Lake Ohrid in North Macedonia

Back in the Middle Ages there were some 365 churches, monasteries and religious sites lining the banks of Lake Ohrid in the southwest corner of North Macedonia, which earned it the sobriquet ‘the Balkan Jerusalem’. At 34km long, 14km wide, over 300m deep and almost entirely encircled by mountains, the lake is a renowned cultural and spiritual centre, and a key destination on North Macedonia holidays. The wider region is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with the town of Ohrid on the lake’s northeast shore reckoned to be one of the oldest human settlements in the world. So yeah, it’s kind of a big deal.
Around a 3.5 hour drive from the capital, Skopje, the lake straddles the border with Albania at Struga. It’s also close enough to Galicica National Park for day trips, a popular place for mountain biking and watersports. Bubbling springs feed the lake in the village of Vevchani, while lake trout is the local speciality, but we recommend giving it a miss if you see it on the menu, as overfishing is a major problem here. Whether you’re holidaying solely in North Macedonia, or taking a longer multi-country tour through the Balkans, your itinerary is bound to feature at least a day in Lake Ohrid. Here’s why.

Things to do in Lake Ohrid

Key religious landmarks in the vicinity of Ohrid and the lake include the Church of Saints Clement and Panteleimon, which has actually served as an Ottoman Turkish mosque several times over the centuries, and Saint Sophia’s Church which boasts some magnificent and immensely significant Byzantine frescoes.

Must-visits include the Sveti Naum Monastery, which sits on the lake shores just south of Ohrid, from where you can see across the water as far as Albania. Peacocks roam the monastery’s well-kept grounds. Crowning the town’s hilltop are the remains of the Samoil Fortress, which dates to the early 11th century. The walls, gates and towers are well-preserved and the views from the summit over Lake Ohrid and the town are spectacular.

Fantastic panoramas can also be had from the ruins of a 2000-year-old Roman amphitheatre, which was buried intact for centuries after the fall of the empire, such was the local antipathy towards Christian executions once held there. Once a venue for bloodthirsty gladiator bouts, the theatre now hosts concerts and music performances during the summer months.
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And then there is the 13th century Church of Sveti Jovan at Kaneo which, with its dramatic location on a rocky outcrop presents an appealing vantage point over the azure lake. It’s a short walk from the harbour, but there are also fishing boats bobbing around the cliff base waiting for passengers that would prefer to go by water.
Half an hour south of Ohrid town, still on the lake, the Bay of Bones is a unique waterbound museum and a fascinating reconstruction of a prehistoric site. The restoration of an ancient settlement that lived on wooden platforms can be seen here. Despite the name, there’s nothing gruesome about it.
On the lake itself, boat trips and swimming are naturally popular pastimes, as is strolling along the boardwalk which links beaches with bars and restaurants, and during summer is abuzz with visitors. Ohrid is the largest community on the lake, the steep, winding and cobbled lanes of the bazaar a pleasure to wander. There is a beguiling mixture of Western and Oriental architecture on display, and restaurants and traditional Turkish shops in the old town. You can also find peace and quiet in the numerous picturesque fishing village scattered around.
Between mid July and mid August, Ohrid hosts a prestigious Summer Festival with events taking place around the town, offering a rich programme of classical music, theatre and ballet. It’s a major feature on the regional cultural calendar but if not of particular interest to you, then the best time to visit Lake Ohrid is either side of the festival, specifically June and September when the weather is pleasant, but the crowds smaller.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Adib Harith Fadzilah] [Top box: Richard Barton] [Church of Sveti Jovan: Gorjan Ivanovski] [Lake life: Jason Rogers]