People often ask me why I chose to visit Serbia. Its history and politics were familiar to me but I had heard so little about it from a tourism perspective. Naturally enough, such curiosity had me travelling to Serbia to discover this off the beaten track European destination.
Visa: As an Irish/EU citizen I was allowed to visit Serbia visa-free for up to 90 days. Travellers must register with the police within 24 hours. Hotels will do this automatically but in private accommodation ask the host in advance if they will do this for you upon arrival. Serbia is neither an EU member nor a Schengen member.
For some nationalities, you cannot enter Serbia from Kosovo unless you entered Serbia prior to visiting Kosovo. In other words, Serbia – Kosovo – Serbia is okay. However, for example, Albania – Kosovo – Serbia is not okay. This rule applied to my nationality but check with your local Serbian Embassy prior to your visit.
Language: Serbian is similar to other Slavic languages such as Bosnian and Croatian. Cyrillic script is used a lot so learning it will enhance your independent travel experience.
Young people took the opportunity to practice English with me and all tour guides I encountered spoke excellent English.
Currency: The Serbian Dinar. I could not find any dinars in Ireland before travelling to Serbia but there is an ATM machine in the baggage retrieval hall of Nikola Tesla airport in Belgrade.
Geography: Serbia is located in South East Europe. It is bordered by Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and the former Yugoslav countries of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo and FYR Macedonia.
The northern part of Serbia comprises of flat plains. The Balkan Mountains are located in its east and south east. The Dinaric Alps are located in its west and south west. The River Danube flows into Serbia from Hungary, passing through Novi Sad and Belgrade before exiting into Romania.
Best time to visit: Winters are cold and summers are hot. I travelled to Serbia at the end of June and experienced temperatures in excess of 35°C on my day trip to Novi Sad.
Electrical Plugs: The standard continental European type which is the two round pin plug/socket of 220V-240V.
Food: If you like meat (300 – 400g per day), dairy, salad, bread, pastries, coffee and brandy then travelling to Serbia should be on your to-do list. Every street has a bakery or café. There’s no such thing as dieting in Serbia and yet everyone looks fit and healthy. I know, you’re beginning to like the country already.
Travelling to Serbia: I flew to Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla airport from Frankfurt am Main airport with Lufthansa. I exited Serbia into Montenegro on the Belgrade to Bar train route. Both Serbian and Montenegrin Police boarded the train at different points to check passports.
Serbia is accessed from all neighbouring countries by road. Belgrade is connected to all but one of the capital cities of neighbouring countries by train: The exception is Bosnia and Herzegovina which has no international train services. Belgrade will be known as Beograd on some European timetables.
Getting around Serbia: Belgrade is a travel hub and excellent national transport options are available. While discounts are given for return journeys you must return with the same company you travelled on the outbound journey with. The Central Bus Station in Belgrade is as organised as it is busy. You will be given a turnstile token along with your ticket to access the bus concourse.
Railway lines span out from Belgrade to the rest of the country. Belgrade was a stop on Simplon-Orient Express rail route which is the route featured in Agatha Christie’s novel Murder on the Orient Express. Belgrade is also the start point of the spectacular Belgrade to Bar railway line.
Accommodation: I used Airbnb but found it difficult to find a suitable non-smoking private room: Like all Balkan countries smoking is a national past-time in Serbia. Increasing my budget by an extra few euros a night left me with a wide selection of excellent apartments.
Is Serbia safe to visit: Yes. I didn’t experience any problems from a personal safety perspective and recommend Serbia as a good country for solo female travellers. Most people I met were courteous and helpful.
Serbia History: Slavic tribes settled in the area during the 6th and 7th Centuries. From this, various Serbia medieval states and kingdoms emerged until the invasion by the Ottoman Empire in 1540. In the 19th Century, the Serbs successfully rose against the Ottoman Empire although the north of modern-day Serbia remained in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
After the assassination of Franz Ferdinand by a Bosnian Serb, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia. Russia sided with Serbia, engulfing the whole continent into the conflict now known as World War I.
In 1918, Serbia became united with the other Slavic countries to form the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1926. It was invaded by the Axis powers during World War II.
Serbia was part of Tito’s post-war Yugoslav socialist federation with Belgrade as the capital, an era that is fondly remembered. After the break-up of Yugoslavia, Serbia was in a union with Montenegro until 2006 when Montenegro voted for independence.
In 1999, ructions in the autonomous region of Kosovo led to the bombing of Serbia and Montenegro by NATO, with the legitimacy of the bombing questioned. In 2008, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. Independent Kosovo is recognised by over 100 countries, including my own, but not by Serbia.
Political & Cultural Sensitivity: A chequered history like Serbia’s will always spill into conversation. Allowing the locals to vent the Serbian viewpoint on Kosovo, the 1999 NATO bombings and Montenegro’s NATO membership will make for very interesting conversations.
You’ll probably be walked to one of the sites bombed by NATO – in Belgrade they are located in the city centre. Anti-NATO placards lined the outside of the National Parliament in Belgrade. Novi Sad had all of its Danube bridges bombed by NATO. I was told that, in response to this, people gathered on Belgrade’s bridges as human shields.
I sensed the Bosnian War of the 1990s the most difficult of all eras to approach as a variety of narratives exist. Some people remained silent while others acknowledged that terrible things happened in Bosnia and Herzegovina. On the other hand, t-shirt vendors sold products featuring Slobodan Milosevic portraits.
Russia remains Serbia’s key ally but you’ll probably guess this from the number of Putin souvenirs on sale by street vendors.
Tennis is a topic that Serbians are very willing to talk about. The country has produced some of the best tennis players in the world, among them Novac Djokovic, Jelena Jankovic, Ana Ivanovic and Monica Seles.
Novi Sad appeared on my radar during the Monica Seles era in tennis: It’s her home town. An easy day trip from Belgrade, much of Novi Sad’s Old Town architecture dates back to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Taking a trip on the Belgrade to Bar train is a good reason for travelling to Serbia. Described by many as one of the most beautiful train trips in Europe, the route travels from the Serbian capital to Montenegro’s picturesque Adriatic coast. An absolute must-do for railway enthusiasts.