Imagine roads with almost no cars, going through vast mountain landscapes and along pristine lakes. Add ancient cultural sites and mystical orthodox churches with byzantine frescoes. Combine it with 300 sunny days in a year, great food and outstanding hospitality. North Macedonia, Balkans hidden gem, is a perfect destination for your cycling holidays. Here are some practical tips to prepare for your trip.
How to get there?
From many European cities (e.g. London, Rome, Brussels, Copenhagen, Paris, Barcelona and multiple cities in Germany), there are direct flights from Skopje. A lot of them are operated by Wizzair, which means you should easily find something super cheap. Taking a bike on a plane with WizzAir costs 42 euros one way (the bike needs to be packed in a bike bag or a cardboard box, pedals and wheels have to be demounted, and tires deflated).
If packing the plane in a box, transporting it to the airport and assembling it after arrival is too much hassle for you, you can simply rent it in Skopje. It is quite affordable. I decided to rent a bike in Skopje from bicycle.mk. For a lovely Bianchi 29” mountain bike delivered at the doorstep of my hostel, I paid 15 euros/day. I also received a helmet and necessary tools (multitool, spare tube, patches, tire levers, pump).
The cycling enthusiasts from bicycle.mk can also organise the whole trip for you. If you prefer to go light, without any baggage and enjoy the steep, challenging mountains, go for a supported tour with them.
North Macedonia is very mountainous, 80 % of the country is mountains and hills. On my 534-kilometre long route, I climbed over 6700 elevation meters (while sticking mostly to main roads and avoiding crazy mountain biking). So better make sure that you are in shape before coming here.
Wild camping in Macedonia is simple, pleasant and – although not officially legal – widely accepted by the locals and authorities. However, if you plan to camp by one of many lakes on weekends, you might have to share it with the locals hanging out by the water. Also, there is often a lot of trash lying around, so you sometimes need to clean up a bit. As a solo travelling woman, I felt quite safe camping in Macedonia.
Up in the mountains, there are brown bears, so if you’re planning to camp there, never keep your food in the tent, and take the necessary precautions (you can read some tips here). There is also a lot of stray cats and dogs everywhere, but most of them are not dangerous.
You don’t fancy carrying all the camping gear with you? No problem! There are a lot of guest houses for a fair price, so you can plan your trip without taking any camping gear with you. A few recommendations from me:
- Prilep – Guest house antika, for 8 euro (1 person in double room in one of the oldest houses in town. The owner (whose family was in possession of the house for four generations) is very engaged and helpful and always ready to give you advice.
- The Guest Mansion by the Bigorski Monastery in Rostusa. 10 euro for a comfortable bed in a recently renovated dorm with nice wooden furniture. And the view from the window is worth millions!
Pro tip: if you stay there, make sure to visit the restaurant on the bottom of the road to the monastery: Kuka na Mijacite – excellent traditional Macedonian food.
Along the route, you will usually find springs and taps with potable water. However, the summers in Macedonia are pretty hot, so it is always good to have some extra supplies.
Roads and traffic
My favourite thing about North Macedonia is that nearly every big road or highway has a parallel smaller and older road which is almost empty. The asphalt is usually a bit worn out but still decent. It was a little busier around Skopje and Struga and on the road from Tetovo to Skopje. The latter is also not the most scenic route – very industrial, with quite polluted air.
During my trip, I didn’t have any dangerous situations. The drivers were usually respectful, although I felt under pressure on the stretch from Tetovo to Skopje, where trucks were honking at me and passing by a bit too close.
- Your bike should be equipped with front white light + reflector and rear red light + reflector, brakes on both wheels, and a bell.
- Bicycle lanes? You can find them in biger cities only (Skopje, Ohrid, Prilep), and if they are present, you must use them.
- Wearing a helmet is not compulsory (but please do, better safe than sorry).
Currency: Macedonian Denar (MKD)
100 MKD =1,62 EUR / 1,88 USD
Currency exchange is possible in all major cities and bigger towns.
ATMs are fairly easy to find. I used Revolut, which offers a good exchange rate and card payments for free (you can order it via this link if you don’t have one yet). You can withdraw money from most ATMs without fees and currency conversion costs (except for weekends, when Revolut charges 1 % of every transaction to cover the eventual risks of market moves). Careful: ATMs at the airport might charge you a commission.
Internet and local SIM card
I was using Telekom prepaid. For 5GB valid for 30 days, I paid 499 MKD. The coverage was excellent, and there were only 1 or 2 short stretches in the mountains where I had no reception. I bought it here (you need to bring your ID with you to register the SIM card):
Probably the most visited place in North Macedonia (but don’t worry – still not as crowded as Venice or Dubrovnik). Known for rich culture and history and the amazing Lake Ohrid – probably the oldest Lake in Europe. Things to do in Ohrid:
- Watch the sunset at Saint Kaleo church
- Take a swim in the lake. Follow the path on the cliffs up north to find less crowded beaches (by the hotel Partizan it should be quite empty)
- Visit the ancient basilica and beautiful St. Panteleimon church (and as many other churches as you manage – Ohrid is known as Jerusalem of the Balkans, and each church has some hidden gems like old frescos or icons)
- See how paper is made in the National Workshop of Traditional Paper
A little younger than Ohrid, but no less beautiful. A bit less popular and with outstanding biodiversity. If you’re lucky, you can spot pelicans. Dreaming of camping on an island? Take a boat from Stenje to Golem Grad. It is also called Snake Island, so beware of snakes!
The highest road pass in Macedonia is 1600 meters high. It crosses Galicica – a beautiful mountain range and national park between the two lakes mentioned above. Cycling the road through the mountains is an experience by itself, but if you decide to get off your bike for a while, you can also climb the Magaro peak (2254 m). If you need an adrenaline rush, Galicica is also known for excellent conditions for paragliding.
Mavrovo National Park
With a constantly developing network of MTB trails, the oldest national park of North Macedonia is a perfect destination for a cycling adventure. Most tourists visit Mavrovo Lake with the sunken St. Nicholas church (it is pretty unsunken in late summer/autumn, though). It is also worth doing a hike to Duf Waterfalls. For a cultural experience, step by the St. Jovan Bigorski Monastery (if you visit on a Sunday morning, you will have a chance to listen to hypnotising byzantine chants of the monks). You should also come by Galicnik – a remote village with only 3 all-year residents. Every year in mid-July, it comes back to life thanks to a wedding festival. If you want to experience Macedonian folklore and tradition at its finest, visit Galicnik on Saint Peter’s day (12th of July).
If you’d like to read more about bicycle touring in North Macedonia, check out my story here.