Despite the fact that there’s a lot of controversy about the new structures in Skopje, some of the best things to do there are actually outside the city. Luckily, not too far.
Lake Matka Canyon
Perhaps the most recommended, most visited place outside of Skopje is the canyon on Lake Matka. The canyon is created by the flow of water from Treska River leading into Lake Matka, where there is a damn in place. There are a whole day’s worth of things to do at Matka Canyon, because the area has several monasteries and caves that you can visit. Near the base of the canyon, before you pass the dam (which by the way, you are not allowed to take pictures of), you’ll find kayaking tracks where people come to enjoy a little whitewater kayaking.
Once you’re within the area of Lake Matka, you can take a boat on the lake between both sides of the canyon to visit some of the major attractions like Vrelo Cave, Matka Monastery, and St. Andrew’s Monastery. You can also simply walk along the edge of the canyon on a rocky walkway that takes you deeper into the canyon on foot. There’s also a Canyon Matka Restaurant that sits on the water, where you can take in the view and enjoy some really overpriced food (for Macedonia standards).
For the sake of convenience, we visited Matka Canyon on one of the 4-hour Skopje Daily Tours, which included other stops outside of city center. But you can also get there by taking Bus 60 from the Central Bus Station. Buses go and return almost every 2 hours. You can also take a relatively cheap taxi (10-15 euro) but then you have to find one to return. It’s helpful to note, that if you do visit on the tour, you won’t have time to take a boat very far along the river. So if exploring the caves or seeing the monasteries is high on your list of activities to do there, you should go on your own.
Mount Vodno and Millennium Cross
One of the city’s most popular “green” spaces is Mount Vodno, which is less than 30 minutes from city center by car. There’s a shaded hiking trail that goes up from the base of the mountain, which is popular with locals seeking a little bit of the outdoors and to escape Skopje’s hazy air. You can technically also hike about 10 km from here to Lake Matka, but I’m not about that life.
From about halfway up the mountain, you can take a 6-person enclosed lift up to the top of Mount Vodno, where you’ll find the Millennium Cross. The cross, which lights up at night, so you can see it from city center, was constructed to commemorate 2000 years of Christianity in Macedonia. I was not terribly impressed by it, though I did love the views from Vodno, even on a cloudy, overcast day. There are picnic tables and a cafe, where you can relax and stay for a bit. Locals were running and walking their dogs up here as well.
One of the other spots that our tour stopped at briefly, because it’s on Mount Vodno is the Macedonian Village. This is rated highly online as something to do around Skopje, which is probably true if you’re staying there. Because the Macedonian Village is a complex of hotels and restaurants built in a traditional Macedonian style. What this means is that the top floors of a house are wider than the ground floor, which was done to save owners on property taxes. If you want to see Macedonian architecture, go to Ohrid and skip this.
If it’s already part of your tour, it definitely doesn’t take much time and you also stop at the Church of St. Panteleimon, which is right next to the Macedonian Village. It’s nice, but not terribly necessary if you’ve already seen hundreds of churches in the same style.
If you’re pressed for time, I would do the half-day tour, because it gives you all the highlights and it’s only 25 Euro, which is more than fair for all the transportation from one site to the next. But if you can, I would recommend doing Canyon Matka and Mount Vodno on your own so you have more freedom and time.