A Guide to Ohrid: Macedonia’s Lakeside City of Light

Last Updated on: 5th June 2022, 03:05 pm

The historical town of Ohrid is North Macedonia’s most popular tourism hotspot. Situated along a hill at the edge of Lake Ohrid, few other cities in the region can rival its picturesque setting. While Ohrid’s main appeal is taking things slow and soaking up the atmosphere, the town is home to historical churches, an ancient fortress and some unique museums, all of which we’ll be covering in the Ohrid guide below.

The main attractions in the town center can easily be seen in a single day on foot. You should also allow an extra day, however, to visit Sveti Naum (ideally by ferry), in addition to a day spent exploring Galičica National Park.

Wandering Ohrid

In antiquity, the city was known as Lychnidos, or the ‘city of light.’ While inhabited at least as far back as the Iron Age, the town as we see it today was largely built between the 7th-19th centuries.

With its well-preserved houses, cobblestone streets, and views of the lake, one of the best things to do in Ohrid is simply wandering through town.

Ohrid Guide

As North Macedonia is landlocked, locals flock to Ohrid in the summer to soak up the sun and take a dip in the lake. While the town is indeed touristy, it still manages to maintain its local feel and is an all-around pleasant place to explore on foot.

Ohrid Guide
Ohrid Guide
Ohrid Guide
Ohrid Guide

In addition to its traditional houses – many of which were built in the 19th century, Ohrid is also well-known for its churches. The small town of around 40,000 people is home to no less than 365 churches – one for each day of the year. 

While there are several prominent churches that will be mentioned in the Ohrid guide below, many of them are tiny. Wandering through town, you’ll often encounter these compact ancient structures nestled between houses or shops.

The Church of Saint Varvara
Ohrid Guide
The 14th-century Church of St. Clement the Lesser

The Ancient Theater

Situated right near the Old City’s Upper Gate is one of Ohrid’s oldest structures. The amphitheater was built around the 3rd century BC during the Hellenistic era and was later used for gladiator fights by the Romans.

Amazingly, the refurbished theater still hosts modern musical performances as part of the annual Ohrid Summer Festival. While not especially impressive on its own, it’s interesting to see such an old structure completely surrounded by modern residences.

Ohrid Guide

Just behind the theater, meanwhile, is the Upper Gate which is worth a quick look. Ohrid was a fortified city throughout much of its history, with its walls extending out to a whopping 3 km. And this gate served as one of the town’s main entry points for centuries.

Over in the National Museum, you can look at an ornate golden mask dating to the 5th century that was found around here (the original may actually be in Belgrade). Today, in stark contrast, the area around the gate is home to a concrete parking lot.

Ohrid Guide
Ohrid Guide
The golden mask (likely a replica) found near the gate

Samuel's Fortress

Visible from all over town, Samuel’s Fortress was built atop a hill some 100 m above the lake. According to Greek historian Polybius, there was a fortress here as far back as the reign of Macedonia’s King Philip II (father of Alexander the Great) in the 4th century BC.

The fortress remained in use until relatively recently and is now one of modern Ohrid’s top tourist attractions. Entry costs 80 MKD and the fortress is closed on Mondays.

Ohrid Guide

Following the Hellenistic era, the expansive fortress was controlled by groups like the Romans, Byzantines and Slavs. It took its current shape under the reign of Tsar Samuel (r. 976-1014) of the First Bulgarian Empire, after whom the structure is named. 

Samuel made Ohrid his capital during his reign and it’s from here that he was in constant conflict with the Byzantine Empire.

Ohrid Guide
Ohrid Guide

The Byzantines would end up the victors, with Emperor Basil II destroying the fortress. But it was ultimately restored not long after.

The fortress then remained in use up through the late Ottoman era, when a rogue feudal lord named Dzeladin-Bey ruled Ohrid from here into the early 19th century.

Ohrid Guide

There’s not a whole lot to see inside, but you can walk along the walls for some of the best views of Ohrid and the lake. Be sure to get here early to beat the crowds.

Ohrid Guide
Ohrid Guide

Beginning in the early 2000s, the fortress has undergone extensive restorations and archaeological excavations. At some point during your time in town, be sure to check out the National Museum where you’ll find some of the artifacts uncovered here.

On display are ceramics from the Hellenistic era as well as various figurines of Greek mythological figures. 

Ohrid Guide

From atop the fortress, you can also get a view of Plaoshnik’s Church of Saints Clement and Panteleimon, the next location featured in this Ohrid guide. 

The path downhill through the forest to the Plaoshnik area can be a little tricky, but follow the signs to the ‘Basilica’ or use the Maps.me app.

Plaoshnik

Considering how compact Ohrid is, it’s somewhat surprising to find a secluded forested area right in the heart of the Old Town. And it’s in this area, roughly in between Samuel’s Fortress and the Church of St. John at Kaneo, that you’ll find the site known as Plaoshnik.

Ohrid Guide

Amazingly, archaeological findings discovered here are as old as the 12th century BC. Other important artifacts found here date from the early Iron Age, the Hellenistic era and early Roman period followed by Byzantine and Ottoman times. 

Ohrid Guide

Archaeological ruins, evidently dating to the Byzantine era, can be found scattered throughout the site. But signage offering context is unfortunately lacking. 

Normally, the highlight of Plaoshnik is the 5th-century basilica known for its mosaics. Sadly, however, it was off-limits at the time of my visit. It seems like much of the site is under restoration, and there will hopefully be more to see in the future.

With the mosaics inaccessible, Plaoshnik’s main highlight is the Church of Saints Clement and Panteleimon, believed to date back to the time of Saint Clement himself in the 10th century.

During the Middle Ages, Ohrid long served as an important Orthodox educational center. This was largely thanks to Saint Clement and Saint Naum, two of the region’s most venerated saints who lived here in the 10th century (Panteleimon, on the other hand, was martyred in the 4th century).

Supposedly, the very first Slavic script, Glagolitic, was taught for the first time in this building. It served as a precursor to the Cyrillic alphabet which remains in use throughout North Macedonia and the wider Slavic world to this day.

The church has some nice icons, but its refurbished interior isn’t nearly as interesting as the other churches featured in this Ohrid guide.

Ohrid Guide

To complement your visit to Plaoshnik, be sure to visit the National Museum (more below), where you’ll find a wide range of artifacts uncovered here. 

Notable pieces include a marble portrait from the 2nd century BC, statuettes and bones from the Roman era, various ceramics and findings from a prominent individual’s tomb.

Ohrid Guide
Ohrid Guide
Ohrid Guide

The Church of St. John at Kaneo

Built in the 13th century, the Church of St. John at Kaneo is arguably Ohrid’s most photographed landmark. But that’s more for its picturesque lakeside setting than for the small cruciform-shaped structure itself. 

Disappointingly, this is yet another Macedonia Orthodox church which charges an entrance fee for foreigners (100 MKD, or €2).

Ohrid Guide

But by simply stepping inside to inquire about the entry requirements, you can already see all the frescoes in an instant. For Ohrid’s best frescoes, you’re better off saving your change for Sveti Sophia in the center of town (more below).

Ohrid Guide

After seeing the church, it’s worth exploring the Kaneo Beach area around it. The pebble beach is set amidst scenic rocky outcrops, while you can grab lunch in one of the nearby restaurants.

The residential road leading back to town, meanwhile, contains some historical houses, such as the 19th-century ‘House of Petrush Vangelov.’

Ohrid Guide
Ohrid Guide

The Church of St. Sophia

St. Sophia is Ohrid’s most impressive church – both inside and out. It was built in the 11th century on the foundations of an even older Christian structure, and long served as the Patriarchate and Archbisphoric of Ohrid.

Ohrid Guide

Later on, upon their conquest of Ohrid in the 15th century, the Ottomans converted the structure to the mosque, plastering over the vivid frescoes with lime. The artwork would remain obscured for centuries until the end of World War II.

Ohrid Guide

Interestingly, the frescoes were painted around the time of the schism between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, and they depict dozens of ecclesiastical dignitaries from the East along with several Roman popes. 

This mix of Eastern and Western religious figures in a single church is said to be totally unique.

Ohrid Guide
Ohrid Guide

Entry costs 100 MKD for foreigners. And while signs outside state that photography is prohibited, I simply asked at the ticket gate and was granted permission. 

Ohrid Guide
Ohrid Guide

Ohrid's Museums

In addition to the landmarks mentioned in the Ohrid guide above, the town is also home to a few unique museums that are well worth a visit. They can all be easily reached on foot while exploring the Old City.

National Workshop For Handmade Paper

The National Workshop For Handmade Paper is dedicated to Ohrid’s paper-making tradition that’s been in place for centuries. Amazingly, it also happens to contain one of only two working replicas of the Gutenberg Press in the world.

Ohrid Guide
Ohrid Guide

Stepping inside, you can enjoy a demonstration of the process, while the guide will be happy to answer any of your questions. Entry is free, but after such a comprehensive explanation, it will be hard to walk away empty-handed.

The small shop sells large prints of religious iconography and scenes of Ohrid, birthday cards, notebooks and more. As souvenirs, they certainly beat your typical mass-produced plastic trinkets!

The Ohrid National Museum

Also known as the Robev Family House Museum, this three-story museum is a must-visit during your time in Ohrid. Split into two halves, it serves as both an ethnographic and an archaeological museum.

Ohrid Guide

In certain sections, you’ll find well-preserved rooms of the former Robev home, a wealthy merchant family who built this house in 1863. There are also numerous late Ottoman period artifacts, costumes and local artwork on display, including some stunningly ornate woodcarvings.

Local jewelry from the 19th century
A statuette of Isis, 2nd century BC

Other rooms, meanwhile, take you much further back into time. You’ll find Greco-Roman era artifacts from Plaoshnik and Samuel’s Fortress (see above), in addition to interesting grave finds from elsewhere throughout the Ohrid region.

Archaeological findings uncovered from various tombs range from the 6th century BC to the 3rd century AD.

Ohrid Guide
Ohrid woodcarvings

The Icon Gallery

Another popular attraction in Ohrid is the Icon Gallery, situated right outside the Church of Sveta Bogorodica Perivlepta. You can find it near the Upper Gate. 

While I went over to check it out, they were charging around 200 MKD for entry and told me that no photos were allowed. 

Having just seen some magnificent icons at the National Museum of Medieval Art in Korçë, Albania, I decided to save my money. All these seemingly small entry fees in Macedonia really start to add up after awhile!

The Church of Sveta Bogorodica Perivlepta

But for those with an interest in medieval icons, the art here dates from the 13th-18th centuries. From what I could gather from standing outside, there seem to be a couple dozen or so pieces on display.

Swimming in Lake Ohrid

If you’re visiting Ohrid in summer, you won’t want to miss the chance to swim in the lake at some point. But while there are several places to swim right in the city center, they’re crowded and uncomfortable, lacking any sand or proper place to relax.

Some of the best beaches can be found outside the city, such as right outside Sveti Naum or the long stretch of beach to the south of town. But these locations are too far to reach on foot.

Ohrid Beach

Staying in the Old Town near the Upper Gate, I discovered an unlabelled beach to the north of the city. I had plenty of space to relax and, while not the very cleanest beach, the scenery was gorgeous and the water felt nice. I’ve marked it on the map above.

Other places to consider near the town center are Beach Labino (north of Kaneo) and Beach Voena, about 20 minutes on foot south from the pier.

Additional Info

Ohrid is arguably North Macedonia’s number one tourism destination. Accordingly, you’ll find direct connections with most Macedonian cities.

You can take a direct bus from Skopje or nearby Bitola. Just be sure to check the schedules at the bus station in advance. Buses were running on a reduced schedule due to the pandemic during my visit, and for some routes there were only a few buses per day.

If you’re coming from Bitola and no bus is about to depart, you can take a shared taxi from outside the bus station which will cost the same (around 200 MKD).

You can also take direct buses to Ohrid from neighboring countries, with buses coming in from as far away as Belgrade.

If you’re coming from southern Albania, figuring out the bus routes can be a bit tricky. There’s no direct bus from Korçë, despite its proximity to the border. Instead, you’ll need to take a bus to Porgradec (just across from Sveti Naum) and then another bus to the border.

After that, you’ll need to walk across the border and then find another bus or taxi for Ohrid on the other side. If you don’t have much luggage, you can even stop at Sveti Naum on the way.

While I’d planned to enter Ohrid from Korçë/Pogradec, I ended up needing to go and pick up a package in Vlorë, where I’d been living earlier. Fortunately, there was a direct bus from Vlorë to Ohrid that also made stops in Durrës and Elbasan.

I went with a company called Senad Tours, which took us through the border crossing to the north of the lake rather than the one near Sveti Naum. It was one of the easiest border crossings of my life, with none of us even needing to exit the minibus.

Ohrid’s bus station is a few kilometers out of town, and you’ll need to take a taxi to your hotel if they’re not willing to come and pick you up.

For those coming from farther away, Ohrid’s St. Paul the Apostle International Airport has direct connections with various cities throughout Europe.

Ohrid consists of the Old City area and the modern city just southeast of it. Ideally, you’ll want to stay within or as close to the Old City as possible. As Ohrid isn’t very large, staying somewhere in the modern city near the lake should be fine, as long as you’re within walking distance of the main attractions.

I stayed within the Old City in a place called Surban, situated just next to the ancient theater. For around €10 a night I had a private room with a shared bathroom. But as I was the only guest for the first few nights, this wasn’t a big deal.

While the room was rather small and simple, the host was incredibly helpful and kind. She even picked me up and dropped me off at the bus station for no extra charge.



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