Serbia travel – thoughts and experiences

chess players in Belgrad's Kalemegdan Park

After months of work-related travel, we were looking for the perfect October holiday travel destination. Our criteria were complicated: It should be easily accessible from Berlin, preferably overland by bus or train in order to avoid air traffic. In addition, we didn’t want to spend a lot of time and effort on research and preparation. And finally, we were eager to explore a new off-the-beaten-track destination. A two-week Serbia travel fit the bill.

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Our 15-day Serbia travel itinerary

We took the night train from Berlin to Budapest and after arriving in the morning continued immediately by train and bus to Subotica, a very pleasant and beautiful small town (1 night) in the north of Serbia. Our next stop was the university town of Novi Sad (2 nights), from where we continued to the capital of Belgrade. We stayed only briefly (2 nights), going further south for some UNESCO sightseeing: the monasteries of Studenica (1 night) and Sopocani (2 nights in Novi Pazar). Then we moved eastwards to visit Niš (2 nights) and the ancient Roman site of Felix Romuliana (1 night in Zaječar). Finally, another stint in Belgrade (2 nights) before we headed back to Budapest. To make the return trip more relaxing we stayed for another night in Budapest before taking the night train back to Berlin. Inside Serbia we travelled by bus.

UNESCO sites and offbeat travel experiences: What to Expect

Prehistoric votive stones from Lepinski Vir in the Belgrade National Museum

Overall, we found the cultural sightseeing, one of the main reasons why we went, interesting enough for two weeks. We visited different sites ranging from Roman palaces to medieval monasteries and to 20th century brutalist architecture and memorials. However, the Serbian sites did not make it into our all-time favourite UNESCO sites. And we didn’t feel we missed much when we decided to skip a few destinations on our tentative route.

The lack of top attractions may be one reason why there weren’t many tourists in Serbia. We met a few travellers from (today) neighbouring countries such as Croatia or Bosnia but almost no tourists from Western Europe (except for a few in Belgrade). Several people even explicitly stopped to express their surprise at seeing tourists at all! However, we enjoyed the non-touristy and authentic atmosphere of Serbia a lot.

Meeting friendly locals in Serbia

Travel blogger Isa meeting the author Stevan Sremac in Nis

The people we met were all unobtrusively friendly. They were neither reserved or indifferent nor overly eager to help. Whenever we needed advice or directions, passers-by were very helpful, sometimes even going out of their way to make sure we were fine. We were surprised that quite a few people did speak German – mostly from previous work experiences in Germany. But some others learned German with the hope of finding a job in Germany, like the two doctors who gave us a lift in their car. We also met several bicultural people and families now living in Germany or Austria who visited relatives in Serbia. Most of them were concerned about the bad image Serbia has in Western Europe. English is spoken in the bigger cities and by younger people. In the countryside we fell back on our pidgin Russian more often, as Serbian is a Slavic language, and a lot of words are similar.

Political topics on our Serbia travel

The negative image is largely due Serbia’s recent history of militant nationalism – particularly in the ongoing Kosovo issue and the 1990s Balkan wars. We rarely had the opportunity to speak about politics and preferred to avoid this topic anyway. It was obvious that opinions in Serbia are divided, and that there is a discourse even on convicted war criminals. We couldn’t read or recognise many of the political graffiti, but some of them were easier to understand. For instance, we often found an image of Mlatko Radic (the Serbian general who was responsible for the genocidal Srebrenica Massacre). But most of the time they were crossed out or painted over by opponents.

Public transport in Serbia

Serbian bus station, in Kraljevo

If you look up Serbian bus connections on the Internet, it might as well be Antarctica. Quite often the net shows only one bus per day and only in one direction. But as we had expected, there was in fact more public transport than that. However, to say that there are many buses would also be an exaggeration. Yes, there were busses to, say, the UNESCO site of Sopocani Monastery. But no, they didn’t go every hour. In the end we had to resort to hitchhiking two times during our Serbia travel.

Old car in Belgrade

The distrust of hitchhikers was a cultural trait that surprised us.  It was obvious that we were stranded tourists on a deserted countryside road. And yet practically nobody stopped for us. In our experience, auto-stop is a common mode of transport in post-Soviet countries. In other countries we never had great difficulties getting back from lonesome places like Sarazm in Tajikistan or the Ruta Puuc in Mexico. Sure enough, sometimes the drivers would expect us to pay a bit for the ride (which we were prepared to do).  Maybe it was only bad luck. One time two doctors stopped after 40 minutes waiting time and numerous passing cars. The other time we had to walk back to the main street for an hour, where we could catch a public bus.

Accommodation in Serbia

With the dearth of international travellers, there are almost no hotels, and those we found didn’t seem good value. Therefore, we mostly stayed in private flats. The flats were overall quite clean, comfortable, and spacious. Most of them had private friendly owners who often lived nearby. Usually, they offered some advice on sightseeing and dining, which we appreciated. Most flats had a kitchen, but we rarely cooked, as dining out was quite cheap in Serbia. Except for Belgrade, where accommodation was more expensive, we paid 20–25 Euro per night and we never booked more than two nights in advance.

Vegetarian food in Serbia

Gibanica is a traditional vegetarian dish in Serbia

Most days we went to inexpensive eateries that offered at least one or two vegetarian dishes. But overall, being vegetarian was not a major issue in Serbia (see our separate blog post). The food options were not so numerous anyway and it seemed that few locals wanted to spend money on eating out. They would rather sit in cafés and restaurants merely drinking – but often ordering several drinks at the same time! Like, coffee and juice, or beer and camomile tea. Yes, we have seen this in Serbian cafés!

Prices in restaurants and cafés were lower than in Western Europe. However, there were some categories, such as fancy coffee shops or vegan-friendly eateries, which had pricing levels akin to those in Berlin.

We thought it odd that people smoke in posh cafés in Serbia, like in this place in Novi Sad

Smoking in public areas

Even in those modern and Westernised outlets, people would smoke indoors. Smoking is wide-spread and accepted in Serbia. Some restaurants have a non-smoking area, but most don’t. On this occasion we remembered that Serbia is not a member of the EU, where we have a anti-smoking law since 2011. Luckily, when we travelled Serbia in early October it was so warm that most of the time we would sit outside anyway.

Café in Novi Sad, Serbia

Likewise, most of our accommodations were advertised as non-smoking. But some of them smelled of smoke, and in others there were even ashtrays.

Should you travel to Serbia?

Yes, you should. If you are tired of over-tourism and want to leave the mainstream travel destinations for once, Serbia is the place for you. It is certainly much underrated compared to some places in Europe that are completely overrun by tourists. Serbia is also easy to travel and just outside the EU borders.

We had borrowed two Serbia travel guidebooks from the library: The English Bradt Guide Serbia and the German Reise-Taschenbuch Serbien. The Bradt Guide Serbia was particularly useful for the practical side of travel from bus routes to restaurant recommendations. The German guidebook Dumont Reise-Taschenbuch Serbien provided entertaining background information, stories and cultural insights. Both guidebooks were helpful in pointing us to worthwhile sightseeing and activities that the online must-see/bucket list guides overlook.

We also read a crime novel set in Serbia which we enjoyed very much. We recognised a lot of the atmosphere and even some streets and locations during our stay in Serbia.

These are the books we read during our Serbia trip:

Matthias Pasler: Dumont Reise-Taschenbuch Serbien. 2020.
Laurence Mitchell: Bradt Travel Guides Serbia. 2022  

Christian Schünemann & Jelena Volic: Kornblumenblau: Ein Fall für Milena Lukin. 2013

Have you ever travelled in Serbia? What was your experience? Let us know in the comments.

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24 Comments

  1. 15 days in Serbia sounds awesome. I hope visit Belgrade early next year for a couple of days. Thanks for the info about public transport. I’ll ask local in FB groups instead of searching online. I would be really scared to take a hitch hike. Good to know that being a veggie isn’t a problem as well.

  2. I must admit that Serbia has not yet made it onto our travel planning board. So it was good to see your plan for a 15 day visit. It was interesting to read how few top attractions there were. But great to know that the people were friendly and welcoming. With such unreliable public transport we would want our own car. We would not be trying to hitchhike! The smoking would be a major irritant for us. With it banned in so many places in Canada we really are not used to it. All interesting points to consider before planning a trip.

    1. Dar Linda, overall we really enjoyed our trip to Serbia. Even if it is not so smooth sometimes, we really like going by public transport. It is fun and you get to know a lot of locals.

  3. I would like to know the name of the crime novel set in Serbia. It doesn’t look like a very well off country from the pictures. But many drinks at the same time also happens a lot in India. People try a lot of street stuff here. Also, people are wary of hitchhikers in India. I think it’s more about the safety. So, yes keeping a tab on public transport timings is sensible. I think it would be fun to see Serbia, sometimes seeing old world is more relaxing. I would actually like to go solo.

    1. Dar Ambica, I can imagine that India is similar to Eastern Europe in some aspects. I am often tired to fuss about public transport – that is why we end up in places from where we have to hitchhike back.

  4. I have only transited through Serbia, on my adventures around the Balkans, but I haven’t visited. Which is odd, as my home country is Romania and Serbia is our neighbour. The public transport sounds similar with the Romanian one. There are good connections between the big cities, but not as many between rural places. It’s interesting to read that you didn’t have any issues being a vegetarian in Serbia. We, eastern Europeans, love our meat dishes. Good to know that there are plenty of nice cafes as well as vegan friendly restaurants.

  5. Serbia does sound good for a short visit where everywhere else is over toured. What would bother me is the idea of being stranded in a foreign place. Your blog post has given me an idea of what to expect and I would probably look for a driver for hire who could bring me around to the interesting spots. I would visit it for a more authentic look into the lives of the people there without the facade of touristic places.

    1. Dear Adele, getting stuck somewhere is actually quite often a very good way to have authentic experiences…..But of course, a driver, will save a lot of time and hassle. It is also possible to rent a car in Serbia.

  6. I’m glad that being a vegetarian wasn’t a big deal in Serbia (I’m vegetarian also!). It’s also good that the area isn’t overcrowded with tourists. I am disappointed for you that the cultural sites weren’t as good as you had hoped, but I do like to visit UNESCO sites when I can. Serbia looks like an interesting place, and it looks like you had a great two weeks there!

    1. Dear Jennifer, we enjoyed our Serbia trip very much. I actually do not feel that a trip is not worthwhile when the sightseeing is not first-class. There are so many other things to experience in a country. We actually did not expect the UNESCO sites to be equal with let us say Persepolis, Ankor Wat or the pyramids in Egpyt.

  7. I appreciated your candor about Serbia. There would definitely be some challenges to deal with when visiting Serbia, and it’s best to know ahead of time so you can be prepared. I don’t think I would be comfortable with resorting to hitchhiking. I suppose there weren’t options like using Uber, either? Perhaps hiring a private driver would be best.
    We actually ran into the same problem in Paris of trying to eat while others were smoking in restaurants. We also ate outside away from the smoke, or opted for food from street vendors and finding a park where we could picnic!

    1. Dear Tami, of course hiring a driver is always an option. We mostly stayed in private flats and were just to lazy to organize a lot in advance. And we felt it would be complicated to negotiate with the taxi drivers. You can get Uber in Belgrad and Novi Sad, maybe also in Subotica, but not in the countryside.

  8. We love the Balkans. People are friendly and the food is great. Also not expensive. 15 days in Serbia sounds so good. We only stayed for a couple of days in Belgrade and have plans to go back for more soon.

  9. I admire you for taking the time and effort to visit this place. I am not brave enough to go to a destination where there are limited transportation as I am scared to get stranded.

    Glad to know that being vegetarian is not a problem in Serbia. This is also one of our main considerations whenever we travel to a “non-touristy” place. Thank you for sharing your experience.

    1. Dear Clarice, I am surprised how many people are scared to venture out somewhere without having everything arranged beforehand. Usually things fall in place once you are there – and most people are very helpful and friendly everywhere in the world.

  10. I’ve really enjoyed reading your posts on Serbia. There is a Serbian community in Italy and they tell me about their country all the time and how expensive Belgrade is! It’s interesting and good to know about the lack of hotels and that they only speak English in the big cities. I would like to visit one day, I am very close. I’m ready to try the food here!

    1. Dear Lisa, there are hotels for buisness people at least in bigger cities. But they are quite expensive. So we felt we are better off with the private rooms and flats. We also like some joghurt and fruits for breakfast. In the hotels you mostly get eggs, cheese and bread.

  11. Very interesting and inspiring read. Of the former Yugoslavian parts, Croatia takes all the glories – and it is a nice place, after all. However, I’ve always been interested in exploring the other parts – mainly Serbia and Bosnia – as well. It’s very encouraging that you didn’t fly. If I had more time for my trips, I would always travel by train and bus in Europe. Well, two more years and I quit my day job and then I’ll finally have enough time to become more eco-friendly 😉
    Much of what you are describing from Serbia rings a bell regarding my trip by bus (!) through Croatia. Actually, the Balkan war did weigh heavy on me on that trip – I couldn’t stop thinking about all the atrocities that happened not that long ago and that the world had so quickly forgotten.
    Another thing that was hard to endure in Croatia, too, was the smoking. I truly suffered!

  12. Enjoyed your article on Serbia travel! It’s great to see how you chose a unique destination like Serbia for its easy access and authentic vibe. Your journey through Serbian towns and interactions with locals sound really special. It’s interesting to learn about the cultural sights and the everyday challenges like figuring out buses and finding places to stay. This article is a perfect read for anyone curious about exploring Serbia’s less-traveled paths.

  13. I ,as waiting to see what you thought of Nis. We took à day trip there from Razlog, Bulgariea. We hired à cab to visit The birthplace of Constantine, the Great . But it was closed for renovation. Instead we visited the Skull Tower. Wish we had your 15 days!

    1. Dear Carol, we enjoyed Nis very much. We visited the birthplace of Constantine (open), the skkulltower (interesting) and a former Nazi concentration camp (depressing). Maybe we will write another post about Nis.

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