If your planning a trip to Serbia anytime soon, don’t book a thing until you read this travel guide first. Dana Tomić Hughes is the founder and editor of Yellowtrace, an award-winning design and architecture digital publication.
Arriving in Sydney with her family at the tender age of 17 – with very little English we might add – Dana went on to graduate with honours in Interior Architecture from the University of NSW. This design industry legend never fails to return home to her motherland on an annual pilgrimage with her partner and son. For X-FILES, Dana listed her must-see cities and detailed where you should eat, stay and go.
Tell us about your connection to Serbia.
As a child of former Yugoslavia, I relish my annual pilgrimage to the Motherland visiting family and friends, and eating all the delicious food that’s generally pretty bad for your waistline – why, oh why, does everything taste so good over there? Not fair! (Side note, if you go to Serbia, you must try Kajmak – an off the charts dairy product that’s unique to the country! It’s a bit like clotted cream that will probably also clog your arteries, but you just have to give in and go for it. It’s seriously heaven).
What is unique to Serbia?
Serbia is a fascinating country, full of rich history and legendary hospitality. It also remains largely unexplored – which, to me, is incredibly appealing in the age of Instagram, and the grossly overexposed cities and attractions overrun by tourists. No thanks.
The Serbian capital is a grand old dame with many, many faces and multiple layers like no other city in Europe. Grandeur and grit, the rich and the poor, war and peace, pain and promise, all rolled into one. A truly fascinating city, that’s often described as ‘a little Berlin’. Walk the length of Knez Mihailova street (don’t forget to explore all the passages to the side – many of which appear as derelict movie sets), down to Kalemegdan Park through the Belgrade Fortress (Beogradska Tvrđava) which dates back to 279 BC. There’s so much to explore in this vast historical site, which culminates in one of the most beautiful natural lookouts in Belgrade where you can see the confluence of the Sava river into the Danube (Dunav).
Skadarlija is a famed part of Belgrade, and is probably the most overrun by tourists, but you have to go meander its streets at night in search of a delicious meal. I highly recommend stopping by at Three Hats (Tri Šešira) restaurants for an authentic Serbian meal that will send you into a food coma, complete with live music played at your table by a gipsy band. Heaven!
There are plenty of new hotels being opened in Belgrade each month it seems, but I can’t go past Square Nine – it’s probably one of the best hotels I’ve ever stayed at. It was designed by an amazing Brazilian architect Isay Weinfeld, bringing together superb hospitality, delicious food, brilliant design and sublime architecture in the best spot in town.
Church or Saint Sava (Hram Svetog Save) in Vračar, Belgrade is the largest Orthodox Church in the Balkans, and one of the biggest in the world. It’s been under construction (still is) since 1935, interrupted by multiple wars. The exterior has been complete for a couple of years, and they recently opened the crypt under the church which is absolutely breath-taking.
Novi Sad is the second largest city in Serbia, located on the banks of river Danube in the North of the country. My family and I lived here for a couple of years before immigrating to Australia in mid-90s, so I definitely have a soft spot for this place. It’s relatively small and easily explored on foot (it’s super pretty!), with 17th and 18th-century Petrovaradin Fortress (Petrovaradinska Tvrđava) located across the river, known for its iconic clock tower and a network of tunnels (also the home of the now famous Exit Music Festival.)
Salaš 137 is an easy drive away from Novi Sad in a town called Čenej. Located on a beautiful, property with horses and interiors that appear as scenes out of movies – genuine and ‘un-designed’ (the very best kind of interior if you ask me!) – Salaš is part restaurant/ bar, part event space and par accommodation. Truly one of my favourite places to visit, from the setting to the atmosphere, the concept, the service and the food. Brilliant all round!
Sremski Karlovci is another beautiful little town, some 10km from Novi Sad. Considered to be the city of wine, culture and spirituality, it is home to magnificnet churches, and the country’s oldest and most respected Gimnazija (high school) founded in the late 1700s, where some of the greatest Serbian intellectuals, poets and linguists were educated.
Vrnjačka Banja in central Serbia is famed for its hot springs with temperatures measuring precisely that of the human body, known for their healing properties since the Roman times. Institutional brutalist architecture of spa buildings over here is aching for a hipster photo series. Old school and perfect without even trying!
Eastern Serbia blew my mind during my recent visit, with astonishing natural beauty on every turn. Iron Gates (Đerdapska Klisura) is a gorge on Danube river that forms part of the boundary between Serbia and Romania. It’s bordered by dizzying heights of the Carpathian Mountains, and the river widens to a 12km radius in certain parts, so it feels more like being at sea rather than on the river. The views across Đerdap across the river are extraordinary, with Danube serving up some of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen.
Iron Gates has been named by the archaeologists as the Mesolithic bedrock of Serbian culture, dating to between 11,000 and 3,500 years BCE. Lepenski Vir is an important archaeological site, discovered in 1965, showcasing 7 prehistorical periods from 9500/7200–6000 BC, including the remains of an entire ancient riverside village.
Another incredible site nearby is the enormous 13th-century Golubac Fortress (Golubačka Tvrđava) built on the edge of Đerdap mountain cliff to protect the city from Turkish empire invasion. It’s seriously impressive!
As if all this history wasn’t enough, Viminacium is another relatively recent discovery in the nearby town of Kostolac. The remains of the ancient Roman capital Viminacium dates back to the 1st century AD, and at its peak it is believed the city had 40,000 inhabitants, making it one of the biggest cities of that time. It was completely destroyed with the arrival of Slavs in the 6th century. Today, the archaeological site occupies a total of 450 hectares and contains remains of temples, streets, squares, amphitheatres, palaces, hippodromes and Roman baths. Viminacium has the largest number of graves discovered in any Roman archaeological site, with 15,000 graves found so far. Currently, only 3 to 4% of the site has been explored.
To top it off, Viminacium is also home to an impeccably preserved carcass of a female mammoth that‘s one million years old!!! It was accidentally discovered in a nearby mine a few years ago. The female drowned in the mud when she was 67, and the mud was responsible for preserving her bones so well. She used to weigh 9 tonnes and measure 4.5m in height, consuming between 350-500kg of good every day. She is also one of only two known in-tact mammoths currently displayed anywhere in the world. Can’t deal!
Zlatibor is one of the favourite local tourist destinations for the Serbs. The mountainous region is renowned for its health tourism (it’s fresh air and sunny skies are legendary), skiing in winter and hiking all year round. Although it’s now becoming quite urbanised, it is a great place to observe Serbian folklore and handicrafts. Sirogojno is an ancient ‘ethno village’ spread across 5 hectares with authentic elements of ordinary life collected from all over the region.