The Stara Čaršija (Macedonian: Стара Чаршија; meaning Old Bazaar or Old Town) of Skopje, North Macedonia, is the city's historic centre. First inhabited thousands of years ago, it was an important centre of commerce during Ottoman times when it enjoyed its peak importance. The Ottoman heritage is predominant in Stara Čaršija: there are roughly 30 mosques, three caravansaries, and a few hamams (Turkish baths) still standing, in addition to a clock tower and other Ottoman structures. Despite the earthquakes and various other disasters Skopje has seen, the neighbourhood is in very good shape. It is an authentic Macedonian contrast to the controversial "faux historic" buildings being constructed around the city. A must-see when visiting Skopje, the Stara Čaršija is one of the largest and best collections of Ottoman architecture and history.
While the Old Bazaar is still a lively place any day of the week, it was at its peak importance during Ottoman rule. Skopje was visited by noted Ottoman traveller Elviya Çelebi in 1660. In his writings, he spoke highly of Skopje's bazaar:
”[In the Bazaar] there are 2,150 stores. There are squares and markets, with arches and domes. Of all, the best are: the Bazaar of cotton works, umbrella makers, shoemakers, painters, weavers. These are huge bazaars constructed according to the plan. The lanes are clean and paved. Each store is decorated with hyacinths, violets, roses, basil, lilacs and lily in vases and pots. With their smell, they simply call for the attention of the visitors and traders. There are many educated and honest people. During summer heat, the markets in Skopje look like Baghdad shadows, for all its bazaars are with twisted shutters and arches as in Sarajevo and Aleppo”
Some buildings have been lost in various fires and earthquakes but the Stara Čaršija has maintained its character over the centuries; it is still filled with narrow cobblestone streets lined by Ottoman-era structures.
Today, the Old Bazaar is a vibrant district with a diverse group of people consisting of Macedonians, Albanians, Turks, Roma (Gypsies), Bosniaks, and others. Most of it falls within Čair Municipality and a smaller portion within Centar Municipality (for the sake of ease, the entirety of the Old Bazaar is covered in this travel guide). It roughly begins at Karpoš's Rebellion Square in the south and is bound by Gazi Baba Park to the east, the Vardar to the west, and Yahya Pasha Mosque (just north of Nikola Karev Boulevard) to the north. Čair Municipality extends further north but is primarily residential north of the Old Bazaar.
Bus lines in the area run along the east side of the Old Bazaar on Krste Misirikov Boulevard and/or Goce Delcev Boulevard which runs through the south end of the Old Bazaar. All bus lines northeast of the river runs through these two boulevard. If coming from the south of the river via bus, many lines run through the Old Bazaar and, if they don't, they'll at least stop in Centar which is a short walk to the Old Bazaar (map).
Nikola Karev Boulevard (known under different names over the length of the boulevard) is a major east-west boulevard in the city and it cuts through the middle of the Old Bazaar. Krste Misirkov Boulevard runs north-south through the eastern end of the district. Goce Delcev Boulevard runs east-west through the south end of the Old Bazaar.
The narrow streets and alleyways of Skopje's Old Town are best navigated on foot. Many streets are closed to vehicular traffic and those that aren't can still be difficult to drive on. The neighbourhood isn't huge, walking from Daut Pasha Hamam in the south to Yahya Pasha Mosque in the north is under a half hour walk. A bicycle is also a good way of getting around.
- 1 Skopje Fortress (Скопско кале). Stands on the highest hill in the Skopje valley and offers great views over the city. The oldest section of the fortress is within the present-day fortifications. It was built in the Opus Quadrum style (huge stone blocks on the outside and small stones inside) by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I who was born in the village of Tauresium near Skopje. After the great earthquake of 518 when ancient Scupi was destroyed, Justinian decided to build Justinijana Prima on the site of present day Skopje. However, most of the present day fortifications originate from the 10th and 13th centuries. It was reinforced during the Turkish rule when the number of towers was up to 70 (today there are just a few standing) and the fortress went down to the river. The small gate from the side of the Old Bazaar is the only gate still standing and it was built in 1446. There are active excavations taking place within the fortress. Free.
- 2 Karpoš's Rebellion Square (Плоштад Карпошово востание). At the entrance from Centar to the Old Town. Across the Stone Bridge from Macedonia Square and the colossal statue and fountain of Alexander the Great, Karpoš's Rebellion Square has an equally massive statue and fountain of Philip II. Having received a major facelift in the Skopje 2014 project, it also now contains many monuments. Smaller monuments include those of Sts. Naum and Clement of Ohrid, Sts. Cyril and Methodius, "Horses", "Lions", and "Mothers of Macedonia."
- 3 Philip II Monument (Warrior). The centerpiece of the square is a 15-m (49-ft) statue of Philip II placed on top of a 13-m (43-ft) pedestal. The figure raises a clenched fists in the air toward the monument of his son across the river.
- 4 Church of St Demetrius (Црква „Св. Димитриј“). This church has been in existence since the 1800s and got its present appearance after a renovation in 1896. Not too extraordinary in appearance, it also has a clock tower. In 2012, it received media attention after the frescoes inside reportedly returned perfectly to their original colour miraculously.
- 5 Bedesten (Безистен). The most precious goods, like silk, spices, jewelry and perfumes were sold in the bedesten, a covered market within the Old Bazaar with gates which were closed in the evenings so the goods would be protected. Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi, who visited Skopje during the 17th century, wrote that only Damascus had a bigger and more beautiful bedesten than Skopje's at the time. The first market here was built in the 15th century, but, after various fires and disasters, it got its present appearance in 1899. It is now smaller but still has plenty of atmosphere. It has five short streets, small shops, and four gates.
- 6 Clock Tower (Саат-кула). Skopje’s clock tower, built in 1572, was the first in the entire Ottoman Empire, showing the importance of Skopje as a trading center. It takes 105 steps to reach the top of the hexagonal tower. It has more Islamic appearance than most other clock towers in North Macedonia. The clock on the clock tower was brought from Szeged, Hungary but it disappeared during the chaos after the 1963 earthquake and today is in a clock museum in Switzerland. It is located near the Sultan Murat Mosque.
- 7 Church of the Holy Saviour (Црква „Св. Спас“), ☏ . The most important church in central Skopje. The church is small and has a pleasant courtyard which contains the sarcophagus of North Macedonia's greatest national hero, Goce Delčev. There is a small museum about him in the buildings around the courtyard. The Ottoman Turks usually didn’t permit the building of new churches during their occupation, but as the empire weakened in the 18th century they began issuing permits to appease the population. However, there were many rules to be followed: the exterior had to be without decorations and the floor of the church had to be at least one meter below ground so the church wouldn’t dominate the city skyline. St Saviour Church is example of one of these churches. It was built in the early 1800s on the site of a church destroyed in the 1689 fire (upon entering, on the right are remains of the frescoes and the level of the earlier church). While the exterior is rather simple, the church is famous for its interior and wood carving. The iconostasis is the work of Petre Filipovski-Garkata and Marko and Makarie Frčkovski, the best woodworking artists in the 19th century in North Macedonia. The beauty of it is that it is a deep wood carving from whole wood boards (the figures are not attached to each other), and it is not covered with golden paint, as it is tradition in Orthodox churches, so the game of light and dark shades is quite dramatic. The iconostasis was made from 1819 to 1824 and is 10 m long and 7 m tall. There are scenes from the Old and New testaments. The figurines are each 7 cm tall. Look for the creation of Adam and Eve on one of the columns next to the doors of the altar and the dance of Salome, where she dances for king Irod so he would give her the head of St John the Baptist. On the far right are self-portraits of the artists, presented as they are working on the iconostasis. The icons are some of the best of the Byzantine revival.
- 8 Skanderbeg Square (Плоштад Скендербег). The centerpiece of this under-construction square is an equestrian statue of Albanian national hero Skanderbeg. The square is to extend on top of Goce Delčev Boulevard from behind the Macedonian Philharmonic to the Old Bazaar.
Skopje's three remaining caravansaries or inns (Turkish: han) are square in shape with a main courtyard in the centre. The three hans, while no longer operating as inns, are all accessible to the public.
- 9 Kapan Han (Капан-ан). The Kapan Han was built in the 15th century by Isa Bey Ishaković. It operated as a han up until World War II. The ground floor housed the guests' horses and cattle, while the guests stayed in the 44 rooms on the second floor. Today, it houses a nice restaurant but anyone is free to simply walk in and roam the two floors to get an idea of what it was like to stay at one of these places in Ottoman times. After taking in the lovely atmosphere, you'll probably want to stick around for a meal anyway.
- 10 Suli Han (Сули-ан). Like the Kapan Han, it was built in the 15th century by Ishak Bey. It is the second-biggest of the three caravansaries and has two floors. Today, it houses the Old Bazaar Museum, and the Arts Faculty of Sts. Cyril and Methodius University.
- 11 Kurşumli Han (Куршумли-ан). The Kurşumli Han (Turkish for "Lead Inn") is the largest and the most beautiful of the three remaining Ottoman caravansaries. It was built in 1550 by Mula Musledin Hoca, the son of a scientist on the court of Sultan Selim II. Both the ground and the first floor are made of stone and beautiful arches line the courtyard. The han has two courtyards, the second one was used to house the horses and the goods of the merchants and the guests, while the rooms around the first courtyard both on the ground and the first floor housed the guests. There is a water fountain in the middle of the first courtyard. The roof was covered with lead, and that is how the han got its name. Today, the Kurşumli Han is part of the Museum of Macedonia and houses the lapidary.
The Old Bazaar has a number of mosques, most of which date from Ottoman times. The more notable ones are listed below; others include the 15th-century Hacı Balaban Mosque, the 18th-century Cose Kadi Mosque, and the newer Arasta and Hudaverdi mosques built as reconstructions of older mosques. Many of the mosques are named after the sultan, pasha (general or governor), or bey (local ruler) who commissioned its construction.
- 12 Mustafa Pasha Mosque (Мустафа-пашина џамија), ☏ . Standing on a plateau above the Old Bazaar, this mosque is one of the most beautiful Islamic buildings in North Macedonia. It was built in 1492 by Mustafa Pasha, vizier on the court of Sultan Selim I. The mosque is elegant and intact; no additions have been made through the years. It has a dome, a tall minaret, and a three-domed portico. The interior is beautiful, simple, and spacious. The courtyard is quite peaceful and has a türbe (tomb) where the daughter of Mustafa Pasha is buried. The mosque provides good views of the rest of the bazaar. Free.
- 13 Sultan Murat Mosque (Султан-муратова џамија), ☏ . Built in 1436, the Sultan Murat Mosque may be the oldest surviving mosque in the Balkans. It is also one of the largest mosques in North Macedonia. It was built with money donated by Sultan Murat II himself and whenever adjustments or repairs were needed, the sultan at the time would pay for it. It stands on a plateau next to the Clock Tower, where a monastery used to stand prior to Ottoman invasion. The fortifications of the monastery still stand around the plateau. The main architect of the mosque was Hussein from Debar. It is rectangular in shape, with a porch including four columns with decorated caplets, connected by arcades
- 14 Ishak Bey Mosque (Исхак-бегова џамија). Built in 1438 by Ishak Bey, a year before his death. He led the army that conquered Macedonia and later settled in Skopje. The mosque was beautifully decorated with glazed tiles in different shades of blue, but it suffered greatly during the fire of 1689, and was rebuilt afterwards without the tile decorations. The six-sided türbe (mausoleum) that stands next to the mosque didn’t suffer in the fire and still has its tiles. Ishak Bey established one of the first Islamic libraries in Europe in the mosque. The mosque has a large dome, in addition to multiple smaller ones, and a 30-m (98-ft) tall minaret.
- 15 Isa Bey Mosque (Иса-бегова џамија). Built in 1475 by Isa Bey. The unique feature of this mosque is that it has two main domes. The mosque also has a 5 domed porch and a single minaret. The mosque is behind the Čair Hospital across the street from Bit Pazar.
- 16 Yahya Pasha Mosque (Јахја-пашина џамија). Built in 1504 by Yahya Pasha, a commander in the Turkish army and son-in-law of Sultan Bayezid II and vizier on his court. The mosque is interesting because the roof is in the shape of a pyramid instead of the usual dome, as well as its detailed windows. The minaret is the tallest one in Skopje at 50 m (164 ft) and has been hit by lightning twice.
- 17 Murat Pasha Mosque (Мурат-пашина џамија). This mosque, built in 1803, was built in the Ottoman Baroque style. It sits in a well-frequented location at the confluence of two major streets. The fountain in the yard was built in 1937. It has one minaret.
- 18 Museum of Contemporary Art (Музеј на современата уметност). Tu-Sa 10:00-17:00, Su 9:00-13:00, closed Mondays; Library M-F 09:00-15:00. The museum has a collection of 4,800 artworks, out of which 1,760 are gifts from artists from 61 countries, including Picasso, Aleshinski, Leze, Sulaz, Lui Can, Hartung, Gaitis, Buri, Millares, Kemeni, Kalder, Vasarely, and others. All these artists donated their works to the city after the earthquake in 1963 for the new art museum. The building itself, in the modern style, is a gift from Poland. Around 1,600 works are from Macedonian artists. With all of this, Skopje actually has the most complete and biggest collection of contemporary art in Southeastern Europe. It sits peacefully on the same hill has the fortress, which also makes it a good place for a view of the city. Free.
- 19 Museum of Macedonia (Музеј на Македонија). Divided in three departments: Archaeological, Historical, and Ethnological. The ethnological department in particular is worth a visit: it has about 70 original national costumes from different parts of North Macedonia, all decorated with highly stylised patterns. Look for the wedding dress from Mariovo, it weighs 40 kg, and the wig that brides had to wear for a month after their weddings as a symbol of their virginity. Also different customs are explained and there is also a good presentation of traditional architecture through models and photographs. The archaeological section has a rich collection of objects from 5000 BC through the 7th century. The highlights are the Tetovo Menada figurine (from the 6th century BC) and the prehistoric figurines of the Great Mother. Unique are the 6th century terracotta icons from Vinica (icons like this have been found only in Tunisia and North Macedonia). The historic department is not as interesting, but it does present copies of the best frescoes from in North Macedonia (which is good if one is interested in Byzantine art but doesn't have time to travel around). The museum also has a Gallery of Icons, holding icons from the 10th to the 19th centuries, but the Ohrid collection is still much nicer and more valuable.
Two of the Stara Čaršija's museums are former hamams (Turkish baths) built during Ottoman times. Each is worth a visit whether you have actual interest in the exhibits or simply wish to see the interior of a Turkish bath. Two other hamams exist in the Old Bazaar but they are both largely in disrepair.
- 20 Çifte Hamam (Чифте амам), ☏ . The Çifte Hamam (Turkish for "double bath") was built in the middle of the 15th century by Isa Bey Ishaković. It was used as both a male and female bath, but unlike Daut Pasha Hamam where both parts go parallel to each other, here the heating room is in the middle and the entrances are on the opposite sides. It has two main domes and multiple smaller ones. Today it is used as a gallery for temporary exhibits of the National Art Gallery, which is mainly housed in Skopje's other major hamam.
- 21 Daut Pasha Hamam (Даут-пашин амам). Daut Pasha was the grand vizier of East Rumelia in the second half of the 15th century. He was based in Skopje and the legend goes that he built the hamam for the needs of his harem. Before he left, he donated the hamam to the city. It was a double bath, both for males and females (who bathed separately of course), with the male and the female sections going parallel to each other. The two big domes in the front covered the two dressing rooms, which had water fountains in the middle. Each of the small domes covered a separate room for bathing. The heating room was on the end. Today, the hamam serves as the National Art Gallery with a great collection of late 19th and 20th century art, though it is worth a visit alone to see the elaborate decorations of the domes.
- Skopje Walks. 10am daily. A free walking tour of the major sites in Centar and the Old Town. The tour lasts about 3 hours. Free (tips accepted).
- 1 Bit Pazar (Бит-пазар), ☏ . At the northern end of the Old Bazaar is the Bit Pazar, the main centre of trade in agricultural and handicraft products in Skopje for centuries. It is basically crowded everyday but particularly so on weekends. Bring your haggling skills and enjoy some locally grown fruits and vegetables, or whatever catches your eye - the variety of goods sold here is impressive.
- 2 Mavrovka, ☏ . Typical shopping mall, decent variety of restaurant and store options. Located at the intersection of Goce Delčev and Krste Misirikov boulevards.
- 1 Restaurant Makedonska Kukja, ☏ . Traditional Macedonian cuisine.
- 1 Pivnica Star Grad, ☏ . Live music and homemade beer. It also serves some small plates.
- 2 Hotel Arka, Ul. Bitpazarska 90/2, ☏ . Even if you are not staying at this hotel, do go to the rooftop bar at the seventh floor and take in the view with a drink. After grabbing your drink from the bar, enjoy the panoramic view from the window side behind the pool. However, the view gets even better than this. Take the staircase up and you'll find yourself in another room with seating. This room has doors on two sides to the outside walkway/patios. Yet still, the view gets better. At one end of these walkways, there are additional steps to go further up onto an elevated patio. This is arguably the best view of Old Bazaar. You can see all the minarets, the fortress, the shops, etc.
- 1 Hotel Super 8 - Skopje, ☏ . At the major intersection of Goce Delcev and Krste Misirikov boulevards.
- 2 Bushi Resort & Spa, Kjurchiska 21, ☏ . Just below Mustafa Pasha Mosque, this resort & spa hotel is a bit pricier than other hotels in the neighbourhood but it has a great location.
- 3 Hotel Arka, Ul. Bitpazarska 90/2, ☏ . Near the Bit Pazar, this hotel features a rooftop bar (described above in "Drink").
- 4 Hotel Gold, ☏ . One of the most expensive in the area but has great service and a location just west of the Sultan Murat Mosque and the Clock Tower.