A Guide to Niš: Visiting the Fortress, Skull Tower & More

Last Updated on: 21st February 2023, 11:29 pm

Niš may be Serbia’s third-largest city, but it’s a place where few tourists venture. Historically, it’s best known as the birthplace of Constantine the Great (280-337 AD). And today, many of the city’s monuments are reminders of the region’s dark past, from the chilling Ottoman Skull Tower to a Nazi concentration camp. In the following Niš guide, we’ll be covering it all.

Niš contains several main attractions, three of which can be visited with a combo ticket that only costs around 300 RSD. Simply ask about it at one of the ticket booths. The popular Niš fortress, meanwhile, is completely free to enter.

Also be sure to check the very end of this Niš guide for tips on transportation and where to stay.

Niš Fortress

Like many fortresses in the region, Niš Fortress dates back at least as far as Roman times. But the surviving walls we see today were established in the 18th century during Ottoman rule.

Most visitors will enter via the main Stambol Gate – one of four originals – which linked the fortress with Istanbul in Ottoman times.

Niš Guide

If you’ve been to Belgrade Fortress, the visiting experiences are quite similar. Niš Fortress is also free to enter and it serves as an important public space where locals gather and relax daily.

You’ll also encounter numerous historical landmarks throughout the area which span nearly 2,000 years.

Niš Guide

Nearby the entrance is a Turkish hammam which dates to the 15th century. 

Also nearby is a monument dedicated to Milan Obrenović who ruled as prince of Serbia from 1868-82. Part of the prominent Obrenović dynasty, he helped liberate Niš from the Ottomans in the late 1800s.

Moving on, you’ll find the remains of a Byzantine street established in the 5th century. While only foundations remain, the ruins of multiple buildings were uncovered during 1960s excavations.

Niš Guide

Another one of Niš Fortress’s top highlights is the Bali-beg Mosque, located near the fortress’s center. The only surviving mosque of ten originals, it was built some time in the 16th century.

Not far away are the remains of an old vaulted building from the Roman period. While largely submerged underground today, it was likely one of the fortress’s visual highlights in its time.

Niš Guide

Also nearby is a collection of artifacts discovered throughout the fortress. On display since 1887, the collection contains over 40 pieces, most of them tombstones and sculptures.

Niš Guide
Niš Guide

Elsewhere around the fortress, meanwhile, are several Ottoman-era powder magazines.

And while rather incongruous with the rest of the site, jazz lovers will be delighted to find multiple murals of famous musicians painted along some of the dilapidated buildings. 

The fortress, in fact, hosts the cleverly titled Nišville Jazz Festival every August.

Niš Fortress
Niš Fortress

All in all, Niš Fortress is vast. And with plenty of places to sit and relax, including cafes and restaurants, you could easily spend half a day here during nice weather. 

While cold and gloomy during my visit, I still enjoyed my walk around, and I managed to see all the major landmarks in a couple of hours. 

The Skull Tower

One of the most chilling landmarks of the Balkans, Niš’s Skull Tower is a harrowing reminder of how the Ottomans treated those who dared to defy their rule. 

The tower’s backstory involves the First Serbian Uprising  of the early 19th century that was led by national hero Karađorđe. The rebels were quite successful at first, capturing numerous territories – including Belgrade – from Ottoman hands.

Niš Guide Skull Tower

But Niš, among other regions, had yet to be liberated. And so the rebel leaders decided to direct their attention there. In 1809, around 16,000 men arrived in the area to get the job done.

But the Battle of Čegar saw the rebels greatly outnumbered. Realizing that the situation was hopeless, rebel leader Stevan Sinđelić charged at the Turks, firing at their powder magazine. 

Niš Guide Skull Tower

The huge explosion caused large numbers of casualties on both sides, with an estimated 4,000 Serbs and 10,000 Turks dying in the blast. 

Despite suffering tremendous losses, the Turks prevailed and managed to hold onto Niš for several more decades.

And in retaliation for the uprising, Ottoman vizier Hurshid Pasha (who, interestingly enough, was of Georgian descent) ordered his men to decapitate and scalp as many Serbs as they could. 

Niš Guide Skull Tower
Niš Guide Skull Tower

As many as 952 skulls were integrated into this dreadful tower, which once stood at 4.5 m high. Known locally as Ćele Kula, the Ottomans constructed it as a way to dissuade future rebellions.

But according to the Serbs, the tower only further bolstered national pride. That’s why after the last Ottoman governor of the region ordered the tower dismantled in 1861, locals tried to preserve what was left.

Niš Guide Skull Tower

Today, the tower is enclosed within a small chapel that was erected in 1894. And while only 58 of the original skulls remain, it’s still regarded as one of the country’s most significant cultural and historical monuments. And it’s easily the most unique attraction in this Niš guide.

Niš Guide Skull Tower
Niš Guide Skull Tower

The Red Cross Concentration Camp

When most people think of World War II-era concentration camps, Serbia isn’t one of the first countries that comes to mind. But Niš, in fact, is home to what’s considered to be one of Europe’s best-preserved camps.

The Germans occupied Serbia from 1941-45 and kept as many as 30,000 prisoners here – among them Serbian resistance fighters and members of the local Jewish population. 

Niš Guide Concentration Camp
Niš Guide Concentration Camp

Interestingly, what now serves as the ticket booth was once the guard tower, and both a swastika and SS symbol can still be made out above the entrance.

The camp’s largest building is now home to a very comprehensive museum detailing its history, especially the large escape that took place here on 12 February, 1942.

As more and more executions began taking place at nearby at Bubanj, about three kilometers outside the city, the prisoners felt they had nothing to lose.

Attacking the German guards during their usual walk, they attempted their escape, but the other guards and nearby military base were quickly alerted.

Niš Guide Concentration Camp
Niš Guide Concentration Camp
Niš Guide Concentration Camp

The prisoners then headed right for the barbed wire fences, and 105 of them managed to escape. Forty-two of them died right then and there, however.

As the first major escape to take place at a Nazi concentration camp, the news quickly spread throughout Europe.

And in an action that echoed the Ottoman retaliation the century prior (see above), the Germans staged a massive execution at Bubanj just days later. In total, around 800 prisoners were executed in response to the escape.

The museum also details how, over the years, many of the prisoners here would later be sent to other concentration camps in places like Norway, Austria, Poland and Greece. The exhibition also goes into detail about the awful conditions at each.

Niš Guide Concentration Camp
The monument of Bubanj

For those interested, Bubanj itself is now a tourist attraction in Niš. It’s home to a large public park and an iconic spomenik (Yugoslav monument) in the shape of three massive fists that was built to commemorate the massacres.

Interestingly, the area also happened to be home to an early Bronze Age settlement.

While I’d planned to visit during my stay, bad weather thwarted my plans. From central Niš, Bubanj is about 50 minutes away on foot. Or, if you can figure out the public bus system, that would surely be a more convenient option.

The Archaeological Hall

Despite its grandiose exterior, Niš’s archaeological museum only takes up a single room of the building – hence why it’s simply called the Archaeological Hall.

But given Niš’s historical importance, the small collection is well worth going to see.

It largely focuses on the Roman era, complete with a model of what the original Mediana palace might’ve looked like.

Mediana was the luxurious villa built by Constantine the Great at his place of birth. Unfortunately, it’s been closed for years, and I was disappointed to find it still closed during my visit (according to the staff at the Skull Tower, nothing can be seen from the outside, either).

Visiting the Archaeological Hall, then, is the next best thing. In addition to a scale model of the villa, you’ll also find numerous sculptures and artifacts uncovered there.

Niš Guide Archaeological Hall
A model of Mediana
Niš Guide Archaeological Hall
Niš Guide Archaeological Hall
Niš Guide Archaeological Hall

Despite Constantine being the first Christian emperor, some pagan sculptures were unearthed at Mediana, including the Greek healing gods of Asclepius and Hygeia as well as the Roman goddess Venus.

Other statues, meanwhile, represent members of Constantine’s family.

Niš Guide Archaeological Hall

Displays from the Middle Ages include numerous replicas of medieval tombs that were oftentimes discovered on the properties of ordinary Niš residents!

Other artifacts presented here come from other towns in the general region, including a bust of a Byzantine empress.

Niš Guide Archaeological Hall
Niš Guide Archaeological Hall

Before leaving, be sure not to miss the collection of Roman-era altars set up in front of the ticket booth.

As for tickets, the Archaeological Hall can be accessed with the same combo ticket (300 RSD) that also includes access to the other attractions in this Niš guide, such as the Skull Tower and concentration camp.

Additional Info

Yes, Niš is an interesting city with enough notable attractions to warrant a short visit. As it’s too far from Belgrade for a day trip, you’ll want to spend at least a night or two in town.

With that in mind, if you only have limited time in Serbia, you’ll probably want to make time for the northern Vojvodina region instead of the south.

If you’re particularly interested in Roman history, however, visiting the fascinating ruins of Felix Romuliana can be done as a day trip from Niš. And when it opens up, Mediana can be seen on the outskirts of town as well.

A few buses for Niš leave from Belgrade every hour. The ride generally lasts about three hours and fifteen minutes. You can check the website polazak.com for updated timetables. There’s little need to purchase tickets in advance.

From the bus terminal, it only takes about 15 minutes or so to walk to the center of town.

Niš is also home to the Constantine the Great International Airport with direct flights to various European and Turkish destinations. Many of the routes only operate in summer, however.

If you’d like to visit the locations featured above but with additional insight from a local guide, this popular day tour has dozens of good reviews. It will also take you to a few additional sites and you won’t have to worry about dealing with transport. The tour starts and ends in Niš.

While Niš isn’t really accessible as a day trip from Belgrade, it is indeed doable if you take a private tour. This tour takes you to the city’s top sites along with Devil’s Town, a nearby geological oddity that I hoped to visit but didn’t have time for.

I stayed at a place called Apartmani Pinokio which was within walking distance of the fortress and most of the other locations in the Niš guide above.

I had my own room with a private bathroom and only paid around €12 per night including tax. As there’s no front desk, you’ll have to call someone to check in.

While the room has an air conditioner, there was no remote control to be found during my stay. I wanted to use it as a heater during an abnormally cold autumn week, but bundling up in the blankets worked well enough.

All in all, I’d recommend Apartmani Pinokio. But Niš is small enough that you should easily be able to find a conveniently located place. Checking on Airbnb, Niš also has some great values for monthly rentals.


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