Visit One Of The World's Oldest Lakes At This Stunning European Destination

Over 30 years since the breakup of Yugoslavia, many of its former states remain a mystery to travelers. While Croatia, blessed with the vast majority of the old bloc's rugged coastline, also kept most of the tourists, its largely landlocked neighbors all reside well down the rankings for annual visitors. This makes the region ripe for discovery and there are many wonderful sights to check off the list, from Mostar's historic bridge in Bosnia to the dramatic mountain ranges of Montenegro. One of the best-kept secrets is also one of Europe's oldest: Lake Ohrid in North Macedonia.

Spreading across the border with neighboring Albania, Lake Ohrid is one of the world's oldest and deepest. Plunging to 288 meters at its deepest point, it is at least a million years old. For comparison, most of the planet's lakes have only existed for around 18,000 years. With its dazzling blue waters surrounded by scenic hills and mountains, it is also regarded as one of the most beautiful lakes in Europe.

Chances are that if you've seen a photo of Lake Ohrid, it was taken from the picturesque Church of Saint John at Kaneo, gazing out across the waters from its rocky promontory on the edge of Ohrid city. It is one of the most famous postcard images of the lake, but there is plenty more to discover on a trip to this gorgeous and little-visited UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Ohrid city and the eastern shore

Lake Ohrid is situated in the southwest corner of North Macedonia, a three-hour drive from the capital, Skopje. Around 200,000 people visit the lake annually, and several resorts have sprung up along its banks to offer a freshwater summer vacation alternative. As the largest city on the lakeshore, the photogenic Ohrid is a natural starting point for many visitors. The historic town has plenty to see, from its ancient fortress and amphitheater to its glorious Byzantine architecture and the Old Bazaar. 

Ohrid also has pebbly beaches stretching to the north and south of the Old Town with all the amenities you would expect from a regular seaside trip: bars, restaurants, and hotels with a view. Watersports are also abundant, with kayaking, wakeboarding, and paddleboarding all providing great ways to take in the scenery from the water. A less strenuous option is to rent a boat or take a cruise around the lake.

As you travel south from Ohrid, hotels and resorts gradually give way to campgrounds. One popular site is Gradishte, where campers enjoy four beaches near the atmospherically named Bay of Bones museum. At the southern end of the lake, the Galicica National Park is great for hikers. From its heights, you can look over Lake Ohrid and neighboring Lake Prespa. There are more photogenic landmarks in this southern region; the monasteries of Saint Naum and the Holy Mother God flank the village of Ljubanista with its sandy beaches, homey villas, and well-equipped campsites.

Struga and the western shore

The resort town of Struga at the north end of Lake Ohrid offers a good alternative to the more heavily touristed Ohrid city. Struga is a river town as well as a lake town, with bars and restaurants on the banks of the Black Drin; bridge jumping is also a popular local pastime! As with anywhere in the region, Lake Ohrid is still the main focal point with shallow waters and a promenade lined with beaches, parks, and lively bars and restaurants. 

Struga's population can double in the peak season with the influx of holidaymakers, so those seeking a little more tranquility might prefer one of the quieter villages, campsites or resorts dotted along the western shore of Lake Ohrid. The forested hills around the village of Elen Kamen are crisscrossed with hiking trails and farther south is Radozhda, where several restaurants with gorgeous views specialize in fresh fish from boat to plate.

Temperatures can get pretty hot around Lake Ohrid in the summer months, with long sunny days and pleasantly balmy evenings. The abundance of resorts, hotels, and campsites along the shores just goes to show that you don't need the sea for a vacation by the coast. North Macedonia is developing a reputation as the hidden gem of the Balkans, and this ancient lake is a great place to enjoy it before everyone else gets in on the secret.