For reasons that only the individual can explain, there is still a certain amount of trepidation when it comes to visiting Serbia. Never fear however, as we’ve got your basics covered with our guide of what to do, what not to do, how to do it and all the rest.
Register with the police
By law, all visitors to Serbia must register with the police within 48 hours of arriving in the country. Not everyone does, of course, but flouting the law is rarely a good idea. Those staying in hotels or hostels are saved the drudgery of having to visit a local police station as the accommodation will take care of this, but those staying with friends or private apartments will have to take themselves to the station to do so. Don’t lose the small white piece of paper either, you may need it when leaving the country.
The currency of Serbia is the dinar (RSD), and it is one of those with a relatively high exchange rate. At the time of writing there were 120 dinars to the euro, so expect to be taking out thousands and thousands of notes from ATMs. Cash machines are all over the city too, and there is little benefit to avoiding them in favour of using exchange shops. Change isn’t in abundance, so expect curt looks if you try to pay for one beer with a 5,000RSD note.
The Cyrillic alphabet
Serbia is a nation of two alphabets, so don’t be surprised to see road signs and menus in both latin and Cyrillic script. The latter of the two isn’t as difficult as it seems, and the phonetic nature of the Serbian language makes reading it remarkably easy. Do a little bit of reading on your flight in order to decipher words like пиво (pivo, or beer) and ресторан (restoran, or restaurant). Like most European nations, English is widely spoken in the cities but less so in the villages.
Serbian is a Slavic language, so anyone with a passing knowledge of Russian, Polish, Czech, among others, might notice a few similarities uttered on the streets of Belgrade, Niš, Kragujevac and the rest. The phonetic language is highly expressive and often comes complete with throwaway cursing that is more for effect than anything else. You don’t need to learn the language to enjoy the country but a cursory attempt at communication will greatly enhance your trip.
A tumultuous history
To quote An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery, ‘history hasn’t been kind to the Slavs but historians haven’t been particularly kind to the Serbs’. Serbia’s history is as tumultuous as it is long, with centuries of conflict punctuated by times of peace. The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s saw Serbia become a pariah state in Europe, and many visitors thus come with predetermined beliefs in their minds.
It is easy to forget, but individual people aren’t responsible for the actions of governments. The ordinary people of Serbia suffered greatly because of the crimes of the Milošević regime, and talking about the negative side of history isn’t exactly everyone’s favourite pastime. By all means be curious but don’t barge into conversations pointing fingers and claiming to understand.
The subject of ‘Kosovo’ is still fairly sensitive, but the majority of people in Belgrade have accepted that the breakaway province is long gone, independent state or not. Much like the wars in Bosnia and Croatia, it is best not to bring up the subject of Kosovo unless a native does so first.
Those hoping to visit Kosovo must keep in mind the fact that Serbia obviously does not recognise the border between the two. If you wish to check out the monasteries of the province, enter from Serbia and then return to the state. Entering from Albania or Macedonia means you will have entered Serbia illegally in the mind of the state.
The war is over, and has been for a long time
It is difficult to criticise people for not having intimate knowledge of every country on the planet, but believing that there is still a war ongoing in Serbia is a little too ignorant. NATO’s bombing campaign ended in 1999, as the Yugoslav Wars came to an end a few years earlier. Evidence of destruction is still seen here and there, but the nation hasn’t been a ‘dangerous’ place for a very long time.
Religion is important
Some of Serbia’s most magnificent monasteries can be found in Kosovo, the province that many consider to be the spiritual heart of the Serbian state. Similar monasteries are found throughout Serbia, and it is clear that the Serbian Orthodox Church still plays an important role in the lives of many locals.
Belgrade in particular might seem like a carefree city more interested in parties than prayers, but don’t assume this means that faith plays no role here. As with visiting anywhere else in the world, be respectful to the Serbian Orthodox Church during your visit.
Smoking is allowed
It can often feel that smoking isn’t just allowed in Serbia, it might even be mandatory. The overwhelming majority of folk seem to be wilfully puffing away on cigarettes, and bars and cafes in particular can sometimes become hazardous for those sensitive to the smoke. More and more cafes are popping up in Belgrade where smoking is not allowed, but these are still rarities. Smokers will be in paradise but be prepared for your clothes to be a little smelly after a night out.
Eat and drink local
Serbia’s economy had a tough time during the tumultuous 90s and the country was flooded with imports from the rest of Europe. Serbian companies have begun to fight back, with impressive results in the food and drink sectors. The country has an impressive number of independent breweries and cafes, not to mention a commitment to national cuisine that the fare deserves. Local goods are often much cheaper than the imported ones, too, so you are not only helping the local economy but doing yourself a favour in the process.
Sticking on the subject of gastronomy, Serbia isn’t the vegetarian’s graveyard that some will have you believe. Sure, dishes without meat are still a rarity by comparison, but a progressive new generation has taken a liking to vegetarian cuisine. Belgrade has a few fantastic vegetarian restaurants in particular that are every bit as tantalising as the standard national fare, and many chefs are excited by the challenge of creating dishes that tick the ‘Serbia’ box without any animals having to be sacrificed along the way.
The nature is stunning
Belgrade is one of the continent’s most famous cities, and Novi Sad is quickly making itself stand out as an up-and-coming destination. This is all common knowledge, but the incredible nature in Serbia less coverage. The nation is home to spectacular valleys, rivers, mountains, gorges and more, including a set of rock formations that may well have been put together by aliens. That isn’t a joke.
A proud nation
Serbs love to complain about things that they don’t like about their nation, and many conversations will be punctuated with grievances being explained in the most colourful language. But don’t be fooled into thinking this means it is open season on criticising Serbia. Locals may be frustrated, but that doesn’t mean they will be happy to hear foreigners bemoaning the pollution and other things upon arrival. If history has taught us one thing about the Serbs, it is that they will go to great lengths to defend their nation.