Editor’s note: getting off the beaten path can lead to some amazing experiences, like this trip to Serbia by writer Sam Spector. When I was in Belgrade ten years ago, I remember thinking that it was going to be a hot destination, but wasn’t quite there yet. I’m glad to see it made it! For more of Sam’s adventures, click here to view his index.

One of my favorite places to backpack off the beaten path is the former Yugoslavia. The region combines affordability (except in Croatia), beauty, and a diversity of cultures into one area with a complicated past. I have been to each of the seven countries that used to be a united Yugoslavia (Slovenia, Croatia, Northern Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, and the disputed nation of Kosovo), and each place is worth visiting and has its own unique culture and flavor. However, as tourists are now discovering the western Balkan nations, one of Europe’s best kept secrets is in the east, Serbia. Being landlocked, Serbia does not have the beaches that some of the other regional countries do, but what it lacks in beaches, it makes up for in the best food in the Balkans and world class history. Plus, it is hard to understand the Balkans fully if you skip over Serbia’s capital Belgrade, which was the capital of Yugoslavia.

One of the reasons that I chose to visit Serbia is that as a child, I remembered the NATO bombings of Serbia led by my own country, the United States. I often find myself drawn to visit places that have had conflicts with the United States so that I can understand an alternative perspective to a conflict where I have perhaps only heard one side. Meeting locals from a country that we have had conflict with humanizes the situation for me and gives me a chance to serve as an ambassador to people who only know my country as the place that bombed their city. Indeed, in Serbia, I got to hear people’s honest assessment of that conflict from over 20 years ago and see remnants of wartime damage, but also discover that Serbia is today a peaceful place full of warm and hospitable people. I began my journey to this country by flying directly from New York City to Belgrade, renting a car, and heading an hour north to Serbia’s second city, Novi Sad.

Remnants of US bombing

Novi Sad is a charming city that is a university town; around every corner is a center for the arts and the city is alive with young adults, who seem to always be happy. The bars, restaurants, cafés and street graffiti of Novi Sad made me temporarily forget that I was in Serbia and had a feeling more akin to the alleyways of Tel Aviv. Ultimately, Novi Sad is the reason that I chose to make Serbia my first travel article of 2021, because not only was it the European Youth Capitol of 2019, but it is the European Capitol of Culture of 2021, the first non-EU city to achieve such a prestigious honor. Novi Sad is known for its concerts, and I predict that soon, this city will be one of the top summer destinations for Europeans to visit. In Novi Sad, there is plenty to see; the towering Church of the Virgin’s Name takes up the center of the town, while down the street is a beautiful art nouveau synagogue, built in 1905. The Jews of Novi Sad once numbered 4000, but most were killed in the Holocaust, with Serbia even being the site of multiple Nazi concentration camps. These Jews in northern Serbia and southern Hungary largely practiced what was called Neolog Judaism, similar to today’s Conservative Judaism, and they built some of the largest and most beautiful synagogues in the world, several of which, like Novi Sad’s, still stand. However, Novi Sad’s claim to fame is its massive and imposing 18th century Petrovaradin Fortress, nicknamed the Gibraltar of the Danube, for its inability to be penetrated. Sitting on top of a hill overlooking the Danube, walking through the fortress will awe anyone with an appreciation for military history, especially with its vast network of ten miles of underground tunnels.

An old synagogue in Novi Sad

Right outside of Novi Sad is the small town of Sremski Karlovki, often called Serbia’s most beautiful village. For a romantic evening, walk along its shops and churches. It is in this town that you will find one of Serbia’s most romantic restaurants, Pasent, which is right on the Danube River, and where a flock of swans make their home. Though Serbia is landlocked, you would be surprised to find out that seafood is one of the country’s staple dishes, and Pasent’s menu does not disappoint with delicious fish. Nearby Sremski Karlovki and Novi Sad is Fruska Gora National Park, which makes a lovely daytrip from either town. In Fruska Gora there is great hiking and also many vineyards where you can go wine tasting, but the highlight is the beautiful painted Serbian Orthodox monasteries, over a dozen of them, which are largely still in use and give an ambience of serenity. Some of these monasteries date back to the 16th century but choose a few of them to drive to; my favorite was the Krusedol Monastery dating back to 1509 with its compound and sprawling garden.

Another enjoyable daytrip from Novi Sad was Subotica, a city on the northern border. The city is full of architectural gems in the art nouveau style. Subotica’s synagogue is easily one of the most beautiful synagogues that I have been to anywhere in the world; it was built in 1901 by the 3000 Jews of the town with the expectation that their city would flourish in the coming decades, not knowing the perils that awaited them. Visiting the synagogue gives you pause to think of what once was: children running through the halls, people praying in the seats, a cantor singing High Holy Day melodies, and the pride they took in this building when it opened. Another building, which today houses art exhibits, that one should visit is the Reichl Palace, the home of art nouveau architect Ferenc Reichel, built in 1903. From the outside, the building looks Gaudi-esque and like it belongs on the streets of Barcelona. Yet, Subotica’s masterpiece is its city hall, across from the Roman-looking theater building. In front of the city hall is a beautiful system of fountains that is a work of art in itself. Be sure to take an hour long tour of the city hall, where you will climb the famous tower to overlook the entire city, learn the history of the town, and see the incredible art that makes the inside even more spectacular than the outside.

Reichl Palace

Of course, no trip to Serbia is complete without visiting the capital, Belgrade. I had heard that Belgrade was one of the most bizarre cities in the world, and I would say that this description is spot on. The capital has become infamous for its all-night raves and nightclubs, which many argue are the best in Europe, yet the city looks trapped in the past full of communist-era totalitarian architecture of apartment buildings and an eerie building when you enter the city that looks as though it is from the Jetsons and outer space. Like Novi Sad, Belgrade has a massive fortress that overlooks the meeting of the Sava and Danube Rivers. Make sure you take time to explore this impressive site and all of the various rooms, like the Roman Well, that it contains. A worthwhile visit is to Belgrade’s beautiful and impressive Jewish cemetery, full of prominent Jewish leaders from the past. Another building in Belgrade that is a must-see is the Saint Sava Church, the second largest Eastern Orthodox church in the world. For 85 years, it has been under construction, and just this year fully opened to the public and has been dubbed the “New Hagia Sophia”. During the daytime, there are two must-visit museums in Belgrade; the first is the museum of Belgrade’s most famous son, the inventor Nikola Tesla. At the Nikola Tesla Museum, visitors are shown an engaging video on the life of this eccentric man, before walking around exhibits on Tesla’s personal items and experiments. It is a museum that is fun for all ages as docents demonstrate on visitors some of Tesla’s experiments on voltage. The other museum that is a must-see is the Museum of Yugoslavia, which chronicles the years of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and the communist rule under the more than thirty-year reign of the controversial Josip Broz Tito. Tito’s tomb and his collection of hundreds of relay batons are fascinating attractions in themselves. While Tito’s legacy is complicated to many, this museum gives an interesting take on the former leader, showing how for many in Serbia, he is still highly revered more than forty years after his death.

Saint Sava

At night, though, is when Belgrade is at its best. Belgrade is home to one of the world’s eleven trendy Mama Shelter hotels, with great rooftop bars and a restaurant that tourists and locals flock to alike. I thoroughly enjoyed my stay there because it is across the street from the Belgrade Fortress and on the Knez Mihaila Street, the main pedestrian street of Belgrade full of cafes and shops. A bit past Knez Mihaila is the charming cobblestone alley of Skadarlija, full of authentic Serbian restaurants (my favorite is not on Skadarlija but nearby, the romantic, dimly lit Little Bay Restaurant with an ambience I have not experienced elsewhere). At one of these restaurants, be sure to try to the knedle for dessert, a dumpling featuring the most prominent fruit of Serbia, the plum. Along Skadarlija, locals sell shots of the national liquor, rakija, that you can drink on the go for only $1 each, with my favorite being the raspberry. Yet, the highlight of nightlife for me in Belgrade and on Skadarlija was the best bar that I have ever been to in my life.

When I walked into the Riddle Bar, it felt like a time warp to the 1930s, with even the barkeeps dressed in old-timey attire. The bartender approached me and asked what I would like to drink. I told him an Old Fashioned, and he looked at me and said, “We do not have that here.” I then asked for a mojito, and the bartender frowned and told me, “We do not do these types of drinks here.” He looked almost insulted and explained that he and his fellow bar owners, all young men with families, had gone out on a limb to start their own bar where they could make drinks as art through mixology. For the next several hours, the bartender would bring drink after drink, each different, with him detailing his process and the ingredients in each one, each one better than anything I had tried in any bar anywhere.

Unfortunately, my time in Serbia was not as long as I wished, I did not make it to the historic, traditional southern town of Nis, home of Constantine the Great, a monstrous fortress, a tower made of human skulls, and the remains of a Nazi concentration camp. However, not visiting everything gives a person a reason to go back. When I left for Serbia, I had images of violence and conflict in my head, but now when I hear Serbia, I am transported back to the Riddle Bar and the warm people who make up Serbia.

I would like to give a special thanks to the office of tourism for the cities of Belgrade and Novi Sad for their help and hospitality on my trip, including arranging for admission to the Tesla Museum and Museum of Yugoslavia.

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