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Top Destinations for 2015: Serbia

14th May 2015

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Festivals in abandoned fortresses, 6,000-year-old history and skiing on the cheap: Serbia might not be the first destination that springs to mind when you consider backpacking in Europe, but if that’s the case you’re making an error and potentially missing out on one of the continent’s best kept and most character-filled secrets.

With its cool capital Belgrade (a place of “wine, old city, songs and poetry” as well as a fairly raucous nightlife) making waves in the Euro-traveller community over the last couple of years, you’re advised – if you want an alternative to the well-trodden B’s of Berlin and Budapest – to head south east and check out for yourself what this edgy and extremely cultural country has to offer.

With over 500 cafes, clubs and floating bars (yes, on the river), premiere city Belgrade is crying out to attract the student traveller/hostel-dwelling backpacker. The fact that Lonely Planet has called the country’s skiing and spa break opportunities “astonishingly inexpensive” shouldn’t hurt its cause either...

Read on to find out why Serbia needs to be added to your European travel itinerary this year.

Where to go

Your first stop in the Serbian capital is likely to be capital city Belgrade, which has been raising its game in the nightlife stakes over the last few years. Floating bars and clubs are its forte, but if you’d rather keep your feet on dry land you’ll find the best nightlife in Laze Teleckog Street, the lively hub of the after-dark city. Belgrade’s “mini Monmatre” of Skadarlija, with its multiple bars, galleries and musicians, is also well worth your time. You’ll find it in plum position in the middle of the city, close to the south bank of the Danube.

270 miles south, in the Kopaonik National Park, you’ll find the country’s best skiing – and probably the most affordable resorts in the whole of Europe – whilst other active pursuits that the adventurous might want to build into their trip include trekking, waterskiing and bungee jumping on the island of Ada Ciganlija, in the Danube in central Belgrade.

Once you’ve exercised quite enough adrenalin, head for the 19th Century spa resort of Vrnjačka, 20 km south of the capital, where you’ll find outdoor hot springs and beautiful gardens, offering a luxurious way to relax. The spas here are probably the cheapest in Europe, without compromising on quality.

Lastly, if you’re looking to keep your costs down whilst you’re in Belgrade (and if you’re a student we’re guessing that you probably are), look into joining the community of backpackers that are camping rather than opting for rigid walls and stuffy hotel rooms. There are multiple registered campsites, and you can even pitch up on the banks of the Danube.

What to do

Go “killer skiing”

...but we hope not literally. This unfortunate term is the one that Lonely Planet chose to describe the ski opportunities in Kopaonik, the national park that is home to Serbia’s best slopes. The park offers all levels of slope, many of which are framed by evergreen trees, and there is ski school that can accommodate both group and individual classes. The main draw is likely to be the price. Hotels that cater for those on a tight budget and locally brewed plum rakija that’ll set you back a whole £1 per glass characterise a resort that has shunned the overpriced trends of Western Europe, and where you’re just as likely to find Serbians enjoying a weekend break as you are tourists.

Party onboard a floating nightclub

According to The New York Times, the most hardcore of Belgrade’s locals go out seven nights a week but still have no trouble turning up to work every morning. It’s a testament to the variation and extent of the nightlife that those who live there are this enamoured with it, and why Serbia’s capital is becoming an underground hotspot on the Eastern European backpacking route. A lot of this nightlife is centred around the wonderfully named “splavs”, or floating river clubs, that line the Danube and Sava rivers. Recommendations from those in the new include Amsterdam River Club (for live performance), Acapulco (one of the oldest; live music) and summer-only Sound, “a favourite for Belgrade’s urban youth.” 

...Or in an abandoned fortress

Exit festival, in Novi Sad, was named the Best Major European Festival in 2014 – something that’s fairly admirable considering it’s only been running for 15 years and was up against the stalwarts of the European field-tromping circuit. Maybe the fact that it takes over the Danube’s 17th Century Petrovaradin Fortress has something to do with it. Because really, who doesn’t want to spend a July weekend at a genre-hopping festival in a millennia-old castle?

Exit isn’t the only festival lighting up Serbia, though – other top recommendations include Guca (in Dragacevo), Nisville (in Nis), BEMUS and Guitar Art, the latter of which are both in Belgrade.

Visit Devil’s Town

Devil’s Town – more dramatically known as Davolja Varos - sounds like something lifted from the script notes of Game of Thrones: a formation of 202 creepy “earth pyramids”, allegedly formed by a volcanic eruption that had been caused by a vengeful god in revenge for an incestuous wedding. And whilst there’s the possibility that there’s a bit of mythology involved here, we’d like to believe that it’s entirely true.

Relax in Europe’s cheapest spas

Off the well-worn European spa track, Serbia is home to over 1,000 mineral springs and 53 thermal resorts, many of which are characterised through greenery and found nestled amongst sweeping hills. If you want to revitalise yourself after a weekend of partying on a riverboat, you’ll be in good historical company – spas have existed in Serbia’s valleys since Roman times. It’s remarkable, in all honesty, that they aren’t better known. Europe’s genuinely best kept secret? Oh, possibly.

Drink in the history

Belgrade is 6,000 years old; 16 Roman emperors were born in Serbia and the capital’s Singidunum Fortress dates from the 1st Century AD. Belgrade (and indeed, the rest of the country), is packed with monasteries that you can visit when all the hedonism/adventure sports get too much. Along the Danube, Roman and medieval remains can be seen nestled alongside modern cities whilst you dance into the small hours aboard a party barge. The country’s five UNESCO World Heritage sites include the medieval old town of Ras, the Palace of Galerius, two monasteries and the medieval remains of Kosovo...

We could go on, but we won’t. If we’ve piqued your wanderlust (and with festivals, skiing, history, spas and floating clubs we hope we have) check out our other Top Destinations 2015 here. Let the travel planning commence!

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