A perfect weekend in Novi Sad

In 2019, tourism’s spotlight is shining on Novi Sad, the capital of Serbia’s autonomous province of Vojvodina. This year the city celebrated the 20th edition of its renowned EXIT music festival, took over as the European Youth Capital, and began the countdown to its crowning as the European Capital of Culture in 2021.

What’s particularly appealing about Novi Sad’s moment of stardom is that as a rule, this town, which straddles the banks of the Danube in the Pannonian Plain region, keeps a low profile – even though it’s culturally diverse enough to have six official languages. Ask nearly any local to describe the city, and the most common phrases will inevitably be ‘laid-back’ and ‘relaxed’.

The mighty 18th-century Petrovaradin Fortress on the Danube is today synonymous with the EXIT Festival © Andrej Antic / Shutterstock

About an hour’s drive north from the Serbian capital Belgrade, settlements in the area of the Petrovaradin Fortress – Novi Sad’s calling-card attraction – date back thousands of years. Residents, however, are less interested in foisting their regional importance (during the Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and Habsburg eras) upon visitors than they are into strolling the main pedestrian thoroughfare, known colloquially as Corso, to meet friends for a glass of local wine.

‘Visitors are usually surprised with how dense the experience is in Novi Sad,’ says Ivanka Tasić, the director of the locally based PanaComp Wonderland Travel, one of Serbia’s most successful operators. ‘By the time you leave, this place gets into your system.’ Indeed, with great wine from the slopes of nearby Fruška Gora mountain, hearty Vojvodinian food, a sandy beach on the Danube and worthwhile galleries and museums, you’re in for a good time.

Novi Sad's main pedestrian thoroughfare is lined with pastel-coloured Austro-Hungarian architecture © Alex Crevar / Lonely Planet

Friday

Start your pursuit of the perfect Novi Sad weekend where everything began, at the Petrovaradin Fortress. Many today see the ramparts as synonymous with the EXIT Festival, and this is one of the planet’s most iconic and unusual music venues. History buffs, however, see the site’s 18th-century citadel – on a 40m-high rock guarding the Danube – as one of the most ingenious systems of defence ever created. A maze of trenches, moats and walls constructed by the Austro-Hungarians protected its holdings during conflicts with the Ottoman Empire. After perusing the fortress and its museum, be sure to book a tour to 16km of spooky underground tunnels.

Coming down from your strategic perch, cross the river and lose yourself in Novi Sad’s livable city centre. Amble to the Gallery of Matica Srpska for one of the country’s most important cultural collections. Approximately 500 pieces from the 16th to 20th centuries provide a deeper insight into Serbian art, heritage and traditions. After, stroll along the avenues of Zmaj Jovina and Dunavska – a classical Central European cityscape framed by cafes, boutiques, galleries and Austro-Hungarian pastel- and mustard-coloured architecture. A walk through the historic centre between the Roman Catholic Church of the Name of Mary, the Orthodox St George Church, the Synagogue, City Hall and the Bishop’s Palace is an architectural masterclass and a swirl of Secessionist, Neo-Gothic and Neo-Renaissance styles. Then turn into Misha concept store, which provides a spotlight for around 50 local designers. The well-curated showroom is stocked with clothes, shoes, jewellery and home items.

Fish i Zeleniš restaurant is the place to go for some Mediterranean-style cuisine in Novi Sad © Alex Crevar / Lonely Planet

Make your way to Fish i Zeleniš for an unexpected Mediterranean meal with only organic and in-season ingredients. Servers carry dishes from the kitchen across the street to a dining room with wooden plank floors, blue-and-white checkered tablecloths, and walls covered in old photos and vintage knick-knacks like cooking ladles and scales. Go for the grilled trout served with potatoes and greens, or try the risotto with shrimp, squid and mussels.

Things rev up in Novi Sad when the sun goes down. Get into the mix at PUBeraj, a bar that’s part of three connected establishments. The pub, which serves more than 30 whiskies and hosts DJs and live music several times per week, is sandwiched between a barbershop, called Berberaj, for men and a hair stylist, FeniRaj, for women. ‘Novi Sad feels like a big city because there’s so much colour’, says Andrija Nikitović, the mastermind behind the complex, a barber by trade and a showman at heart.

PUBeraj is a fun Novi Sad pub, with DJs and live music, attached to a barbershop and a hair stylist © Alex Crevar / Lonely Planet

Saturday

Part of the magic of being in Novi Sad is getting out of it – and into the beautiful surroundings south of the Danube on the slopes of Fruška Gora mountain. Here, vineyards stitch together communities and wine and food are life’s essential elements. Drive into the village paradise and reserve a lunchtime cooking class at Banstolka, near the small town of Sremski Karlovci. The owner, Mirjana Hemun, will teach you how to prepare classic soups and dishes like stuffed peppers and zucchini, before crafting desserts such as gomboce (plum-stuffed dumplings). Enjoy your creations while sampling her award-winning plum rakija (homemade brandy).

Just outside Novi Sad, Sremski Karlovci and Fruška Gora mountain are dotted with small local wineries © Tatiana Popova / Shutterstock

Come back into Novi Sad to continue your gourmet education. Grab a corner seat inside Wine Therapy, a wine bar and shop that’s a perfect place to learn about the area’s best varieties. This vinoteka has an English-speaking expert on hand and carries labels from around the world but specialises in Serbian reds and whites. ‘The cultivation and production of wine in this part of Serbia is among the oldest in Europe,’ says Mirjana Maksimović, the president of Žene i Vino, an NGO committed to promoting Serbian wine. ‘Though nearly impossible to choose, try a white blend called Neoplanta, from Šijački Winery in the village of Banoštor. For a red, taste Probus, a blend from Milanović Winery in Surduk village.’

Later, head to Project 72 Wine & Deli, a bistro with a cosmopolitan take on local cuisine – and one of the best meals you’ll have in Novi Sad. The ingredients are sourced from small producers in Serbia and the menu changes with the season. Snag a table on the streetside terrace; you can’t go wrong with the duck breast served with carrot puree and broccoli.

End the night investigating the so-called Chinese Quarter – a former industrial zone turned creative district comprising 10 buildings that once churned out metal products. Today the neighbourhood is an incubator for cutting-edge artists and a venue for music and dance; check out the gigs and exhibitions at its next-door clubs The Quarter and Fabrika. The Chinese Quarter represents the kind of forward-thinking, community-driven projects that the titles of European Youth Capital 2019 and European Capital of Culture in 2021 aim to encourage.

Novi Sad's Wine Therapy bar and shop is a perfect place to learn about the region's wine varieties © Alex Crevar / Lonely Planet

Sunday

Begin your last day with a stroll to Štrand, Novi Sad’s 700m-long beach on the Danube. Luxuriate on the sand or in a cafe overlooking the water, as boats, birds, fishers and swimmers go drifting along. If the tide is low, you can even cross over from its western end to the green haven of Fisherman’s Island; or, if you feel like getting active (and the weather is nice), rent a bike from NS Bike or a kayak from Dunavski Rafting to explore the river along the Danube Cycling Path or from the water.

For a late lunch, go back to where you started – at the foot of the Petrovaradin Fortress you’ll find one of the most iconic restaurants in town, Čarda Aqua Doria. Make sure to secure reservations early and take a riverside seat inside the seductive, dark-wood dining room with views of the bridge reflecting multicoloured lights onto the Danube. Toast the end of a great weekend with a glass of red from Fruška Gora and the stew starter with big chunks of white fish before diving into the veal roast served with homemade cream.

The sandy 700m-long Štrand beach and Fisherman's Island on the Danube are Novi Sad's summer playgrounds © Nenad Nedomacki / Shutterstock

Make it happen

Novi Sad is less than an hour’s drive from Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla Airport, the increasingly popular regional hub. There are multiple transfer options: bus, shuttle, taxi and train. In town, there are plenty of lodging possibilities, from classic hotels to Airbnb. The huge rooms at Hotel Veliki, around the corner from happening Zmaj Jovina street, are a great central option. For a homier and more cost-effective alternative, choose the seven-room VaradINN hostel, in historic Petrovaradin just below the fortress.

Article first published in September 2018, and last updated by Brana Vladisavljevic in September 2019

Get more travel inspiration, tips and exclusive offers sent straight to your inbox with our weekly newsletter