Although travel destination listicles are traditionally made at the start of the year, I do thing differently… and these times are different, as at the start of the year we had little idea of how much we could go around at all. So here it is, the ultimate list of places you have to see in Serbia this… or else…
Modern Serbia’s second capital (after Gornja Crnuća where Prince Miloš took residence initially), Kragujevac is a proud city with a very relaxed vibe. Besides its relatively large and well preserved old core with many wonderful buildings, it also has a magnificent industrial heritage and some well integrated socialist architecture. The old arsenal, one of the first monuments to Serbia’s industrialisation and the birthplace of the country’s still strong defence indsutry, is a wonder for urban explorers even outside the Arsenal fest, while the large modernist City Hall is one of the most elegant pieces of SFRY era modernism. Kragujevac also has a lot of great restaurants – Balkan will send you back in time, Lovac allows you to eat game in 200 year old house while Kod Milutina boasts to have the best roasts in Šumadija – as well as one of Serbia’s quirkiest cocktail bars – Buena Vista.
Although Kragujevac is great to visit any time, this year marks 80 years since the occupying German army committed one of the worst atrocities in Serbia: on 21 October 1941, between 2,778 and 2,900 boys and men, all civilians, were executed as a reprisal for a joint attack by Partisans and the Royalists (Četniks) on German forces in Gornji Milanovac. Given that Kragujevac had about 40,000 residents in 1941, this meant that almost one tenth of the city was executed, and this is event is still deeply remembered in the city. Šumarice memorial park (also known as Kragujevac October Memorial park) is a magnificent and moving attempt at telling the story of what happened in those dark days through a thematic walk past truly evocative monuments by Yugoslav sculptors as well as an ingenious museum, designed by the great Ivan Antić.
The amazing success of Nikola Jokić in NBA this year, attracted national attention to Serbia’s sleepy North West. A bit cut off from the rest of the country due to lack of roads, the area around Sombor is often passed in tourist consciousness (despite my best efforts), but that may be for the better as the deep calm of its waterways and forests is its biggest asset. Although existing from the 14th century, Bezdan started developing once the Habsburgs pushed aways the Ottomans in 18th century who settled a mix of Poles, Czechs, Serbs, Germans and others in the swampy area around Danube. The large empire needed easier transport between the Carpathians and Vienna, so before the advent of the railways, Habsburg engineers took a leaf from the British canal system and started building the Great Bačka canal system to like the Tisa and the Danube and which also goes a bit further north towards the industrial city of Baja in what is now Hungary. Although the water in the canal is allegedly toxic closer towards Tisa, its waters are amazingly clean around Bezdan, so much so that these part-manmade part-natural waterways are now protected by UNESCO for their complex flora and fauna.
This means that Bezdan offers unlimited opportunities for those who enjoy swimming and kayaking in pristine water, or riding bikes around forests. Indeed, these sporting opportunities made Bezdan a settlement with probably the most Olympic games participants per capita in Serbia – 7 Bezdanians represented Serbia in London, out of the population below 5000. Besides sports there is the recently renovated Batina battle memorial, built in 1981 to commemorate an important 1944 battle which helped the Red Army and the Partizans push the German and Ustaša forces back, as well as fantastic food, in pretty much any čarda, a traditional fish-focused restaurant. I went to Divlja Kuhinja although Pikec is also highly recommended. If you want something lighter than fiš paprikaš (fish broth), every Sunday there is a town market where you can get some great kulen and other local specialties, and you have to visit the amazing local bakery – Balo – for some pogačice sa čvarcima (muffins with pork rinds). Finally, once there, you should try to visit the nearby Bački Monoštor village, the local damask manfuacture and check out the beautiful piers and holiday homes on the Baja and Sebesfok canals.
Located in the very centre of Serbia, Golija mountain is oddly preserved from touristification despite being surrounded with many fascinating sights – from the wonderful city of Novi Pazar to Studenica, a UNESCO-protected 12th century monastery. Given the fact that Serbs discovered the beauty of Serbian countryside en masse during the pandemic summer of 2020, this means that Golija is one of the rare places where one can actually escape from the crowds. Golija is also the only other UNESCO-protected biosphere reserve in Serbia, besides Bezdan.
On my last visit, I stayed in the somewhat surprisingly vibrant village of Rudno on Golija’s northeastern slopes which offered great hikes towards Izubra waterfalls and was close to the stunning Gradac monastery, built for Helena d’Anjou, Serbia’s most beloved medieval queen. Golija, however does not have major tourist centres and the roads across the mountain are rough, and thus there is little to recommend apart from taking in its beauty on foot and enjoy its starry nights. A visit to Studenics is of course, always great, and hikers should alos try and visit the Hermitage of St Sava a few kilometers away from the monastery. If you are on the Ivanjica side, there is a wonderful old bridge, while those closer to Novi Pazar whould visit the city and the monasteries around it. It seems however that Golija will be getting a ski centre soon, so hurry up before it becomes a lot like its neighbour Kopaonik.
Although Eastern Serbia is mostly visited for its pristine landscapes, Bor is the very opposite of what it offers: an industrial city built next to a huge mining pit, over one of Europe’s largest copper deposits. Its quirks, however, made it a subject of one of the most successful exhibitions on Venice Architecture Biennale, and thus, for those of you who are into architecture, there is no excuse not to visit and experience the grandeur of its industrial chic first hand. The copper mine, first developed by the French in 1904, is now in the hands of Zijin, a Chinese mining company, but it had a tumultuous history. Bor was the site of first ecological protests in Europe, the 1935 Vlach revolt, when the local villagers rebelled against pollution destroying their crops, as well as a site of a particularly brutal work camp operated during the German occupation in WWII where Hungarian Jews and Serbs were worked to death to cover 50% of the Third Reich’s copper needs. In an interview for my podcast Pokretači, Moderni u Beogradu, who authored the Biennale exhibition, priased Bor’s urban core built in the socialist times. On the other hand, the city’s culinary scene piqued the interest around Serbia, as it was revealed that an establishment in Bor, Košuta, offers a mix of two of Serbia’s favourite dishes pljeskavica and burek, called hamburek. Anyhow, if all of this is too much, there is the whole of Eastern Serbia to explore, as Bor is located in the middle of the region.
Located on the confluence of Lim and Mileševka, close to the border with Montenegro Prijepolje is most visited for Mileševa monastery, however has many charms even beside this 13th century master-piece of Serbian architecture and art.
Mileševa is most famous for the fresco of “the White Angel”, i.e. the scene where Archange, Gabriel meets the myrrh-bearers and announces that Christ has risen. Although painted in 13th century, the fresco only recently became part of Serbian popular culture as it was only rediscovered in after WWII, when a newer, less artistically significant layer of frescoes was removed. Mileševa was also the resting place of St Sava, before his remains were burnt in Belgrade, and was where Tvrtko I, the first king of Bosnia, was crowned in 14th century. Some distance away from Milieševa there are picturesque remains of Mileševac fortress which used to protect the road linking the city and Sjenica.
Prijepolje proper, however is a quaint town with a mix of Ottoman and Socialist heritage. The cultural centre at the confluence of Lim and Mileševka is nice to spend time in, while the Ottoman area clock tower is worth a look, esepcially as it is across the road from the best ćevapi in town – Atina. However it is really the rugged scenery that makes Prijepolje worth a longer stay: Jadovnik is great for hiking and is developing into a trail running destination, Sopotinca waterfalls are the best I have seen in Serbia, while the area around the old Pine tree in Kamena gora – a zapis, or a holy tree – has also become a popular place for hiking. Then, finally, a bit more than an hour’s drive north are the famous meanders of Uvac, making Prijepolje a great base to explore the area, as I wrote before.