The vast and stunningly beautiful Lake Ohrid is the jewel in the crown of the country of North Macedonia. The natural wonder knows no human boundaries, as it stretches out to encompass the land border between Macedonia and Albania, peacefully lapping against both shorelines.
The ancient lake, one of the world’s oldest, is protected as a World Heritage Site. It’s famous for an unspoiled environment with rich flora and fauna, luminous clear water and impressive surrounding mountains.
Ohrid is a popular tourist spot for summer travellers who love water sports like fishing, diving and sailing or dining on fresh Ohrid Koran trout not found elsewhere.
Winter on Lake Ohrid is also glorious in a very different way, after the crowds are gone, and the mood has changed to embrace the silence of the season.
There are three cities on Lake Ohrid to enjoy during winter months; Ohrid and Struga in Macedonia, and Podgradec, on Albania’s western side of the lake. Numerous villages dot the lakeside region, plus there are notable monuments to explore. Each city has its own nuances that make winter a magical, enchanting time.
The Qafë Thanë land border between Struga, Macedonia and Pogradec, Albania is barely there; just a small guard box at the side of the highway. It’s probably one of the easiest border crossings in the world!
If you hire a driver, he’ll stop and take your passport for electronic stamping. If you drive yourself, do stop and get your passport noted, or you’ll have no record of your entry date, which could be an issue on leaving Albania.
There’s a second land border between Pogradec and Ohrid (the southern route around the lake); the Tushemisht Border, on the Albanian side, and St. Naum Border on the Macedonian side.
This route is not as popular, as it’s more time-consuming and involves walking between 15-30 minutes on either side (or hiring a taxi) – certainly doable, but not recommended during snowy or wintry conditions, for comfort’s sake...
The city of Ohrid, in southwestern Macedonia, is perched on the eastern shore of Lake Ohrid at an elevation of 395 meters. Winters in Ohrid start off cloudy and rainy, which lends a bewitching aura to the town.
The grey, green, and deep blue tones of the landscape are a perfect backdrop for long walks along the lakeside promenade. It doesn’t rain every day, but even when it does, you can wander the Old Town in the mists and enjoy Ohrid’s historic Byzantine architecture.
Many summer lake-front dining options close during winter, but you’ll still find taverns and restaurants that stay open year-round for traditional Macedonian meals, pizza, roasted chicken and other delights. Plus, there are many bar-cafes set along winding, narrow, stone alleyways and lining the lakeside, for a coffee, mulled cider or even a hit of the local rakija brandy that is sure to keep you warm!
It’s easy to get lost in gazing at the ethereal lake for hours, or admiring the city at night, as it’s decked with festive holiday lights and decorations. Ohrid hosts Christmas Markets and music performances, with the largest celebration of Christmas onJanuary 7th, as is the custom in Orthodox Christian communities.
On sunny winter days, the lake is sparkling, shimmery and splendid. These are the times to explore the numerous churches for which the town is known. At one point in history, Ohrid had 365 churches – one for each day of the year!
There are about 200 of these churches that remain, built between the 9th and 17th centuries and dedicated to various saints over the span of time. A self-guided walking tour of those situated right within the Ohrid city limits will take between 1-2 hours to complete (depending on how many warm-up coffees you stop for in-between church visits!).
For a little jaunt outside of town, (30 km to the south) the charming Eastern Orthodox St. Naum Monastery is not to be missed. All Ohrid churches feature ancient frescoes and St. Naum has several of its own to enjoy; plus the monastery grounds and buildings are delightful. As the monastery sits high on the cliffs, the views of the surrounding mountains and the lake are breathtaking.
Moving into January, the snows arrive and Ohrid transforms into a picturesque winter haven, with romantic snow-dusted roofs and fairy-tale seasonal beauty. The glimmering snow-capped mountains beyond the lake are an inspiring sight and offer great opportunities for some winter hiking.
Another local event that is amazing to witness (even if you don’t participate!) is the January Epiphany Festival, also known as Vodici.
This day commemorates the baptism of St. John, and every year on January 19, throughout Macedonia, Orthodox males of all ages meet In the freezing cold temperatures at the country’s lakes and rivers. Lake Ohrid, being the largest body of water in the country, attracts participants numbering into the thousands.
A local priest throws a holy cross into the river or lake, and believers jump in to search for the cross. As the waters of the lake become murky with the activity, it is believed that one person will be spiritually guided to receive/find the cross. Finding the cross is a blessing, and is supposed to bring good luck to the recipient for the next full year.
After the thousands emerge from the lake, a huge public festival ensues, with lots of rakija (for warming up!), a fish dinner with other local delicacies, music and over-all lively celebration.
At Macedonia’s northernmost point of Lake Ohrid, you’ll find the lovely town of Struga, settled into a wide valley. The municipality is divided by the Black Drin River, which flows out of Lake Ohrid through Struga, and northward to connect with the White Drin, becoming The Drin as it flows through Albania, merging eventually with the Adriatic Sea.
Aside from the impressive lake, the focal point of the town is the river, and its attractive pedestrian walkway lined with shops, cafes, and arched wooden bridges connecting the two sides. The crystalline clear water of the river is mesmerizing, as it turns a mysterious blue-black in the winter evening light.
Struga has a long and gorgeous promenade lining its Lake Ohrid shoreline, with piers for lake viewing and restaurants for lingering over a meal. The dreamy views of the lake from any point in Struga are stupendous, and it’s interesting to note how different the lake appears in Struga, compared to the views in Ohrid to the south.
December often brings snows to Struga, with the city taking on a wintry holiday feel and look. Although many shops and restaurants shut down after summer, there are still numerous choices in the quaint Old Town area for local Macedonian and Turkish home-style meals, fast-food shawarma, byrek and pizza.
You’ll also find plenty of coffee/tea houses and a chocolate cafe for snuggling in with a warm drink and watching the many migrating birds as they cross the lake.
A classic activity for a clear winter day is a visit to the sleepy little fishing village of Radozhda, a 20-minute (10 km) drive outside Struga. After a pleasant ride through the forested countryside, you’ll reach the village that is all but shutdown, after the hectic tourist season. Here, you can relax for a few hours into the calm and peaceful vibe of Macedonian village life.
The town, built against a single mountain cliffside, directly faces Lake Ohrid, offering expansive views. The lake’s winter colors of slate, silvery blue and dusty teal are soothing and soul-satisfying.
As you stroll the (one) road, you can admire the town built up the cliffside, the smoke from chimneys curling skyward, while the scent of burning wood fills the air.
You might come across a friendly resident or two, as they turn their garden for the winter or walk about on their daily business. There’s at least one restaurant that stays open during this time, so do plan on a home-style meal at the family-owned cafe, located right at the entrance to the town.
A hearty lunch of fresh Ohrid trout with vegetables is delicious, and homemade lemonade, beer or wine will top off the meal. The friendly restaurateurs are “keepers-of-the-keys” to the unique tiny Orthodox cave church carved into the mountain side, the Church of St. Arhangel Mihail (Church of St. Archangel Michael).
If you ask (or they may offer) they’ll walk you up to the church and allow you to explore the holy cliff-cave chapel and peruse the 13th century frescoes. A few moments of serenity in the transcendent atmosphere of Radozhda is a truly wonderful winter experience!
If you love cold weather and snow-time activities, Podgradec, on the western shore of Lake Ohrid in Albania, is the perfect place for a winter getaway. Located at a lofty 735-metre elevation, Pogradec is a small Albanian town steeped in culture and tradition.
Pogradec is proud of its position on Lake Ohrid, with many locals and tourists believing that the Pogradeci view of the lake is the best of all. Having traipsed through all three lakeside towns, I have to say that the view of sparkling Lake Ohrid on this side, which appears as a dazzling rich lapis blue in the winter sun, is nothing short of spectacular.
In town, bundling up and strolling the (often) beautifully snow-banked lakeside promenade is a local popular pastime in winter. Comfy cafes and restaurants line the lake shore and fill the town center, for sipping a mulled wine, rakija, a coffee or a steaming hot chocolate.
Some lakeside restaurants are built on jetties that extend out into the lake for a complete experience of lake dining, while elegant swans slip by as you unwind in warm comfort.
Pogradec is also popular for its multitude of rich and satisfying Albanian desserts, so be sure to check out the cafes offering a full range of local specialities. For meals, the famous Ohrid Koran trout is a local treat, grilled to perfection on open fires, or baked into clay-pot casseroles.
No question about it, Pogradec is COLD in winter, and snowboarding and other snow sports are favorite activities in the surrounding mountains.
Be sure to schedule time to take a quick visit to Driloni National Park, located right on the lake. Winter will offer a peaceful time in the park as the leafy green abundance of summer becomes a snow-dusted haven of tranquillity in the cold months.
As you breathe in the crisp, fresh mountain air, you can also visit the ruins of a 5th-century Christian basilica located in the park area, a spot that attracted pilgrims in antiquity for its nearby healing karst-spring waters.
Pogradec is a thriving and busy town all year round, so you never get a lonely feeling. When you visit in winter, you’ll become a part of the local seasonal activities, which include browsing a small, yet inviting, Christmas market and viewing the brilliant Christmas decorations at night.
Pogradec also sponsors a Wine and Chestnuts Festival between October and December (check for dates), where local producers showcase their unique wines, along with a gastronomic fair and other festivities.
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Last Updated 8 December 2023