NORTH MACEDONIA TO ATHENS

MAY 2019

One of the things I love most in life is adventure, and as I scoured Skyscanner for yet another cheap flight I stumbled across a £22 one way trip to Ohrid, North Macedonia. I'm not going to lie I hadn't really heard a lot about Ohrid nor would I have been able to locate it on a map, however, I was curious. After a quick 20 minutes of googling and a glance over some blogs, I realised I had to go. It seemed like one of those countries that had been relatively untouched by tourists, which excited me. As my 21st approached I thought it would be best to fly a little earlier, then work my way down into Greece where I would finally end up in Athens for a big party on my actual birthday. 

The Baltic landscape of North Macedonia made it seem like a dream driving through deep gorges and mountains, while Northern Greece hosted very dry, flat land. Seeing as the two countries neighbour it is very easy to travel between them. This trip was unique compared to a lot of others I had previously experienced. Ohrid, while popular for Macedonians, isn't widely popular for most young backpackers. While there were a few long term travellers around, it didn't scream 'tourist central' which was quite refreshing. The locals were friendly and everything was cheap. As I travelled down towards Athens everything started to become more and more expensive (for Eastern European standards) and I noticed more flocks of tourists turning up. I really loved this experience and was so glad to have found such a fun time out of an unsuspecting country.

HOW TO GET TO OHRID

My flight was with Wizzair and cost me £22 plus £12 for priority boarding and an extra carry on bag, whereas the flight home from Athens was a lot more expensive and ended up costing me €60 one way including baggage. The air route from Luton to Ohrid doesn't run very frequently, only 2-3 times a week, so the price definitely depends on the time of year you visit and how much you'll be spending on the flight. After a quick google I see that Wizzair also has routes to Ohrid from Milan, Vienna, Malmö and a few others!

3 DESTINATIONS

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8 DAYS

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OHRID (3 NIGHTS)

The jewel of North Macedonia, Ohrid is home to the oldest and deepest lake in Europe. With its snow capped mountains surrounding, dozens of medieval churches and warm sunny days, this is the perfect getaway for a few days.

THESSALONIKI (1-2 NIGHTS)

Greece's second largest city, Thessaloniki is either a quick stop off or a haven for Roman Empire history buffs​. Filled with endless amounts of baklava and ruins, your time will be spent wandering and eating your way through the city.

ATHENS (3 NIGHTS)

One of the world's oldest cities and the heart of the Ancient Greek Empire. The city invites your mind to wander through history, envisioning life centuries ago and you'll be transfixed by the workmanship of the ruins. 

After a 3am wake up and an hour and a half drive to London Luton I hopped on my Wizzair flight and fell straight asleep before waking up three hours later flying over Ohrid. Located in North Macedonia's southwest, it is known for its medieval old town, monasteries, ruins, and most of all, Europe's deepest and largest lake. I landed by midday and was eager to get straight into it all, as I hadn't seen a lot of people visit this part of the world. 

CURRENCY

Macedonian Denar

DAILY BUDGET

It was HARD to spend money in North Macedonia. Everything was super affordable and it truly felt like I was in the heart of Eastern Europe. Including 3 nights accomodation, taxis, food, attractions, souvenirs and a day trip to St Naum I spent a total of £70 (average £24 a day), which is NOTHING! It was so cheap and you could definitely do it for cheaper if you chose not to eat out and cook for yourself instead! 

HOW TO GET FROM THE AIRPORT

Getting from the airport into the city is very straight forward, and don't worry if you don't have any cash because there is a currency exchange after you get through baggage claim (although you will need some cash on you because they don't accept card). The most straight forward way to get into the city is by taxi which you can find right outside the airport. I ended up meeting two English boys from my flight in the line for immigration and we split the taxi, which cost £9, between the three of us so only cost us £3 each. 

WHERE TO STAY IN OHRID

There is only 2 or 3 different hostel options in Ohrid I ended up staying at Sunny Lake hostel, which was one out of the 2 or 3 options in Ohrid. I really enjoyed my stay and while it wasn't the cleanest hostel, it was in a great location (right by the lake) with a very helpful owner who gave me endless recommendations of what to do during my stay in this quaint city. It had a kitchen which meant I had the option to cook, even though eating out is unbelievably cheap anyway, and each floor had a balcony overlooking the mountains and lake below. While I was there the hostel only charged £6 a night for a 8 bed dorm!

OHRID

As mentioned before, Ohrid was a place I hadn't heard much about and honestly I wasn't entirely sure what to expect upon arriving into this small city. St Paul the Apostle is the only airport in Ohrid. It was small and very basic, and only took 20 minutes to get off the plane and out through immigration. After getting some cash from the currency exchange (around £50 worth), I hopped in a taxi with two British boys I met waiting in the immigration line and we drove into the Old Town. As we drove towards the city we were met with the lake on our right and mountains surrounding us on every side. Then, as we entered into the outskirts of the city everything seemed pretty run down with graffiti on the walls and cracked paint on most buildings. 

The Old Town was small, with Ohrid Lake at the heart of it. The taxi dropped me off at my hostel and I was excited to shower and get right into it. Dotted with old churches and the bones of a medieval castle overlooking the city and lake, wandering around the Old Town was unique and surprisingly lively for May.

WHAT TO DO IN OHRID

CHURCH OF ST. JOHN AT KANEO

Situated on Kaneo cliff overlooking Ohrid Lake, this spot is the symbol of the city. The Orthodox church is not only unique but it provides unbelievable views of the lake and its mountains surrounding it. I would definitely recommend arriving at sunrise to have it all to yourself or sunset to watch the colours shift over the reflective water. It was around 15 minutes to walk from the centre of town so I would suggest arriving a little before sunrise/sunset to be able to fully appreciated.

SAMOIL'S FORTRESS

A fortress built during the first Bulgarian Empire during the rule of Tsar Samuel in the 10th century. This fortress sits on top of a hill providing unbelievable 360 views of Ohrid Lake. It is a lovely walk up to the top and I often caught myself stopping to admire the view and take photos along the way. The fortress costs 120 denars (€1) to enter and walk around but is definitely worth it. I went around midday and apart from a school group there wasn't anyone else around! Just watch out, the stairs are very steep to climb up and down, so wear good shoes!

SVETI SOFIA

One of the main churches to visit while in Ohrid, is one of the most important monuments and holds architecture and art from the Middle Ages. Built in the Bulgarian Empire, it has interesting history and is beautiful to walk around. It is in the heart of town and has a lovely garden which you can sit in during the summer 

CHURCH OF SAINTS CLEMENT AND PANTELEIMON

One of my absolute favourite spots during my time in Ohrid was the stunning Church of Saint Clement. This Byzantine church is a very easy walk down from Samuel's Fortress and has absolutely breathtaking architecture like so many other spots in Ohrid. The exterior was extravagant and each angle seemed to transform the church into something else. If you want to go inside you'll have to be wearing long pants and covered shoulders. They do offer wraps to cover yourself if you forget to dress appropriately!

ST NAUM MONASTERY

St Naum is an Eastern Orthodox Monastery located on the other side of Ohrid Lake. I would recommend getting a ferry to the Monastery and spending most of the day there. There is regular transport to and from St Naum, with different options such as ferries or a taxi. I met up with the English boys again and we each paid €10 for a return ferry ticket, which gave us the flexibility to arrive and leave whenever throughout the day. The ferry takes around 40 minutes and goes directly across the lake while either stopping off at locations on the way or slowing down enough for you to take some quick photos on the way (you can chose which type of ferry you would like to do). 

If you choose to take the longer ferry, it will take around 2 hours to get from Ohrid to St Naum as you'll probably stop off at the Bay of Bones. The Bay of Bones is a partial reconstruction of a prehistoric settlement dating between 1200 - 700 BC, and if you have the time it is an interesting stop off but not essential as I think you get a better view of it from the water (the ferry slows down so you can get a good look). 

When you arrive at the Monastery it also has shopping and restaurants for you to explore, and while I found the majority of it was quite touristy it's lovely to walk around on a nice day. The only issue was, if you are vegan there is little to no options in most of the eating spots so I would recommend bringing some snacks with you. The Monastery itself has absolutely breathtaking views all around it, along with some very intimidating peacocks that walk around and feel very threatening to be around. They are absolutely stunning though!

SHOP OHRID PEARLS

World famous Ohrid pearls are a lovely gift for yourself or loved one when you're visiting. I bought a dainty bracelet while I was in St Naum and paid around €15 for it. It did break off after a few months because I didn't take care of it, however I would highly recommend purchasing one and looking after it as they are a symbol of the city and are often made with beautiful craftsmanship. 

WHERE TO EAT IN OHRID

DR FALAFEL

As a vegan I am an avid lover of falafel and I would like to think that I have tasted a wide variety in my lifetime, so I would like to think I am a connoisseur in this field. Now I am not exaggerating when I say Dr Falafel is quite possibly the best falafel I've eaten in my whole life. Located right on the main shopping street in Ohrid, this tiny shop does both eat in or takeaway falafel and hummus and is a must when you visit. 

ANTEP BAKLAVA

Baklava is a sweet pastry dessert originating from the Middle East and is absolutely delicious to snack on. It comes in a variety of different favours, and I opted for hazelnut and apple. To be honest, I wasn't entirely sure what I was ordering because the man didn't speak a word of English, however all the flavours looked delicious. 

GREECE

CURRENCY

Euros

DAILY BUDGET 

I found the mainland Greece, especially in the North, a lot cheaper than the Greek islands. Thessaloniki was only slightly more expensive than Ohrid, so I would recommend around €25 - €40 including accomodation. Athens, much like most European capitals, is a little more pricey and it has a lot more museums and attractions that you will need to pay to enter. I would recommend around €40 - €65 a day depending on what time of year you're visiting (summer will be a lot more expensive) and also how many of the ancient ruins you are planning on visiting during your time as they all quickly add up. 

GETTING FROM OHRID TO THESSALONIKI

Getting from Ohrid to Thessaloniki is fairly straight forward, however there is very limited (if any) direct public transport between the two. The best route, in my opinion, to find your way to Skopje (North Macedonia's capital) and then back down to Thessaloniki. The trip from Ohrid to Skopje takes between 3 - 4 hours and I paid €9 with GetByBus, for this leg of the journey. Driving through Skopje the architecture, layout and general feeling of the city was unlike anywhere else I had ever been and I wish I had spent a night there so I could of explored its weirdness a little more. If your itinerary allowed it I would definitely recommend allocating some time to soak in the weirdness of it all. 

I spent a few hours waiting for my next bus from Skopje to Thessaloniki before getting on another GetByBus, which cost me €20 one way. The trip from Skopje to Thessaloniki only runs twice a day, one leaving at 00:45 and the other at 17:00 which would arrive into Thessaloniki at 21:30. The bus was surprisingly full and crossing the border was relatively easy. You do need to get your passport checked but the roads were clear so thankfully it wasn't a long wait.

WHERE TO STAY

While in Thessaloniki I stayed at Studio Arabas, which I didn't love. There wasn't really a vibe among the staff or guests and the beds weren't super comfortable. Thankfully it was just a place to sleep and while I did have an incredibly annoying mosquito hovering around my head the whole night, I managed to get up early enough to explore and have a decent shower, too. The hostel does have a small kitchen and is located quite centrally in the city, which were two of its redeeming qualities.

THESSALONIKI

While I felt fairly safe in Ohrid, Thessaloniki was a city that make me feel a little on edge. Arriving at 9:30pm meant that it was already dark and instead of getting a taxi I decided to walk to my hostel, which was around 20 minutes away. Thessaloniki isn't the most up kept city and I did notice a lot of rubbish and graffiti as I walked. It all seemed fine until I started to get followed by this homeless man who seemed to be either drunk or on drugs. I quickly walked into a shop and bought some water while he stared at me through the window. The woman reassured me saying 'Don't worry he's harmless, he is here everyday. He is just crazy'. I'm going to be honest it didn't really put my mind at ease but after 2 minutes he seemed to get bored of me standing in the shop and left.

I only spent one night in Thessaloniki, which I think is all you need to see all the main sites. It's a city that you can easily walk around and find yourself stopping regularly to check out different ancient ruins, churches and plaques. Thessaloniki is good base for people who want to travel to different spots in Europe like Sofia, Tirana, Istanbul and the Halkidiki Peninsula. I had planned on spending a few days in the Halkidiki Peninsula, which are also referred to the three fingers of Greece. However, my plans hadn't really gone to plan and I ended up spending an entire day, €60 and a lot of frustration getting down to New Moudania, only to get to my hostel and get attacked by their rabid dogs and for no one to even be home. Disaster. 

WHAT TO DO IN THESSALONIKI

WHITE TOWER OF THESSALONIKI

The White Tower of Thessaloniki is the symbol of the city and you can spot it pretty easily. Located right on the waterfront, this Byzantine Fortification is known to mentioned as early as the 12th century. I would recommend getting here early (I arrived around 8am) and there wasn't many people around apart from some joggers. Thessaloniki does get very hot so avoiding the midday heat is ideal!​

CHURCH OF SAINT DEMETRIOS

A sanctuary dedicated to Saint Demetrios, the Patron Saint of Thessaloniki, this Church has been on UNESCO since the 1980's. I arrived here early in the morning (around 7am) and found a homeless man sleeping in part of the garden feature out the front, before jumping out and walking off once the cleaner began sweeping the Church's marble floor outside its doors.  

CATHEDRAL CHURCH OF HAGIA SOPHIA OF THESSALONICA

One of the oldest churches still standing in Thessaloniki today, is a lovely addition to walk around and explore. It is one of the many ruins that you can explore in the city and also has gardens to help you hide from the hot Greek sun.

CHECK OUT THE NIGHTLIFE

Thessaloniki is known for its vibrant cultural scene and thriving nightlife, and while I didn't get a chance to experience it myself, I've heard from a number of people that the clubs and bars are always packed filled with locals  and tourists alike. 

GETTING FROM THESSALONIKI TO ATHENS

I opted for an overnight bus to get between the two cities. After a long day of being messed around trying to get to the Halkidiki Peninsula I just wanted to get to Athens. I tried to figure out to book the bus online, which was quite hard because it was all in Greek, but thankfully someone who worked at the hostel said that actually it is far easier to just book the bus once you get to the bus terminal. The hostel ordered me a taxi to Thessaloniki bus terminal was around €7 and to be honest I was a little worried because the terminal wasn't the same one I had arrived into and this one seemed to be in a bit more of a sketchy area. I paid €20 for the bus and waited around for an hour or so till 9:30pm. The bus was a double decker and practically empty. The ride was smooth and I arrived into Athens at 5am where I got another taxi to my hostel in Athens, which cost me another €10. 

WHERE TO STAY IN ATHENS

I stayed at the Athens Backpacker hostel which I can honestly say is one of my favourite hostels ever. The location was absolutely perfect, right in the centre of Plaka and a 5 minute walk to the base of the Acropolis plus there was a rooftop bar with a view of the Parthenon which was a great way to socialise while watching the sunset. The hostel was clean and there was a kitchen for anyone who wanted to cook, however I found eating out to be pretty cheap.

ATHENS

Athen's is a gateway to history with it's endless ruins to explore and museums to visit. I've heard a lot of mixed reviews of the city with people either absolutely loving it and others describing it as dirty and unsafe. While Athen's isn't on my list of top favourite European cities, I definitely think it should get credit where credit is due. Athens is so unique and I think Rome is the only other city in Europe where you are going to feel so deeply connected to centuries ago. It was home to masters of Politics, Philosophy, and so much more that shaped our society, and while I'm not the biggest history nerd, you can't NOT be enticed by it all. 

As much as I enjoy my time in Athens, I do think you should be cautious. Much like Rome, it does have its dodgy areas with some questionable characters. I never walked around alone at night time, and while I think Plaka would be fine by yourself at night, other parts of the city I would avoid. 

WHAT TO DO IN ATHENS

ACROPOLIS

The Acropolis is the ancient Citadel of Athens and is home to arguably the most famous building in the city, the Parthenon. It's an obvious must when visiting Athens and I would highly recommend getting there early. I arrived before the gates opened at 8am (around 7:40) and there was already a queue to get in. There was only around 5 people in front of me but I am glad I got there when I did because the line grew to around 30 people by the time it hit 8am. The tickets to get into the Acropolis are €20 for an adult (it's cheaper for students) or you can pay €30 and get access to a few different sites across Athens including Hadrian’s Library, the Ancient Agora, the Roman Agora and a few more. 

I paid for the €30 and it's definitely a money saver if you plan on visiting a few of the ruins during your time in Athens. It's a bit of a hike up to the top but the views are extraordinary and of course the Parthenon is amazing. By the time I was walking back down it was already boiling and there we huge crowds and tour groups! The Acropolis is open 8-8 during summer so pick your timing right; I think sunset at the top would be magical!

PHILOPAPPOS HILL 

I arrived into Athens at 5am, just before the sun was going to come up. After the taxi ride to my hostel I quickly got changed and google mapped my way to Philopappos Hill, which was only a 15 minute walk from Athens Backpackers. I got a little lost along the way, but arrived just in time for the sunrise. The view of the sun rising right behind the Acropolis was unbelievable. It is right in the centre of a park with a scattering of different monuments you can admire, however make sure you find the view point in time for either sunset or sunrise!

HIT UP ONE OF THE BEACHES

While we aren't on the moonlike scapes of Milos or the black sand of Santorini, Athens does offer some good beach choices for those in need of a vitamin sea fix.  Once you get out of the city there are dozens of different beaches you can choose from. Some of them are beach resorts so you will need to either pay entry or pay for a sun chair, but there are a few that are public beaches which you can use for free (Voula beach is free). I can't remember the exact name of the beach we visited, however it was part of a resort and we paid €5 entry. Myself and two girls I met at the hostel shared a taxi to the beach initially which cost around €35 (the drive was about 30 minutes) and on the way back into the city I got public transport by myself which only cost around €3 and took around the same amount of time! 

HIT UP ONE OF THE BEACHES

While we aren't on the moonlike scapes of Milos or the black sand of Santorini, Athens does offer some good beach choices for those in need of a vitamin sea fix.  Once you get out of the city there are dozens of different beaches you can choose from. Some of them are beach resorts so you will need to either pay entry or pay for a sun chair, but there are a few that are public beaches which you can use for free (Voula beach is free). I can't remember the exact name of the beach we visited, however it was part of a resort and we paid €5 entry. Myself and two girls I met at the hostel shared a taxi to the beach initially which cost around €35 (the drive was about 30 minutes) and on the way back into the city I got public transport by myself which only cost around €3 and took around the same amount of time! 

MONASTIRAKI

Known for its iconic landmarks including the ruins of Hadrian's Library, Ancient Agora and the rebuilt Stoa of Attalos, Monastiraki lives throughout the day and well into the night. It has buskers and flea markets which makes it for a bustling atmosphere and is a lot of fun to explore. I only briefly wandered through it all but wish I had more time to delve further into the neighbourhood. It is within walking distance of Plaka and also provides stunning views of the Acropolis. A definite photo spot for sure!

PLAKA

Plaka is the main tourist hot spot in Athens and while it does get absolutely packed, especially in summer, it is definitely a must to wander through. It is filled with souvenir shops, restaurants, cafes, statues and monuments so there is something for everyone. It will be a little 'less authentic' and a little more expensive than other parts of the city but that's what to expect in the tourist spots of every city. Seeing as it was close to the hostel I kept finding myself exploring through it and there are some gems both food wise and souvenir wise. I would recommend going early if you want to avoid the mass of people because the streets are fairly narrow and it does get packed quickly. 

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