All About Serbia
Serbia is one of Europe’s two newest nations, carved from the collapsing Yugoslavia in 1992, it formally separated from former partner country Montenegro only in 2008. It is a bustling and bohemian Balkan land where prices are still low and the hinterlands little-explored, largely thanks to the fact that the rest of the world still hasn’t quite adjusted to the idea that Serbia is no longer run by Slobodan Milošević, the corrupt opportunist who leveraged nationalist sentiment to encourage some of the worst ethnic cleansing atrocities of the various regional Yugoslav Wars throughout his 1989–2000 presidential reigns.
Those who remember Belgrade (Beograd) mainly as a dateline location from 1990s news reports about the Balkan wars will be surprised to find it now the party capital of the entire region, with a hopping cafe and nightlife scene. Belgrade—capital of Yugoslavia, in its various incarnations, from 1918 to 2008, and of Serbia since then—is a scenic jumble of buildings including Orthodox churches.
Art Nouveau homes, strange modernist constructions, and the solid Kalemegdan Fortress with its victory Monument overlooking the confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers—a testament to the fact that this strategic land has been attacked and conquered by, among others, the Celts, Romans, Goths, Huns, Slavs, Turks, and Austrians. (As recently as 1999, it withstood 78 days of NATO bombing—though that was not to conquer the city but rather to force the country to withdraw its troops from the still-disputed southern province/country of Kosovo.)
In the Hungarian-inflected north, Novi Sad is Serbia’s laid-back second city, where the pretty Old Town and Petrovaradin fortress come alive each July to host EXIT, one of Europe’s largest music festivals. The Hungarian era left Subotica filled with spectacular Secessionist Art Nouveau architecture.
In Southern Serbia, the University city of Niš on the rail line to Sofia, Bulgaria, is proud of its mix of Roma and Serbs, its Turkish fortress, and its native son Constantine—even if many of its major sights are rather macabre (the “Red Cross” Nazi Concentration Camp and several memorials to the fallen in various battles over the centuries, including the creepy Tower of Skulls). Parts of this region were still under Ottoman rule into the early 20th century, and there is a decidedly Turkish air to towns like Novi Pazar. The south is also filled with medieval monasteries slathered in frescoes—Studenica is the best, though Sopoćani and Žiča are also worth the journey.
When to Go to Serbia: Serbia really doesn’t suffer from tourist crowds, so go based on weather. As usual in Europe, spring and fall are best. The climate varies from Adriatic in the south to Hungarian in the north, which translates to hot summers (more sweltering in the north), and cold winters (again, especially in the north).