Things to Do in Bitola: North Macedonia’s Most Captivating City
Sat at a table positioned on the cobbles of the traditional Ottoman bazaar, I sip my strong, dark coffee while watching the daily life of Bitola unfold around us. Vendors sell their wares in the small market stalls with (what looks like the) original metal shutters, older men sit around in groups and play cards in the street, well-cared-for stray dogs come over to greet you with an excitable wag of their tail. Life in this vibrant and easy-going city moves at a gentle pace. Steeped in history and full of architectural beauty, Bitola is captivating.
We only stayed in Bitola for three nights, but I have such a soft spot for the city. There is no doubt in my mind that we will return, and it is somewhere that I would even consider living. Almost unknown to tourists, even when visiting the phenomenally well preserved mosaics of Heraclea Lyncestis, we were the only people there (bar the archaeologists!). I am definitely feeling the pressure to do a good enough job on this post of one of my all-time favourite cities. So, here it goes.
It’s all in the details
Things to Do in Bitola: North Macedonia’s Most Captivating City
Bitola’s Back Story
The city was founded in the 4th century BC by Philip II (father of Alexander the Great) as Heraclea Lyncestis of the ancient kingdom of Macedonia. Bitola is one of North Macedonia’s oldest cities.
Located in the south west of North Macedonia, Bitola was situated at an important and strategic position on trading routes between Turkey, Greece and Central Europe. Its great trading power led to many countries opening up consulates here, and the city was therefore given the name ‘City of Consuls’. Because of this prime location, it has been subjected to numerous invasions and has been ruled by many different empires or powers throughout history, notably Ottoman, Bulgarian, Serbian.
The trading routes, the consulates and the continuous invasions have left Bitola with a real mixture of cultural influences. The old bazaar is in a typical Ottoman style, whereas the newer part of the city feels very Mediterranean European.
You could spend one full day exploring the city and Heraclea Lyncestis, or stay for a few days (like we did) and really soak up all the culture and laid-back atmosphere.
How to Get to Bitola
The closest airport to Bitola is Ohrid International Airport (OHD). From here, buses are probably your best bet. We were told by locals that the train service isn’t very reliable.
Buses we took to and from Bitola:
Ohrid to Bitola: cost 370 MKD and took an hour and a half, leaving Ohrid at 12:20.
Bitola to Krusevo: cost 240 MKD and took less than an hour, leaving Bitola at 12:20.
As Bitola is in the very south of the country, there are buses and trains that cross the border into Greece going to Thessaloniki.
Where to Stay in Bitola
We booked a room at Zaro Apartments. The rooms are modern and spacious, feature a shared kitchen facility and outside courtyard with seating. The staff were really helpful and friendly, even buying Chris a tube of superglue to patch up his beloved flip flops (another story for another time). A couple of roads away from Shirok Sokak, the apartment is in the perfect location: a five minute walk to restaurants, cafes etc. but still in a quiet spot.
Marvel at the Spectacular Mosaics of Ancient Heraclea Lyncestis
This is the main event on a visit to Bitola. A twenty minute walk out of the main town centre will bring you to the ruins of the ancient city. Inside, there have been excavations that have brought to life baths, basilicas and an amphitheatre, but the absolute stand-out part was the vast array of extravagant mosaic flooring that is miraculously well-preserved. Featuring trees, animals and intricate patterns, it is mind-blowing that these are still so bright and colourful, especially as the mosaics are fully exposed to the elements (there is no cover/shelter). Going to Heraclea Lyncestis is 100% worth the time and money just to see the sheer magnificence of these mosaics.
Now, controversial opinion based on all other blogs I have read on this archaeological site, the site and the ruins themselves are only ok. The whole site is frustratingly disorganised. The numbered plaques don’t appear in a logical order meaning we had to keep turning back on ourselves and searching for the next plaque. The info provided on the audio guide app isn’t great – if you want to know the dimensions of each of the rooms, grand; otherwise, it won’t be providing you with much insight. Go to this site with an expectation to see THE most stunning mosaics instead of an expectation of being wowed by the ruins of the ancient city.
Tickets cost 120 MKD. Cash only.
So much detail
Venture Back in Time at Stara Čaršija (Old Bazaar)
Cobble stones, narrow alleyways, rusting metal shutters, paint starting to flake away to expose brickwork. It has so much character and is the perfect place to spend an afternoon moseying around the shops, stopping for coffee and watching the world go by. This place is real; not trying to be something that it’s not. You can imagine that it has been functioning in the same way since day one! And I love the place for that authenticity.
Old store front
Wander Shirok Sokak Pedestrian Street
Take a slow stroll down Shirok Sokak pedestrian street, camera in hand. This is where you will find some really interesting architecture, consulate buildings (it is the city of consuls after all!), retro signage, market stalls displaying handmade products, and make sure you keep an eye out for the house with the sundial and the tiny church under a tree.
Shirok Sokak pedestrian street
The sundial house
The tiniest church
Behold all Aspects of Bitola’s Magnolia Square
Stop by Magnolia Square to see the flag of Bitola on the floor in front of a statue of the founder of Heraclea Lyncestis, Philip II, and a Kutlesh sun fountain (a symbol of Macedonian nationalism). Beyond these, you will see the historic clock tower appearing through the trees, and an ‘I love Bitola’ sign. On the opposite side, is Yeni mosque, and in the background, you will see Ishak Chelebi mosque. This is a really peaceful area at the end of the busy pedestrian Shirok Sokak street, with green spaces and benches.
Stop for a Drink at Bar Čaršija
Ok, so the freddo cappuccino from here is reason enough to go. We went twice in the three days we were in Bitola purely for this magic freddo cappuccino! However, the initial reason we went was the fact that this now bar, is situated in what used to be a hammam 500 years ago. The original Ottoman details are still present in the bar and so it still has all its traditional charm and sits here in the old bazaar.
The ultimate freddo cappuccino
Bar Čaršija’s beautiful interior
Try the Baklava at Antep Baklava Shop
Now, we have been to Antep (or Gaziantep), the birthplace of baklava and home to the tastiest pistachios you will ever try; and this baklava shop comes very close. The baklava is really sticky, drenched in syrup and stuffed with nuts. We even tried a version stuffed with cranberries that was really good too. Situated here on Shirok Sokak, it’s in an easy location to pop in for your hit of baklava.
Go Hunting for Street Art
You will find street art hidden around the city. The green space around the House of the Army, Nikola Tesla Street, Shirok Sokak, Partizanska main road and Split Street are where we found the vast majority.
Colourful street art
Windmill Street Art
Head up to the Abandoned Planes Viewpoint
This really was a weird thing to witness. Walking maybe thirty minutes out of town and up a hill, you will find two abandoned planes that have been graffitied all over. From up here, you have great views behind of rolling hills, and Bitola city in front. Searching for ‘The airplanes’ on Google Maps around Bitola will show you where to go.
Restaurants in Bitola
Surprisingly, Bitola had a pretty good selection of restaurants catering for vegetarians. Another reason why I love the place.
A twenty minute walk out of town, this was by far the best restaurant in Bitola with veggie options. It has a really vibrant atmosphere with a covered outside seating area and an art deco style interior. This place is always buzzing with Macedonians no matter the time of day; we were always the only tourists. Some of the servers spoke English, some didn’t, and the physical menus were only in Macedonian (this is the key to knowing you’re in an authentic place!), but there was an online menu showing English translations.
The breakfasts are beautiful: French toast with Nutella and berries, a range of fried eggs/omelettes with different toppings served with fresh bread (the Italian one with pesto and sundried tomatoes is the ultimate), and super umami mushroom soup.
They also serve pizzas, pastas, paella, bruschetta, the list is endless. Whatever you order, it will be outrageously tasty and you’ll be returning the next day to try something else.
The Italian one
This place has a separate vegan menu, and plenty of vegetarian options too. There is an entire page of salads alone, falafel, veg stew, vegan burger, pizzas, pastas, risotto, melted cheese in a pot with bread. We went back twice because there were so many options for us.
Falafel with mustard really works
This place serves vegan wraps and burgers made with seitan, chickpea patties etc. and pizzas, fresh juices and smoothies. We made sure we ordered two different burgers so that we could try more of the menu.
The seitan steak burger
Have you been to Bitola? Is there anything else you would add?
I’d love to hear your thoughts, recommendations or questions.
Thanks for reading!