Serbia: The Heart of the Balkans

Many tourists skip the Balkans, thinking that it’s dangerous, or that there’s nothing worth seeing. The Balkan years ended over a decade ago, so the region is completely safe and there are a million things worth seeing! Serbia is the heart of it all, and a great place to start.

Belgrade

Located on the confluence of the Danube and Sava River, Belgrade, the “white city”, functioned as the capital of former Yugoslavia as is rich in history. Belgrade’s large fortress ‘Kalamegdan’ dates back to 535 BCE and houses an impressive military museum, several parks, gardens, and Tito’s secret bunker.

Belgrade was fought over, captured and destroyed several times which explains Kalemegdan’s patchy masonry. First, it was Austro-Hungarian, then it was Ottoman, then it was Austro-Hungarian again, then it was Ottoman…

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Belgrade’s main pedestrian street, Knez Mihailova (Prince Michael) will take you from Kalemegdan to Belgrade’s main square, a popular meeting place for students. Knez Mihailova is the main shopping area and offers both local and international brands, as well as bookstores, souvenir shops, local handicrafts, and music.

The city was air-raided several times in the early 2000’s, and if you look very closely, you can still see some scars. Most of the buildings have been completely revitalized, with fresh coats of pastel paint. The large white-marble Ottoman drinking fountain near the beginning of the street is a good spot to fill up a water bottle.

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In the main square are the main history museum, opera house, restaurants, and free walking tours. Continue walking past the opera house, and you’ll find yourself on Skadarlija street.

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This flowery cobblestone street is Belgrade’s traditional corner and has been preserved as it was in the early 1800’s. Skadarlija and the surrounding area were a center for poets, artists, and actors in the 1800’s, and continues this tradition, priding itself on its Bohemian aura. Today, Skadarlija street is lined with beautiful restaurants, many of which have live traditional Serbian music every night. I highly recommend making a reservation for Dva Jelena (Two Deer) restaurant several nights in advance. My friend Melike and I ate on Skadarlija every night while we were in Belgrade and Dva Jelena was the best: huge delicious portions, great atmosphere/music, and its famous namesake beer.

Further down, past the fancy restaurants, an antique beer factory has been converted into several bars and clubs. Head over after dinner and shake it to some ’80’s Yugoslav hits!

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Yugoslavia’s iconic ruler Joseph ‘Tito’ Broz is buried in the ‘House of Flowers’, one house in a large memorial complex just outside the downtown area. There are several fountains, parks, gardens, as well as museums dedicated to Tito’s international work.

Tito is considered to be one of the most charismatic leaders of all time and founded the non-aligned movement, earning him nearly 100 foreign decorations and honors. He became a symbol of Yugoslavia and made it one of the most productive nations in Europe.

When he died, the unity of Yugoslavia died with him, and the ethnic tensions he failed to soothe led to the Balkan wars.

After a long history-filled day, check out Belgrade’s club scene to decompress. Cross the bridge into New Belgrade, and along the waterfront, you’ll find at least 10 floating nightclubs and bars open all night to choose from.

Zemun

Though originally a separate city, Zemun has been incorporated as one of the furthest neighborhoods of Belgrade. The Ottomans never conquered Zemun, so it’s Austro-Hungary style and monuments have been preserved, such as the Hungarian lookout tower.

21083749_10209736464875996_5113723210813351694_o.jpgPublic transportation and tours offer easy transport to Zemun, making it easy to spend the afternoon here, away from bustling Belgrade. The riverside is stocked with restaurants and is an ideal spot for boat-watching and beer-drinking. The village is quaint and picturesque as well, making Zemun perfect for a relaxing half-day trip.

Novi Sad

In Serbia’s Northern autonomous region Vojvodina, lies Novi Sad, its quiet district capital. It is Serbia’s second largest city, but within the old town, feels pleasantly small.

Novi Sad is located in between Belgrade and Budapest and is worth at least a day or two of your time. In the summer, Novi Sad hosts one of the largest EDM festivals in the Europe, EXIT, on the opposite side of the river inside of Petrovardin fortress.

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I wish I’d had more time to simply sit in one of Novi Sad’s bright cafes! I was only here for one night and it wasn’t quite enough.

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Vrsac (pronounced ‘Ver-shots’)

It’s a funny story actually, I was on the train from Novi Sad to Timisoara, Romania, and the train stopped in this town, Vrsac, which I’d never heard of, for four hours. Four hours. Since I was missing an entire day in Romania, I decided to make the most of it.

I met an awesome Korean guy, Han, on the train, and we hiked up to this bite-sized castle, which overlooks the town.

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Everything was closed because it was a Sunday, but that didn’t stop me from looking!

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Vrsac is a gorgeous town and we had it all to ourselves, which was really nice. It was even cheaper than Belgrade and Novi Sad, so we treated ourselves to a feast of a lunch before getting back on the long train to Romania.

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Vrsac ended up being my favorite place in Serbia, it was so genuine.

Serbia was just supposed to be a short stop on my way to Romania, but I ended up staying an entire week. It is an incredible place and I wish I’d explored more of the country. Serbia has played an essential role in the region for centuries and is truly the Heartland of the Balkans.

 

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