Picture everything you want from a classic European country, then add a level of quirk that you won’t find anywhere but the Balkans. Serbia is one of Europe’s more sizeable countries, and yet it remains largely overlooked by travellers who tend westward rather than venturing east.
Sure, there’s the infamous, ambiguous history that hasn’t quite let go its grip. But headlines on Serbia are deservedly moving from the news pages to the travel section. This black hole in the Euro traveller’s mindset and headspace is a sitting duck for those who hunt memorable experiences.
If you’re keen for a week-long detour from the rest of the continent, take a train ride from a neighbouring country (Serbia is bordered by Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia and more). Or hit the ground running and fly directly into town – several European cities (including Paris, London and Amsterdam) offer regular flights to Belgrade, the capital.
Belgrade offers a laid-back welcome to visitors. Spend a couple of days visiting vivid museums and exploring the old town and Kalemegdan Citadel by day, and prowling town for a scene that suits at night. Serbs are proud of exploring limits and letting go; while artists and thinkers gather in creative cafes and alternative clubs, Balkan beats blare all night along the Danube. Meanwhile, there’s some fine bohemian dining to be done in the Parisian quarter of Skadarska.
Not far from the capital there are rolling plains dotted with quiet villages. There are also winter ski resorts and summer hiking spots, castles nestled in jagged mountains and monasteries hidden in the foliage of national parks. Belgrade is also the hub of an efficient web of road and rail networks that shuttle people throughout the country.
Leaving Belgrade, the quieter direction to go is south. If you’ve come for winter, head to Kopaonik for skiing, or to Zlatibor if you not one for sliding on slopes. In summer months, the Zlatibor region is also worth visiting for gentle immersion into rural life. Spend a few days exploring the folklore, superstition and tradition of proud villages (including the not-really-real Drvengrad village) and ride the delightfully disorienting Šargan 8 railway.
Further south near the border to Kosovo, Novi Pazar is a hotchpotch of east and west. The mostly Muslim town is dotted with Islamic minarets, ruined hammams and old cafes still serving Turkish coffee, but not far outside you’ll discover some of the loveliest Orthodox Christian monasteries in the country.
If you are looking for aural inspiration down south, brass bands battle it out every year over four heady days at the trumpet festival. The otherwise sleepy town of Guča is taken to a whole new decibel level each year as the region’s Roma musicians outshine international guests who watch in awe as cheeks and competition flare.
Up north, a whole other kind of music is going on in Novi Sad during the annual EXIT festival. The ‘State of Exit’ was founded in the spirit of grass-roots resistance to Milosevic in 2000 and continues growing each year as a new generation with something to say comes together to party about it.
Music aside, Serbia would still be one of the most unique travel destinations in Europe even if it were stone silent. Its architecture is a three-dimensional timeline of the country’s socio-cultural history. Between the ubiquitous post-war concrete blocks you will see medieval monasteries, Ottoman spires, Orthodox churches, Austro-Hungarian fortifications and even some pristinely preserved secessionist buildings in Subotica near the Hungarian border.
Standing inside an Orthodox church, the air thick with sweet incense and walls awash with colourful frescoes, or walking through lush parkland to find remote monasteries carrying on as they have for centuries, will make you feel as though you’ve somehow stumbled into another world. And you’ll be glad that you did before too many other people find out that this special country is almost as easy and accessible as the rest of Europe – but without the costs and queues.