Novi Pazar is different. There simply isn’t any way to deny it. The centre of Islamic culture in Serbia, the town the Ottomans called Yeni Pazar offers something totally different to the rest of the country, from Islamic architecture to nights out of a decidedly non-Serbian kind.
Despite spending centuries under the Ottoman yoke, vestiges of Islamic life are hard to find in Serbia. Not so in Novi Pazar, and the abundance of mosques makes for a unique cityscape. The Altun-Alem Mosque is the main one in the city, itself full of history and stories. It is named after the daughter of a local pasha, a girl who refused to marry and chose instead to donate her property to the construction of this very mosque. The name also means ‘precious stone’, and this is very clearly a cherished construction.
While certain pockets of the nation like to point to Kosovo as the cradle of Serbian civilisation, the truth is a little closer to home. The medieval Serbian state spread around the area known as Ras, and the Museum of Ras is located in Novi Pazar. This is the best place to learn about the proud history of the state, before setting off to visit the remains of the Stari Ras fortress.
Okay, don’t actually attack the Novi Pazar fortress. That is a surefire way to attract negative attention and get a stern talking to from the powers-that-be. There is very little left of the fortress anyway, and the walls now enclose the town’s main park. The view from up here is very pleasant indeed, looking out over the city and giving a good example of architectural variety on offer.
A 15th-century Turkish bath in the centre of the city, the Isa-Beg Hammam has long stopped performing its original function. It still represents an interesting example of Ottoman architecture, however, with separate bathing areas for men and women. A café stands here in the summer, creating a truly unique ambience for a strong cup of the dark stuff.
The Isa-Beg Hammam is the place to go for a coffee in the summer, but the truth is that strong brews await around every corner in Novi Pazar. Unlike the rest of the country, caffeine is dominant over rakija here, and that difference is palpable in the energy and vibrancy of the conversation. The cafés are full from morning until night with enthusiastic young people, another beautiful aspect of Serbia’s youngest city.
Novi Pazar is Serbia’s most energetic city, but that doesn’t mean it is all ‘go go go’ in town. The city spa is located just 4km outside of town, and it presents a great opportunity to get away from everything and embark on a journey of physical and mental restoration. The spa was discovered by the Romans but developed by the Ottomans, before being taken up to the next level with the advent of spa tourism in the post-Ottoman era.
You can’t visit Novi Pazar without sampling mantije, you simply can’t. The town is known for producing the best ćevapi in the country, but we recommend eschewing the greasy grilled meat in favour of little dumplings that aren’t a million miles away from burek, but offer something completely different. Supposedly the dish was brought into town by Genghis Khan and his men, but you don’t have to worry about that. Head to Sidro and dig in.
Novi Pazar is surrounded by the fantastic nature that has come to define Serbia, and the finest example of that is just a short drive away. The Uvac river meanders are undoubtedly the most dramatic image in the region, intensely tight bends of water flanked by imposing cliffs and no small amount of birdlife. Simply put, this is one of the most unique and inspiring places on the planet.
Novi Pazar can feel a little bit like Bosnia & Herzegovina at times, and nowhere is this more apparent than at the city market. Sunday is the official market day but it is actually open all through the week, so head here early in the morning to get the full experience. You can try and haggle with the vendors for fruits and vegetables, but don’t take the whole thing too seriously. We’re reticent to use the word ‘literally’, but pretty much everything you could want can be found here.
High above Novi Pazar stands the Church of St. Peter, arguably the most iconic symbol of this fascinating town. This 4th-century church is actually the oldest of its kind in the country, and initially acted as the Orthodox seat of Raška. The 10th-century frescoes are particularly impressive, but it is the sense of history and the unbeatable views that really attract. The church is a five minute drive from the city, although more energetic visitors might want to walk up the hill instead.