With neighbors like always-popular Greece and even coastal Albania, Macedonia might not be on your radar for countries to visit in Europe. But packed into an area just bigger than the size of Vermont are lush mountains rising into the clouds, a vast network of trails to explore them by, and clear mountain lakes hiding remnants of past civilizations in their depths. This nation, once part of the former Yugoslavia, boasts some of the most underrated terrain for adrenaline junkies and adventurers. Here are eight such experiences in the “Pearl of the Balkans.”
1. Scale Mt. Vodno and hike into Matka Canyon.
After arriving in Skopje, the nation’s capital, you’ll find the mountain of Vodno just 15 minutes away. Follow well-marked trails beneath the cover of trees, over ridges, and past the small houses and monasteries that dot its slopes. Your goal is the peak at Krstovar, where the Millenium Cross, one of the largest Christian crosses in the world, is located. From there, you can snap Insta-worthy panoramic shots of the city and surrounding areas before descending into Matka Canyon. Take in the historical mysteries at a number of medieval monasteries, including the St. Nikola Monastery that was built sometime before the 17th century.
From there, you can cross the gorge by bridge or by boat depending on the path you choose. Matka Lake, the country’s oldest artificial lake, awaits hikers at the bottom of the canyon. Continue exploring the 5,000-hectare canyon, go rock climbing, or check out other outdoor activities on the lake itself.
2. Rage the rapids or lounge and sail.
Once you’ve made it down to Matka Lake, grab a paddle and brave the rapids on a whitewater kayaking or rafting trip. You can also paddle around the calmer areas of the gorge and take in the towering cliff sides surrounding you. For serious adrenaline junkies looking to venture outside of Matka Canyon, the Vardar River offers whitewater rafting and kayaking tours, too.
The country’s popular Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa sit side by side along the borders shared with Albania and Greece, and are perfect locations for water sports to visit on your way into one of those countries. Here, you’ll also have the chance to sail and relax as you stare in awe at the lush mountain scenery and discover more monasteries along the shores.
3. Get a bird’s-eye view of Macedonia.
If you only paddle your way around Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa, you’re missing out on seeing the natural beauty of Macedonia from a totally different perspective. Choose the lake you want to soar over in a guided paragliding experience and launch yourself from the 2,254-meter high mountain of Galičica, situated conveniently between both bodies of water. Up to 40 minutes in the air gives thrill-seekers plenty of time to snap stunning photos of the lake and surrounding villages, forests, and mountains. With good weather conditions, you’ll even get the chance to grab the reins and guide your glider for the ultimate rush.
4. Scuba dive at the Bay of Bones UNESCO World Heritage Site.
This is not a typo: you can get your scuba certification with Amfora Dive Center in the landlocked Republic of Macedonia. The result is an epic experience, but not for the reason you’d expect. While the Bay of Bones does host fish and plant life (look for the Ohrid sponge), it’s the rich cultural history hidden beneath its depths that draw outdoor adventurers to its shores.
Finding your way beneath a reconstruction of the 8,500-square-meter, pile-dwelling settlement that once existed during the Bronze and Iron Ages, you’ll uncover the secrets of Plocha Michov Grad. Stone and ceramic artifacts and animal bones litter the muddy lake floor near the wooden piles, giving divers a unique glimpse at remnants of a prehistoric past. The museum above displays more of the artifacts and educates visitors on the people who called Lake Ohrid home.
5. Ride horses like the locals.
Get out of the clamor of the city and slip into the mountains on horseback. Riding horses is a popular outdoor activity for tourists because it lets you reach the more mountainous and remote corners of Macedonia and Mavrovo National Park, all the while experiencing the culture of the people who call these hills home. Sleep in old villages or with the sky and stars as your ceiling in the warm months of summer. Meet locals and learn about their cooking and farming techniques as you sample meals born of ancient recipes. This experience reinforces the connection between animals and people as well as people and nature, far from the distractions of modern life.
6. Carve up the slopes across Macedonia in the winter.
In winter, snow covers Macedonia’s mountains, and the shredding commences. There are a number of ski resorts located around the country with tracks to challenge those who are beginners up to alpine competitors. Visitors can enjoy Popova Sapka in the Šar Mountains above historic Tetovo, a city with ancient roots revealed in beautiful mosques, monasteries, and fortresses. Another popular resort is Kruševo, the highest town in Macedonia at over 1,350 meters. In the winter, locals hang yambolias (handwoven shaggy blankets) from their balconies as snow settles peacefully on the old-fashioned houses.
7. Tackle the mountainous terrain by bike.
Macedonia’s thousands of kilometers of trails serve as your mountain biking playground. Bikers rate many of these trails, like the Skopje-Veles route, as difficult or expert-only tracks, so ride at your own risk. But the variety of landscapes allows for easier rides as well, and a trip with a tour group can help with transfers and add cultural experiences like food and wine tasting to the ride.
For a circuit of one of the best mountain regions in Macedonia, cycle off-road in the Šar Mountains, through Mavrovo National Park, and around the lakes and mountains of Galičica National Park with a tour of the Macedonian high trails. They’ll even coordinate wine tasting in the Demir Kapija region, as well as sightseeing at the UNESCO Heritage Site of Ohrid.
8. Toast to a great trip at Izlet in Skopje.
If you’re flying to your next destination out of Skopje, grab a beer or a coffee and kick it at Izlet. This shady, green oasis of calm sits off a quiet street near the center of the city. It’s the perfect place to gather with friends and recount your tales of bravado (or your wipeouts!) as your Macedonian adventure comes to a close.