The population of Serbia is estimated at 7.11 million people, made up of Serbs (83%), Hungarians (3.5%), Bosniaks (2%), Roma (2%) and a mix of other nationalities including Croats, Albanians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Slovaks and Vlachs. Around 85% of the population identify as Orthodox. The 5% Catholic population are mostly Vojvodinian Hungarians. Muslims (Albanians and Slavic) comprise around 3% of the country's population. Serbia's Jewish population largely perished during the Nazi occupation in WWII.
Serbia has been accommodating a high number of refugees for decades, including around 350,000 so-called 'internally displaced people' from Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, and approximately 3500 (as of mid-2018) migrants and asylum seekers from Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and other countries, who have been left stranded after the EU closed the Western Balkans migration route.
A unique aspect of Serbian Orthodox culture (inscribed in Unesco's List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity) is slava, the family patron saint's day. Each family celebrates its own slava, which is passed down from father to son. The two by far most common patron saints' days are Sveti Nikola (St Nicholas) on 19 December and Ðurđevdan (St George) on 6 May.
The survival and active rebellion of artistic expression throughout dark periods in history is a source of pride. Today, creative juices flow thickly and freely, with film festivals held in idyllic villages, art sold in cocktail bars and eclectic music events.
Long-time Belgrade resident and Yugoslav diplomat Ivo Andrić (1892–1975) was awarded the Nobel prize in 1961 for his epic (and very readable) historical novel Bridge on the Drina. Miloš Crnjanski (1893–1977) was a leading poet of Serbian modernism but is equally well known for his novels The Journal of Carnojevic (1921), Migrations (1929) and A Novel about London (1972).
The huge opus of Borislav Pekić (1930–92) includes novels, dramas, science fiction, film scripts, essays and political memoirs. At present only his early novels The Time of Miracles (1965), The Houses of Belgrade (1970) and How to Quiet a Vampire (1977) are available in English. Danilo Kiš (1935–89) was an acclaimed author of the Yugoslav period who had several novels translated into English, including Hourglass (1972) and A Tomb for Boris Davidovich (1976).
Internationally renowned postmodernist Milorad Pavić (1929–2009) used non-linear narrative forms: Dictionary of the Khazars (1984) can be read in random order, while The Inner Side of the Wind (1998) can be read from the back or the front. Novelist Momo Kapor's (1937–2010) A Guide to the Serbian Mentality is an amusing peek into the national psyche.
In recent years, a number of works by contemporary Serbian novelists have been translated into English as part of the excellent 'Serbian Prose in Translation' series. Recommended reads include: Estoril by Dejan Tiago-Stanković, The House of Memory and Oblivion by Filip David, Learning Cyrillic by David Albahari, The Cyclist Conspiracy by Svetislav Basara, Lake Como by Srđan Valjarević, Hamam Balkania by Vladislav Bajac, Fear and Servant by Mirjana Novaković, and Destiny, Annotated by Radoslav Petković.
Wild, haunting sounds of brass bands called trubači are the national music; the best ones are Roma ensembles from southern Serbia. Popular examples are the soundtrack to the film Underground and albums by trumpet player extraordinaire Boban Marković. Trubači get an orgiastic outing at Guča's Trumpet Festival each August. You'll no doubt come across their more 'civilised' cousin – the violin-heavy tamburaši – at romantic restaurants, particularly in the northern Vojvodina province.
For crooning and swooning, check out Novi Sad's favourite son Ðorđe Balašević. Some of Serbia's best representatives of world music are the late Roma singer Šaban Bajramović and Hungarian violinist Lajkó Félix. The most authentic name shaking up the scene in recent years, however, is Kralj Čačka (real name Nenad Marić), seen by many as the Serbian version of Tom Waits; his music defies genres but is usually described as a mix of jazz, blues, rock and chansons. Cross traditional folk with techno and you get 'turbofolk' – controversial during the Milošević era for its nationalist overtones (with Svetlana 'Ceca' Ražnatović the most notorious star), these days it's more mainstream fun.
Serbia's major rock bands from the 1980s – including Idoli, Električni Orgazam, EKV and Partibrejkers – were hugely popular across the former Yugoslavia; you'll still hear them getting a good blasting in bars today. Since the 1990s, alternative bands such as Darkwood Dub and Kanda Kodža i Nebojša have become stalwarts of Belgrade's music scene.
The Yugoslav-era 'black wave' (crni talas) of the 1960s and early '70s is internationally lauded for its creativity, non-conformism and subtle critique of the socialist regime. Notable movies of this group include I Even Met Happy Gypsies (Skupljači perja, 1964) by Aleksandar Petrović, Early Works (Rani radovi, 1969) by Želimir Žilnik and Mysteries of the Organism (Misterije organizma, 1971) by Dušan Makavejev.
Serbian black humour gets a good workout in Yugo-classics Who's That Singing Over There? (Ko to tamo peva, 1980), The Marathon Family (Maratonci trče počasni krug, 1982), The Elusive Summer of '68 (Varljivo leto '68, 1984) and Balkan Spy (Balkanski špijun, 1984).
Two-time Palme d'Or winner Emir Kusturica, originally from Bosnia, is known for his raucous approach to storytelling. Check out Underground (1995), the surreal tale of seemingly never-ending Balkan conflicts, Time of the Gypsies (Dom za vešanje, 1989) or Black Cat, White Cat (Crna mačka, beli mačor, 1998).
Watch Premeditated Murder (Ubistvo s predumišljajem, 1995), Cabaret Balkan (Bure baruta, 1998), Sky Hook (Nebeska udica, 2000) and Thunderbirds (Munje, 2001) for a great snapshot of the 1990s in the Serbian capital. The innocently titled A Serbian Film (Srpski film, 2010) has been banned in countries around the world for its disturbingly graphic content. Parade (Parada, 2011) brilliantly chronicles the furore over Belgrade's early pride parades.
Serbia's greatest 19th-century painters were Ðura Jakšić and Paja Jovanović. Jakšić was a leading Romanticist whose best-known works are The Girl in Blue and Night Watch. Jovanović, a master of realism, is the author of the famous Migration of the Serbs; a large collection of his works can be seen in his memorial museum in Belgrade.
The following Serbian towns have galleries dedicated to some of the country's most famous 20th-century painters: Sombor (expressionist Milan Konjović) and Šid (expressionist and fauvist Sava Šumanović) in Vojvodina province; Požarevac (surrealist Milena Pavlović-Barili) in eastern Serbia; and Čačak (impressionist and fauvist Nadežda Petrović) in western Serbia. Of course, some of their works can also be seen in Belgrade's and Novi Sad's art museums.
The most renowned sculptor from the Yugoslav era, Croatian Ivan Meštrović, is the author of several of Belgrade's recognisable public monuments: the Victor (Pobednik) statue and the Monument of Gratitude to France in Kalemegdan Park, and the Monument to the Unknown Hero on Mt Avala. The National Museum in Belgrade also has a large collection of his sculptures.
World-famous pioneer of performance art Marina Abramović is a Belgrade native; in 2019 she is returning to her home town after decades of absence to stage a retrospective exhibition at the Serbian capital's Museum of Contemporary Art.
Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Byzantine styles have fought for dominance, often over the same buildings, which have been destroyed or modified over the centuries depending on who was in charge. A huge amount of architectural destruction was caused by invasion and bombings in the two world wars, leaving most Serbian towns with layers of communist-era concrete that aren't going anywhere in a hurry.
Medieval Serbia's religious architecture is distinguished by three styles: the Raška School of the early 13th century, characterised by Romanesque influences (its most famous examples are the Studenica, Žiča, Mileševa and Sopoćani monasteries); the Serbian-Byzantine School from the late 13th and early 14th centuries (represented by the Gračanica and Visoki Dečani monasteries, located in present-day Kosovo); and the Morava School in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, which combined elements of the previous two (its principal monasteries are Manasija, Ravanica and Ljubostinja).
Few Ottoman-era buildings remain in Serbia; some notable examples of Oriental-style architecture include Belgrade's residences of Princess Ljubica and Prince Miloš, the mosques in Novi Pazar and Niš, and Sokobanja's working hammam. The town of Subotica in the northern Vojvodina province boasts impressive examples of Hungarian Secession, particularly the synagogue which was restored to its full glory in 2018. Novi Sad's synagogue is another splendid art-nouveau building.
During the Yugoslav era, a large number of monuments (spomenici in Serbian) commemorating major WWII battles and tragic events were erected all over the country, often in national parks and other mountainous locations. Neglected after the breakup of Yugoslavia, these architectural marvels have drawn renewed attention in recent years due to their modernist, stark and often alien-like appearance. The most impressive memorials are Kadinjača in western Serbia, Kosmaj (on a mountaintop south of Belgrade) and Bubanj Hill just outside Niš.
Serbia is a sports-obssessed nation. For a country its size, it's also been incredibly successful – primarily in team sports – in the years following the breakup of Yugoslavia (not counting the period from 1992 to 1995, when Serbian sports teams were banned from competing at international events due to UN-imposed sanctions).
No doubt the most famous Serbian athlete today is the world number-one tennis player and the winner of 14 Grand Slams (as of late 2018), Novak Ðoković. Ana Ivanović, the 2008 French Open champion, was also briefly ranked number one in the world, while the Serbian men's team won the Davis Cup in 2010.
The country's most popular team sport is basketball. A two-time world champion and three-time European champion, the men's national team boasts silver medals from the Olympics, World and European Championships. Several of its players compete in the NBA, and its coaches regularly lead major European teams to glory in the Euroleague.
Serbia's waterpolo medal tally is too long to list, as the national team has consistently won medals at World and European Championships, the World League and the Olympic Games since it started competing as an independent nation. Volleyball is another sport in which Serbia excels, with medals from the World League, the Olympics, as well as the World and European Championships.
While popular, football is a sport in which Serbia's record has been less impressive. However, its men's national team won the 2015 World Cup for players under 20 years, so the future is looking more promising. The country's most successful club, Red Star Belgrade, won the European Cup in 1991.
Serbia's territory comprises 77,474 sq km. Midžor (2169m), on the Stara Planina range along the border with Bulgaria, is its highest peak. The Zlatibor, Stara Planina and Kopaonik mountains are the main winter playgrounds. The largest river is the Danube (Dunav), which flows for 588km through Serbia. Velika Morava (185km) is the longest river running entirely within the country.
Vojvodina province in the north is glass-flat agricultural land, part of Central Europe's larger Pannonian Plain. South of the Danube, the landscape rises through the rolling green hills of the Šumadija (meaning 'forest land') region, which crest where the eastern outpost of the Dinaric Alps slices southeastwards across the country.
Serbia's national parks are Kopaonik, Đerdap, Tara and Fruška Gora; there are also 12 nature reserves and 18 nature parks around the country. Among the mammals inhabiting Serbia's countryside are wolves, brown bears, wild boars, wildcats, deer, beavers, otters, susliks, lynx and mouflon. Around 40% of Serbia's 360 bird species are of European Conservation Concern.
Serbia faces air pollution problems around Belgrade, and dumping of industrial waste into the Sava river is also a concern. Some remnants of the 1999 NATO bombings (in which depleted uranium was used), such as factories outside Belgrade, are ecological hazards.
Food & Drink
Serbia's regional cuisines range from spicy Hungarian goulash in Vojvodina to Turkish kebabs in Novi Pazar. The country is famous for roštilj (grilled meats), such as ćevapi (rolled spicy minced meat), pljeskavica (spicy hamburger) and ražnjići (pork or veal shish kebabs). The ubiquitous snack is burek, a filo-pastry pie made with sir (cheese) or meso (meat); occasionally you'll come across krompir (potato), spanać (spinach) or pečurke (mushrooms) varieties. Score burek and other cheap snacks at any pekara (bakery).
Serbia is not an easy place for vegetarians. Try asking for posna hrana (literally 'fasting food'); this is also suitable for vegans. Otherwise, there's always vegetarian pizza, srpska salata (raw peppers, onions and tomatoes, with oil, vinegar and occasionally chilli), šopska salata (tomatoes, cucumber and onion with grated white cheese), gibanica (cheese pie) or zeljanica (cheese pie with spinach).
Many people distil rakija (somewhat akin to schnapps) from plums (šljivovica), grapes (lozovača) or other fruits. The delicious – but deceptively potent – medovača is made from honey. Viscous turska kafa (Turkish coffee) is omnipresent, but you'll have no problem finding espresso and capuccino in larger towns.
Serbia has a long tradition of viniculture that goes back to Roman times. Top wine routes include Sremski Karlovci and Fruška Gora National Park (famous for its dessert wine Bermet, which was allegedly served on the Titanic) in Vojvodina; eastern Serbia's Negotin region, with authentic 19th-century pimnice (wine cellars) in the villages of Rajac and Rogljevo and known for native Bagrina and Začinak drops; and central Serbia's Župa wine region around Aleksandrovac (whose native varietals are Prokupac and Tamjanika).
Essential Food & Drink
- Kajmak Dairy delight akin to a salty clotted cream, spread on everything from bread to burgers.
- Ajvar Spread made from roasted peppers, aubergines and garlic.
- Urnebes Creamy, spicy peppers-and-cheese spread.
- Pirotski kačkavalj Hard, yellow cheese made from sheep's milk in the Stara Planina region.
- Burek Flaky meat, cheese or vegetable pie eaten with yoghurt.
- Komplet lepinja Zlatibor region's oven-baked flat bread filled with kajmak and scrambled egg and topped with gravy from the spit roast.
- Ćevapi The ubiquitous skinless sausages and pljeskavica (spicy hamburger) make it very easy to be a carnivore in Serbia.
- Mantije Bite-sized square-shaped meat pastries from Sandžak region.
- Sarma Minced meat and rice wrapped in sour cabbage leaves.
- Punjene paprike Capsicums stuffed with minced meat and rice.
- Svadbarski kupus Literally 'wedding cabbage' – sauerkraut and hunks of smoked pork slow-cooked in giant clay pots.
- Karađorđeva šnicla Similar to chicken Kiev, but with veal or pork and lashings of kajmak and tartar.
- Pasulj prebranac The Serbian take on baked beans, just fatter and porkier.
- Riblja čorba Fish soup, most commonly from carp, spiced with paprika.
- Paprikaš Goulash, often made with venison and wild boar.
- Rakija Strong distilled spirit made from fruit – the most common variety is šljivovica, made from plums.
- Šumadijski čaj Rakija boiled with sugar, drunk in winter.
- Jogurt Drinking yoghurt, eaten with savoury pastries like burek.
- Slatko Sweet preserve made from fruit.
- Gomboce Potato-dough dumplings, usually stuffed with plums; popular in Vojvodina province.
- Palačinke Crepes, usually with jam, Nutella, crushed walnuts or honey.