In the country of sports, a Nobel prize winner, exquisite nature, controversial art, and turbulent history awaits the tourist experience of your life. Serbia may be small, but it is packed with landmarks and action. Don't even get us started on the food and nightlife. We'll walk you through the obligatory stuff and fun facts, and you just have to book your flights. A little preview of what's to come:
- Essential Serbian phrases
- Serbian slava - Customs in Serbia
- Festivals in Serbia
- Capital of Serbia
- Serbia and sports
Where is Serbia?
In the place where central and south Europe meet stands Serbia. It is located in the Balkans and shares its borders with Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia. This is an excellent position, weather, and travel-wise. Significant travel and trade roads go through Serbia, such as E-70 and E-75. International rivers Sava and Danube join in Serbia as well, which is where Belgrade is situated. Serbia also has two airports, Nikola Tesla in Belgrade and Constantine the Great in the southern city of Nis. Use this map of Serbia to get a clearer picture.
Capital of Serbia
If a good party is what you seek, the capital of Serbia has already been on your radar for sure. Belgrade is the biggest, one of the oldest, and the most visited city in Serbia, with a population of around 1.4 million. It is the birthplace of kafanas on the old continent. Belgrade is an urban capital with bustling nightlife, contrasting architectural styles, and hospitable people. It is also home to the oldest ever alligator in the world and the final resting place of Nikola Tesla. We've prepared some tips for sightseeing in Belgrade, which you can find in our blog - Visit Belgrade.
Facts about Serbia
Before visiting this colorful country, you should learn a thing or two about it. We'll start with the basics and everything else you'll learn along the way. Don't stress about money or directions; the people of Serbia are kind and will give their best to help you. Also, we will touch upon some phrases to make your traveling through Serbia that much easier.
When was Serbia founded?
This is actually a bit of an intricate question, as it usually is when it comes to Balkan countries. The short answer would be the 5th of June, 2006, when it separated from Montenegro. The long answer would start all the way back in the 6th and 7th centuries when Slavs started populating the Balkans. We could say that the history of Serbia started with the establishment of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the 13th century and later the Serbian Empire in 1345. Then came the reign of the Ottoman Empire, the Great Migrations of the Serbs, the Balkan Wars, and mighty Yugoslavia. Wars in the 90s ended this huge Union, of which Belgrade was the capital, leaving Serbia in a union with Montenegro for a couple of years.
Serbia Language - Languages spoken in Serbia
The official language is Serbian, which most of the population speaks. It is a complicated language to learn if it's your first Slavic one; at least, that's what the foreigners say. Serbians are good with English, so you don't have to worry about using it as a tourist. Other languages spoken in Serbia, besides those of the former Yugoslavian countries, are Hungarian, Albanian, Romani, Czech, Slovakian, and Ukrainian.
What makes the Serbian language unique is diagraphia, which puts it in a small group of languages that use a dual alphabet. Both ћирилица and latinica are considered official, taught and used in schools, on official documents, and in art. They also have a cursive font, which may be a bit tricky to read on your first try.
Essential Serbian phrases
We know you want us to teach you some juicy swear words, don't lie. But, we'll leave it to the locals. If you want a friendly smile from the vendors and servers, you could use Hvala to say Thank you or Molim vas to say Please. It is not uncommon for people to use brate, meaning brother, when speaking, and they can get creative with it. To introduce yourself, say Zovem se (enter your name) or Moje ime je, meaning My name is this and that. Greetings are many, but the most common are Zdravo (Hello), Dobar dan (Good day), and Dobro jutro (Good morning) or Dovidjenja and Vidimo se (Goodbye and See you), and Laku noc (Good night) when leaving.
Population of Serbia
According to the latest estimates, around 6.9 million people live in Serbia. Most of them are Serbians, followed by the nations of the former Yugoslavia, Albanians, Vlachs, Hungarians, Germans, Russians, Roma, and other lovely nations. Most of the population of Serbia lives in Belgrade, with Novi Sad, Nis, and Kragujevac following it. The people of Serbia are known for their hospitality, love of good food, and enviable party stamina.
Religion in Serbia
The prevailing religion in Serbia is Eastern Orthodox Christianity, as it is estimated that around 85% of the population in Serbia practices it. Catholics are next in line, alongside Muslims and Jewish people. Religion and spirituality have played a significant role in Serbian identity ever since its founding, so frequent visits to places of worship and having religious symbols in homes is not a rarity to Serbians. Christians in Serbia celebrate Christmas on the 7th of January, Serbian New Year on the 13th of January, and also have a slava which we wrote more about later on.
Currency in Serbia
Serbian currency is called dinar and comes in paper and penny form. Bills come in 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, 500, 1.000, 2.000, and 5.000 dinars, and pocket change in 1, 2, 5, 10, and 20 dinars. You can exchange almost any currency in the exchange offices in Serbia, and you can expect to get around 11.700 dinars for 100 euros or 11.100 dinars for $100. You will find important historical figures on dinar, such as Nikola Tesla, Mihajlo Pupin, Nadezda Petrovic, Jovan Cvijic.
Weather in Serbia
The country's location has blessed it, at least before the chaos of climate change, with a continental climate. This means you'll get your hot summertime, cold winters, especially on the mountain tops, and a splash of autumn and spring. Average temperatures depend on the season, but on an annual level, it's around 11 degrees Celsius (52F). The strong wind called Kosava terrorizes Serbia from time to time, as it is intense, cold, and lasts 5-10 days. During the summer, leave it to the Saharan air to bring the heat. Serbia has been hit with a couple of devastating weather tragedies, the flooding of 2014 being the most recent one. The only threat to crops and summer fun in this part of the Balkans are hail storms, usually during June and July.
Serbia and sports
These are synonymous. Serbia has consistently been in at least the top 5 of domestic, European, and World Championships in basketball, volleyball, water polo, and tennis. The Serbian water polo team has been the best in the world many times in the last decade, as well as the highly talented basketball team, which consists of basketball royalty. Serbs are passionate sports watchers, whether it is a huge celebration on city squares or shouting sweet words and profanities into their home TV. Serbia has also ranked 67th regarding medals won at the Olympics, as it has brought home 24 of them. We've dedicated a whole chapter to famous people from Serbia, so go there for some sports celebrity-namedropping we are so not ashamed of.
Where to even start. Serbia is home to some of the oldest recipes and traditions in Europe. This is where you'll find the most expensive cheese in the world, where your drinks are 50% alcohol, household items can be used to create spells, and where saints are celebrated with food and music. Sit back, have a sip of brandy, and enjoy our trip through Serbian tradition.
Meat lovers will have a ball eating in Serbia. From chicken and beef made in 101 ways to processed meats, fresh fish stews, and wild animal meat feasts, you would think that the world revolves around it in Serbia. Don't be alarmed, veggies and fruits, especially berries and peppers, are also a huge part of Serbian cuisine. It was influenced by the long reign of the Ottoman empire, with a hint of Mediterranean and Eastern European cuisine. If you want an in-depth guide through traditional food in Serbia, find it in our blog - Traditional Serbian dishes. If you get a chance, and we recommend you find a way, definitely get your hands on:
- Ajvar: You can eat it as a spread, add it to your cooking, and put it on meats and pies, it is so versatile. Ajvar is made of roasted red bell peppers that get peeled, chopped, and cooked with a simple blend of spices, maybe a bit of roasted eggplant, and stuffed into a jar. It sounds simple, but the taste is oh, so divine!
- Meze: If you're visiting someone's house, attending an event, or a get-together, meze will be served. It is basically a Serbian version of a charcuterie board, with local produce such as prosciutto, soft cheesy spread kajmak, salty chees from Sjenica, hard and old cheese from Pirot, cajna and kulen, a type of sausage that can get pretty spicy, before mentioned ajvar, pickles, boiled eggs, the list goes on and on.
- Sarma: Some say this is the national dish of Serbia, but since it technically didn't originate here, we'll leave it up to you to decide. One could argue that sarma is a burrito, as it is pickled cabbage stuffed with minced meat and rice and cooked for a couple of hours in a nicely seasoned broth. There is also a version of sarma made with dock, usually prepared during summer months and served with sour cream. What gives sarma that special something is the aged meat and bacon that gets cooked with it.
- Karadjordje's schnitzel: Named after one of the greatest Serbs, Karadjordje, it was invented in the late 50s by a chef Milovan Stojanovic in an effort to save his restaurant's reputation. A famous tv speaker ordered a dish for which he didn't have all the ingredients, so in his stroke of genius, he took a schnitzel, coated it with kajmak, rolled, breaded, and fried it. Karadjordje's schnitzel is best served with tartar sauce and a lemon wedge, with fries or mash on the side.
- Rostilj: Meat on a grill is what Serbs do best. You should try pljeskavica and cevapi, made with ground beef, onions, and spices, formed into a round shape or rolled. Without a doubt, the best way to enjoy pljeskavica is in a bread bun called lepinja plus the added condiments; diced onions and red pepper flakes are a must. Rostilj is sometimes served with sopska salad, which essentially is diced tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, a splash of oil, and crumbled feta cheese. Pair it with a cold beer and you're in heaven.
- Gibanica: A crispy filo dough stuffed with salty milk cheese, baked to perfection, and served with a cold glass of yogurt, is there anything else to ask for? Gibanica is considered to be a breakfast or dinner food, but we won't judge if you eat it for every meal when visiting Serbia.
- Cvarci: It may sound weird, but the taste makes up for it. Cvarci are made from melted cubes of lard, usually pork, that get all crispy and greasy after a couple of hours of melting in their own fat. You can eat it immediately or let it cook down to a state of thin fibers resembling chopped tobacco. The best way to enjoy them is with a bit of fresh bread and onions, you can put them on a sandwich or even snack on them.
The national drink of Serbia is called rakija, and if you can't hold your alcohol, maybe think about sitting this one out. Rakija, or raki, has its variations all over the Balkans, Turkey, and Moldova, but we can assure you the best is made by grandpas in Serbia. It is a distilled fruit-based drink with 40-50% alcohol content. The fruit used to make rakija is usually plums, peaches, and pears, but rakija is also made from all sorts of berries, figs, apricots, apples, and many others. Rakija carries the name of the fruit it is made from, so you have your sljivovica (sljiva - plum), jabukovaca (jabuka - apple), lozovaca (loza - grapes), you get the idea.
It should be consumed in small doses, from a small glass made explicitly for rakija, and enjoyed with your mouth and soul. It is also believed to have healing powers, and many people use it to disinfect their wounds or dip their stupes in it instead of alcohol. Serbs didn't stop there when creating the most iconic beverages you can enjoy. Besides raki, you can find exquisite wines all around Serbia. One of the most famous dessert wines, Bermet, is made in the northern parts of Serbia, specifically in the town of Sremski Karlovci. Besides its rich flavor, it is known as one of the wines served on the Titanic.
When it comes to music, Serbia has been thriving in many styles and genres. Traditional, more ethnic sounds can be heard at almost any celebration in Serbia, and the best way to feel the music is to go kolo dancing. The steps are pretty straightforward - you are standing in a circle and holding hands, following the rhythm of the music from side to side, with a two-step or a three-step tap. Classical music is where composers like Mokranjac, Bajic, and Binicki have left their mark and put Serbia on the map.
We could say that the trumpet is the national instrument of Serbia, but the flute is also a strong contender. Some of the artists that got domestic or international fame are Goran Bregovic, Zdravko Colic, Marija Serifovic, Josipa Lisac, Djordje Balasevic, Zvonko Bogdan.
Serbian traditional clothing
Traditional garments from Serbian folklore played a significant role in building the identity of Serbs after the liberation from Ottoman oppression. The clothing we know today has elements from the traditional fashion of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It differs in style from region to region and was made differently for women and men. Basic women's clothing consists of a skirt, a white long-sleeved shirt, and a vest called jelek, which has buttons on the front. Men's is similar, with more miniature embroidery. Elements can vary, but sajkaca and opanci are a must. Sajkaca is a type of hat typical of traditional Serbian clothing, and opanci are shoes with a long, curly end.
Serbian slava - Customs in Serbia
Every family in Serbia that practices Orthodox Christianity has a patron saint it celebrates, usually passed down over the generations. Every saint has a day on which people gather to commemorate it. A special kind of bread, called slavski hleb, is made and, together with wine and candles, taken to a church by the head of the family to be blessed. Later in the day, friends and relatives of the family that celebrates gathers in their house for a day of eating, drinking, and enjoying the music and each other's company.
Slava cannot get by without zito - cooked, mashed, and sweetened wheat berries served in a glass bowl. Once you've entered the house, the custom is to wish the hosts a happy slava, and take a spoon of zito and a sip of red wine before sitting down to eat. Besides the bread, you'll be served the best soup of your life, sarma, or another popular pickled cabbage dish called svadbarski kupus, roasted pig or sheep meat, and all sorts of salads and sweets.
Beliefs and superstitions in Serbia
Eastern parts of Serbia are populated by Vlach people, which practice a type of ritualistic magic. Due to their customs and a veil of mystery, Eastern Serbia has been known as this country's most mystical region. According to a renowned ethnologist Aleksandar Repedzic, whom we had and honor to speak -
Vlach magic is an ancient form of witchcraft passed down from generation to generation, in which long lyrical basmas (charms) are used in a quiet manner in order to be effective; water, honey, salt, basil, peppers, red thread, marble stones, garlic, more precisely everything that is readily available and that is in every household, are used in rituals and spells. This type of magic is self-suggestive, and I would say that the women who practice it are village psychologists, uniquely helping within the community.
Superstitions in Serbia can get quirky, but that's what makes them fun. That's why you'll hear stuff like:
- Promaja can be deadly, so don't mess around. What is promaja you may ask? Well, just a breeze, either the one you made in your house, on the bus, at the office, or in the restaurant. Basically, stay away from the direct path of a breeze, and you should be good.
- Before a big test or a job interview, or any important event in your life, it is essential that somebody tosses water behind you. So, don't get alarmed if you see an older lady spilling a whole jug of water as you leave her house or establishment, she genuinely means well.
- Knocking on wood is something you can do when somebody tells you good news, or when you don't want something bad to happen to you. And don't even try to speak ill of yourself or wish for a bad thing, as you'll have to move from where you're standing/sitting to keep it from happening.
- There are a couple of superstitions regarding your marriage and love life, so maybe take them as a warning - don't sit at the edge of the table, or you may never get married, and don't eat the ends of bread if you don't want you husband to be an orphan.
- You shouldn't wash your laundry if it's a red or black day in the church calendar. Yes, you technically won't be doing the washing if you put it in a washer, but hey, we don't make the rules.
Fun facts about Serbia never stop, and this may be our fave. It is known that the word vampire or vampir originated in Serbia. This is also the only Serbian word gone viral. Two instances of vampires in Serbian folklore seat them in stone in this country. Can you imagine a man, already dead and buried, somehow being responsible for the death of the eight more people in his community only days after his passing? According to his wife, this wasn't the only thing Petar Blagojevic from Kisijevo did, as she claims he was visiting her by night and stealing her shoes. Villagers felt the need to exhume his remains, only to find them allegedly in a pristine condition, with long hair and beard and blood all over his mouth. Petar immediately got a stake through his heart.
And this story isn't even the most famous one. The infamous vampire of Serbia was called Sava Savanovic, or at least the people of the village Zarozje believed he was one. Sava was allegedly a man with a liking for blood who lived in a mill and used to scare and attack people at night. He influenced one of the scariest horror stories turned into a movie, called Leptirica.
From famous people that gave us electricity and disturbing art projects, to a festival dedicated all to trumpet music, Serbia has it all. Its bustling culture can be experienced through many museums and art galleries, but the best way to learn about it is by talking to locals.
Besides being avid moviegoers, Serbs are also talented filmmakers and writers. Let's address the elephant in the room - Serbian film is not for everyone, viewer discretion is heavily advised, and it's themes we can discuss later. Movies in Serbia cover a wide array of topics, from war to trivial stuff of life, and were sometimes used as coping mechanisms. Today Serbia is home to many local and international film festivals, Kustendorf on Tara being the unique one.
The era of Partisan war movies was one of its most influential, with films such as Walter Defends Sarajevo, Battle of Sutjeska, and Battle of Neretva getting international recognition and Oscar buzz. Humor has a considerable influence on Serbian media in general. It's not surprising at all that some of the most beloved films Serbs like to watch frequently are comedies Lajanje na Zvezde (Barking at the Stars), Kad porastem bicu Kengur (When I Grow Up, I'll Be a Kangaroo) or Tesna koza (A Tight Spot). Some of the most talented and recognized filmmakers from Serbia are Emir Kusturica, Dusan Makavejev, Goran Paskaljevic, Zdravko Sotra, and Srdan Golubovic.
Since the middle ages, Serbian literature has been compelling and full of life. The most considerable testimony is Ivo Andric, who in 1969 won the Nobel Prize for his novel The Bridge on the Drina. Did you know that he won over Tolkien's Lord of the Rings? Serbs have been collecting their literature ever since they could write and speak, passing it down to future generations and studying it. One of the most recognizable works of writing from Serbia is Milorad Pavic's book, the Dictionary of the Khazars. Also, due to its significance, the Medieval book Miroslav's gospel, made with intricate illuminations, is a part of UNESCO's Memory of the World Register.
Famous people from Serbia
We should start with one of the most influential scientists, don't you agree? Besides him and his parents being of Serbian descent, Nikola Teslas's final resting place is in a museum dedicated to him, located in Belgrade. Mihajlo Pupin, a celebrated physicist and philanthropist, was also born in Serbia in the small town of Idvor. One of the most controversial art figures, Marina Abramovic, was born and raised in Belgrade before reaching global fame. There are a couple of Serbians living their best life in Hollywood, Mila Jovovic, Stana Katic, and Nikola Djuricko being just some of them. Oh, and remember those sports figures we've mentioned? Some of the best sportsmen and women are from Serbia, including Novak Djokovic, Vlade Divac, Nikola Jokic, Ana Ivanovic, and Milica Dabic.
Festivals in Serbia
Throughout the year, Serbia celebrates art, food, and people with its many festivals around the country. Belgrade is mostly the epicenter of these gatherings, but Novi Sad takes the cake when it comes to music. Besides festivals dedicated to beer, cheese, chocolate, and science, these are the top 3 festivals worth arranging your whole trip around:
- Exit Festival: Starting off strong with an award-winning music festival held in Novi Sad. Exit Festival was named the best music festival in 2007 and the best summer music festival in 2016. It takes just one visit to see why. Every July, music lovers and the biggest names in the industry hit up the Petrovaradin Fortress for a 4-day party that doesn't end when the sun comes up. Over 40 stages have welcomed the likes of David Guetta, Stromae, Grace Jones, The Cure, Wu-Tang Clan, Arctic Monkeys, Sex Pistols, Guns N' Roses, Hardwell, Carl Cox, and Nina Kravitz. If you want the whole experience, get yourself tickets with access to Exit camp. Don't forget to explore Novi Sad once you're there, with the help of our blog.
- FEST Belgrade: Movie buffs, this one is for you. Every last Friday in February means the start of the International film festival held in Belgrade. For the next 10 days, from 9 am to 8 pm, in over 5 cinemas, showings of the best festival movies are organized and packed with visitors. This festival also has an official competition, and each year it awards The Belgrade Victor to the best movie, screenplay, actor, and actress. FEST has hosted and given lifetime achievement awards to some of the biggest names in movie history, such as Alfred Hitchcock, Robert DeNiro, Johnny Depp, Sophia Loren, and Catherine Deneuve. It's in the works to move the festival to September.
- Guca: When we said that Serbs can do wonders with the trumpet, we weren't kidding. Guca is a competition festival held every August in the city of the same name. It gathers the greats in trumpet playing circles, bands, and solo artists, that compete for the title of the best in their category. You'll get to enjoy the wild atmosphere that reaches its peak on the closing night. Besides the music, partying, and meeting people from all over the world, you can taste test iconic Serbian dishes.
Are you excited to visit and explore Serbia as much as we are to go back? We can already smell the peppers roasting! Don't forget to respect the cultures and people you meet along the way, try to learn a few famous Serbian sayings, never refuse a meal from a sweet old grandmom, beware of the promaja and touch a button if you see a chimney sweeper.