Diverse, welcoming and a hell of a lot of fun – everything you never heard about Serbia is true. Best of all, this landlocked country in the heart of the Balkans is still delightfully off the tourist trail. While the feisty Serbian spirit is embodied in Belgrade’s world-class nightlife and Novi Sad’s epic EXIT Festival, look beyond these historic metropolises and you’ll discover a crucible of cultures and unsullied outdoors ripe for exploration.
The art nouveau town of Subotica revels in its Austro-Hungarian heritage, bohemian Niš echoes to the clip-clop of Roma horse carts, and minaret-studded Novi Pazar nudges the most sacred of Serbian Orthodox monasteries. Established wine regions and thermal spas cradled in rolling hills date back to Roman times. On the slopes of Kopaonik, Zlatibor and Stara Planina, ancient traditions coexist with après-ski bling, while super-scenic Tara and Đerdap National Parks brim with hiking, biking, rafting and kayaking opportunities.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Serbia.
Some 115 battles have been fought over imposing, impressive Belgrade Fortress (aka Kalemegdan); the citadel was destroyed more than 40 times throughout the centuries. Fortifications began in Celtic times, and the Romans extended it onto the flood plains during the settlement of 'Singidunum', Belgrade's Roman name. Much of what stands today is the product of 18th-century Austro-Hungarian and Turkish reconstructions. The fort's bloody history, discernible despite today's jolly cafes and funfairs, only makes the fortress all the more fascinating.
The Uvac River's spectacular meanders are the highlight of the 75-sq-km Uvac nature reserve in southwestern Serbia. The incredibly green river snakes through steep limestone rock in a zigzag manner – a feat of nature that's best admired from high above, at Molitva or Veliki vrh lookouts. The reserve, which also comprises a 6km-long cave system, owes its protected status to 219 species of plants, 24 types of fish and 130 bird species including the endangered beloglavi sup (griffon vulture).
One of Serbia's most sacred sites, Unesco-listed Studenica was established in 1196 by the founder of the Serbian empire (and future saint) Stefan Nemanja and developed by his sons Vukan, Stefan and Rastko (St Sava). Two well-preserved churches lie within the monastery's impressive white-marble walls. Bogorodičina Crkva (Church of Our Lady) contains Stefan Nemanja's tomb. The smaller Kraljeva Crkva (King's Church) houses the acclaimed Birth of the Virgin fresco and other masterpieces.
MemorialKadinjača Memorial Complex
Serbia's most grandiose spomenik (Yugoslav-era memorial), Kadinjača commemorates the Partisans from the Workers' Battalion who perished on this spot fighting the Germans in November 1941. Rising on a green hill like some futuristic Stonehenge, the arresting series of white granite monoliths of various heights and angles culminates in two 14m-high pillars that together form a symbolic 'bullet hole' sculpture. The 15-hectare complex comprises a stone pyramid with a crypt for the fallen soldiers.
MuseumMemorial Museum '21st October'
Šumarice Memorial Park is home to a sombre museum that tells the harrowing story of the 1941 massacre of around 3000 Kragujevac civilians during the German occupation of Serbia. A 7km circular road leads through the 352-hectare park, past the locations of 30 mass graves and 10 memorials. A gallery of paintings by renowned Yugoslav artist Petar Lubarda is part of the permanent exhibition, as are the personal effects and heartbreaking farewell messages of those who were executed.
Towering over the river on a 40m-high volcanic slab, this mighty citadel, considered Europe's second-biggest fortress (and one of its best preserved), is aptly nicknamed 'Gibraltar on the Danube'. Constructed using slave labour between 1692 and 1780, its dungeons have held notable prisoners including Karađorđe (leader of the first Serbian uprising against the Turks and founder of a royal dynasty) and Yugoslav president Tito.
Natural FeatureVratna Gates
The remote Negotin region hides one of the country's more dramatic natural phenomena. Three gigantic stone arches – known as Small Gate (Mala kapija), Big Gate (Velika kapija) and Dry Gate (Suva kapija) – were moulded by erosion in the Vratna River canyon; the last one is the most impressive but also the least accessible and recommended for more experienced hikers. Signposted trails (1km to Small and Big Gates, 5km to Dry Gate) lead uphill through the forest from Vratna Monastery.
MuseumMuseum of Yugoslavia
This must-visit museum houses an invaluable collection of more than 200,000 artefacts representing the fascinating, tumultuous history of Yugoslavia. Photographs, artworks, historical documents, films, weapons, priceless treasure: it's all here. It can be a lot to take in; English-speaking guides are available if booked in advance via email, or you can join a free tour on weekends (11am in English, Serbian at noon). Marshal Tito's Mausoleum is also on the museum grounds; admission is included in the ticket price.
Archaeological SiteLepenski Vir
What is now Đerdap National Park was once a major centre for Mesolithic- and Neolithic-era fishing communities, a past that has been wonderfully preserved in this unsung museum overlooking the Danube. Housed – somewhat ironically – within a space-age building, religious and workaday artefacts, sculptures and skeletons dating back as far as 7000 BC are on display here. Perhaps the most impressive is the world-famous Foremother and several other stone sculptures of fish-like idols with human faces.
Whether it’s a guided tour of a historic landmark, private tasting of local delicacies, or an off-road adventure — explore the best experiences in Serbia.