Bitola, shifting irresistibly away from the rest of Macedonia when it comes to tourism in urban cities, offers a wide spectrum of things to do while visiting. Second in size and population only to Skopje, and surrounded by the riches of the national park Pelister it is, so to speak, a perfect blend of several types of tourism.
Culture and commerce work, more or less in tandem, with administration, education and industry. Together, these help to create and maintain the hidden rhythm of Bitola- a modern, urban and progressive city where there is enough space for everything and almost everybody.
The geographical location renders unique advantages to Bitola, for it is located only about 14 kilometers from the Medzitlia-Niki border with Greece, and it is also fairly close to Ohrid, Galicica, and the national park Pelister. In effect, this enables you as a tourist to settle in Bitola, while exploring the region.
There are many locations to visit and a formidable number of things to do, but the fact that Bitola rests on the entrance to the national park Pelister and is also very close to the ancient site of Heraclea dwarfs them in significance. This is more so for those who praise adventure, outdoor fun, and exploring ancient history. But there is too quite much to see for the urban traveler.
For whatever else might be said, Bitola offers a garden variety of important objects you ought to visit if you are interested in old European culture.
The great thing is that much can be seen in a day. For unlike Skopje and other big cities, Bitola lacks the traffic jams and crowded city center. There is always lot of people making the city feel vibrant and colorful, but you can navigate from one place to the next surprisingly easy.
One or two days buy you a lot of places to see, except of course the National Park Pelister or the ancient site of Heraclea which will require an additional day or two, depending on your preferences (a hike, mountain bike tours, paragliding or whatnot).
The rhythm that moves Bitola may have to do with the fact that it is known as the city of consuls. An important political and economic center during the ottoman period, Bitola attracted quite a lot of consulates. With them they brought what were then the current culture trends of Europe. Henceforth, the city changed completely. Much the same is increasingly true about the people. Adopting European culture even before the turn of the century, Bitola became urban and modern.
The old houses still reflect some shade of ottoman architecture, and the neoclassical burst that came afterwards still dominates. In winter, when the temperatures can drop to even minus 25 degrees Celsius and the streets are covered with thick snow, this neoclassical architecture gives the city a very romantic look. Don’t worry though, in summer the temperature can go even as far as 40 degrees Celsius.
If architecture alone gives Bitola its recognizable look, Sirok sokak, the popular pedestrian street where most of the cafes are being located, reflects the urban rhythm that came hand in hand with the consuls and European culture. For the average foreigner traveling on a budget, it is fairly cheap, and you can really relax when it comes to eating out, shopping, and visiting around.
Places to visit
Assuming that you would like to get to know the city right away, Sirok Sokak is as good a place to start as any. Have your coffee in one of the cafes and blend in with the pace at which people who live here move. Running from Magnolia square to the city park, it is the urban hearth of Bitola. Turkish coffee, a superior equivalent to black coffee, is what I will personally go for. All things being equal, it will give you a better boost to start your day.
The clock tower is an interesting site, and the story behind it is less than coherent. The actual date of origin is vague, and though some believe that it originates from the 16 century, others say it was built during the period of 1830. The legend goes that the ottomans collected 60,000 eggs from nearby villages, and mixed them into the mortar in order to make the walls stronger.
The Covered Bazar, a true rarity in itself, is another place you ought to visit. Situated near the city center, the covered bazaar is one of the most impressive and oldest buildings in Bitola from the Turkish period. With its numerous cupolas that look like a fortress, with its tree-branch-like inner streets and four big metal doors it is one of the biggest covered markets in the region.
You can enter the flow and start spending money as soon as you lay eyes on old workshops and stores, selling merchandise quite unique you won’t be able to find in branded shops. The stores changed along the years and now they appeal to contemporary styles. But no matter what the internal transformations, the outer appearance stayed unchanged.
The Church of saint Demetrius will certainly appeal to those who seek cultural thrill, and surprise them with the obvious discrepancy between a pale-looking outside, as all churches during the ottoman period had to be, and a gorgeous, lavishly decorated insides. Decorated with chandeliers, a carved bishop throne and an engraved iconostasis, this church represents rather important cultural heritage. According to some theories, the iconostasis is a work of the Mijak engravers. Its most impressive feature is the arc above the imperial quarters with modeled figures of Jesus and the apostles.
The old Bazar has also a unique appearance you should enjoy if you are into old European culture. For it is precisely through places like this that you get the feeling of change through the centuries. Urban and old, intermingled into one- it is what makes Bitola so unique.
The Adjar-Kadi mosque is the most impressive monument to Islamic architecture in Bitola. It commands quite a lot of attention, and is placed among the couple of must-see places in this city. Other mosques you ought to visit are the Jeni mosque, Ishak Celebi mosque, and the Kodza-Kadi mosque.
Things to do
In affluence of places to visit, a single day in Bitola can make for a memorable experience. You can relax and enjoy some coffee, eat in traditional Macedonian restaurants, take a tour and visit all the places described above. And then some. Since there is always something considered fairly unimportant that might catch your eye. Predictably, people fall in love with this city right away.
In terms of art, if you are into movies, you ought to sit down while reading this- Bitola hosts the Manaki Film Festival- a well-known movie festival where many important people from the movie industry use to pay a visit.
A more Macedonian experience offers ‘Serenade on Sirok Sokak’, where you get to see the town filled with performers and musicians, literally occupying every corner in a nice and somewhat relaxed atmosphere.
If you are interested in Macedonian music, Bitola is the place where Karolina Goceva comes from. Probably the most famous female vocal in Macedonia, who after years of producing great pop music finally decided to dedicate her time on taking old Macedonian songs and transforming them in excellent jazz or pop versions. If you want to take away a blend of Macedonian traditional music and a more urban sound, I urge you to buy her latest albums.
Bitola has a lot going on for a city you never heard before. Though the frosting on the cake is yet to come, since after exploring the city you ought to see the ancient site Heraclea, and of course take a trip to the national park of Pelister.
Heraclea, a rarity in the region, was an important ancient settlement from the Hellenistic period till the early Middle Ages. It was founded by Philip II of Macedon by the middle of the 4th century BC. Today, its ruins fall in the southern part of Bitola, 2 km (1 mi) from the city center. For those who enjoy this type of tourist attractions, well, it is really something that deserves attention.
The national park of Pelister offers an incredibly wide spectrum of exquisite flora and fauna, among which the rarest species of pine, and a ski-resort worth visiting regardless whether you are into winter sports or not. Through summer it has many picturesque hiking trails, mountain biking trails, and some of the most scenic mountain lakes.
Bitola and its region are the perfect blend of modern and old, urban and nature, various types of tourism anyone can enjoy. Its geographical location, culture, and history account for what is now a place you will certainly remember long after you are done with your trip.