When it comes to words difficult to translate, Serbian merak’ makes the list. It stands for the pleasure derived from the simple things in life. An old traditional song claims that the masters of merak’ are Niš locals: ‘Nišlije – meraklije’. And truth be told, Serbia’s third-largest city captivates with laid-back charm, tonnes of history, great food and music that will make you dance.

Thanks to an increasing number of low-cost flights to Niš, the city has recently popped up as an interesting stop on the Balkan tourist map. Road-trippers can hop on a train from Belgrade or catch one of the buses that leave the Serbian capital every hour. It's also easy to get here by bus from Sofia or Skopje. Book a room at traditional Garni Hotel Duo D if you want to stay in one of the most historic streets in Niš, bohemian Kazandžijsko sokače (Tinkers’ Alley), or choose ArtLoft Hotel for a more modern treat in the city centre.

The 16th-century Bali-Bey Mosque inside the walls of Niš Fortress © Mladen Savkovic / Lonely Planet

Time-travelling: Naissus and beyond

Name an epoch you want to go to and Niš will take you there in the blink of an eye. Once known as Naissus, southern Serbia’s main city was the birthplace of Constantine the Great, famous for issuing the Edict of Milan and making Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. The archaeological site of Mediana (Constantine’s 4th-century residence) features recently renovated mosaics and other remains from the Roman period. To learn why Naissus was of one of the major stops on the ancient Romans’ Via Militaris, visit the Archaeological Hall.

Niš fortress, in the heart of the city, hides several Ottoman-era architectural beauties including the Hamam (a lavish Turkish bath turned into a restaurant) and the gorgeous 16th-century Bali-Beg Mosque. A gruesome yet fascinating sight, Ćele Kula (Skull Tower) tells the story of the struggle for the liberation of Niš in the early 19th century: yes, it was built from real skulls  – the ones of Serbian soldiers – as a warning to all who tried to rebel against the Ottoman Empire.

There are more fight-for-freedom stories to be found in Niš. The Red Cross Concentration Camp is one of the few preserved Nazi concentration camps, from which the first mass escape in then occupied Europe was organised in 1942. The local spirit of liberty also lives on at the memorial park on nearby Bubanj Hill, where three gigantic fists rising from the ground symbolise fighting and sufferings of men, women and children, the victims of WWII.

Joss Stone performing at 2016 Nisville International Jazz Festival © Mateja Jeremic / Nisville

Nišville: jazz Balkan-style

Mixing Serbian folk, Romany and Turkish tunes with various other influences and genres, Niš has created its unique musical identity that’s nowadays best represented by the widely popular Nišville International Jazz Festival. Held between the walls of Niš fortress, Nišville is acclaimed as one of the top European events of its kind, attracting big-name jazz, R&B, soul, funk and reggae acts from around the world every August.

Fans of pop, rock or electronic dance music are sure to have some fun at the city’s other festivals, Nisomnia and Naissus Fest. Adding to its merak credentials, Niš was also the home town of the legendary Roma singer Šaban Bajramović, hailed across the Balkans as the ‘King of Romany music’. Today the late musician is honoured with a monument on the quay by the Nišava River, a popular place for taking a stroll or just chilling out over drinks with friends.

A traditional delicacy, ham hocks baked in cabbage at Čardak restaurant © Mladen Savkovic / Lonely Planet

Foodie feast: the home of burek

According to the old saying, you can’t put a price on merak and anyone who visits Niš will quickly learn that. Compared to Balkan capitals and other popular regional cities, the gastronomic offer in Niš is exceptionally tasty and incredibly cheap. With dozens of charming Serbian kafane (taverns), Kazandžijsko sokače (Tinkers’ Alley) is a must-visit for both food lovers and party-goers.

If you’re already familiar with local carnivore favourites ćevapčići and pljeskavica, don’t miss the famous grilled ribs with kajmak (delicious, creamy dairy product) at Kod Rajka for less than €4 – or try ham hocks baked in cabbage with bacon on top at traditional Čardak restaurant for the same price. Add to the list a large portion of šopska or moravska salad on the side and a pint of a cold local beer (hint: there’s even a beer called Merak).

For Balkan basics, any fan of burek probably knows there are a few versions of this mega-popular pastry. The round burek, which is usually cut in quarters, is the all-time-favourite in most of the region. Fun fact: it’s believed burek was actually created in Niš in mid-15th century – so head over to Kalinka, a small but very well-known bakery, for the best burek in town.

The green hills around Niš, setting for the 2017 Paragliding World Cup © Mladen Savkovic / Lonely Planet

Niš adventure: up above and down below

Merak isn’t the only thing that matters in Niš. The surrounding area is a paradise for all sorts of outdoor activities. Sićevo and Jelašnica Gorges (both a 15km bus ride from the city) are the perfect setting for some adventure in untouched nature. Adrenaline junkies can choose between free climbing on the gorges’ limestone rocks and paragliding – since Niš was the host of the 2017 Paragliding World Cup, it’s safe to say that the location won’t disappoint.

If you’re not a fan of heights, try venturing deep into the ground and visit impressive, more than 6km-long Cerje Cave, some 14km from Niš. Over two million years old and rich in ornamentation (including seemingly gravity-defying helictites), this massive cave is only partially explored and it’s still not regularly open for tourists; contact Safari Club or Nature Travel Office to organise a visit.

Wine bottles from Malča cellar, a vinicultural time-travel experience © Mladen Savkovic / Lonely Planet

More merak: spas and wineries

Niš is also known as the home of Niška Banja. This mild-climate spa has five mineral springs, whose curative waters were transported all the way to Mediana palace back in the days of Constantine the Great. It’s located only 10km from the city centre, so hop on a local bus for a dose of oriental massage or soothing choco-mint rubs.

For a final treat before leaving Niš, head to nearby Malča wine cellar which is more than a hundred years old. Here the wine is made in four different ways, just like during various periods of Serbian history – in the cellar inspired by the ancient Romans, you can taste the wine that’s kept in huge 2000-litre amphorae buried in the ground. You’ll also find some local delicacies here, so you may even take a slice of Niš merak home with you…

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

Explore related stories