After a few frankly disappointing days in Belgrade, I navigated the train north to Novi Sad, the second largest city in Serbia. With a population of about 300,000 people, it’s significantly smaller and often seen as a good day trip from the capital, but I think the city deserves a few days of exploration. Here are my recommendations:
Visit the fortress.
The Petrovaradin fortress was a Habsburg strategic military post that has been an important hub for trading, manufacturing, and culture for centuries. It sits across the Danube from Novi Sad but is still walkable from the center. With a handful of restaurants and a museum, the fortress grounds is a great place to spend a few hours walking the walls and taking in the views. If you go at sunset, you can gather under the clock tower with locals and other tourists from near and far enjoying the sky’s changing colors over the water.
Explore the (many) churches.
Serbian Orthodox churches have interesting architecture from the outside, but their dark, intricately detailed interiors are even more fascinating. Light a candle alongside a local from Novi Sad and admire the religious imagery of the town’s numerous churches.
Indulge in baked goods.
Pekara is the Serbian word for bakery, but I think it might also be the word for love. Bread and pastries are staples at breakfast, but it’s worth stopping in for a quick pick-me-up any time of day.
People-watch in the park.
Beyond offering precious shade during the afternoon heat, Dunavski Park is perfect for people-watching and enjoying an ice cream after exploring the main Dunavska shopping street.
Avoid the Museum of Contemporary Art.
The Museum of Vojvodina has a few buildings throughout the city, including the Museum of Contemporary Art that borders Dunavski Park. Since I usually love modern art museums, I figured I’d head over and see some Serbian paintings.
My whole experience here was bizarre. There’s text on the door that says admission is free, but I didn’t expect that to mean that I wouldn’t see a single employee or other visitor the entire time. At first I wasn’t even sure it was open because all the lights were off. I confusedly poked around in the foyer for a moment before climbing upstairs and finding an exhibit.
But, as it turns out, the art museum is actually much more of a history museum. Beyond a few illustrated recruitment posters, the exhibit has far more Yugoslavian War supplies than artistic representations. Only the first room has English translations, and after that it’s an eerie collection of memorabilia and mannequins in military garb.
Abide by the siesta.
The forecast predicted nearly 100-degree weather for my days in Novi Sad, which meant that mornings and evenings were precious and afternoons were devoted to cranking the A/C in my hostel. Luckily this matches the Serbian way of life pretty well–many stores shut their doors between 1-4pm to enjoy a long, large lunch around 2-3pm. Life moves pretty slowly in Novi Sad, so feel free to grab a coffee and wait out the afternoon heat.
Experience the street art.
Small walkable towns are perfect for days spend ambling with no agenda, and Novi Sad is one of those cities where wandering rewards you. Most corners are punctuated with street art, from lavish murals to the minimalist graffiti. Take your time to get lost in this city and you won’t regret it.
Go before it’s no longer a hidden gem.
Novi Sad will be one of the European Capital of Culture cities in 2021, which means it will start growing in popularity as a tourist destination rather than laid back university city. For now, its tourism is quaint: a small circle of folks on a free walking tour, a handful of “hostel” signs around the center, questionable English menus, locals and foreigners mingling at the city beach. But as Belgrade starts to attract more and more attention, Novi Sad is likely to grow into a more bustling destination. My best advice is to catch this magical city before the charm begins to dissipate.