The Timeless Beauty of Studenica Monastery – UNESCO in Serbia

Studenica monastery

We like sightseeing and think that must-sees are often worthwhile. So, prior to our travel to Serbia we checked the UNESCO World Heritage list. To our surprise, three of the five inscribed sites in Serbia are churches or monasteries. We have already visited the Church of Gračanica, one of a cluster of endangered sites. All of them are in Kosovo, which the UN World Heritage Convention still considers a part of Serbia. We found Gračanica very beautiful and quickly decided to make our way to Studenica Monastery, too.

Studenica Monastery is reportedly one of the most important monasteries in Serbia. Enticed by the promise of medieval architecture, religious heritage, and beautiful frescoes amidst natural beauty we begin planning in detail.

In this post we will explain how to get to Studenica monastery by public transport, as we did. Read also what you can expect to see and experience on your trip.

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Getting to Studenica Monastery from Belgrade on a Sunday

Serbian bus station, in Kraljevo

We quickly realise that getting to Studenica Monastery by public transport is not easy – especially on a Sunday morning. On the other hand, visiting on a Sunday might be the best time, we reason. Surely the monastery will be brimming with devout weekend pilgrims? If we can also witness an orthodox mass, the experience will be very authentic, won’t it? So, we get up at 6.15 am to take an early bus from Belgrade bus station. At this time of the day, all the kiosks selling public transport tickets are closed. When we ask the tram driver if it is possible to buy a ticket directly, he shrugs: “Not yet.” (whatever that means). But he takes us for free.

The morning bus to Kraljevo turns out to be an already packed minibus. We scramble over several bags to the two free seats in the back row. Quickly we realise why these seats are unpopular. They have very hard backrests which force us into an uncomfortably upright sitting position for the next four hours. It is stiflingly hot in the minibus, too. In addition, one passenger is constantly coughing while the woman in front of us flips through celebrity magazines throughout the whole journey. Unfortunately, it’s all in Serbian, otherwise this could have been a welcome distraction.

A pit stop in the town of Kraljevo

Around 12.30 pm we reach the dilapidated bus station of Kraljevo, the last larger town before our countryside destination. Online information about public transport in this area is more than sketchy. We had telephoned the Kraljevo tourist information beforehand to enquire about local busses. Thus, we know already that we have an hour to kill before the next (and last) bus to Studenica Monastery.

A Soviet monument in Kraljevo's main square

Along an overly broad pedestrian walkway between bleak and lifeless concrete buildings, we walk into town. On the central square towered by a Soviet monument, a town festival is taking place. Children are climbing the monument, there seem to be speeches and music performances. But disappointingly: no street food! We end up in a neon-lit modern bakery for lunch. As often in Serbia we have a Burek and some yoghurt – always a good choice in the Balkans for vegetarians. And then we walk back to the bus station. The rickety bus to the village of Ušće will, it turns out, continue onwards to the Studenica monastery. “Return to Ušće at 6 pm”, the driver offers cheerfully when we approach him. “And tomorrow morning?” His guess is also at 6, but we suspect he doesn’t know the schedule either.

Burek in a bakery in Kraljevo - a standard food for vegetarian travellers!

History of Studenica Monastery

The Serbian King Stefan Nemanja, at the age of 70 years, erected a first monastery in Studenica in the late 12th century. Stefan Nemanja is practically the only name from Serbian history we remember after reading the history section in two travel guidebooks. He was the strongman who made Serbia great – essentially the founder of the mediaeval Serbian state. Fact is that he conquered new land, mostly in today’s Kosovo and Montenegro, and that he was diplomatically active. In 1189 he met the German emperor Friedrich Barbarossa who was on his way to Jerusalem on the 3rd crusade. They concluded a friendship pact that assured mutual aid against Byzantium.

A few years ago we visited the place were Friedrich Barbarossa died in Turkey and wrote an article about it a German newspaper.

Crucifixion fresco in the Studenica Monastery

That sets the tone: being a staunch supporter of Christianity was eminently important in the age of crusades. And Stefan Nemanja certainly was. According to Serbian tradition, he was always extremely pious (but also very ambitious and a successful warrior …). In any case, he endowed several churches and spent his last years in a monastery on Greek Mount Athos. His son Sava later established the independent Orthodox Church of Serbia, which promptly declared Stefan Nemanja a saint.

Under Sava’s tutelage, Studenica Monastery became an important religious centre. Sava himself lived there for a time and wrote a glorified account of the life of his father. Oh, and Sava himself also became a saint of the Serbian Orthodox Church in due time …

Today the tomb of Stefan Nemanja (or: Saint Simeon) is in the main church in Studenica Monastery.

A fortified Monastery

Studenica monastery is a fortified monastery in Serbia

Typical for Serbian monasteries, Studenica Monastery is surrounded by a high circular fortification wall. Again, it is helpful to remember that for centuries, this was a border region between Christianity and Islam. Today’s Serbia was sometimes part of the Ottoman Empire, sometimes just outside. No wonder that Christian edifices were heavily fortified! We have seen similar fortified churches in Romania.

Inside the walls there once stood 14 churches and chapels – today only three of them remain. And only one of them is open to the public during our visit: The main church dedicated to the Mother of God, Maria. The original church building is clad in white and grey marble from nearby quarries. From the outside it has a clearly Romanesque look with capitals and many small details to explore. We liked the grotesque corbels representing grimacing animals, and small reliefs on the side of doorways. The church complex is nestled into beautiful nature and quite atmospheric with its thick wall, its bell tower, watch tower, and several farm buildings. 

Half a century later, Stefan Nemanja’s grandson constructed an extension of the church. This monumental brick narthex forms a kind of porch that can be used as a gathering space. But since it extends in front of the main entrance this means that the beautiful marble portal of the original building is now in the dark entrance hall. From an aesthetic point of view, the extension of the church was not particularly beneficial, we think.

Colourful frescoes on the walls

The frescoes in the Studenica monastery are one reason for its inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage list

The church might look Romanesque on the outside – but on the inside the Byzantine influence is very strong. The walls are covered with colourful frescoes that tell religious stories like a giant picture book. Some of them date back to the 12th century when Stefan Nemanja built the church. For instance, there is a very old a crucifixion scene and a scene of the annunciation to Mary. But most of the frescoes we see are from the 15th century.

One of the most famous depictions is one of Stefan Nemanja himself as founder of the church.

Unfortunately, taking pictures inside the church is forbidden – but we ask nicely and get permission to take some without flash. We also bought some postcards that we scanned later.

Staying overnight in Studenica

Ascetic travel life in the Studenica pilgrims' accommodation, Serbia

To get the most out of our visit to Studenica Monastery we booked one night in the adjoining pilgrims’ hotel. The hotel was built only after the UNESCO designation, but judging from its style and overall look it seems much older. The interior is shabby and single beds are presumably intended to prevent lewd behaviour by the pilgrims. The price of 50 € is high for Serbia but does include an oily egg breakfast with stale bread and a small bowl of sugary jam. We are the only guests on this Sunday night in October.

A big advantage of staying overnight is the possibility of experiencing Studenica Monastery without the day-trippers. At 6 pm a handful of orthodox monks gather in the candle-lit church and mass starts.

The quest for dinner

Fries and cabbage salad was what vegetarian travellers could get in the Serbian countryside ...

As we are the only overnight guests the kitchen at the hotel is closed for dinner. The small shop down at the bus stop only sells sweets, cigarettes, beer, and soft drinks. But there is also a restaurant, which closes around 6 pm. We are lucky to have enquired at the shop at around 5.30 pm! When we hurry into the restaurant, the chef is willing to still prepare some food for us. As we had expected, the small menu doesn’t have a vegetarian section, and in the countryside there’s not much leeway to make something out of the ordinary. After some discussion, we end up with a small cabbage salad, oily omelette, and some French fries. Probably the worst meal we had during our Serbia trip. Most of the time we were able to find some good and tasty vegetarian food

Oldtimers at the village shop of Studenica

Locals in rural Serbia still travel by Tomos Motorbike

The next morning, while we are waiting for the public bus, several old-timers, and old motorcycles, park near the shop. People are coming from their even more rural farmsteads to this shop to stock up on – what? Soap and candles, or beer and cigarettes? We marvel at some old Tomos motorcycles manufactured in Slovenia that look decidedly like Soviet-Bloc appliances. The Tomos manufacturer was based in Koper – and continued to produce these mopeds until 2019! We watch a tall Orthodox monk folding into a baby blue rusty R4. Another car we inspect this morning is a Zastava 750 LE. Zastava was a Serbian car manufacture who produced Fiat variations that were exported to the West under the brand name of Yugo. Most of the car parts are pure plastic, we read.

A Zastava 750 LE old-timer in Studenica, Serbia

Although we do not own a car in Germany, we always like seeing old-timers and looking up the history behind them.

Is Studenica Monastery worth a visit?

Although Serbia is an unusual and interesting trip destination it lacks first class sightseeing. The monasteries of Studenica, Sopoćani and Žiča are among the cultural highlights of Serbia. They are of high importance for the national history of Serbia, but they are also quite atmospheric. Most of all, they are an expression of Serbian piety. You will meet devout, mostly Serbian pilgrims, and the highly photogenic orthodox monks. There is almost no English explanation in Studenica (the English audio app did not work during our visit). So, it pays to read up before heading out.

So, in conclusion, we would say that, yes, Studenica Monastery was worth the trip.

Interior of Studenica Monastery

How to get to Studenica Monastery (and how to get away again….)

With the lengthy description of our Sunday ride from Belgrade to Studenica you probably lost track of the actual connection. From Belgrade you can take a southward bus (for example to Novi Pazar) as far as the town of Kraljevo or the village of Ušće. Apparently there are up to two busses a day from Kraljevo via Ušće to Studenica, and possibly one more in the early morning between Ušće and Studenica. Ušće is very small so there may be nowhere to stay, but Kraljevo is a larger town.

To get from Studenica to Novi Pasar yet further south, we took the 10 am bus to Ušće and then had to flag down the next bus passing southwards. Ours happened to be going to Kosovo via Raška, so we changed busses in Raška again. But there were fairly frequent busses going through Ušće southwards, so getting away was not so difficult.

On this trip we also visited the Monastery of Sopocani near Novi Pazar (also a UNESCO site).

We used the following guidebooks for our trip to Serbia and liked both for different reasons.

Matthias Passler: Serbien Reise-Taschenbuch

The author spent a lot of time in Serbia with his Serbian partner. This guidebook is full of insider tips, quirky shops, hip bars and off-the-beaten path places.

Laurence Mitchell: Serbia Bradt Guide

The Serbia Bradt Guide provides all the background information on history, society and culture. And you will find tons of ideas what there is to see in the country. However, the information on public transport is not very detailed and accurate.

This was a private trip and we were not sponsored in any way to write this post.

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  1. Wow, I love frescoes and I’m just blown away by these masterpieces. Since I’m saving European countries to when I’m old – like, really old – I haven’t been to Serbia but would definitely like to visit the former Yugoslavian republics. So far, I’ve been only to Slovenia and Croatia. And I totally agree: Tourist must-sees are must-sees for a reason. Sometimes, they might seem overrated because they are so hyped, but most of the time I am impressed – by the Colosseum, by the Eiffel Tower, by Machu Picchu, and by the Tori in Miyajima Island. And I’m sure I’ll agree with UNESCO that the Studenica Monastry’s spot on the World Heritage List is well-deserved – I mean, look at those iconic…icons!

  2. The interior of the Studenica Monastery reminds me of the painted monasteries in my home country, Romania. They have similar painted frescoes that are meant to tell a story. Similarly, most of them were built because of the rules of Moldova at the time, every time they would win a battle against the Ottoman Empire. It’s a shame that it’s so hard to get to Studenica Monastery. Being a Unesco site and one of the most important monasteries in Sebia, you would think there would be a direct bus, or at least regular transport to it.

    1. Dear Joanna, we have visited the painted monasteries in Romania too and enjoyed them very much! There are three or four buses a day going to Studenica – you just have to plan accordingly.

    2. Had never thought about visiting Serbia and probably will never get a chance to visit as well. But your post is a great insight on what to expect in Studenica Monastery. Transport, hotel, food all seem to be a problem yet the charm of the place is amazing. Loved reading the history and the inside of the walled monastery is beautiful as well. No doubt why pilgrims visit despite the hassles.

  3. We would certainly want to check out the UNESCO sites if we get to Serbia. And the promise of architecture and art would draw us to visit the Studenica Monastery on a visit. Although we might rent a car and not try to figure out the bus protocol. Interesting to see that the monastery was fortified. Although understandable when you think about the religious conflict in the area. The colourful frescos would probably be the biggest draw for us. Always amazed at how much colour remains!

    1. When I travel, I like to try unusual or unconventional accommodation, and staying in a monastery is definitely on my bucket list. Thank you for your honest review on Studenica Monastery. The breakfast doesn’t sound very appetizing. 😆 I would probably still go, but at least I can manage my expectation better now.

  4. Serbia is not a country I have yet visited; however, I am interested in the culture and history of Eastern European countries, so no doubt I will find myself there one day. I was interested to read that the fortified walls enclosed 14 churches; why so many, I wonder? The Byzantine frescoes are beautiful. I recently saw similar frescoes in a village church in Rhodes Greece, they certainly take your breath away.

    1. Dear Angela, I think the churches were funded by different people and rather than adding a chapel they built a new church. The different churches would have been dedicated to different saints too, I guess – normally the patron saints of the founder.

  5. I live in Italy and have never been to Eastern Europe before and Serbia is quite a gem worth visiting. I love the Studenica Monastery accommodation, and the frescoes very similar to here. Lovely article.

  6. You gave a good and honest account of what to expect with public transportation to the monastery. Frankly I am unsure if I could manage the long journey in the bus (without the celebrity fodder magazine to keep me company) However the Studenica Monastery is sure worth a visit , if for nothing else than those frescoes. Amazingly you spent the night there too as well , which makes one of the more unique places to spend the night in.

  7. What beautiful frescoes! And how cool that you got to stay at the monastery. I like your writing style–how you described the bus ride in detail as well as the awful-sounding dinner and breakfast.

  8. Thank you for your honest post on your experiences-the bus ride to the lifeless buildings and oily breakfast and dinner. You still maintained a positive disposition and didn’t let those things take away from the reason you were there- to see the Studenica Monastry. I have yet to visit, but I felt like I was there with you

  9. I enjoyed reading the detailed blog post and it felt like I was part of this trip! It was interesting to read that it is not easy to get to this place through the long mini bus journey and other challenges. I would love to visit the Studenica Monastery when I visit Serbia and enjoy the history and architecture of this place including the amazing frescoes. The old Tomos motorcycle reminded of the old Java Yezdi we used in the 70s-80s in India! Eastern Europe sure has a lot of explore – I better get going there soon.

  10. I like visiting historical places like the Studenica Monastery. The history behind the building always intrigued me. However, I don’t think I will make a special trip to Serbia just to see the monastery. And, weirdly, the bus driver didn’t know his schedule. I think someone higher controls the schedule based on whatever reason he has.

    1. Dear Umiko, to be fair, I guess there are different bus drivers on this particular route. And they know only their own schedules. But yes, it is weird – one might expect that they are familiar with the timetabel of the routes they drive.

  11. What an interesting sight! The colorful frescoes definitely looks like a giant picture book. It’s nice that you got a permission to take some photos. Thank you for sharing it with us. By the way, I am curious why flash is not allowed.

    1. Pictures are not allowed at all – for spiritual reasons I guess. And flash might damage the colours – after all they are several hundred years old natural colours. They fade more easily than chemical colors.

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