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
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
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
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.
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
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. 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.
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.
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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