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If you’ll forgive the immediate use of such a hackneyed phrase, we’re here to tell you that Serbia is an undiscovered gem. The Balkan nation is a land where east meets west, both in an ideological and geographical sense. It blends the best and worst of both into one magnificently abrasive cocktail. Serbia is a land of tranquility and noise, of peace and conflict, and of spirit and science. If you’ll allow a second hackneyed term, you could call it a contradictory gem as well.
Serbia’s history is long and proud to say the least, and the Serbs themselves are keenly aware of it. Too many places in Europe get tarnished with the ‘East meets West’ tag, but it is difficult to argue with that descriptor here. This was where the Ottomans met the Habsburg Empire, where one empire ended and another began, while a proud people stirred passionately underneath. This is the land of St. Sava, of Prince Lazar, of Vuk Karadžić, Nikola Tesla, Milunka Savić and a whole lot more.
Belgrade’s nightlife has become a thing of legend, and revellers flock to the White City from all over the world to party on the many splavs on the Sava and Danube rivers. There is a lot more to Serbia’s nightlife than Belgrade’s party boats, however. Belgrade’s beer pub roster is steadily growing all the time, while Novi Sad and Niš make the most of student populations with an invigorating mix of pubs, bars and clubs. The Serbs understand decadence better than most on the continent, so good luck keeping up.
You won’t find anyone drinking rakija until the early hours here, but the monasteries of Serbia are every bit as important (if not more) to the nation. These grandiose houses of tranquility and worship are dotted all over the country, from the plains of Vojvodina all the way down to the disputed land of Kosovo. The history of Serbia is closely tied to its national faith, and these religious communities still continue that traditional way of life today. Many of the monasteries are open for visitors and fresco fans would be well-advised to visit two or three.
Tantalising fare can be found all over Serbia, but it is the south of the nation that offers up the truly spectacular stuff. Meat lovers will be in their element here, and you won’t find more succulent grilled meat anywhere in the region. Food is ingrained into day-to-day life in Serbia and meal times aren’t simply the sustenance-focused activities they have become in the West. Don’t dream of leaving some food on your plate, however, as a meal isn’t over until the plate is completely clean.
It seems like a bit of a cop-out to say that ‘the people are extraordinary’, because people are extraordinary everywhere. No nation in Europe has been so thoroughly demonised as the Serbs in recent times, however, despite the good people of the nation being among the continent’s most passionate, excitable and hospitable. The famous Balkan hospitality begins and ends in Serbia, where the focus is on making sure visitors leave with a positive impression of this magnificent country.
EXIT Festival may be a tourist-heavy shadow of its former self, but the Petrovaradin blowout has never been the main event of Serbia’s festivals anyway. Every strand of the spectrum is catered for, whether you are a trumpet enthusiast (Guča), beer lover (Belgrade Beer Fest), jazz fan (Nišville Jazz Festival) or even a grilled meat obsessive (Leskovac Grill Festival), there is a celebratory itinerary waiting for you. There is a different festival practically every month in Belgrade, and plenty of events outside the capital waiting to be enjoyed.
Serbia’s capital is special. Sure, everywhere is ‘special’, but nowhere captures (or maybe that should be ‘kidnaps’) the soul as vigorously as the town the Romans called Singidinum. Belgrade isn’t an easy city to love and the chances are you will struggle to accept its idiosyncrasies and frustrations to begin with. But before you know it the city will find a way inside and by then the damage is done. Belgrade is a city that doesn’t let go, at least not until every single drop has been wrung out of its latest victim. Music, food, art, history, parks, lakes, rivers, capitalism, communism and more – Belgrade has it all.
If Belgrade is the heart of Serbia, Vojvodina is probably its brain. Well at least the calmer side of it, with Novi Sad and surrounding cities playing the role of Angel and doing all they can to keep the Devil in check. Novi Sad is one of Europe’s most delightful second cities, but Subotica, Zrenjanin and Sombor aren’t to be sniffed at either. Its proximity to Serbia’s border with Hungary gives Vojvodina an altogether different feel than the rest of the country. The architecture mimics this more Central European atmosphere.
Hidden within Vojvodina is Fruška Gora, accurately described as ‘Serbia’s jewel’. The mountain-cum-national park isn’t particularly well hidden, of course, but the lush greenery is simply begging to be explored. Visitors will find hilltop farms, spiritual monasteries and oh so much wine within, and with 90% of the park forested this feels a world away from Serbia’s bustling cities and old towns. A plethora of flora and fauna reside within the park, including half of the nation’s bats. To cap it all off, Fruška Gora was an important location for the Yugoslav partisan resistance movement during World War II. Although whether or not the bats provided assistance cannot be confirmed or denied.
Serbia is relatively untouched in terms of modern tourism. Caught between the fashionable Croatian coast, the hipster-cred of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the obvious plus points of Greece, the many things that Serbia has to offer have gone largely unnoticed. This obviously isn’t going to be the case forever and it will be Serbia’s nature that turns the most heads when that day comes. The country is full of truly unique spots, including the meandering waters of Uvac, the natural rock formations of Đavola Varoš, the imposing Vratna Gates and a whole lot more.
Serbia has a reputation as being more of an adrenaline rush than a land of relaxation. So many will be surprised to learn that the nation is chock-full of spas, making the most of Serbia’s natural wealth. The use of thermal springs can be traced back to the Romans thousands of years ago, before the Ottoman occupation came in and then left behind a host of Turkish baths, adding another string to Serbia’s wellness bow. Vrnjačka Banja is the most well-known, but don’t skip on Sokobanja, Niška Banja and others (banja being the Serbian word for ‘spa’ after all).