The phrase “city of contrasts” often gets thrown around when it comes to travel-related articles. In fact, so much that it has entirely lost its meaning. I’m pretty sure that if you Google any city’s name and enter the phrase “city of contrasts”, there will be at least one article claiming that this particular city is a city of contrasts. You probably noticed that I also used this same phrase in my title and you must be wondering why did I start this article by criticizing the same phrase which I used in the headline of this article. The truth is, there really isn’t a better term to describe Skopje and I certainly wouldn’t like you to think that this is another generic article that revolves around another overused travel cliché.
One of the least famous capitals in the world
Skopje is probably one of the least famous capitals in the world but a city with a rich history and a beating pulse. It’s a city that was a part of five different empires. It’s a city that was ruined by severe earthquakes three times and was burned to the ground in the 1600s but still kept its identity. Skopje survived Alexander the Great’s Empire, the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire… It also survived five centuries of Ottoman Rule, socialistic Yugoslavia, the horrible earthquakes of 518, 1555, 1963, and being burned to the ground in 1689 only to lose its identity to the hands of its own Macedonian government…
Today, Skopje looks like a city with an identity crisis. The city center looks more like Disneyland than a capital of a Balkan country. The worse part is most of the monuments around the city square aren’t even related to Macedonian architecture or history. These monuments were built as a part of the previous Government’s most controversial project: Skopje 2014. This was a project that used millions of euros of taxpayers’ money to basically build a giant theme park.
The spending was focused solely in the central area, making this part of the city even more different than the rest of Skopje. However, if you walk just 300 meters down the square, away from all these glamorous monuments that cost the Government budget hundreds of millions of euros, you will be confronted by poverty and homeless people that don’t own anything. That’s not an exaggeration. Nonetheless, these are not the contrasts that I will write about in this article…
The divide between the east and the west
You would be even more surprised if you only take a walk from the main City Square, across the oldest bridge in the city, Stone Bridge, and get to the Old Bazaar. The first time I did this, it was shocking. After crossing the bridge, I went from feeling like I was in Paris (Skopje also has its own Arc de Triomphe, by the way) to feeling like I was somewhere in the Middle East. Once you cross that bridge, you will notice the Old Bazar. This is one of the most beautiful and authentic parts of the city but also a one that shows the obvious divide between the two largest ethnic groups in Macedonia. Today, the city looks more than ever, like divided between the Christian (Macedonian) part and the Muslim (Albanian) part. This makes it one of the most unique capitals in the world.
Read more about traveling to Albania.
Тhe new (partially), westernized part is where you will find the most famous bars, nightclubs, modern restaurants, and churches. Here, you can feel the former socialist, laid-back atmosphere, characteristic for most former socialist capitals. Interestingly, all cafes and restaurants surrounding the square are full of people all the time, including typical working hours. Only 200 meters east, the laidback atmosphere is still present but the picture is completely different. This is where you can feel the Ottoman character of the city. Here you will find the best kebab in the city, colorful streets, Islamic architecture, women wearing hijabs, mosques, and people drinking Turkish tea instead of coffee.
Why Skopje is the ultimate city of contrasts?
While most “city of contrasts” are called so only because they are a home to both rich and poor people, and have both, modern skyscrapers, and old historic buildings, Skopje is a city that can make you feel like you’re in two completely different parts of the world, without ever leaving the city. If that’s not enough, you can also take a short bus ride to Shuto Orizari in the city outskirts. In Shutka, you will find the world’s largest concentrated Romani population. If the city center could make you feel like you’re visiting Paris and the Old Bazaar like you’re somewhere in the Middle East, Shutka will probably make you feel like you’re visiting the slums of Mumbai. As you can see, there are a lot of interesting things to do in Skopje.
If you’re traveling around this region, also check my guide about traveling in Serbia.
The largest Romani settlement in the world
Romani people are a once nomadic group, believed to have arrived from India hundreds of years ago and no they’re not from Romania! Today, in Europe there are more than 12 million Romani. This makes them one of the largest minorities on the old continent. In many countries, Romani people are oppressed and discriminated, especially in Eastern Europe. However, in Shutka, they even have their autonomy. This is the only Roma-run municipality in the world and one of the rare ones where Romani are politically organized. However, not everything is ideal in Shutka and it’s still one of the poorest municipalities in the country. In fact, it’s probably the only place in Macedonia where you can see a brand new Audi A8 followed by carts pulled by elaborately dressed horses.
Shutka is also a home to one of the cheapest markets in the city. Here you can find literally anything for half the price you normally would. In fact, this market is the only mean of existence for most of the people that live here. Despite everything, Shutka still faces a lot of challenges and just adds another layer of contrast to Macedonia’s unusual capital.
Related: everything you need to know before traveling to Bulgaria.
A few words for the end
Finally, another very unique thing about Skopje is its architecture. Not the new, baroque architecture at the city square but the old socialist buildings. If you explore Skopje, you will see that it has a very different architecture than all the other Yugoslavian capitals. This is mainly because of the severe earthquake of 1963 that completely changed the look of the city. After the earthquake, the city hired Kenzo Tange, a Japanese architect with very unique ideas, to plan the rebuilding. His futuristic style combined with the already existing socialist, brutal architecture gave the city a completely new look. This created Skopje’s own futuristic urbanism, still noticeable in parts of the city.