Ohrid — The Secret European Gem You've Never Heard of... Until Now

Jo Piazza
·Managing Editor

The incredible view of Ohrid from the water (Photo: Ohrid.com)

There is something magical about arriving in a city you’ve never heard of and being immediately enchanted and charmed by both its beauty and its hospitality. As a travel editor, I sometimes feel like a know-it-all. I’ve been to so many places, and the ones I haven’t been to I have almost certainly still heard of. But I knew nothing about Ohrid, Macedonia, until I arrived there a few weeks ago. The surprise of it all made me enjoy it all the more. 

Ohrid is often referred to as the “Jerusalem of the Balkans” because it once had 365 churches within its city limits — one for every day of the year. Most of the surviving churches were built during the Byzantine era or during the Serbian rule of the Middle Ages. A few of them have been reconstructed, but the majority are still filled with archaeological wonders that rival early Christian churches found in Turkey and Greece. 

Ohrid city is positioned along the old Roman caravan road — Via Egnatia — which made it an important center for the trading of goods, ideas, and culture during ancient times. Today its inhabitants are welcoming and delighted to meet foreign visitors, particularly Americans. In 1979 it was named to the World Heritage List by UNESCO with very good reason.

I arrived at Ohrid by boat from the lake by the same name. From the water, the city resembles the Amalfi coast in miniature, with white buildings climbing lush green hills.  

The best way to truly enjoy the cobblestone streets is on foot. You should first stroll around the old town and port to shop the local market and boutiques. For just 5 euro you can purchase some of the most intricate and fun street jewelry I have ever found, and 20 euro will get you some incredible street art.

The bustling port is great for shopping and grabbing a quick coffee. (Photo: Ohrid.com)

The real gem of Ohrid is the pearl. Ohrid pearls don’t come from oysters, but rather from the scales of the plasica fish in Ohrid lake. The recipe for the pearls came from a Russian soldier staying in Ohrid in the ’20s who passed it down to just one family here. They’re beautiful and affordable. Just make sure you purchase the ones that come with an official document, because the ones sold in street stalls probably didn’t originate in the lake, but in China. 

Church of Saint Sofia, one of the most impressive medieval buildings in Ohrid and in Macedonia. Founded at the beginning of the 11th century, the church is a masterpiece of both art and architecture. Once the seat of the Ohrid archbishops, the space was converted into a mosque during Ottoman rule. Yet the majority of the Christian frescoes are still intact.  

Today the Church of Saint Sofia plays host to classical concerts and plays. They also allow you to sit and quietly meditate on the artwork and the history without nudging you along like many European church tours I have been on. (Photo: Jo Piazza)

Next up, climb the winding roads, past cottages with some of the most immaculate urban gardens we’ve ever seen, to arrive at the steps of the ancient theater, built on the hills of the old town of Ohrid in the first century B.C.

Related: We Left Our Comfy Life in New Jersey to Open a Hotel in Macedonia

The ancient theater is now host to concerts and big events. (Photo: Jo Piazza)

One of the most Instagrammable things in all of Europe is Saint Jovan Kaneo, a 13th-century Byzantine-Armenian church with breathtaking views over the lake.

Sit for a while and soak in this incredible view. (Photo: Jo Piazza)

Walk down the meandering path from Saint Jovan, past old men playing cards and sipping Turkish coffee at rickety tables, to the rocky beach below. Hop in a fishing boat, dive off the pier, or simply lounge the day away.

Related: These Are the Most Talked About Towns in Europe

Fishing boats are available for rent from the locals. (Photo: Jo Piazza)

Grab a snack, some Ohrid trout with homemade red pepper paste and a cup of rakija, the local grape spirit, from one of the many open-air bars and restaurants lining the water. 

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It’s like Saint-Tropez without the celebrity riffraff. (Photo: Jo Piazza)

Before sunset, hop on a boat to the Saint Naum Monastery, now a wonderfully renovated hotel with one of the best restaurants in Macedonia. Rooms here start at just $38, and any meal can be enjoyed on the hotel’s floating restaurant, where gondoliers will guide you through the holy springs of the Black Drim.

At the Saint Naum Monastery, meals are served on a raft floating in the springs of the Black Drim River. (Photo: Jo Piazza)

Peacocks prance around the grounds of the hotel, and the staff kindly provide earplugs because their morning wake-up calls can be quite vociferous. 

Steer clear of the peacocks. They bite. (Photo: Jo Piazza)

Ohrid is the perfect day trip from the country’s capital of Skopje, provides access to some of the region’s best hiking and biking trails in Galicica National Park, and offers a welcome respite from some of the other tourist-clogged cities in Europe. 

You can rent mountain bikes for the day to navigate the gorgeous landscape between lakes Ohrid and Prespa. (Photo: Jo Piazza)

The summer months are definitely the time to go so that you can enjoy the beaches and everything the outdoors have to offer here. Prices dip in early fall, though, and the weather is lovely through October.

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