If I were young again I would say there were three reasons to visit Niš, namely wine, beer and rakija. The liquor not only flows abundantly here, but it is also dirt cheap. But as a woman of a certain age, I noticed that the third-largest city in Serbia has much more to offer than the pleasures of Bacchus. The tourist will find at its doorstep breathtaking scenery, rich gastronomy, several festivals and historical traces of Romans and Ottomans. Moreover, this destination is ideal for a city trip, because it has direct flight access from ten cities in Europe.
However, before you book a ticket to Nis, it is important to realize that a trip to Serbia, is Eastern Europe for the experienced traveller. The country is keen to become a member of the European Union but has not reached that status yet.
Life costs next to nothing for the average Western European traveller. A pint of beer goes for one euro, a packet of cigarettes for two and a 15-minute taxi ride costs less than three euros. There is still plenty of smoking in public places, including restaurants. Corruption, poverty and unemployment are still commonplace in Serbia (source).
It is also a region with unresolved war history. Although Serbia is now an independent state, the country was during most of the last century part of former communist Yugoslavia. The Balkan republic fell apart after the bloody Yugoslav wars. Kosovo, a southern neighbour, is still a province of the country according to the Serbs, although the Albanian majority in Kosovo declared its independence in February 2008. It is therefore not possible to reach Serbia through Kosovo since the border is not recognized by the Serbs.
However, the Republic of Kosovo is recognized by 108 of the 193 UN members.
Niš, a bustling town in southern Serbia
Nis is located in southern Serbia, about 100 kilometres from the “border” with Kosovo. It is a vibrant city, the size of Southampton in the UK or Verona in Italy. It is also one of the oldest cities in the Balkans. The pedestrian historic heart of this metropolitan is bustling with terraces during the hot summers (e.g. + 30° C). Yet the streetscape is incomparable to other southern European cities, as the hipster beard has not reached this part of the world. The men here are clean-shaven, dressed in synthetic shirts and white pointy shoes boasting short-cropped hair and tattoos. Looks are deceiving, seemingly tough guys have underneath all that bravado a big heart. It shows through the Serbian Hospitality, which is still written with a capital H.
If you take the time to get to know the Serbs you will quickly notice that most people behave friendly towards foreigners. Most of the younger generation speaks English, which makes it relatively easy to look inside the Serbian culture. A welcome is invariably accompanied by local music, a social lubricant in the form of liquor and lots of delicious food thanks to the various rulers of the country that left their culinary mark.
A Serbian menu typical includes Turkish baklava and pies and Greek stuffed grape leaves. And although the kitchen of Niš is known for its grilled meat dishes, which include sausages, shashlik and chicken, a vegan does not have to go hungry, because vegetable soups, salads, grilled peppers, bean dishes and fresh fruit are included in almost every meal. Dinner starts with a glass of rakija (a type of brandy) and ends with a cup of strong coffee.
Tip Niš has an incredible amount of kafanas (restaurants). For authentic local cuisine visit restaurant Nislijska Mehana on Prvomajska 49 in the city centre.
If you’re not a foodie, but rather go sightseeing that is okay too because the city has at least a dozen must-sees.
The various sights and historical spots are marked on convenient small sized city maps – available at the tourist office and most hotels. All sights are all easily accessible in a range of 5 to 10 kilometres, on foot or by taxi. The most important ones are described below.
Red Cross concentration camp
One of the main “attractions” is a concentration camp of the Second World War. Although this camp is small compared to other camps such as Auschwitz in Poland it is still immense in its murderousness. An estimated 30 000 victims were killed here during the German occupation. Some haunting reminders of the war are still visible today in the camp, like the watchtowers, human skulls and various personal objects. You can also visit the isolation cells, where the floors were covered with barbed wire, so prisoners could not lie down. Moreover, they were not given any food or drink. The average survival time in such a cell was three days.
If this is not horrid enough to give you the creeps, there is more.
Another chilling attraction is the skull tower, a monument of the early 19th century. The tower is made of skulls and bones. Originally the tower contained 952 skulls. Nowadays there are only 58 skulls left, because most were stolen in the course of time, or removed, probably by relatives to be buried.
The battle of Čegar
These skulls are relics of the battle of Čegar. Here the rebellion of Serbs was halted by the Ottomans. The Serbian commander Stevan Sinđelić detonated his gunpowder depot in order not having to surrender to the Turks. To deter future insurgents Sultan Mahmud II had the skulls of the killed Serbian walled up in a tower.
If you are willing to go a little further back in time, you can conveniently stay in the city centre, where the fortress dominates over the river Nisava. The history of these fortifications began two thousand years ago when the Romans came and set up a military camp on the riverbank. After the fall of the Roman Empire, other rulers became in charge of the fort. It was destroyed by the Huns, restored by the Byzantines, the walls and towers were strengthened in subsequent centuries by Serbian rulers.
Constantine the Great, one of the Roman emperors, was born in Niš, then called Naissus. The emperor’s legacy is Mediana, a luxurious suburb of Naissus, which was built between the III and the IV century. Mediana was a temporary residence for six Roman emperors.
The archaeological site is now being restored and at the time of writing closed to visitors.
Luckily the Nis archaeological museum has preserved various objects of Naissus and Mediana. Furthermore, the museum has several medieval and prehistoric objects on display.
Niš boasts several festivals. The best known is Nisville, nominally a jazz festival, but in practice a music festival with plenty of different music types on offer: apart from jazz there is lots of blues, rock and reggae. The festival is also an attempt to digest the last war; religious tolerance and diversity are widely promoted as part of the program.
Simultaneously with the jazz festival a wine festival is held, where you can taste superb Serbian wines throughout the evening for only 500 dinars entrance fee.
The surrounding area of Niš is gorgeous. Within a fifteen minutes drive from the city, the mountains can be reached.
- The Jelašnica gap is ideal for climbing, hiking or having a picnic.
- Niska Banja is a mountain spa resort surrounded by forests.
- The Sicevo gorge is 17 kilometres long and has 400 meters high steep walls, an ideal place for an active holiday.
Rafting, bird watching and paragliding are some of many organised activities in this area.
Furthermore, on the road in the mountain villages, you will see traditional houses, donkeys and old-timers.
And if that old Fiat seems to have a Serbian double, don’t blame an excessive intake of alcohol. The Zastava is indeed a copy of the Fiat 500.
Practical advice Niš
One euro is about 120 dinars (August 2017). Prices in Serbia are generally much lower than in the European Union. Beverage, food, clothes, hotels, public transport and taxis are, in our eyes, a real bargain.
Note that the local population does not think so, their purchasing power is significantly lower than that of most Western Europeans. An average monthly salary is between 250 and 400 euros.
Cash can be withdrawn from cash machines that are widely available in the city centre.
The city is dotted with summer terraces, they are often kept cool with water sprinklers. Tinkers Alley, or Kazandžijsko sokače, is the epicentre of the nightlife. Here you will find modern bars with cool drinks at good old fashioned prices.
- Tip Try to find lounge bar Hush Hush at 18A Generala Tranijea. In summer, tasty tapas style appetizers served on the patio, in the winter you go inside.
- The former hammam in the fortress is a traditional restaurant and along the river, you can also find various bars.
Three- and four-star hotels are generally of a lower standard than you would expect in Western Europe, prices are also significantly lower.
Zen Hotel is located just outside the city, it is one of the most charming luxury hotels in the area with a spa and a rooftop pool. Click here to check prices and availability.
If you prefer something more central than the three-star Garni Hotel Duo D on Tinker’s Alley is probably more to your taste. To check availability and prices click here.
The good news is that the water tastes fine in Serbia and is safe to drink. Thus, those plastic bottles can stay in the store, this will save a few bucks and more importantly, it’s better for the environment.
The city is safe. Late at night walking home on your own, even as a single woman, is generally not a problem, at least that is how I experienced it. That does not mean you should not be on guard. Traffic can be dangerous. Drivers often use their phone whilst driving and it is not uncommon to drink, smoke and drive.
- Constantine the Great Airport is the second airport by size in Serbia, currently, four airlines fly on Niš. The airport is only 3.5 km away from the city on the northern outskirts of Niš, close to the highway leading to Belgrade.
- From Belgrade, there is an excruciatingly slow train or a two and a half hour bus drive to Niš.
- It is not possible to reach Serbia from Kosovo overland.
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