There’s definitely something about Serbia, but that ‘something’ can be hard to figure out.
One thing I do know: Serbia’s time is coming around. During nearly a decade, the war that broke up Yugoslavia made traveling to Serbia impossible or at least difficult. With 20 years of intense efforts to leave the past behind, this small country in the heart of the Balkans is more than open for visitors (although it still has a bit of sprucing up to do).
If you’re nostalgic for decrepit Communist infrastructure surrounded by edgy European energy, you’ll love being in Serbia (especially in its capital, Belgrade): part Balkan, part Slav, part Ottoman, and part Austro-Hungarian Empire, you couldn’t mix it up more if you used a cocktail shaker.
That meld is reflected in many areas… In the architecture, which ranges from lugubrious Stalinist to whimsical Art Nouveau, with a few pit stops in banal modernism. You’ll also see it in the ethnic diversity of parts of the country – the large Roma populations in the east, Hungarians in the north and Albanians in Kosovo.
But I’m still grasping at straws because, Serbia, you continue to elude me and I can’t quite begin to describe you.
Perhaps the easiest way is to say Serbia has one toe in the East, and another in the West. For example, street signs in Belgrade are in both Cyrillic (which stems from the Russian alphabet) and our own Latin script, as though the country were hedging its bets. Many Serbs are Slavs and speak languages similar to Russian, and while there was once a strong impetus for membership in the European Union, some of this enthusiasm has dwindled.
Serbia is nothing if not confusing.
Make sure you have a reliable Serbia guidebook with you. I recommend the Serbia Bradt Guide because it was recently updated (2022) and goes beyond just the “places to visit in Serbia”.
No time to read? Watch a quick video instead!
What to do in Belgrade
Belgrade, like the country around it, is difficult to pin down.
It’s not a capital of sweeping vistas or irresistible monuments. Once you’ve seen the “official tourist attractions”, you might think it’s time to push on, but you’d be mistaken. Belgrade grows on you, quietly insinuating itself into your life until you’ve adopted a daily routine without even noticing. A week in, I had the uncanny feeling I lived there.
It’s not that there aren’t plenty of things to do in Belgrade – there’s a lot to see. You can walk around the city on your own, jump on and off the tram or take one of the many Belgrade tours on offer.
I did put on my tourist robes and tremendously enjoyed these sights.
- Skardalja is a single street that at night fills with music and the smell of competing grills – have a grilled meal there. Locals like to call it the Montmartre of Belgrade. Montmartre is a bit of a stretch, but it IS cute.
- The Kalemegdan Citadel is a striking old fortress but I’d suggest morning to get the sun behind you – and better pictures. You can walk back into town along the pedestrian street, Knez Mihailova, which has been in use for 2000 years (and leads to what was then Constantinople).
- If you visit Belgrade in summer, across from the Citadel you’ll see the river barges, or splavovi, where some of the city’s famous nightlife happens. (I can’t vouch for this, not being a night owl.)
- Do make sure you visit one of the last crumbling buildings bombed during the NATO strike in 1999 – memories of this attack remain fresh and vivid among Serbs.
- Belgrade is full of street art and graffiti. There are street art tours but the art is not all in one place (although I’m told you’ll find quite a few specimens along the Savamala waterfront). You just stumble over it as you walk around. Belgraders (Belgradians?) seem to abhor a clean wall, compelled to paint, draw or carve any pristine surface.
- The lovely St Mark’s Serbian Orthodox Church is built in a park in downtown Belgrade. While everyone talks about St Sava, which is larger, this to me is by far the more harmonious of the two. Notice the sky and the light, which – this seems to be a special feature of Belgrade – change each minute, with the purest colors shifting with the wind.
- St Sava is Belgrade’s largest and most famous church and a high point of Orthodoxy. Its cavernous interior was in full renovation when I visited, with scaffolding and wires running along bare concrete walls. It was finally opened to the public in its full glory in 2020. To see St Sava at its best, wait until the church exterior is illuminated at sunset.
- Walk through a tunnel and down marble stairs and you’ll alight in the chapel of St Lazarus, a riot of light and art that partly made up for what I missed out on seeing during the renovations.
- Walk around the city’s parks. Belgrade is quite green and on a hot summer day, there’s nothing better than finding refuge under those shady leaves.
- One regret I had was not visiting Zemun, which some say is the nicest part of Belgrade (if you’re around on a Saturday, try a free walking tour of Zemun).
Belgrade tourism: getting around
Getting around Belgrade isn’t too difficult. The city’s center is small, and most places are within walking distance. There’s a perfectly acceptable public transit system, if you can manage to buy a Bus Pass, which is apparently available at kiosks dotted around town. I tried four kiosks and was unceremoniously waved off. I thought it was me, but no, I met a Canadian gentleman who experienced the same. So yes, you can get around, but perhaps ask a Serb to buy your pass for you – that way you won’t scare anyone with your limited linguistic abilities.
If you leave Belgrade by train, know that the train station – Prokop – can be reached by bus line 36. This is essential intelligence because Belgrade used to have two railway stations, which was quite confusing, but with only one left, even some residents aren’t sure how to get there.
Traveling to the rest of Serbia isn’t uniformly easy. Getting to cities is simple because you can usually take a train or a bus, although the rail system is undergoing an overhaul and many cities have been deprived of rail service. Still, towns of any size are served by bus. But much of Serbia’s beauty is off the beaten path, up winding roads or through green forests and that’s where things go downhill.
The one part of Serbia I was unable to visit is the South, the part many call the ‘real Serbia’. Next time.
Hotels in Belgrade, Serbia
Belgrade accommodation: you’ll definitely get more than you paid for.
Upmarket, one of the best hotels in Belgrade (the best, for some) is the Hotel Moskva, or Moscow Hotel. Apart from its snappy Art Deco exterior, it has an extraordinary history, and anyone of note who has ever visited Belgrade has stayed here: Brad Pitt, Albert Einstein, Alfred Hitchcock, Ghaddafi (he reportedly brought three camels with him, which were left behind at the Belgrade Zoo…) If you can’t stay, drop into the plush lobby and use the free wifi or sit on the covered terrace for a nice cool drink.
Your best mid-range bet would be Airbnb or a similar service, where for the price of a small hotel room you can live amid period furniture and soaring ceilings (but first, read what I have to say about Airbnb).
If you’re looking for cheap hotels in Belgrade, I stayed in the tiny Hostel Cricket 2 in the heart of Dorcol, my favorite neighborhood. It’s a 15-minute walk to the center but… the leafy streets and scrumptious cafés captivated me. (I ate at Walter around the corner for incredibly affordable and delicious Serbian fare.)
Visit Novi Sad and Subotica: Welcome to Vojvodina
As you will be told by absolutely everyone you meet, Vojvodina is one of Serbia’s two autonomous regions (the other being Kosovo & Metohija). Any argument raising doubts about Kosovo’s status will fail, so don’t go there unless you’re a historian with an expert’s knowledge of the Balkans. And even then.
Just know that Kosovo’s status is disputed: it voted for independence from Serbia, but the Serbs still consider it an integral part of their country.
Vojvodina, however, is another story. Autonomous it may be, but firmly Serb.
Novi Sad is Serbia’s second-largest city, with a history every bit as tumultuous as that of the rest of the country: no Serbia tour would be complete without it. It may feel quaint, but the ‘older’ buildings mostly date from the mid-19th century (Hungary destroyed the city during the revolutionary fervor that hit Europe in 1848), and the three bridges, bombed during the 1999 NATO air raids, are brand new.
It’s difficult to list all the powers that have ruled Novi Sad but it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (or ruled by the Hapsburg dynasty) for well over two centuries. The rebuilt town reflects that architectural heritage.
Of all the cities of Serbia this is possibly the most youthful. It hosts the famous EXIT music festival (created to ‘exit’ the bad times) and was named 2019 European Youth Capital. It was also designated a European Capital of Culture for 2021, the first non-EU city to land that title, although activities were moved to 2022 due to the Covid epidemic.
When you visit Novi Sad you’ll also be surprised by the number of restaurants and cafés, with a laid-back vibe and plenty of activities in the evening.
Towering across the Danube from the city center is the mammoth Petrovardin Fortress, which hosts the city’s many celebrations (including EXIT) and has plenty of cool spots to avoid the summer sun.
A short bus ride away is the small but sweet village of Sremski Karlovci, in the heart of the Fruška Gora region, which is dotted with vineyards and monasteries. But like much of Serbia, getting beyond the village on public transport becomes tricky. While driving in Serbia may be a challenge, having your own car is the only sensible way to get around and would allow you to enjoy a Serbia road trip for a few days. Click here to compare prices for a car rental in Serbia.
Still, the village itself is worth the 20-minute bus ride.
I’ve been pronouncing this wrong for so many years… turns out it rhymes with pizza.
Architecture, one of Serbia’s proud and endearing features, comes into its own in this small town, one of the most exciting Serbia tourist places, and the influence of nearby Hungary is visible throughout town. To my surprise, Hungarian is spoken almost as frequently as Serbian (or Serbo-Croat), both by the Hungarians who have settled here and by those who hop the train or bus down from Budapest to explore THE place to visit in Serbia for the weekend.
A stunning example is Subotica’s recently renovated synagogue, the only one in Europe with elements of Hungarian Art Nouveau – it should definitely be part of your architectural adventure in Serbia. After World War II, during which 4000 of the city’s Jews died in concentration camps, not enough Jews survived to maintain the building so the city took it over.
Food: Serbia specialties worth smacking your lips for
You won’t go hungry in Serbia if you eat meat (more on vegetarians in a moment). I ate extremely well and cheaply throughout my stay. I don’t know if it’s the spices or the fact that the distance from farm to plate is quite short, but it was all lip smacking.
These are the dishes I liked best:
- pljeskavica is the local version of a hamburger, the meat nicely spiced with onions on the side. It seems so simple – yet it’s so yummy!
- cevapi, found throughout the Balkans, are grilled ground meat patties shaped like fat fingers and often served with homemade bread.
- sarma is similar to the cabbage or grape leaves you’ll find in Greece and Turkey, usually stuffed with rice and ground meat (my grandmother used to make these!)
- burek, which my Turkish father introduced to my French mother, is basically phyllo pastry filled with whatever you can get your hands on, my favorite being cheese.
- ajvar is basically a puree of red peppers, with added eggplant and garlic (and, if you’re lucky, lots of chilies).
- kajmak is a bit strange – I was utterly convinced it was butter (which didn’t in any way stop me from eating it) but in fact, it’s a light yogurt-type cheese. I slathered it on everything.
Greek salad is, of course, wonderful after all that meat, and if you like your food spicy hot, try the Serbian salad – similar to Greek salad but the feta cheese has been replaced by stinging green peppers. Yum.
Finally, if you’re a vegetarian, Serbia loves its fresh vegetables so get used to tasty salads, or eat in one of the many Italian, Japanese, or Middle Eastern restaurants that aren’t exclusively meat-based. That said, many meat restaurants will offer vegetarian goodness, and meat-free eating is growing in popularity.
Reading up on Serbia’s history (to little avail)
In some countries, you can glide through history. It has an inevitable impact, but it isn’t the most visible defining core of a society.
Not so in Serbia, where stories of battles won ten centuries ago are told with today’s urgency.
Paramount in this small nation’s history is location, location, location.
Serbia is at the crossroads of Europe and its list of invaders is long: Byzantium, the Ottomans, the Habsburgs, Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bulgaria, the Axis powers… and all this even before the 20th-century upheavals around Yugoslavia’s breakup.
Belgrade, too, is impeccably positioned at the edge of the Balkan peninsula and the beginning of the Pannonian Plain, and at the confluence of two major rivers, the Danube and Sava. This has ensured its invasion and destruction many times. (Here’s a timeline for you history buffs.)
History, though, is a complicated mistress in these parts and the truth can be murky, an impossible challenge for the uninitiated like myself.
Of present-day politics and recent history, here’s what I was able to glean during my Serbian holidays:
- Most people I spoke to expressed dissatisfaction with their present government.
- Everyone will remind you – in a friendly manner – that several major Serb cities were bombed by NATO in 1999 (and this may be one of the major reasons so many Serbs support Russia in its war against Ukraine: spite towards NATO).
- As I mentioned earlier, there is no discussing the issue of Kosovo on your Serbia trip: as far as Serbia is concerned, the breakaway province is an integral part of its territory, period. In fact, their constitution says so, land any change would require a change in the constitution.
- That said, Serbia has made some compromises on the issue in return for progress on talks on joining the EU.
- Serbia’s economy tanked after Yugoslavia broke up – it experienced one of the most severe hyper-inflations in history – but it’s back on its feet, with many people hoping entry into the EU will improve things even more.
So you see, it’s not simple. You’ll inevitably make a historical faux-pas or three, but it won’t really matter and as a foreigner, you’ll be forgiven for your ‘ignorance’. The conversation – many young Serbs speak English – will move on and you’ll wonder whether the encounter even took place.
Other things you should know for your Serbia vacation
So yes, there’s a feeling about Serbia, something that sets it apart. But don’t get comfortable. If you thought you were beginning to understand this complex country, think again.
Take the extreme right-wing stance espoused by others in Eastern Europe: I expected to find it magnified here but, no. While Serbs remain socially and politically conservative, they seem less extreme than some of their neighbors.
I was in Belgrade on World Refugees Day and small demonstrations took place – amply guarded by armed soldiers. The police cordon is intimidating and its mere presence showed how fragile freedom of speech and dissent are in this part of the world. But at least they are allowed. In Hungary now, helping refugees is considered a crime (a prohibition which in itself is a crime, in my opinion). That said, freedom of the press hangs by a thread, with ample demonstrations fighting in its favor.
I was also present for the (extremely modest) 2018 Pride march, which has been conflict-free for several years, a definite improvement from the first march in 2001, which was attacked by hundreds of skinheads and other reactionaries.
I watched as about 20 marchers, two rainbow flags, 30 police, and at least as many TV cameras milled around city hall getting ready to hit the streets. It’s commendable that in this highly homophobic region, Serbia makes an effort to respect fundamental freedoms but again, the massive police presence showed those rights aren’t sturdy yet.
The 2021 Pride was the largest so far, with several thousand people appeared Serbia’s LGBTQ+ population was headed for better times, with a promise of same-sex marriage legislation by the following year. However, the political currents have changed and the draft has been dropped.
A few additional (and imprecise) Serbia facts and generalizations I made during my stay…
- Watch Serbs lose it when they win a sports game, the same Serbs who will stand at the curb obediently until the pedestrian light turns green (even if the nearest car is over the border in Romania!)
- Serbs don’t smile at strangers – but they do TALK to them. No Serb will be left standing at the bus stop or sitting on a bench alone for very long. Someone will come by, and they’ll soon be chatting like they’ve known one another for years. It happened to me all the time but sadly my language skills encouraged more hilarity than information.
- Many conversations end with war – all the wars, not just the Kosovo War, not just the 1999 NATO bombing, but wars that took place decades or centuries ago and that are still remembered today in excruciating detail. There’s no animosity, just a serene conviction that Serbs were on the right side. And don’t even hint otherwise, because Serbs are proud and can be a bit touchy.
- Yet Serbs are easygoing when it comes to enjoying life, spending hours in cafés with friends.
- Finally, Serbs tend to be traditional, with men occupying the lead within families in this patriarchal society. That said, women are independent-minded and considered equal in the workforce – but also expected to cook and care for children.
- And yes, every one of these points has its exceptions so take them all with a grain of salt, please!
A few practical questions
How much time should I spend visiting Serbia?
Spending about seven days in Serbia should take you throughout the country, but if you have little time, spend at least two days in Belgrade.
Is Serbia expensive?
Not very. Here’s a breakdown of the cost of living in Serbia to give you an idea of costs.
When is the best time to visit Serbia?
Spring, especially late spring, is a lovely season in Serbia. It can still rain, though, so if you have a lot of outdoor activities planned, hedge your bets and come in summer.
What is Serbia known for?
Plum brandy, of course (Šljivovica), Novak Djokovic the tennis player, the EXIT Music Festival in Novi Sad, and Nikola Tesla. That’s just a start.
Do you need a visa for Serbia?
Many countries don’t require a Serbia visa. Check the government website to find out if you do.
Is Serbia safe?
It’s a common question among women travelers and a valid one. Street crime in Serbia (as opposed to organized crime) is relatively low and I saw no reason to worry, other than the usual admonitions not to go out at night alone in less frequented parts of large cities, hold on to your handbag in crowds, and make sure the taxi driver uses the meter. In my opinion, your greatest risk of bodily harm is on a Serbian road – they’re narrow, poorly maintained and the driving is aggressive and erratic.
Another major threat to your safety in Serbia comes from passive smoke. You thought that was last century’s issue but no, in Serbia, smoking is all the rage.
People smoke on the streets, in bars and restaurants, in front of office buildings and schools, and under your window. They’ll find you absolutely anywhere you seek refuge and when you get back to your room, you’ll have to wash your clothes out.
Look for cafés and restaurants with white “no smoking” stickers on the door, and steer clear of the ones with a black sticker – here, smoking is allowed. Some places have both, which means they have both smoking and non-smoking areas.
So yes, Serbia, there’s definitely something about you. Something catchy, possibly addictive, always surprising and unpredictable, whimsical even, and capable of bursts of beauty that confirm, in my heart, that you are indeed special.
Just please, Serbia – ditch the smokes!
— Updated 1 September 2022. Originally published on 17 July 2018