Travel

Going to Serbia? 11 best places to visit

(CNN) — Serbia is a destination that tends to escape the attention of many travelers.

Those who’ve ventured over to the southeastern European country might have discovered the legendary nightlife of the capital, Belgrade, while others will have joined the party at the Exit Festival in Novi Sad.

Then there’s the raucous madness that descends every August on the small town of Guča, whose trumpet festival has gained a reputation as one of the most riotous events in Europe.

That’s only a fraction of the story.

Serbia’s landscapes range from the endless plains of Vojvodina in the north — the country’s breadbasket and wine cellar — to the dramatic mountains and gorges of the national parks in the south, west and east of this former Yugoslav republic.

The legacies left by former rulers the Habsburgs and the Ottoman Turks can be found in everything from architecture to the cuisine, where East really does meet West.

Here are 11 places that will whet appetites for this underrated corner of Eastern Europe when you travel here:

1. Belgrade

Serbia’s dynamic capital straddles the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, where the sprawling Kalemegdan Park and lofty fortress offer fantastic views.

Belgrade has an energy that’s unmistakable, especially in its vibrant café culture. A stroll along the pedestrianized Knez Mihailova Street meanders past elegant 19th century neoclassical buildings as well as shops, bars and restaurants.

Dorćol is one of the city’s most attractive neighborhoods and has dozens of bars and restaurants, many on Strahinjića Bana.

Visitors can check out the lively nightlife along the Sava and Danube rivers, where floating clubs and bars hug the riverbanks. The buzzing nightclubs of Savamala are passed along the way.

Meanwhile Skadarlija, the closest thing Belgrade has to a touristy district, features 19th century cobblestone streets filled with restaurants and bars that hum to a live soundtrack provided by folk musicians.

Tip: Restaurant chain Smokvica has several delightfully ramshackle garden eateries, including one near Kalemegdan and another just south of the old town in Vračar. Both have innovative menus of Slavic and Mediterranean dishes.

Smokvica Kralja Petra, Ul. Kralja Petra 73, Dorćol; +381 69 44 64 056

Smokvica Molerova, Molerova 33, Vračar; +381 63 608 446

2. Zemun

Zemun Serbia

Belgrade suburb Zemun is also known by its German name Semlin.

Julijan Nyca/Creative Commons

Until 1918, this Belgrade suburb was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

This becomes immediately obvious as you walk along the Danube and see the sort of baroque architecture typical of Budapest — only the Cyrillic street signs give the game away.

After checking out the morning food market in Masarikov Trg, it’s worth a walk to the top of the town to Gardoš Tower, which was built by the Hungarians in 1896.

Climb the tower for sweeping views of Zemun, Belgrade and the Danube.

Tip: The riverside Kej Oslobođenja has a dizzying number of waterside restaurants and bars. Supermarket Talas is a good lunch stop whose eclectic menu spans the Mediterranean as well as the Serbian interior.

From late June to September there’s a pontoon bridge that connects Zemun to Great War Island (Veliko Ratno Ostrvo), a nature reserve with a sandy beach at its northwestern tip.

3. Novi Sad

From the centuries-old Kalemegdan Fortress to the beautiful Carpathian Mountains, Serbia has some incredible sights on the river bank.

Dubbed the “Serbian Athens” due to its long history as a center of culture and study, Novi Sad reveals its Habsburg heritage through its fine neoclassical buildings and café-filled squares.

Trg Slobode (or Freedom Square) is one of the main hubs, where the impressive neo-Renaissance City Hall vies for attention with the striking Roman Catholic cathedral and cafés of the pleasant pedestrian area.

Follow pedestrianized Dunavska past its pastel-colored baroque townhouses towards the cool greenery of Dunavski Park. On warm days, nothing beats grabbing a sun lounger on the Danube beach by Most Slobode (Freedom Bridge).

Tip: The Hungarians left their mark on the food too, notably the liberal use of paprika. Café Veliki, where traditional cuisine is served in comfortable shabby-chic surroundings, serves up hearty dishes. Across the Danube is the imposing 18th century Petrovaradin Fortress, home to the City Museum, a church and the annual Exit music festival.

Café Veliki, Nikole Pašića 24, Novi Sad 21104; +381 21 553420

4. Subotica

Serbia images

Reichle Palace, a former mansion house turned apartment building in Subotica.

Dragan Bosnic

It’s easy to think you’ve crossed the border into Hungary when you reach Subotica.

The Hungarian flavor in this town can be savored in everything from the bilingual Serbian/Hungarian signs to the paprika-laden cuisine in the restaurants and this isn’t surprising considering the size of the Hungarian population here.

But it’s Subotica’s architecture that really serves up a surprise. The sublime art nouveau buildings — known as secessionist style in Serbia — are the stuff of fairy tales, with colorful turrets, gables, roof tiles and brick work.

One of the most vivid examples is the City Hall, and it’s worth stepping inside its opulent interior. Visitors can even take a tour to the top the clock tower, which has wide reaching views of the city and countryside.

Tip: Trains and buses connect to neighboring Lake Palić, a popular lake resort that also has a strong collection of fine art nouveau buildings

5. Kopaonik National Park

Serbia's tallest mountain was designated a national park in 1981.

Serbia’s tallest mountain was designated a national park in 1981.

Dragan Bosnic

During winter Serbs tend to head south to the country’s biggest mountain range and largest ski resort to ski and snowboard.

Ravni Kopaonik, its main ski center, has an altitude of 5,577 feet, with the highest station, Pančićev vrh, at 6,614 feet. There are also 11 kilometers of cross-country ski trails.

While Ravni Kopaonik has several hotels, many choose to stay at the nearby village of Brzeće, which is connected to the mountains by cable car. The chair lifts keep going after the snow melts as the national park remains busy, attracting outdoor enthusiasts keen to explore the mountains on foot or by mountain bike. Bird watching is a popular pastime here as well.

Tip: Views of the slopes can be enjoyed from the À la carte Restaurant Garden, which s part of the Grand Hotel located in the center of the ski resort.

6. Zlatibor

Pedalos on Zlatibor - Lake Serbia

Zlatibor is a popular tourist spot.

Adam Batterbee

Serbia’s playground for all seasons is a collection of mountains and villages located in the western section of the country, 238 kilometers (148 miles) from Belgrade. It’s famous for its glorious hiking trails as well as popular mini ski resort Tornik.

For a glimpse into Serbia’s past, there’s the open-air museum of Sirogojno (Etno Vilage Sirogojno.) Here a 19th century village — Staro Selo — has been reconstructed, revealing in great detail what rural life was like at the time.

Underground at Stopića Cave can be found a subterranean marvel of waterfalls, stalactites and travertine terraces. Nearby is the majestic Gostilje waterfall, which tumbles 65 feet from a towering limestone cliff. The rocky path downstream leads to more cascades as well as plenty of scenic picnic spots.

Tip: Restoran Mačkat, a cozy restaurant in the small village of Mačkat, serves a generous plate of spit-roasted lamb.

Restoran Mačkat, 31312, +381 31 3834195

7. Tara National Park

From the curving Uvac River to the breathtaking Tara National Park, Serbia is known for its incredible natural beauty.

For truly dramatic wilderness, visitors can explore the mountains and gorges of Tara National Park, where the Drina River forms a natural border with Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In this unspoiled karst landscape, spruce, birch, pine and juniper forests cover hills that soar up to nearly 5,000 feet.

It’s also home to 53 species of mammals and 153 species of birds, while the bear, chamois and roe deer that inhabit the nature reserve park are protected by law.

Bikes can be rented from the tourist offices at Mitrovac and Bajina Bašta to tour some of the park’s over 200 kilometers of cycling and hiking trails. It’s worth sticking to the marked paths, as the forests are home to brown bears and wild cats, among other creatures.

Tip: One of the park’s most arresting sights is the Drina river house (Kućica na Drini), a wooden fishing hut that perches precariously on a rock in the middle of the Drina River. Kayaks can be hired for a close-up view.

8. Fruška Gora

Fruska Gora

Fruška Gora has been dubbed “the jewel of Serbia.”

Dragan Vildovic

The hills of Fruška Gora, located south of Novi Sad, aren’t particularly high — 1,768 feet at most — but they provide a welcome green distraction from the otherwise flat plains of autonomous region Vojvodina.

Within the Fruška Gora National Park is a trail of 17 monasteries built from the 15th century onwards. One of the most popular is Krušedol, which was founded in the 16th century, while Grgeteg dates from the late 15th century and features a beautiful marble iconostasis.

Fruška Gora’s heavily forested hills are crisscrossed with hiking and cycling trails. Look out for pine martens, deer and wild boar, along with an unusually high bird population including imperial eagles. The area is also one of Serbia’s main wine making regions, with more than 60 wineries.

Tip: Some of the best wines in Fruška Gora can be discovered with a visit to Atelije Vina Šapat, a boutique winery that includes a fine restaurant..

Atelje vina Šapat, Počenta bb, Novi Slankamen 22323; +381 69 607079

9. Devil’s Town (Đavolja Varoš)

Serbia - Djavolja Varos

The unusual rock formations of Đavolja Varoš are the result of erosion.

Dragan Bosnic

Positioned deep in southern Serbia is one of the more unusual natural phenomena you’re likely to see in the country.

Đavolja Varoš features 202 remarkable rock formations which were naturally created by erosion, with some standing as high as 66 feet tall. Most are topped with a mushroom-shaped chunk of rock.

Set on the wooded slope of Mount Radan in the municipality Kuršumlija., Đavolja Varoš can be seen from a series of wooden viewing platforms. On the way to the towers are mineral springs and a 13th-century gold mine.

Serbia extra: Đavolja Varoš’ on site restaurant specializes in dishes cooked slowly ispod sača — under a cast-iron bell, a sač or peka covered in hot ashes. This lengthy cooking process makes the meat incredibly succulent.

10. Drvengrad and Šargan Eight

Serbia - Drvengrad village

The village of Drvengrad started out as a movie set.

Adam Batterbee

Drvengrad (Timber Town) was originally built by Serbian film director Emir Kusturica for his 2004 movie “Life Is a Miracle.”

It’s now an eccentric ethno village of 19th century-style farm buildings with shops, restaurants, galleries and apartments to rent. Every January, the village is taken over by Kusturica’s Küstendorf Film and Music Festival, which is partly financed by the Serbian government’s Ministry of Culture.

Nearly two kilometers away is an equally quirky sight — the Šargan Eight. This narrow-gauge heritage railway was built in 1925 and is an incredible feat of engineering — its figure-of-eight loop goes through 22 tunnels and across 10 bridges from Mokra Gora to Šargan-Vitasi.

This two-hour round trip is one of the most popular sights of western Serbia — and you don’t have to be a train buff to enjoy the marvelous scenery.

Tip: It’s possible to charter the whole train if you want a bespoke trip. There’s more information at serbianrailways.com.

11.Studenica Monastery

12th-century Serbian Orthodox monastery Studenica Monastery.

12th-century Serbian Orthodox monastery Studenica Monastery.

Dragan Bosnic

Founded in the 12th century by Serbia’s medieval ruler Stefan Nemanja, Studenica Monastery is considered the most magnificent monastery in Serbia. This is partly because of its sensational setting within the thickly wooded mountains above the Studenica River in central Serbia.

Within the complex — which is a designated UNESCO Heritage Site — are three churches that remain of the original nine. The Church of Our Lady, created in Byzantine and Romanesque style, is the largest and is renowned for its frescoes. It also contains Stefan Nemanja’s tomb.

If you wish to stay for a retreat, the monastery has simple rooms in its own Studenica Guest House.

Tip: Time your visit for May 24 and you can join the festivities that take place to mark Stefan Nemanja’s feast day.


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