The ancient city of Stobi is an obscure archaeological site in an already overlooked country, North Macedonia. But while few have heard of it, it’s larger and arguably more impressive than the better-known Heraclea Lyncestis, with which it shares a similar history.

Located near the town of Gradsko, Stobi can either be visited as a day trip from Prilep or en route to or from Skopje. Be sure to check the end of the article for specific directions on how to reach the ruins.

Stobi: A Brief History

Stobi’s history goes back to at least the 7th century BC when it began as a settlement of the ancient kingdom of Paeonia. It continued to grow as part of the Kingdom of Macedon, and by the time the Romans occupied the region, Stobi was already considered ancient.

Due to its strategic location, Stobi thrived as a cosmopolitan city, and it was home to a mixed population of Roman citizens from throughout the empire. The city was situated along the ‘Diagonal Road,’ a branch of the Via Egnatia which connected the Balkans with Thrace.

Stobi then continued to prosper during the Christian era when it became an important episcopal center. As with nearby Heraclea Lyncestis, a main highlight of the site today is its well-preserved early Byzantine mosaics. In the 4th century, Stobi even received a visit from Emperor Theodosius I himself.

Ultimately, however, the city would suffer at the hands of Gothic and Slavic invasions in the 5th and 6th centuries, not to mention a powerful earthquake.

Stobi would remain largely forgotten for centuries until the first excavation began in the 1920s. But while much of the city has now been uncovered, a lack of promotion leaves Stobi as one of North Macedonia’s most overlooked attractions. Despite its absence from most guide books, archaeology lovers shouldn’t miss it.

Stobi Ruins North Macedonia

Visiting Stobi

After paying the 120 MKD entrance fee, visitors entering Stobi first encounter one of its grandest monuments – the theater, built around the late 2nd century AD. Capable of seating around 7,600 spectators, it was a popular place to watch gladiator fights in pre-Christian times.

Stobi Ruins North Macedonia

Once the practice was banned in the early Byzantine era, however, Stobi residents had little use for such a large theater. And so they demolished much of it, using the stone for new constructions elsewhere.

Today, large parts of it appear to have been reconstructed by archaeologists, though much of the stone is surely original.

Stobi Ruins North Macedonia
Stobi Ruins North Macedonia
Stobi Ruins North Macedonia

Don’t miss the chance to walk through the dim hallways of the interior, in which it’s easy to picture crowds rushing about in anticipation of the upcoming fights.

Moving on, behind the theater is where you’ll find what’s arguably Stobi’s top highlight: the Baptistry. One of the oldest Christian structures of the city, it was built in the early 4th century before being restored a few times over the next few hundred years. Despite its age, its mosaics remain in impeccable condition.

Stobi Ruins North Macedonia
Stobi Ruins North Macedonia
Stobi Ruins North Macedonia

The round building’s mosaics largely feature animals, including peacocks, deer and what seems to be some kind of dog with hooves (perhaps a donkey?).

Just nearby is the Episcopal Basilica, constructed and renovated at the same times as the Baptistry. It’s easily identifiable today by its large modern roof. 

Unfortunately, there was no way to get up close during my visit. But from a distance, I could spot a long mosaic flooring decorated in geometrical patterns.

Stobi Ruins North Macedonia
Stobi Ruins North Macedonia

Thankfully, outside of the main structure, there were more mosaics, seemingly also part of the Episcopal Basilica, that I could view from closer up.

Next, visitors can walk down a long colonnaded street with various rooms on either side. At the very end is the Heraclea Gate, the prominent gate of the city established as early as the 1st century AD. It led toward Heraclea Lyncestis and thus the major Via Egnatia road.

Stobi Ruins North Macedonia
Stobi Ruins North Macedonia

Coming back around, take note of the various rooms, some of which still contain their original storage vessels. The top highlight around here, though, is the spacious and semicircular ‘Sigma Square.’

Sigma Square

The square long served as a common area. In addition to colonnades, it was surrounded by ten smaller rooms and a statue was placed in its very center. It’s unclear, however, whose statue it was.

Continuing further away from the entrance, you’ll pass by a densely packed residential area. Among the prominent houses here is the ‘Domus Fulonica,’ a family house established in the 3rd century AD and occupied for a few hundred years. 

While clearly a prestigious structure, it happened to be located right by the local prison!

Stobi Ruins North Macedonia

And speaking of prestigious buildings, a bit further along you’ll encounter the Theodosian Palace. Impressively, Byzantine emperor Theodosius I himself visited Stobi in 388 AD. And while we’re not sure exactly where he would’ve stayed, scholars believe it was in this elaborate palace, the largest in the city.

While visitors can’t get very close, notice the mosaic fragments over to the corner, indicating that every bit of the palace would’ve been ornately decorated.

Stobi Ruins North Macedonia
The Theodosian Palace

Given the size of Stobi and the various routes one can take, navigation can be a little confusing from this point. I backtracked toward the large basilica, where I saw the ruins of the Episcopal Residence on the other side of it.

Stobi Ruins North Macedonia
Stobi Ruins North Macedonia
The Episcopal Residence

I then walked around to the other side of the dense residential complex, passing by the House of Parthenius and the House of Peristeria, both belonging to elite families. 

In addition to the open peristyle courts, look closely and you’ll even spot a relief carving of some of the original inhabitants.

Stobi Ruins North Macedonia
Stobi Ruins North Macedonia

Nearby are things like a large Roman bathhouse and a fountain. And one of the most interesting and elaborate structures at the edge of town is the ‘Synagogue Basilica.’ 

It was originally the site of a Jewish synagogue established in the 2nd century AD by a man named Polycharmos (whose house is next door). And then in the 4th century, it was added to Stobi’s long list of churches.

Stobi Ruins North Macedonia
The Synagogue Basilica

Nearby are a series of yet even more basilicas. Eventually, you’ll want to loop around and start heading back toward the entrance via the path on the opposite side of the residential complex.

And over to your left, you’ll come across a large building with multiple arches, believed to have once functioned as a library.

Stobi Ruins North Macedonia
The Library

Just across from the library, on the other side of the residential complex, is the ‘Small Bath.’ It was likely used by Stobi’s women and contains even more well-preserved mosaics. 

All in all, Stobi likely has a greater number of mosaics than the more famous Heraclea Lyncestis.

Stobi Ruins North Macedonia
The Small Bath

Heading along the path, you’ll find yourself not far from the theater. But there are numerous additional buildings here, many of which remain under excavation. The most impressive of the bunch can be recognized by its set of stairs leading to a platform.

As indicated by a statue discovered here, this was a temple dedicated to none other than the Egyptian goddess Isis. The goddess was wildly popular throughout the Roman Empire, and there’s even a small Isis sculpture on display at the National Museum in Ohrid.

Stobi Ruins North Macedonia
The Isis Temple

Completing the loop and returning to the ticket gate, you’ll surely find yourself wondering why more people don’t know about Stobi. But for now, enjoy having the ruins all to yourself while you still can.

Additional Info

To reach Stobi, you’ll first need to get to the town of Gradsko. Gradsko can easily be reached by Prilep. And many buses departing from Skopje also stop in Gradsko on their way to Prilep.

Gradsko also has a railway station, so it’s possible to get there by train from Skopje or Veles. There’s no direct train to Gradsko from Prilep, however.

At the time of writing (2021), the bus timetable from Prilep to Gradsko is as follows:

Prileip to Gradsko

6:30, 7:10, 9:10, 9:30, 11:40, 14:30, 15:15

Gradsko to Prilep

14:30, 15:00, 16:30, 18:00, 19:00, 20:00

Gradsko is a small town with just one main road and not a whole lot going on. From the bus stop, it takes about an hour to reach Stobi on foot.

You could also take a taxi, of course. But as I was intent on walking, I didn’t negotiate with any drivers, nor did I see any taxis at all. It’s possible that some of the unmarked cars by the bus stop are indeed taxis, so try asking around.

For those opting to travel on foot, most of the walk involves walking along a highway. While hardly ideal, it’s not as bad as it sounds.

There are two parallel highways in the area, and you can walk along the quieter one which sees little traffic. I only encountered one vehicle every several minutes, and largely had the road to myself.

Getting closer to Stobi, you’ll need to turn onto a smaller road to reach the ruins. Check, a free navigation app that contains a lot more detail than Google, for the exact route.

Leaving Stobi, the woman at the ticket gate offered to call a taxi for me. But since I didn’t find the walk that bad, I decided to make the return trip on foot as well. And I had plenty of time before my bus back to Prilep.

I’m not sure if there are any earlier buses from Gradsko to Prilep than 14:30. But I can confirm that the 14:30 bus did indeed arrive as scheduled (well, 10 minutes late).

There are no timetables at all posted at the little bus stop in Gradsko, so it’s best to confirm the bus times with your hotel or at the ticket gate in Stobi.

Despite being one of North Macedonia’s larger cities, few tourists base themselves in Prilep, and there aren’t a whole lot of accommodation options – especially for budget travelers.

If you’re looking for a budget-friendly private room, the most popular place in town is called Guest House Antika.

This is where I ended up staying. And while I had a good experience overall, I’m a bit baffled by the 9.8 score on Booking at the time of writing.

I paid 10 euro a night and the manager was incredibly helpful and communicative. But having just stayed at Domestika Hostel in Bitola for the same price, Antika felt like a downgrade. In Bitola, I had a private bathroom and aircon but in Prilep I had neither.

Annoyingly, the shared bathroom near my room was often in use and also got rather dirty by evening.

And for whatever reason, around a dozen children would gather each night at the house next door, running down the streets and shouting in the courtyard. This would go on until around 23:00. Without air conditioning, you’ll want to open a window, but that only makes everything louder.

There was also a very strange and rude local guy who seemed to be living or working at the place, and he was often in the outdoor area chain smoking. I don’t want to go into details, but he’s best to be avoided and his attitude brings down the overall vibe of the guest house.

Strangely, none of these issues have been mentioned on Booking, but other guests I spoke to in person were definitely bothered by the same things. It just goes to show how you often have to be skeptical of online ratings.

Again, while I had an OK stay overall, I wouldn’t stay at Antika again. Considering the number of times I visited the bus terminal, I would look for some place closer to there instead.

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