I was super excited to go to Ohrid, a tiny city on the hilly shores of Lake Ohrid, North Macedonia. I’d met tonnes of people in the Balkans that had told me enchanting tales of swimming in the lake in the summer sun, relaxing on boats and having picnics on the shore, their surroundings taken straight from the pages of a fairytale.
My friend Sarah and I had been holding on to giant rubber rings from our time in Himara, Albania, eager to while away the last of the summer sun drinking cold beers and floating around Lake Ohrid without a care in the world.
However, as with all the best laid plans of mice and men, unfortunately that was not to be. We arrived in Ohrid at the beginning of October, and while it was still sunny, it was far too cold to go swimming in the water, and much too windy to enjoy a boat trip. This meant that we missed out on two of the main reasons people choose to visit this magnificent lake, which is one of Europe’s oldest and deepest.
That said, we still managed to make the most of our time in the cutesy little city of Ohrid, North Macedonia, so just carry on reading to find out how!
Getting to Ohrid, North Macedonia
I took a bus to Struga (a 20 minute drive from Ohrid) from Tirana, Albania, and the cost was around 15 EU. The bus left from Tirana Central Bus Station at 4pm and was supposed to take 4 hours, but took about 6 and a half because, uh, Balkans.
When we reached the border, we all had to get off the bus and have our hand luggage AND suitcases/backpacks examined by the border police. This was a painstakingly slow process even though it was around 9pm and we were the only bus at the border. God knows how long it would have taken if we’d had to queue. I have heard that travel out of Albania is often like this due to the large amount of drugs that get smuggled out of the country.
When we eventually reached Struga, the bus stopped at a random place at the side of the road and kicked us off. We didn’t seem to be at any sort of central bus or train station (or if we were, it was definitely closed for the night!). Luckily, there was one lone taxi waiting nearby so I ran over and was relieved to find that the couple already negotiating with the driver were English.
‘Hi, can I join you?’ I asked, not knowing what the hell I would have done if they’d said no.
Thankfully they didn’t, and so the 3 of us took the 20 minute journey to Ohrid together. I’m adding all of this information, not to deter anyone, but to recommend that you take an earlier bus so that you don’t get stranded in Struga after dark and with no clue how to get to Ohrid!
Off-Season in Ohrid
After eventually getting to my hostel, Sunny Lake Hostel, at about 11pm, I found Sarah waiting for me with a bunch of new friends and a cold beer (she’d been travelling from Korca in Albania). After telling me how worried she’d been and expressing her relief that I hadn’t been kidnapped, we all sank a few beers and crashed for the night.
The next day, we decided to go and explore. First stop, of course, was brunch, and so we walked through the old town and down to the waterfront to find somewhere to eat. Sunny Lake Hostel is about a 5 minute walk to all of the restaurants along the water, and so it didn’t take us long to choose somewhere.
With it being off-season, it was still warm enough to sit outside, but the restaurants weren’t too busy. There were a few tourists (mainly Balkan), but not too many, which was kind of a relief – I’ve heard Ohrid in the summer is manic. Deciding to treat ourselves, we ordered huge pizzas which we couldn’t finish but got the leftovers to take away and eat later (I don’t waste pizza okay?).
After we’d eaten until we were stuffed, we couldn’t resist taking some time to play with some of the street dogs. There are a lot of stray dogs in North Macedonia, but the locals keep them well-fed and the government tags all strays with a yellow tag on their ear to show that they have been vaccinated and spayed/neutered. The dogs also receive regular check-ups by the vet, sponsored by the North Macedonian government.
After spending a very long time playing with the handsome boys (some may say too long), we headed off in search of Ohrid’s most famous and photographed church – Sveti Johan Kaneo (or the Church of St. John at Kaneo), along with a cute little black pup that we named Buddy, who followed us for the entire afternoon.
The Sveti Johan Kaneo church isn’t very far from the promenade, and the walk up to it is stunning, with the lake on one side and the old houses of the old town on the other. En route, we stopped at the Crkva Sveta Sofija (or the Church of St. Sophia), and had a brief wander around, before continuing on with our journey. We had to take turns babysitting Buddy outside so that he wouldn’t follow us in!
When we reached Sveti Johan Kaneo, there was one large tour group there, but they left before long and so we walked up the the viewing point and took in the breathtaking views of Lake Ohrid and the church. As the area surrounding the church is so small, I can imagine it getting way too crowded in high-season, another small blessing for us. Unfortunately, however, the church itself was closed, and so we were unable to go inside it. If I knew the reason why, I’d tell you, but I don’t so…there’s that.
After this, we decided that it was time to head back to the hostel to finish our leftover pizza and get showered and changed, ready for the night ahead!
After some pre-party beers in the common room, we all headed out to a local jazz bar named Jazz Inn. Jazz Inn was just my kind of place – a dive bar with low lighting, dark red walls and good beer. After having a drink there, the general consensus was that we wanted to go somewhere to dance, so following the recommendation of the hostel owner, we went to Cuba Libre Nightclub and danced the night away to live music.
Honestly, I really rated both of the bars that we went to so I highly recommend a visit to them if you find yourself in Ohrid!
Our next and final day in Ohrid was a bit of a write-off. Not only were most of our group feeling very fragile (not me because I’m an alcoholic, wahey), but it was also pretty cloudy, and so our plans of going to sunbathe were foiled.
Deciding not to let the weather hamper our fun, we set out to find Cuba Libre Beach Club, a more relaxed outdoor venue further along the waterfront, and we were extremely happy to discover that they not only sold Bloody Marys but also FRIED CHEESE.
Think of a better hangover cure than an extra spicy Bloody Mary and a huge slab of breaded fried cheese, I dare you.
For the rest of the afternoon we lounged around at Cuba Libre, before playing with our doggy friends again (did I mention that Buddy followed us all the way to Jazz Inn the previous night, or Cuba Libre this afternoon?!) and heading back to the hostel. That night we couldn’t be bothered going out again, so we hung out in the common room, drinking Macedonian beer and rakija.
Budget Accommodation in Ohrid, North Macedonia
I stayed at Sunny Lake Hostel and I really recommend it to backpackers travelling to Ohrid. Both of the guys that I met who worked there were lovely, and there is a cosy common room with Netflix and games including Fifa for a rainy (or hungover!) day inside. There is also a super cute balcony upstairs with views over the lake where you can enjoy your morning coffee and the free hostel breakfast.
Not only that, but Sunny Lake Hostel is also smack bang in the centre of the old town, just a few minutes away from the main promenade and Lake Ohrid itself.
To book your stay at Sunny Lake Hostel, just click here!
Ohrid in Off-Season – Final Thoughts
While it is undeniable that we would have been able to do a lot more in Ohrid, had we visited a few weeks earlier, I still really enjoyed my time in this charming lakeside city.
It was a shame that we were unable to go on a boat trip, and I had been really looking forward to swimming, but Ohrid is still a lovely place to just wander around, visit churches and relax. The crowds were much smaller than they would have been in high-season, but yet there were still enough people in the bars and restaurants to stop Ohrid feeling like a ghost town. In addition to that, the lack of crowds meant that we could appreciate the scenery a lot more (especially from the viewpoint at Sveti Johan Kaneo) and get to know Ohrid as the laid back, sleepy city that the locals know it as.
If you’re looking for somewhere with stunning scenery, a laid back atmosphere and affordable food and accommodation then I wholeheartedly recommend a trip to Ohrid in shoulder season.
Have you ever been to Ohrid in off/shoulder season? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below!
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