Each July, thousands of merrymakers roll into the northern Serbian city of Novi Sad for the mammoth EXIT festival, which celebrated its 15th birthday in 2015. Many of them roll out having seen little else but stages, strobes and the Danube-side fortress that hosts the four-day music-and-mayhem-fest. But the city is more than a festival receptacle: more easygoing than big-sister Belgrade but just as engaging, Novi Sad is worth leaving your tent for. EXIT? Enter!

Baroque clock tower at Novi Sad’s Petrovaradin Citadel © Nikola Nastasic / iStock / Getty Images

Historical haunts

During EXIT, it’s easy to imagine that the monumental Petrovaradin Citadel was purpose-built to withstand earth-shaking bass and squillions of festivalgoers moshing en masse. But the fortress, built between 1692 and 1780, squats atop a spooky secret: 16km of unlit underground tunnels known locally as katakombe. While their official use was for military purposes, rumours abound of mysterious treasure troves, tunnel-dwelling reptiles and still-roaming ghosts. Ask staff at the fortress about getting a guided tour.

Above ground, history hounds will find plenty of other remnants of the Novi Sad of yore. The Museum of Vojvodina houses 400,000 artefacts covering 70,000 years of life in Serbia’s northern province, while quirky nods to the past dot the city centre: look for the statue of nursery-rhyme author Jovan Jovanović Zmaj, who also wrote Austria-Hungary’s first-ever postcard in 1870, and a building (today the Red Cow Irish Pub) with a cannonball fired in 1849 still jutting from its walls. For a sobering glimpse into the suffering the city underwent in WWII, check out the Monument to the Victims of the Raid on the quay directly opposite Petrovaradin – the stark statue honours nearly 1300 civilians drowned in the Danube by Hungarian Nazis in 1942.

Summer at Novi Sad’s Štrand beach on the Danube © John Freeman / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images

Danube delights

Strauss was half-right: the Danube may not be blue, but it is beautiful. And in Novi Sad the list of riverside recreation is bountiful. One of Europe’s best Danube beaches, the Štrand is a 700m-long stretch of sand chock-a-block with splashing families and sun-seeking locals from the gorgeously glam to the flat-out grizzled. During summer, its shoreside bars and cafes are superb people-watching perches, with live music and raves getting underway in earnest when the sun goes down. After something a bit more salubrious? Dunavski Rafting rents out canoes and kayaks and runs paddling tours.

The Danube Bike Path follows the river for 2857km through nine countries; even if you don’t intend to ride all the way, the Novi Sad stretch makes for a pleasant afternoon of pedalling. NS Bike rents out bicycles at ludicrously low prices, and there are pick-up/drop-off stations across town. For something different, hit up the guys under Most Slobode (Freedom Bridge) renting out the brightly coloured quadricycles.

When the tide is low, you can cross from the western end of the Štrand (or just catch a taxi from anywhere) to Ribarsko Ostrvo. Actually a peninsula, ‘Fisherman’s Island’ is a sunny slice of Novi Sad at its most laid-back, dotted with picnickers, the eponymous fishermen and a handful of fantastic fish restaurants – Piknik is the best of a great lot (their locally caught fish goulash is divine). For a taste of quintessential Serbian nightlife, try any of the floating nightclubs (splavovi) moored on the south side of the island; Cristal is a local favourite.

Shop facades along Novi Sad’s Dunavska street © David L Ryan / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images

Marvellous markets

While the centre of Novi Sad is sprinkled with boutiques and brand-name stores, Milan this ain’t. But for a shopping experience that offers an immersion into local life – not to mention the chance to nab sweet bargains – the city’s pijace (markets) can’t be beaten. Novi Sad’s four daily outdoor markets (the most central are Riblja Pijaca and Futoška Pijaca) are bustling, hectic and charmingly bedraggled affairs, where locals stock up on everything from cheap seasonal fruit and veg to fancy lingerie and gourmet goods smuggled in from Hungary.

If flea markets are more your style, head to the sprawling Najlon Pijaca on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday morning. The mostly Roma hawkers at Najlon – named after and pronounced the same as the nylon tarps on which vendors lay their wares – sell everything you could ever, or never, want: designer-label clothing, communist-era toys, antique farm tools and 1970s German sex manuals are heaped in chaotic mounds, just waiting to be discovered. To get to Najlon, catch Bus 1 or 5 from the city centre; it’s about a 15-minute ride.

Ornate tile-and-pebble interior of a Novi Sad restaurant © Patrick Horton / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images

Gorge and gulp

Looking to stack on a few kilos? Combining traditional Serbian cuisine – think huge hunks of meat and creamy everything – with the influences of neighbouring Hungary, local menus read like a glutton’s bucket list. Don your elastic-waist trousers and head out to Pivnica Gusan for Vojvodinian specialties including škembići (tripe stew), or try a modern spin on the classics such as džigerica rolovana u slanini (chicken liver rolled in bacon) at homey-hip Cafe Veliki. The gloriously caloric Index Sandwich – a roll stuffed with melted cheese, ham, mushrooms and slatherings of sinful sauces – was invented in Novi Sad, and is a morning-after must-try: go straight to the source at Index House. If you’re craving healthy, Fish i Zeleniš have a massive range of creative vegetarian/organic/fish dishes on offer.

Novosadians are no less heavy-handed when it comes to their potables, with gallons of locally made wine gracing every table, picnic blanket and occasional park bench. A few kilometres south of Novi Sad, Fruška Gora is one of Serbia’s oldest winemaking regions; it’s especially famous for its bermet, a dessert drop that was served on the Titanic. Catch Bus 60, 61 or 62, get off at Sremski Karlovci and knock on any door with a sign reading vinski podrum – this means there’s a wine cellar within and you’re welcome to sample from it. For the truly adventurous, there’s rakija, a fiery brandy made of distilled fruits from šljiva (plum) to dunja (quince) that’s served at all hours at every bar and cafe in the city: try it with your coffee for a morning like no other you’ve ever had. Martha’s Pub is famous for their delicious (and deceptively potent) medovača, a sweet honey rakija that will destroy your teeth and possibly your mind.

The night skyline of Novi Sad © Nikola Nastasic / iStock / Getty Images

Secret bars

Laze Telečkog, a pedestrian-only street off the town square, is Novi Sad’s go-to good-time spot: dozens of bars and clubs jostle along the narrow ulica, with carousers bumping elbows (and, as the night goes on, other body parts) inside the loud, smoky dens or spilling out onto the cobblestones. But like any sociable city worth its tequila salt, Novi Sad boasts a network of secret speakeasies and hidden haunts. During summer, Oficirac Beach (15-minute stagger north of the fortress) sprouts scores of ‘wild bars’ – often no more than a lean-to on the sand – that go off until dawn.

Closer to the centre, Kineska Četvrt (Chinatown) is alternative Novi Sad’s headquarters. Artists, actors, activists and musos cram gritty venues including cultural centres and banging clubs Fabrika, The Quarter and Društveni Centar; the latter, in addition to hosting live music and art shows, is also a very welcoming squat. Don’t be afraid to have a wander down Chinatown’s dilapidated alleyways, lined with shipbuilding workshops and abandoned buildings: a good gander will reveal handfuls of itty-bitty bars populated by weather-beaten tradesmen and local rock bands posing amid the detritus.

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