In the past few years, tourism has been booming in Serbia thanks to the country’s better connectivity with the rest of the world. According to the Serbian Statistical Office, between January and September almost two million people visited the country, a growth of about 11 per cent compared to the same time period in 2017.
While most of those visiting the country stay in its two main cities, Belgrade and Novi Sad, there are many other exciting sites around the country. In order to help you decide, here are four places that should be on your must-see list in Serbia for 2019 (also check out the longer list of places you should give a shot that are easily accessible from Belgrade).
Golubac and Ram – Ancient Fortresses on the Danube
Medieval enthusiasts rejoice: Golubac Fortress, which majestically guards the entrance to the Danube’s Iron Gates gorge, which traces Serbia’s border with Romania, will be finally fully open to the public in April 2019, after a through renovation financed by the EU. Although the early history of Golubac is mostly unknown, with recent findings indicating Byzantine and even Roman presence, it was first mentioned as a Hungarian fortification in the 14th Century.
Since then, the fortress has exchanged hands multiple times between the Ottomans and the Habsburgs. It was finally abandoned in the late 19th Century and partially flooded between 1964 and 1972 during the construction of two hydroelectric dams on the Danube. Nevertheless, even in its diminished state, its ten towers, which protrude from a steep hill, give it a fairy-tale appearance.
Some 40 kilometres to the West of Golubac rises another great fortress of yore, Ram, which received a face-lift in 2018 thanks to funding from the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA).
Although older fortification at the same spot have been mentioned in historical records dating as far as the 9th Century, Ram’s present structure was built by the Ottomans in the 15th Century when it was one of the first artillery fortresses in the Balkans. It was also abandoned in the late 19th Century but remained a popular destination because of a ferry connecting it to the town of Banatska Palanka on the other side of the Danube.
Sombor and Bezdan
Sombor’s beautiful early 19th Century baroque town hall houses Serbia’s largest painting by area which depicts the 1697 Battle of Senta, when the Habsburg Army decisively defeated the Ottomans in a surprise attack. The giant canvas, which is 40 square metres, is the work of Hungarian-German painter Ferencz Eisenhut and was commissioned for the 1896 celebration of one thousand years of Hungarian settlement in the Pannonian plains.
Although ambling around Sombor can easily fill one day, the city’s other draw is its proximity to Bezdan, also called “Water Town” due to the large number of waterways surrounding it. This small town, nestled in the woods on the border with Hungary and Croatia, is celebrated for its pristine nature which, on warm summer days, makes it perfect for hiking, cycling and swimming.
The word about Bezdan’s beauty is slowly getting out, so make sure you check it out before it gets overrun by weekenders from Belgrade and Novi Sad.
Pirot and Stara Planina Nature Park
A small town on the border with Bulgaria, Pirot punches way above its weight in terms of its cultural significance in Serbia.
Since the 15th Century and throughout Ottoman times, the town was famous for the production of colourful kilim rugs made on special looms by local women, which were exported throughout the former Ottoman Empire. Pirot kilims are easily recognisable for their stylised geometric motifs and the predominance of fiery red hues, and are increasingly coming back into fashion in Serbia.
Besides kilims, Pirot is also known for its colourful pottery, hard cheese (kackavalj) and distinctive “flattened” sausage, all of which earned its citizens a reputation for industriousness as well as stinginess, which makes them the butt of many jokes in Serbia.
Although crafts and food are the city’s main draw, its position at the foothills of the Balkan mountain range make it a great base to explore the pristine nature of the Stara Planina Nature Park. The increasingly popular Babin Zub ski resort is about hour and a half away, while in the summer the nature park offers some of the best hikes in Serbia, with many picturesque waterfalls and rivers.
The city itself is also remarkable for its recently renovated fortress, Momcilov Grad, and some of the prettiest Ottoman Balkan houses in Serbia, such as the one housing the Museum of Ponišavlje (Nikole Pasica 49).
The city’s cultural allure is underscored by the fact that the municipality of Novi Pazar has the largest concentration of UNESCO-protected sites in the country. The oldest of them, the beautifully irregular Church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, was originally founded by the Romans in the 4th Century and became the site of the first bishopric in present-day Serbia in the 9th Century, making it the oldest church in the country.
A bit further away are the old Ras fortress – which also has Roman origins and was the first centre of the Nemanjic dynasty in the 12th Century – and two majestic medieval monasteries, Djurdjevi Stupovi and Sopocani, renowned for their frescoes and mix of Western and Eastern Roman architecture.
The city itself, however, retained its Ottoman-era character. The most remarkable monuments from those times are its Altun-Alem Mosque, dating from the early 16th Century and the Old (Isa-Bey’s) Hammam, which is currently serving as a café in the summer and awaiting renovation.
Aficionados of Socialist Yugoslav architecture will love Novi Pazar’s Hotel Vrbak, which combines modernism with Ottoman motifs.
However, there is much more to Novi Pazar than its buildings: it is a lively, young city with amazing food. When there, make sure you taste the local variety of cevapi (meat balls) at Kod Jonuza (Rifata Bucevica) or roasted nuts and seeds at Prva Pazarska Spicara (28 Novembra).
This article originally appeared in BIRN’s Belgrade Insight newspaper.