Serbia has always been one of the most important political players in the Balkan region but has always been overlooked by travelers visiting the Balkan. This was the case even during the peak of tourism in Yugoslavia in the 1970s and 1980s and I always wondered why. Correct, Serbia is landlocked between the Adriatic coastline on the east and the Black Sea coast on the west, with Hungary and the tourist hub Budapest up north. Obviously, most people just go around Serbia to get to the Adriatic Coast or to some of the stunning summer towns at the Black Sea. Some people even pass through on their way to some of Greece’s popular beaches. However, this certainly doesn’t mean that traveling to Serbia isn’t going to be an amazing experience.
Serbia might not have any beaches but it has a rich cultural life with rural market towns that still hold on to traditional ways, with jaw-dropping landscapes, forests, and remote, hidden monasteries in the endless lush green hills. However, if you’re like me, you will see the lack of visitors as an advantage. The tourist attractions aren’t crowded and the prices for everything are really low.
Traveling to Serbia for the first time? Read these tips!
Do you know that feeling when you have a favorite meal that you just make for yourself without trying to impress anyone? That simple thing that you don’t think anyone else would find it delicious. And if someone actually likes it, you think they’re being polite. That’s exactly how I felt traveling around Serbia. Serbians are extremely proud of their country and their history. However, I couldn’t help to think that they always wondered ‘what was this guy thinking coming here?’
When traveling to a different country, there are always certain do’s and don’ts. In Serbia, there are a lot of do’s and only a few don’ts! Serbians are a bunch of cheerful, easy going people that want to celebrate every occasion. Sometimes they don’t even need an occasion but they want to spread their joy with others. That’s one reason why most of them are really fun to be around.
Don’t talk about politics
This might sound a bit odd but you have to remember the late 20th-century bombings. The wounds from these events are still fresh and a lot of people get an outburst of emotions when talking about them. Serbians are generally opinionated when it comes to politics and this can easily spark an argument. Hence, my suggestion is to avoid talking about politics completely. Especially avoid talking about Kosovo’s recent independence- that’s also a painful topic.
Tea for English=Coffee for Serbians
Just like that title says, whatever tea is for England, coffee is for Serbia. So, if someone invites you over to their place for a cup of coffee, that’s a completely common thing. The most common Serbian invitation for a friendly chat is ‘Svrati na kafu’, which literally means stop by for coffee. The array of different coffee shops in every big city and small town are just another proof of Serbians’ love for coffee.
If you’re traveling around the region, also check out my article about traveling to Albania.
Just like its Balkan neighbors, Serbians eat a lot of meat. However, they also have a lot of vegetarian options even though meat remains a central part of Serbian culture. The typical breakfast is burek and some other things you must try are: Karađorđeva šnicla, Sarma (cabbage rolls), Punete Paprike (stuffed peppers), Pljeskavica, Kebabs, Prebranac (baked beans), and kajmak. Once you’re done, wash that up with some good wine or Rakija, Serbia’s favorite hard liquor.
Rakija is usually made from pears, apricots, peaches or plums, with the last one being the most common version. If you haven’t tried it before, it’s safe to start with a medovača, which is softened with honey. It’s served in tiny, long glasses called čokanjčići and instead of Cheers, you say ‘Živeli’. Finally, don’t be surprised if you see a bunch of people drinking this for (or before) breakfast. Some people consider this morning dosage to be good for one’s health.
The amazing nightlife
Speaking of rakija, Serbians are one of those people that know how to party and have a good time. The two largest cities, Belgrade and Novi Sad are famous for their wild nightlife. Belgrade was even named as the city with the best nightlife by Lonely Planet. If you’re a party-seeking traveler, Serbia is one destination you certainly wouldn’t want to miss. If you are interested in some other activities too, check out this list of things to do in Belgrade.
Related: everything you need to know before traveling to Romania
The best time to visit Serbia
Like most countries in Europe, Serbia has four distinct seasons and the average air temperature is 12 °C. Autumn is longer than spring, winter is not that sharp with only 20-25 days per year when the temperature is below zero. Finally, summers are super-hot for European standards, with July and August often seeing temperatures above 40°C. The best time to visit Serbia would be spring, between the months of April and June. If you’re into winter sports, on the other hand, then you will probably want to visit between December and March.
The most famous events are the EXIT Festival in Novi Sad held in July, the Dragačevo Trumpet Festival (Gypsy brass bands) in Guča held in August, the Belgrade Music Festival (classical) hosted in October, and of course the Orthodox Easter. Visiting any of these events is an extraordinary experience but keep in mind that accommodation prices are at a premium level during these events.
Getting around Serbia
Serbia has a well-developed public transport network for commuting between the big cities. However, Serbia also has a lot of hidden gems that are off-the-beaten-track but getting to these places might be a bit tricky. This is the case mainly because the public transport network was built for locals rather than tourists. However, the best choice to get places is still the bus. Trains are cheaper but also slower and if you ask me, the best way to travel Serbia is by car. Getting help for directions might be tricky in the remote areas because there aren’t many English speakers outside of the big cities. However, locals will do everything they can to help you get where you want to get.
The prices of food and accommodation
The average salary in Serbia is around 350 USD which means everything is more than affordable. The capital Belgrade is the most expensive city but even there you can find a cup of coffee for €1-1,50, get a meal for €5-7 and a hostel dorm for €10-18, and a hotel for from €25.
Related: everything you need to know about traveling to Bulgaria.
The best places to visit
Like I already mentioned, the most exciting cities are probably Belgrade, Novi Sad, and Nis. All of them have a distinct identity compared to the cities in neighboring countries and you can have a great time visiting these vibrant cities. However, in my opinion, the best places in Serbia lie off-the-beaten-track.
Taking a trip along the famous Danube River will lead you to some amazing places like Golubac Castle, Lepenski Vir, and the Iron Gates at Đerdap. Furthermore, there are a lot of breathtaking remote monasteries located in the middle of nowhere surrounded by countless miles of lush green forests. My personal favorites are Studenica, Šumadija, and Manasija. In the North, in Vojvodina, you will find something completely different, especially if you’re an architecture lover. Subotica has an array of remnants of Habsburg architecture.
If you’re a nature lover you will adore the mountain regions of Zlatibor and Kopaonik in the Southwest, especially during the winter. Further up north, next to the Croatian border, you’ll find the so-called Jewel of Serbia: Fruška Gora Mountain. This region includes the Fruška Gora National park filled with amazing views, hidden monasteries and wineries. If you fancy a glass of good wine, this is probably the best place in Serbia (and arguably the region).
Finally, no trip to Serbia is complete without visiting Mokra Gora. Mokra Gora literally means wet forest and offers some of the most jaw-dropping landscapes in Serbia. The region also hosts a village that has been restored to its original 19th-century appearance. Something you must do while visiting is taking the train through the valley and enjoy some of the most spectacular views of the Balkan.
A few words for the end
That’s briefly, the story of Serbia. A country located in the heart of the Balkan Peninsula, which is unable to capitalize on the tourist increase in the region. Unfortunately, Serbia is struggling to define itself within the international travel community but I hope this article proved you that there are a lot of amazing things to see and do in this marvelous country. Finally, check out my article with the most common tourist scams in Eastern Europe before you visit.