Buzzing cities, elegant architecture, a mind-bendingly varied history and some truly astonishing landscapes make Serbia one of the most compelling countries in Eastern Europe. It’s exuberant, hospitable (bring a big appetite) and crammed with cultural and culinary legacies from Ottoman and Habsburg times.
It’s also one of the most affordable places to visit: some of the prices, particularly food, drink and transport, will make you do a double take. Its national parks – encompassing river canyons, mountains, lakes, caves and forests – show off Serbia’s untamed nature and beauty.
Travel restrictions and entry requirements
Serbia no longer has any Covid entry requirements, including proof of vaccination or negative Covid test. Masks aren’t mandatory, although some parts of the population are still wearing them.
Best time to go
The months from spring to autumn are the best times, as winter can be cold and snowy (unless you want to go skiing in Serbia’s main ski resort of Kopaonik). Serbia has a busy schedule of festivals from May to September, especially in the capital, Belgrade, as well as the Exit Festival in Novi Sad in early July. Niš’s Nišville Jazz Festival takes place in August, as does the Belgrade Beer Festival and the riotous Guča Trumpet Festival. The Belgrade Book Fair in October is one of the biggest and oldest in the region. Christmas is also a popular time to come, especially Orthodox Christmas which is on 7 January (with the main festivities on 6 January).
Top regions and cities
Serbia’s capital hums with activity and is constantly on the move. With more and more of Stari Grad (Old Town) becoming pedestrianised, it’s a pleasure to wander its café-filled thoroughfares using the main artery, Knez Mihailova, as your starting point. Check out the fabulous art at the National Museum of Serbia in Republic Square before ambling along to Kalemegdan, the enormous and historic park that overlooks the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers. You’ll see the riversides teeming with floating restaurants and clubs, while wide waterside paths invite lazy strolls and bike rides. Cross the Sava to the old Habsburg suburb of Zemun and wonderful views from its Gardoš Tower. Back in Stari Grad, you’ll be faced with the dizzying choices of places to eat and drink in the tree-lined streets of Dorćol. Further south in Vračar, you can’t miss the round white neo-Byzantine domes of Sveti Sava temple, whose fantastically glittering interior is finally nearly finished after more than a century in the making.
There’s a wonderfully relaxed pace of life in Novi Sad, the European Capital of Culture for 2022 and the largest city in northern Serbia’s multicultural Vojvodina region. Its pedestrianised centre is filled with handsome Habsburg architecture harbouring café terraces, with more bars and restaurants tucked away in little alleyways and minuscule squares. Start off among the pastel-coloured townhouses of Zmaj Jovina and along to Dunavska where you’ll soon come to the Museum of Vojvodina – an excellent place to bone up on the history of the region. Cross the Danube to reach the massive 18th-century Petrovaradin Fortress (where the Exit Festival takes place) and the Novi Sad City Museum within. When the weather warms up, follow the wide footpath along the Danube to reach the city’s beach at Štrand.
The southern Serbian birthplace of Constantine the Great has some fascinating things to see, including the imposing Niš Fortress built by the Turks in the 18th century. It’s now part of a collection of sights in the main city park that features an amphitheatre for summertime events, the 16th-century Bali-Beg Mosque, a zoo and a 15th-century Turkish hammam that’s now a café. Join the evening korso (the Serbian version of the Italian passeggiata – a leisurely evening stroll) along pedestrianised Obrenovića and the Ottoman-style cafés and restaurants of Kopitareva. For a more sobering look at Serbian history, there’s the infamous Skull Tower, erected by the Turks in 1809, which is studded with the skulls of Serbs who died defying Ottoman rule.
The region of western Serbia is packed with sights, including the mountains of Zlatibor, the Gostilje waterfall and the marvellous subterranean world of Stopića cave. You’ll find a few delightful oddities too: the open-air museum of Sirogojno reconstructed to look like a 19th-century village, the feat of Austrian engineering that is the Šargan Eight heritage railway winding through the Mokra Gora mountain and the eccentric Drvengrad village created by the film director Emir Kusturica. The most spectacular sight, though, is the dramatic karst landscape of Tara National Park, which includes the Drina River that forms a natural border with Bosnia. It’s one of the most sublime places to hike and cycle along its 200km of trails. Hire a kayak and get a close-up look at the House on the Drina, a wooden fishing lodge perched on a rock in the middle of the river.
Fruška Gora National Park
Just south of Novi Sad is Fruška Gora, whose thickly forested mountains shelter 16 monasteries dating from the 15th to the 18th centuries, hiking and cycling trails and, in the foothills, vineyards producing top-class wines. Keep an eye out for wildlife including eagles, deer and lynx. It’s easy to visit from Novi Sad and the nearby town of Sremski Karlovci, the latter an enchanting place of baroque and neoclassical architecture.
Best under-the-radar destinations
You’re barely a dozen kilometres from the Hungarian border at Subotica, so it won’t come as a surprise to see this northern Serbian city decked out in bilingual signs. In fact, it was part of Hungary longer than it’s been in Serbia. It’s not just the liberal use of paprika in its restaurants that gives this city its spice. Subotica is a riot of colourful art nouveau/secessionist architecture, from its city hall (whose clocktower you can climb) to the wonderfully over-the-top Raichle Palace, now a modern art gallery. There’s more art nouveau loveliness in the neighbouring spa resort at Lake Palić, a 10km bus ride or cycle away.
At the point where the flatlands of Vojvodina’s Banat region get close to the Romanian border and the Carpathian mountains, the welcome sight of the Vršac hills come into view, with the attractive city of Vršac at its base. Some of Serbia’s best wine comes from the vineyards that cover the slopes above Vršac, and the city’s streets of 18th-century classical and neo-gothic architecture make it a pleasure to explore. Go hiking in the Vršac hills and look out for the 14th-century defensive tower from where you can get sweeping countryside views.
The Romans were among the first people to make use of Sokobanja’s thermal springs, and they’ve been enjoyed ever since. The hammam built by the Turks in the 17th century is still in use today within this attractive spa resort an hour north of Niš. Surrounded by forested peaks and bisected by the Moravica River (which offers several river beaches to cool off in), Sokobanja is also in prime hiking and mountain biking territory. One of the trails leads to the ruins of Sokograd, a medieval fortress that offers impressive mountain vistas.
Best things to do
Explore Uvac Nature Reserve
The crazily serpentine Uvac River has the sort of twists and turns that can be best appreciated from one of several viewpoints above. Here you can see the steep forested slopes rising above vivid turquoise waters, while griffon vultures fly above. While you’re there, add a boat trip or a kayak journey along the river to your list of must-do activities.
Go to Djerdap National Park
Serbia’s largest national park hugs the right bank of the Danube and has several of the country’s most extraordinary sights. Nicknamed the Iron Gates, the Djerdap Gorge – actually a series of four gorges and three ravines – turns up on itineraries of river cruises and really is quite jaw dropping. At its head is the medieval Golubac Fortress, the sort of castle that belongs in a fairy tale. Soon you’ll come across one of Serbia’s most important historical sights: the Mesolithic and Neolithic Lepenski Vir archaeological site, which dates back to at least 7000BC.
Visit the monasteries
Serbia’s medieval monasteries are a fundamental part of the country’s heritage and history. One of the most visited is the 12th-century Studenica Monastery in central Serbia, which is a Unesco World Heritage Site and is in the suitably peaceful setting of the Golija-Studenica biosphere reserve. It’s about an hour from one of Serbia’s prettiest monasteries, Žiča, which, like most of the others, is built in lavish neo-Byzantine style.
Follow the wine routes
Serbia makes superb wine that regularly wins international awards, but isn’t particularly well known outside its borders. Luckily there are official wine routes where you can visit vineyards for tastings, including around Subotica, Fruška Gora, Vršac and the Tuscan-like countryside outside Belgrade. In eastern Serbia where the borders of Romania and Bulgaria meet is Negotin; here, delectable Prokupac red wines are made in absurdly picturesque village stone cellars called pimnice.
Serbia’s public transport is very affordable. While the Serbian Railways network is relatively limited, there’s a new high-speed train that connects Belgrade to Novi Sad in only 30 minutes. There are frequent buses around the country, although you might want to hire a car if you’re exploring beyond the major cities.
How to get there
The quickest way to get to Serbia is to fly to Belgrade, although flights can be very expensive unless booked far in advance. Other airports in Niš and Kraljevo are used for internal and regional flights. Getting there by train takes at least two days: take the Eurostar to Paris, change for the Munich train to Zagreb. Unfortunately, the Zagreb-Belgrade train is currently suspended and is replaced by a bus service.
If you arrive in Belgrade airport and need a taxi, order one from the official tourist information desk in the baggage claim area. You will pay a set price and avoid the touts outside the terminal charging more.
What’s the weather like?
Serbia has a typically Continental climate – long, hot summers and cold, snowy winters. It can get very hot in the summer and regularly is in the 30Cs.
What time zone is it in?
What currency do I need?
What language is spoken?
Serbian is spoken, and many people in tourism and the hospitality business speak English.