Novi Sad: The Real Serbia

Novia Sad, Serbia

For many months before ever setting foot in Serbia, every Serb I met throughout the Balkans told me to go to Belgrade for nightlife and fun, but, for the real Serbia, go to Novi Sad. And so, after nearly a month in Belgrade, my dear wife and I decided to pay heed to the many lovely Serbians we’d met along the journey that finally led us to their homeland, and get us a “real” taste of the country.

The funny thing about people who know what they’re talking about is…… they know what they’re talking about. And if Novi Sad is the real Serbia, I like Serbia. Belgrade was mostly what it was advertised to be, but it didn’t seem to have that Balkan warmth we’d become so accustomed to. And although Novi Sad doesn’t seem to be as overtly friendly as Albania, Macedonia, or even Montenegro, it doesn’t take much coaxing to elicit smiles from most of the citizens of this wonderful city.

The first impression of the place, for me, was how much more beautiful it was than Belgrade. It’s a truly lovely Balkan gem, and not just lovely to look at either, because, as well as being beautiful, it also has a surprising number of things to do and see. And I’m clearly not the only person who thinks so. Not even close. In fact, many other people seem to be of a similar opinion. Novi Sad, a city with a population of less than a half-million, was the European Capital of Culture in 2021, and the European Youth Capital in 2019. Rather impressive accomplishments, indeed.

As with many other cities in the Balkans, Novi Sad, as an area of human habitation, is as old as God. People have been pitching tents and living in caves there since the Stone Age, and that’s no exaggeration. Novi Sad, like everywhere else in the region, has a lot of history.

On our drive up from Belgrade, our friendly, knowledgeable, and capable GETTRANSFER driver offered to give us a bit of a more authentic experience than sticking to the main highway, and instead suggested finishing the journey on the smaller, slower, more relaxed secondary roads. We accepted. The decision proved to be worth the few extra minutes it added to the journey. Before entering Novi Sad proper, we even got a short tour of the Petrovaradin Fortress, which is located east of the city, across the Danube River.

Petrovaradin Fortress, Novi Sad, Serbia

Petrovaradin Fortress is not only a cool old military installation on the edge of Petrovaradin village, but also hosts a museum, an art gallery, at least one restaurant, aannnddd (this is a big “and”)… the EXIT Festival.

The EXIT Festival is a major European music festival, held for four days in mid-summer, aaannnddd (no big surprise here) has twice been the recipient of the Best Major Festival award at the European Festivals Awards in 2013 and 2017. It also won Best European Festival at the UK Festival Awards in 2007. It’s kind of a big deal, in the same way that an apartment smelling of rich mahogany and containing many leather-bound books is a big deal, but much more fun.

The EXIT Festival: more fun than rich mahogany and leather-bound books.
EXIT Festival

Our home for the month we were in Novi Sad was called “Apartment Spirit,” and it’s advertised on booking.com as “Apartment Spirit in the Heart of Novi Sad,” which is an entirely accurate description. From here, it takes no time to get anywhere a person might want to get to. This is illustrated by the fact that just ten steps from the main door of the apartment building is one of the best bakeries in town, called Hleb & Kifle. This bakery actually has a review proclaiming it to be “the best bakery in the entire Universe,” and who am I to disagree?

Not only is Apartment Spirit an exceptional place to stay for its fantastic location, but also because the apartment itself is beautiful. It’s new, clean, unique, roomy, and comfortable. But the truth is, even though Spirit has all these things going for it, what makes it even better are the hosts. They’re super friendly, incredibly accommodating, knowledgeable, available, very pleasant, and were easy to deal with the whole time we were there. We would be overjoyed to stay at Apartment Spirit again.

Lovely Apartment Spirit

Now on to more of the great location part of where we spent our month in Novi Sad.

Directly northeast, across the Bulevar Mihajla Pupina from our lovely abode (and the best bakery in the Universe), is where Ulica Kralja Aleksandra begins (or ends if you’re coming from the other direction). It turns into a street with a different name almost immediately, but it’s really all the same. From where we lived, this was the gateway to all things. And by all things I mean: restaurants, pubs, shops, plazas, quaint and beautiful little streets, museums, cathedrals…. you know, all things.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood
Cathedral of St. Mary
Cathedral of St. Mary

Novi Sad, like everywhere in the Balkans, does food well! Very well! This was the city in which I first tasted a dish that changed my life and my taste buds forever. I’ll delve a little deeper in a moment.

Saying that, I think I may have figured out why most Balkan people are so pleasant (unless provoked), even when things in life are difficult. There’s always the food and the entire process that’s involved with food-ing. It’s enough to comfort anyone, unless things are so difficult that there is no food. Which is beyond my ability to glibly dismiss with an offhand comment, so I won’t. Or did I just?

In a previous post on Serbia (the one about Belgrade), I only named a few restaurants specifically. In part, that was certainly because there were so many in such a short period of time (and they were all good) that none stood out enough to mention. But another couple of reasons are probably more accurate. One being that we were very ill upon arriving in Belgrade and ordered in instead of going out, so our dining experiences were nowhere near what they could have been had we done the authentic dine-in thing. Another reason was that, after our illnesses wore off, we were fairly immersed in the storied nightlife of the city, and memories of everything were generally rather hazy.

In Novi Sad, however, we visited and revisited enough places to develop some favourites, and although the number of good restaurants and pubs in town is impressive, there were a few that stole our hearts.

First and foremost, I must declare that while in Novi Sad, we went out a lot. We also ordered food to our lovely apartment on many, many occasions, and even though I’m about to mention my favourites, I’ll almost certainly forget to mention one or a few establishments that more than deserve to be remembered. For this, I sincerely apologize, and I solemnly endeavour to rectify any oversight committed herein after the next visit to Serbia.

With that aside, I shall now tip my hat to places I still think of often.

One of the best traditional regional dishes ever (and one of the best overall dishes I’ve ever had) is called Prebranac (Pre-breh-nats) in Serbia, Pasulj in Bosnia, or Tavče gravče (grav) in Macedonia.

It’s such a deceptively simple dish that one could easily overlook it if one didn’t fortuitously order it from delivery on a whim. After eating it for the first time, however, one may then be inclined to suspect some form of delightful witchcraft was employed in its creation. Ordering it forever thereafter would be a very deliberate act.

How is it possible for smokey, baked white beans and sausages to deliver that much flavour? And who discovered/invented that kind of flavour in the first place? And what’s happening to my mouth? Also, where am I and why am I crying? And who am I? And why are we here? What are we doing and why are we doing it? What’s the meaning of life?

These are largely unanswerable questions, and perhaps I’ll never know the answers to any of them, but one thing I do know is that all we are is beans in the wind. With sausages.

Prove me wrong.

My favourite spot to go and experience the wonder of God through beans and sausages was at a place called Pivnica Gusan, which I consider a temple. I often still feel a strong urge to go there and pay my respects to the divine essence that they unfailingly channeled to my table. On their menu, the holy dish is listed as “Tavče gravče something-or-other.” It’s beautiful.

Yup, the last five paragraphs were all about that dish on the left. Don’t be fooled by its simplicity.

They have some other options too. My wife had them. She said they were delicious. Who cares?

As a bit of an aside here; in 2019 and earlier, the restaurant had some terrible reviews (mostly for poor service) but when we were there in 2021, the issue had clearly been rectified and the service was great. They must have taken the bad reviews as constructive criticism. If you find such reviews too scary to disregard though, even years after, Prebranac is not at all difficult to find, and although everyone seems to have their own method of preparing it, I’ve never had a bad one, anywhere. My favourite recipe so far just happens to be found at Pivnica Gusan.

Not far from the hallowed tables of Pivnica Gusan there stands a place with earthly fare. Though not quite divine, it’s delicious all the same. It’s one of many good outdoor gathering places in the city, called Red Cow, an Ire-ish pub/restaurant worth visiting, which we often did. Good food, good drinks, and a nice, relaxed vibe. They do have indoor seating available, as well as outdoor.

The Red Cow, an Ire-ish Pub.

Close to the other two previously mentioned spots, in the area where we spent most of our time out and about, there stood a pub we loved the most (undoubtedly our favourite), called Mazut Pub. Mazut has an obscene number of beers, as well as all sorts of wines and spirits from every corner of the globe. There’s also a restaurant next door that serves excellent pizza right to your pub table, though the two establishments aren’t affiliated. It’s a Balkan thing.

We closed Mazut down on quite a few occasions before strolling home in the wee hours of that beautiful city. And whether we were strolling about during daylight hours or making our way home in the middle of the night, we never had any problems in Novi Sad.

Now, for those people keen on upscale dining, it may behoove one to find one’s way to the highly regarded establishment known as Hotel & Restoran Fontana. Were one to do just that, one would surely not be able to find a reason to regret one’s decision.

Such delectable fare, served in the wonderful ambiance that is the Fontana Restaurant, should only serve to bolster one’s confidence after a choice well made, and perhaps even motivate one to continue making similar choices. Oh, and the wine, spirits, and cocktails are great, so one might also find oneself rather pissed upon exiting said establishment.

Luckily, however, should one find oneself in a state of inebriation after dinner, one has, should one have had the foresight to plan ahead, the option of a short stagger to one’s hotel room in the very same building. If not, well, best of luck finding the way home. There are certainly worse cities in which one could stagger about in a drunken stupor. Or so I’ve heard.

Hotel & Restaurant Fontana

Novi Sad is a vibrant, fun university town, among other things, and really seems to have something for everyone. It has all the things one might expect of a cultural mecca, such as it is; museums, galleries, bookstores, theaters, and that sort of thing, as well as the simpler entertainment found in pubs, bars, and clubs. Music is obviously of great importance in the city that hosts the EXIT festival and can be heard everywhere.

Novi Sad has beautiful architecture, nice people, beautiful ladies, and handsome gentlemen. I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it anywhere before, but I don’t think they make ugly people in the Balkans. Not the western part at any rate. It’s a beautiful place in almost every way.

My wife and I love Novi Sad and would definitely consider it as a place to live in the future. I tip my hat to every Serb in Macedonia and Montenegro who assured us we would appreciate the beauty, fun, culture, and Serbian-ness of Lovely Novi Sad. We do. We absolutely do.

When it was time to depart Serbia, though our travels would lead us on to Athens, the short drive to the international airport near Belgrade was rather melancholic. Knowing that we were about to leave the beautiful Balkans after more than ten generally wonderful months wasn’t a prospect that instilled happiness in my soul.

Sitting in Costa Rica, weeks later, not a day goes by that I don’t think of our time in Serbia and the other Balkan countries we visited. For us, the Balkans has been the best region of the planet we’ve ever lived in. So our short-term goal, as of this writing, is to work through the European winter season and then return home (to Eastern Europe) for spring. If we can wait that long. But before all that, we’ll have certainly shared the details of our short excursions in Athens and Madrid, our two stopovers on the way to Central America.

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