What to do in Ohrid: Macedonia’s Hidden Gem
Have you ever stumbled upon an unheard of destination that blows your mind? That’s how Ohrid was for me. Less than 2 weeks prior to arriving in Ohrid, I had never heard of this lakeside beauty. We were doing a work exchange program in Kosovo where our host was telling us it was his favourite holiday destination. My curiosity was spiked and I had to find out more – not long after we were on our way. This what to do in Ohrid guide includes things to do, where to eat and information about accommodation and getting to Ohrid.
Surrounded by nearby mountains and national parks, Ohrid itself gives off an atmosphere of peace, history and beauty. The Medieval old town is filled with mosques, churches and unique architecture. Known to locals as Jerusalem of the Balkans, Ohrid was once home to 365 churches. One for every day of the year! There are 54,000 permanent residents and is also a UNESCO World Heritage site for its cultural and natural sites. Come and discover this hidden gem and find out why it made my list of top destinations for 2019.
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Where is Ohrid & How to get to Ohrid
Ohrid is a town located in the south of North Macedonia and on the eastern shores of the lake which goes by the same name – Lake Ohrid. The lake is divided by the border of Albania and North Macedonia making it an easy destination to reach from either country. There are daily buses running from many locations, however, as a traveller, the easiest places to reach Ohrid from are Skopje and Tirana. There is a small international airport nearby and the Greek border is 1 hour to the south.
Skopje to Ohrid
Getting to Ohrid from Skopje is extremely easy and is the same way we reached the town. Make sure to buy tickets early in the summer months as the small minivans fill up quickly. Unless you have a car you will need to travel between Skopje and Ohrid by bus as this is the only transport means.
From the central bus station in Skopje, there are three bus companies that run the daily route. Buses leave almost hourly between 6 am and 7:30 pm and take 3.5 hours. Take a look at this website for up to date schedule information. A one-way bus ticket ranges from 450 to 520 Denar ($8-9.50 USD). The trip goes quickly and uneventfully through small villages and the Mavrovo Nationa Park.
We bought our tickets at the bus station although you can also compare prices and buy online at Balkan Viator.
Tirana to Ohrid
If you’ve searched for how to get from Tirana to Ohrid you’ll see there is a lack of bus departures online. We departed Ohrid for Tirana and found this to be the case in this direction also. There are more local buses which run this route that aren’t online and it’s best to ask at the bus stations. Although the direct distance between the 2 cities are quite close, buses will head visa Durres which is on the Albanian coastline
If you cannot find a direct bus to take you to Ohrid, take a bus to the nearby Struga and then a local bus to Ohrid. The best way to buy tickets from Tirana to Ohrid is from the bus station directly. At the Tirana Central Bus Station, find the office which sells tickets to Macedonia and buy your tickets there. You can also take a look at Get By Bus for routes during summer.
Best things to do in Ohrid, North Macedonia
Wander the beautiful cobblestoned streets
The streets in Ohrid are beautiful. We visited Ohrid during the springtime which made it even more picturesque. You’ll follow narrow cobblestoned laneways past stone walls overflowing with bushes of bougainvillaeas and roses. Interspersed with these are large pine trees where you’ll get to smell that perfect scent.
Due to the topography, the streets have steep stone stairwells carved out next to them offering glimpses at the lake. The buildings beyond have a unique architecture. Some are typical stone homes while others have a very oriental feel about them. You will find buildings dating back to the 7th Century and also Byzantine style structures.
Enjoy a touch of luxury
Well, budget travellers, this is your time to splurge a little and get a lot! Ohrid is a cheap destination. While walking around you’re fooled into thinking you’re in an expensive destination. You can enjoy lakefront dining, incredible accommodation with front-facing views of the lake and other treats typically saved for luxury travellers. Except you get them for a fraction of the price that you’d be paying even for budget travel in a major European city.
We chose not to splurge on accommodation, but what we got for less than we would usually pay gave us a huge balcony with unobstructed views of the lake just 2 streets from the water’s edge. If you do choose to splurge a little here, you can find 4 and 5-star accommodation for under $100/night for double occupancy.
The same goes for restaurants. Normally places we would avoid due to looking (and being expensive) we happily patronised. Restaurant Kaneo has a large balcony extended over the lake and is a great place for you to eat if you have been travelling on a budget for a while and want somewhere a little fancy. Everything from the service to the atmosphere and the food was perfect and meals come in at under $10.
Chill out on Potpesh Beach
Also called Potpes, I personally found this to be one of the cutest little beaches. Although not a sandy beach, the pebbles are soft enough to not hurt your feet. You will need to pay for a sunlounger to stay here for the day but this is only a couple of dollars. Get here by mid-morning to secure a spot with an umbrella otherwise it can get very hot in the sun. The water is very fresh and perfect for cooling off.
The beach is between the Old Town and the St. John Kaneo monastery. From the town centre, you are required to follow a charming old wooden boardwalk over the lake to reach it. This boardwalk sits out from a cliff and is extremely insta-worthy. Potpesh has a connected beach bar and restaurant with the same name offering some much-needed shade and meals throughout the day.
If you prefer fewer crowds continue north along the lakefront to a few of the lesser-visited beach areas. The first beach around the bend is Beach Labino and if you continue even further you will reach the public city beach.
Visit the churches
Luckily for you, there are no longer 365 churches around Ohrid. A few of the must-visit ones are the13th-century Saint Jovan Kaneo Monastery. This monastery is the perfect place to go for sunset and take a few photos as the sun is going down over the lake.
Another church to visit is St. Clement’s. From behind St. John Kaneo there trails in the forest will take you up to St. Clements. For a small entrance fee, you can go inside the grounds, but I personally believed the exterior to be the most beautiful.
I didn’t visit the St. Naum Monastery, but this popular attraction is at the southernmost point of the lake. Many tourists will head down there by boat on a day trip and visit the Monastery and the nearby natural springs. Find out more about the St Naum day trip. You can catch a water taxi or jump on the ferry leaving from the Ohrid marina. A return trip costs 10 Euros and takes 2 hours each direction.
Finally, the Orthodox Church of Saint Sophia is the oldest home to art from the middle ages and is surrounded by a square of restaurants. If you join one of the free tours, you will likely be lead past here and taught more about its history.
Take a free walking tour in Ohrid
There are no free guided walking tours in Ohrid, however, the next best thing is to do a self-guided audio tour. For some of you, this may even be better, you can do the tour at your own pace, stop and take as many breaks as possible. Recently, I have really been getting into audio tours and did an amazing guided drive through Durmitor National Park in Montenegro.
GPS My City offers 4 different tours of Ohrid. All you need to do is download the app and then download the desired tour to your phone. This works offline and you have access to the map and each of the tour stops and information. I would recommend taking the Ohrid introduction walk as it gives you a general overview of the city’s history and main attractions. The estimated time to complete is 3 hours.
Some of the Ohrid attractions you will stop at
- Old Bazaar
- Church of Saint Sophia
- Lower and upper gates
- The ancient theatre of Ohrid
- The Robevi House
If you have particular interests, there is a tour which visits just the places of worship and a museum and art gallery walk. The final tour is the Ohrid daily life tour and will take you through the main town centre. Or if you prefer a guided tour, take a look at this half-day guided tour of Ohrid.
Walk along the lake
I hope by now you have come to realise that the pace in Ohrid is going to be slow. While there are a few tours you can join and destinations around the lake, you don’t come to Ohrid for an action-packed vacation.
After being on the road for over 6 months, Ohrid came at the perfect time for us to take some much-needed downtime. Something I enjoyed doing was being able to wake up and go for a morning walk along the waterfront.
People in Ohrid don’t rise early, so you will have the calm untouched waters and peaceful surrounds all to yourself. Starting at the lower gate – a remaining medieval entrance point, the walk is 1.3 km to Dutch Park.
Enjoy scenic dining options
As I already mentioned, Ohrid is a great place to enjoy some finer dining options without the price tags. Another plus is that in the Ohrid Old Town the restaurants and cafes along the main strip all extend over the lake. The food is good and the views are out of this world. Enjoy lazy lunches and long dinners with a few drinks while sitting on the decks overlooking the water.
The service in these restaurants (or anywhere in the Balkans) definitely isn’t the fastest. Just try to remember you aren’t in a hurry and will have more time for relaxing. Are you travelling alone? Perhaps take a book also.
Make sure you try the local fish. You can usually get brown trout, plasica and belvica. These fish species are endemic to Lake Ohrid – which makes them something you won’t try fresh anywhere else in the world!
Visit the Bay of Bones museum
Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to visit the Bay of Bones museum either. It is located between Ohrid and the St Naum Monastery, which makes it a perfect combined day trip to visit the two.
The museum is a reconstruction of a prehistoric settlement next to an archaeological site. The settlement has been accurately erected over the lake and gives visitors a look into life between 1200 and 700 BC.
As I didn’t visit myself, I can’t give you much more information than that. Take a look at the Discovering Macedonia website to find out more information and see pictures of the unique settlement.
Find the best views in Ohrid
For unobstructed lake views and a piece of history, climb through the Old Town until you reach the 10th Century Tsar Samuil’s (Samuel’s) Fortress. The entry fee to the fortress is 60 Denar (~1 USD) and while the interior isn’t all that exciting, what you are really paying for is the view. You are able to walk around the entire perimeter of the fortress walls and on a clear day, we were told you can see all the way to the other side of the lake. From the eastern side walls, you can see out over the old town of Ohrid.
Go kayaking on the lake
What better way to change your vantage point of the lake than to be on it. I don’t know what it is but for me, doing anything on the water instantly has a calming effect. Whether I am paddleboarding, kayaking or boating I love getting out on the water. I did search for paddleboard hire in Ohrid and was unable to find one.
Hire kayaks from My Way for 20 Euros for the day for a single or 30 Euros for a double. You may be able to negotiate half-day rates as you probably won’t be on the water that long.
My Way also offers full-day kayak tours which are perfect for beginners or those wishing to explore more of Ohrid on the water.
See the Old Bazaar come to life in the evening
The Old Bazaar meanders from the waterfront up to the main road leading into Ohrid. The entire street is lined with cafes, clothing stores, souvenir shops and oh so yummy ice cream. The ice cream shops have so many flavours and the scoop size is generous. So grab an ice cream to help keep cool while wandering down the Old Bazaar.
During the evening this street comes to life and even though Ohrid felt fairly quiet when we visited, nighttime here made me believe differently.
On this walking street, you will find shops selling the famous Ohrid pearls. The pearls are made from the scales of the plasica fish scales and have been made by local families since the early 1900s. Visit the Talev family workshop to gain a real insight into this industry.
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Where to stay in Ohrid
We stayed at Accommodation J&T. We had a lovely view of the lake and while the room was clean and spacious with a great balcony the entry area was very messy and had furniture stacked against the walls. The building had a locked gate as well as a locked entry so it was very secure. For under $70 for 3 nights though it was hard to complain.
I would recommend you staying anywhere in the Old Town. This ensures you are within walking distance to the main sites and restaurants in Ohrid and also is the most beautiful area.