Warm, welcoming and a lot of fun – everything you never heard about Serbia (Србија) is true. Exuding a feisty mix of élan and inat (Serbian trait of rebellious defiance), this country doesn’t do ‘mild’: Belgrade is one of the world’s wildest party destinations, the northern town of Novi Sad hosts the rocking EXIT festival, and even its hospitality is emphatic – expect to be greeted with rakija (fruit brandy) and a hearty three-kiss hello.
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, yet it remains largely overlooked by travellers who tend to flock westward rather then venturing east.
The capital Belgrade offers a laid-back welcome to visitors. Spend a couple of days exploring vivid museums, the Sava and Danube rivers and the 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 enjoyed in the old quarter of Skadarlija.
Not far from the capital are rolling plains dotted with welcoming villages, winter ski resorts and summer hiking spots, castles nestled in jagged mountains and monasteries hidden in the foliage of national parks. If you go in winter, head to Kopaonik for skiing, or try Zlatibor if you’re not one for sliding on the slopes. In summer months, the Zlatibor region is great 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 towards 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’re looking for louder inspiration down south, brass bands battle it out every year over four heady days at the famous Guča trumpet festival. This otherwise sleepy town 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 loud is going on in Novi Sad during the annual Exit festival. The ‘State of Exit’ on a mighty citadel towering over the Danube was founded in the spirit of grass-roots resistance to the Milošević regime in 2000 and continues growing each July 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 socialist concrete blocks you’ll find medieval monasteries, Ottoman spires, Orthodox churches, Austro-Hungarian fortifications and even some pristinely preserved art nouveau buildings in Subotica near the Hungarian border.
Serbia is nevertheless a cultural crucible: the art nouveau town of Subotica revels in its proximity to Hungary, bohemian Niš echoes to the clip-clop of Roma horse carts, and minaret-studded Novi Pazar nudges some of the most sacred sites in Serbian Orthodoxy. And in the mountainous Kopaonik and Zlatibor regions, ancient traditions coexist with après-ski bling. Forget what you think you know: come and say zdravo (hello)…or better yet, živeli (cheers)!