I also tried the Kaneo Beach Bar and Restaurant for lunch one day with a really nice ice coffee and sandwich.
7. Visit Struga
For those looking to get away from the tourists, the nearby city of Struga offers a look at the more ordinary side of Macedonian life. Sitting on the northern end of Lake Ohrid and just 15km away, Struga seems to have been far less affected by increased tourism to the region. This is likely because the city lacks the landmarks and architecture of neighbouring Ohrid. Unlike Ohrid however, it does have two long stretches of beachfront right near the centre of the city. Also quite interesting are the reeds and the falls that lie just off the shore.
The city is centred around the Black Drin River which flows out of Lake Ohrid, with pleasant boulevards lining either bank. Here you can find plenty of cafes and bars where many locals spend time catching up. Following the river, you soon reach the centre of the city where there are several monuments. Crossing the river away from the monument, you will soon reach the city’s bazaar and market which will give you a little insight into the way of things here.
To get to Struga from Ohrid, you can take a bus from the city centre for 40 denar but it’s also possible to take a share taxi for roughly 100 denar. Waiting at a bus stop is likely where you’ll find a share taxi looking for more people going to Struga. While it is more expensive, it’s a far quicker alternative and ultimately still a cheap ride.
8. Enjoy St Naum and Ljubaništa
By far the most popular day trip for visitors to Ohrid is the boat ride down to the Monastery of St Naum (600 denar return). Wedged right against the border with Albania, this little spot is surprisingly laden with things to do. This may be surprising when you consider that there isn’t even so much as a village here.
The main building is indeed the monastery, which also doubles as a quite upmarket hotel. The monastery itself is quite scenic as it overlooks the lake, with a beautiful old church and manicured gardens. It won’t take long to visit the monastery, which leaves you free to do a variety of other things before heading back on the boat in the afternoon.
St Naum happens to have one of the most popular beaches on Lake Ohrid, with many people coming there simply for the beach. Like up at Ohrid, this is a public beach so there aren’t reserved areas or anything like that. Just off the beach are a series of restaurants ready to service tourists’ needs. Expect generally higher prices than you would find in Ohrid due to St Naum’s isolation.
There is also the beach at Ljubaništa, said to be the best on the lake, several kilometres up the shore. To get there, it’ll take you 30 to 40 minutes to walk or you can hire a taxi. The beach is at the campground, a popular spot with Macedonians.
For more sightseeing while at St Naum, consider visiting the local springs – the source of Lake Ohrid. You have the options of walking through the bush up and seeing them or taking the far more leisurely boat ride. Either way, you’re bound to see some beautiful nature and gain some appreciation for how something so small can create such a grand lake.
9. Watch the Sunset from the Port
In my opinion, the best place to watch the sunset from is by the pier on Ohrid’s waterfront. It is from here that you can see the sky change colour over Ohrid’s old town and Samuel’s Fortress. Every night I was there, the sky simply glowed with some remarkable colours. What more can you ask for?
Have you visited Lake Ohrid before? If not, which of these would you most like to do at Lake Ohrid? Please share in the comments below.
This article is now available as a mobile app. Go to GPSmyCity to download the app for GPS-assisted travel directions to the attractions featured in this article.