Backpacking around Europe might not be the intrepid journey of self-discovery that it once was, but the vagabond route still comes greatly recommended. Serbia is one of the few countries left in Europe that demands a little bit of perseverance and commitment, making it perfect for those looking to invoke the glory years of backpacking. Think of the country as a sponge, and your job is to get every last drop out of it.
Well, not home exactly, but leave the gadgets locked away in the hostel. The incredible evolution of technology over the last decade has made traveling exponentially easier, but there are small pleasures in having to struggle. Leave the smartphone and laptop behind, and immerse yourself in everything Serbia has to offer. You’ll find an immensely passionate and friendly populace and a host of hidden gems. Most importantly, your experience will be uniquely yours. Is that not what matters most?
Belgrade isn’t quite the geographical centre of Serbia, but it is very much the middle in every other sense. Everything in the state gravitates towards the big city, and as such, it is the perfect spot to bookend your trip. It is the best place to get a handle on Serbian quirks at the beginning, and its legendary nightlife will provide the perfect ending to your journey.
If you are someone who thrives in immense heat then by all means, visit the Balkans in August. If you happen to be among the many who struggle once the temperature goes north of 35, visit at your peril. The entire region can get unbearably hot during the middle of summer, and the built-up nature of Belgrade accentuates the heat. The city becomes a heat box of sorts, and any hope of seeing what the city has to offer can evaporate quicker than, well, any liquid in the middle of a Balkan summer.
There was a time when Belgrade had barely any hostels, but the ones it did have were absolutely fantastic. Those days are gone, and the city is now flooded with budget accommodation of varying quality. Great hostels still exist however, and these spots are renowned for their commitment to the total backpacking experience. Staying in hostels is still the way to go, in order to get an intimate guide to the city and that great communal experience.
One of the best things about traveling in Serbia is the abundance of great food, although that will only really apply if you are a fan of grilled meat. The country is a carnivore’s paradise, and choosing a restaurant can often be a difficult task. Here’s a little tip though, one that comes straight from the law’s mouth. If you spy the local police eating in a restaurant, do yourself a favour and do the same. The Five-0 are known for their ability to seek out the best eateries in a town, and following their lead is a one-way ticket to edible paradise.
Vojvodina is Serbia’s northern province, and it may well be its prettiest. Some of the most gorgeous towns and villages in the country can be found here, in an area that feels somewhat removed from the rest of Serbia. Novi Sad is the provincial capital and well worth a look, but make time for Sremski Karlovci, Subotica, Zrenjanin and the rest.
Everywhere south of Belgrade seems to get neglected by visitors to Serbia, but those who choose not to venture to Niš, Kragujevac, Užice and the rest are only doing themselves a disservice. The further south, the better the food, and life takes on a much more relaxed pace once the big cities have been left behind. If you are obsessing about finding the ‘Real Serbia’, you’ll find it in towns like Jagodina, Kruševac and Vranje.
Serbia’s history is as tumultuous as a history is going to get, but this provides ample material for themed trips around the state. Creating a story is a great way to discover a country, and Serbia is wide open for exploration in this way. The awesome World War II monuments that are dotted around the country are a great option, as are the many monasteries that punctuate the country from north to south.
It may be the simplest piece of advice a visitor can receive, but it pays to listen in Serbia. Many idealistic young folk will visit the country thinking they know everything about the state, about what happened in the 90s and about Kosovo, but this is a major mistake waiting to happen. Certain subjects are still sensitive in Serbia, albeit sensitive when broached by someone from outside. If someone begins talking about the conflicts, open your ears and allow the first person narrative to enter. You’ll be extremely surprised at just how candid the Serbs can be.
English is widely spoken in Belgrade and Novi Sad, but a reliance on the language may make things difficult throughout the rest of the country. No one is going to expect you to become fluent in Serbian overnight, but a little bit of an effort can be the difference between doors being held and doors being opened. Familiarise yourself with the alphabet, and pick up an essential phrase, and Serbia will be yours for the taking.