A beginner’s guide to Serbia

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Picture everything you want from a classic European country, then add a level of quirk that you won’t find anywhere but the Balkans. Serbia is one of Europe’s more sizeable countries, yet it remains largely overlooked by travellers who tend to flock westward rather then venturing east.

The ambiguous Balkans history hasn’t quite let go its grip, but headlines on Serbia are deservedly moving from the news pages to the travel section. This underrated destination in the European traveller’s mindset is a sitting duck for those who hunt memorable experiences.

The confluence of the Sava and the Danube, Belgrade. Image by Branko Jovanovic / Courtesy of National Tourism Organisation of Serbia The confluence of the Sava and the Danube, Belgrade. Image by Branko Jovanovic / Courtesy of National Tourism Organisation of Serbia

The capital Belgrade offers a laid-back welcome to visitors. Spend a couple of days exploring vivid museums, the Sava and Danube rivers and the Kalemegdan Citadel by day, and prowling town for a scene that suits at night. Serbs are proud of exploring limits and letting go; while artists and thinkers gather in creative cafes and alternative clubs, Balkan beats blare all night along the Danube. Meanwhile, there’s some fine bohemian dining to be enjoyed in the old quarter of Skadarlija.

Šargan 8 heritage railway, with 22 tunnels. Image by Dragan Bosnic / Courtesy of National Tourism Organisation of Serbia Šargan 8 heritage railway, with 22 tunnels. Image by Dragan Bosnic / Courtesy of National Tourism Organisation of Serbia

Not far from the capital are rolling plains dotted with welcoming villages, winter ski resorts and summer hiking spots, castles nestled in jagged mountains and monasteries hidden in the foliage of national parks. If you come in winter, head to Kopaonik for skiing, or try Zlatibor if you’re not one for sliding on the slopes. In summer months, the Zlatibor region is great for gentle immersion into rural life. Spend a few days exploring the folklore, superstition and tradition of proud villages (including the not-really-real Drvengrad village) and ride the delightfully disorienting Šargan 8 railway.

The church of St Peter near Novi Pazar, the oldest in Serbia. Image by Diego Delso / CC BY-SA 2.0 The small  church of St Peter near Novi Pazar, the oldest in Serbia. Image by Diego Delso / CC BY-SA 2.0

Further south towards Kosovo, Novi Pazar is a hotchpotch of east and west. The mostly Muslim town is dotted with Islamic minarets, ruined hammams and old cafes still serving Turkish coffee, but not far outside you’ll discover some of the loveliest Orthodox Christian monasteries in the country. If you’re looking for louder inspiration down south, brass bands battle it out every year over four heady days at the famous Guča trumpet festival. This otherwise sleepy town  is taken to a whole new decibel level each year as the region’s Roma musicians outshine international guests who watch in awe as cheeks and competition flare.

Novi Sad's Petrovaradin Fortress, home of Exit festival. Image by Dragan Bosnic / Courtesy of National Tourism Organisation of Serbia Novi Sad's Petrovaradin Fortress, home of Exit festival. Image by Dragan Bosnic / Courtesy of National Tourism Organisation of Serbia

Up north, a whole other kind of loud is going on in Novi Sad during the annual Exit festival, officially proclaimed the ‘Best Major European Festival’ at the European Festival Awards 2014. The ‘State of Exit’ on a mighty citadel towering over the Danube was founded in the spirit of grass-roots resistance to the Milošević regime in 2000 and continues growing each July as a new generation with something to say comes together to party about it.

The art nouveau Raichle Palace in Subotica, now a modern art gallery. Image by Klovovi / CC BY 2.0 The art nouveau Raichle Palace in Subotica, now a modern art gallery. Image by Klovovi / CC BY 2.0

Music aside, Serbia would still be one of the most unique travel destinations in Europe even if it were stone silent. Its architecture is a three-dimensional timeline of the country’s socio-cultural history. Between the ubiquitous socialist concrete blocks you’ll find medieval monasteries, Ottoman spires, Orthodox churches, Austro-Hungarian fortifications and even some pristinely preserved art nouveau buildings in Subotica near the Hungarian border.

Unesco-listed Studenica monastery, built in 1190s. Image by Dragan Bosnic / Courtesy of National Tourism Organisation of Serbia Unesco-listed Studenica monastery, built in 1190s. Image by Dragan Bosnic / Courtesy of National Tourism Organisation of Serbia

Standing inside an Orthodox church, the air thick with sweet incense and walls awash with colourful frescoes, or walking through lush parkland to find remote monasteries carrying on as they have for centuries, will make you feel as though you’ve somehow stumbled into another world. And you’ll be glad that you did before too many other people find out that this special country is almost as easy and accessible as the rest of Europe – but without the costs and the queues.

Make it happen

If you’re keen for a week-long detour from the rest of the continent, take a train ride from a neighbouring country, for example Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria or Croatia. Or hit the ground running and fly directly into town – several European cities offer regular flights to Belgrade. The capital is also the hub of an efficient web of road and rail networks which shuttle people throughout the country. Visas are not required for stays of up to 90 days for citizens of the EU and most other European countries, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA.

This article was first published in April 2012 and was updated in October 2014.