A Guide to Novi Sad: Exploring Serbia’s Second City

Last Updated on: 13th March 2023, 01:33 am

Novi Sad, Serbia’s second-largest city, is touted by many as the country’s most charming. Despite being just 70 km from the capital, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the 20th century, giving it a distinct look and feel. Now home to the annual EXIT Festival and having been designated a European Capital of Culture in 2022, the hype surrounding the city is growing. In the following Novi Sad guide, we’ll be covering the top things you shouldn’t miss in town.

Also be sure to check the end of the article for info on transportation and whether or not the city really lives up to the hype.

Novi Sad & Vojvodina: A Brief History

Novi Sad, officially founded at the end of the 17th century, is the capital of the autonomous province of Vojvodina, a region that’s been inhabited since at least the Neolithic Age. This era saw influences from ancient civilizations in both the Balkans and Central Europe, including the influential Vinča culture. 

Various cultures then established settlements throughout Vojvodina in the early Bronze Age. From the 4th century BC, Celtic tribes made their way into the region, while much of Vojvodina was inhabited by Illyrians.

The Romans then conquered the area in the 1st century AD, and much evidence of their reign can still be seen in cities like Sremska Mitrovica.

After the collapse of Western Rome, the Byzantines would establish control over the region, but the Slavs began invading from the 6th century. Then, by the early 9th century, groups like the Franks and Bulgarians came in. 

Later in the Middle Ages, the Hungarians took over, establishing Petrovaradin Fortress in the 14th century. The Ottomans would control the region from the 16-17th centuries before the Austrian Habsburg Monarchy gained power. Serb-majority Novi Sad would then remain part of Austria-Hungary for centuries until the end of World War I. 

It was during Austro-Hungarian rule in the 18th century that Queen Maria Theresa designated Novi Sad as a ‘Free Royal City’ which gave it much autonomy. Its population soon expanded and it grew into a great cultural and political center, a status which it enjoys in modern Serbia today.

Petrovaradin Fortress Novi Sad Guide

Central Novi Sad Guide

The historical portion of the city is centered around Trg Slobode, or Freedom Square. And it’s here that you’ll find the Roman Catholic Parish Church of the Name of Mary, perhaps the most iconic building in central Novi Sad. 

The Neo-Gothic building was designed by architect György Molnar in the 1890s, and the church towers over its surroundings at 73 m high.

Things to Do in Novi Sad

On the other side of the square is the City Hall, a Neo-Renaissance building constructed in 1895. Interestingly, its tall tower was previously used to warn residents in case of fire. It was designed by the same architect as the nearby church.

In the center of the square, meanwhile, is a statue dedicated to Svetozar Miletić, a leader of an uprising against the Austrian Habsburg dynasty in the 19th century. He also once served as mayor.

Things to Do in Novi Sad
Things to Do in Novi Sad

The general area around the square is home to many more notable landmarks. Down Zmaj Jovina Street is the Bishop’s Palace of the Diocese of Backa. Originally built in 1741, the elegant structure represents an eclectic mix of styles that were in vogue at the time.

The Bishop's Palace of the Diocese of Back
Things to Do in Novi Sad

Just nearby is the Church of St. George, the largest Orthodox Church in the city. Its current incarnation was designed in the early 20th century, and the single-nave church is best known for its beautiful painted iconostasis.

Things to Do in Novi Sad
St. George's Cathedral
Things to Do in Novi Sad

Another architectural highlight of central Novi Sad is the synagogue, built in the early 20th century by Lipot Baumhorn, an architect from Budapest. 

It features three naves and a dome which rises to 40 m high. It was built in a Hungarian Secessionist style of architecture, a variation of Art Nouveau. 

This area became part of the original Jewish quarter upon Novi Sad’s declaration as a Free Royal City in the 18th century. Amazingly, it’s just one of four or five synagogues left standing in the entire country. 

Things to Do in Novi Sad
Things to Do in Novi Sad

As one might expect, central Novi Sad is full of coffee shops and restaurants, most of which specialize in local cuisine. But regardless of your tastes, don’t miss having a coffee at Trčika, a coffee shop situated in a renovated old tram car!

Central Novi Sad is so elegant, in fact, that even the local H&M looks like it could be a museum!

Trčika cafe
H&M Novi Sad
A ceiling at H&M

The Vojvodina Museum

If you’ve already visited the National Museum in Belgrade, leave all your expectations at the door when entering the Museum of Vojvodina. This museum has an outdated look while its signage is in Serbian only. But is it worth visiting?

Vojvodina Museum Novi Sad Guide
Vojvodina Museum Novi Sad Guide

While not the most thrilling attraction in this Novi Sad guide, the museum is still worth it for those with a special interest in history, as it contains thousands of items.

While English signage is lacking, you can at least read English translations on laminated sheets of paper placed by each exhibition. It can be a pain to stand there and read so much small text, however.

Vojvodina Museum Novi Sad Guide
Vojvodina Museum Novi Sad Guide
Vojvodina Museum Novi Sad Guide

The museum also contains a lot of interesting Neolithic artifacts in addition to displays on how different cultures buried their dead.

One of the top highlights is a set of three Roman helmets discovered at nearby Sremska Mitrovica, a city that’s well worth a day trip from Novi Sad.

Vojvodina Museum Novi Sad Guide
Vojvodina Museum Novi Sad Guide

Gallery of Matica Srpska

Arguably the top museum in town would be the Gallery of Matica Srpska. Originally founded in 1847, the large museum focuses on Serbian art from the 18th-20th centuries – most of it religious. Many of them were taken from churches around the region, including the nearby town of Sremski Karlovci

Comprehensive signage in English details how the art styles gradually changed over time, such as the transition from Eastern Orthodox church art to more of a baroque style.

Gallery of Matica Srpska
Gallery of Matica Srpska

Aside from the religious icons, other paintings depict important events from Serbian history. And there’s also a small section dedicated to contemporary art, though the official Museum of Contemporary art is not far away.

A visit to the Gallery of Matica Srpska is easily one of the top highlights of this Novi Sad guide.

Gallery of Matica Srpska
Gallery of Matica Srpska
Gallery of Matica Srpska

Petrovaradin Fortress

On the other side of the Danube River lies one of the largest fortresses in Europe. No visit to Novi Sad would be complete without a trip to Petrovaradin Fortress.

The hill was originally the site of a medieval Hungarian fortification. Later, upon Austria-Hungary’s victory over the Ottomans in the Great Turkish War of the 17th century, the Austrians decided to build a new fortress here in 1692. Incredibly, construction lasted all the way up until 1780.

Petrovaradin Fortress Novi Sad Guide

Later, following World War I and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia’s takeover of the region, many Austrian fortresses were slated for destruction. While the exact reason remains unknown, the general in charge of Petrovaradin’s demolition simply refused to follow orders. 

As such, it remains Serbia’s only surviving Austrian fortification, and one of the most impressive in the Balkans.

Petrovaradin Fortress Novi Sad Guide
Petrovaradin Fortress Novi Sad Guide

As you’ll notice, the base of the fortress is surrounded by numerous old structures which were originally built as part of a military-residential complex. This Lower Fortress area was once home to prominent officers and nobility.

Walking up, you’ll pass by the Roman Catholic Church of St. George, built in the early 18th century. A tunnel will then take you to the Upper Fortress.

Petrovaradin Fortress Novi Sad Guide
Petrovaradin Fortress Novi Sad Guide

You’ll soon encounter the fortress’s most well-known landmark, its Clock Tower. Notice how the size of the hour and minute hands has been reversed so that fishermen could better see it from a distance.

In addition to some of the old barracks and gates, other structures around the top include the former bishop’s residence and a former convent. You’ll also find plenty of benches from which to take in the views of central Novi Sad below.

Petrovaradin Fortress Novi Sad Guide
Petrovaradin Fortress Novi Sad Guide

Nowadays, the fortress is perhaps best known for hosting the annual EXIT Festival each July. But if you’re visiting during quieter times, you can make a visit to the Novi Sad City Museum.

The City Museum

As the name suggests, the museum details the history of Novi Sad as well as Petrovaradin Fortress itself, which long predates the official founding of the city.

Frankly speaking, however, a visit might not be necessary for those who’ve already visited the Vojvodina Museum, as much of the information overlaps. The signage here, at least, is in English!

Petrovaradin Fortress Novi Sad Guide
Petrovaradin Fortress Novi Sad Guide

One of the most interesting items in the museum is a longboat made from a hollowed out tree. Discovered in the 20th century, it may have been used by the Sarmatian tribes who lived in the area during Roman times.

Also on display are various ancient archaeological findings from the Roman and Byzantine eras when a small fortress was located at this spot.

Petrovaradin Fortress Novi Sad Guide
Petrovaradin Fortress Novi Sad Guide

Before my visit, one of the activities in Novi Sad I was most looking forward to was exploring the fortress’s catacombs. 

Beneath its surface, the fortress is home to vast military galleries spread across four stories and that stretch out to 16 km in total. Supposedly, some of the walls have been inscribed with mysterious Masonic symbols.

Petrovaradin Fortress Novi Sad Guide
Petrovaradin Fortress Novi Sad Guide

But how does one go about exploring the catacombs? Visits are normally organized by the City Museum itself, though these are said to be relatively brief. Apparently, by hiring an official tour guide, visitors can go much further into the deeper levels.

Sadly, during my visit, the museum staff informed me that the catacombs had been closed for quite some time, and they wouldn’t be opening up again for the foreseeable future. I was, at least, able to view a very brief subterranean section that’s always open to museum visitors.

Even More

As mentioned above, Novi Sad is home to additional museums, such as the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Foreign Art Collection. Another city attraction that’s commonly promoted is the Strand, a beach area along the Danube.

As I wasn’t staying too far away, I decided to go visit on foot one day. But it seems that I ended up in the wrong area, as I found everything to be overgrown and abandoned.

It would’ve been too cold to swim anyway, and if you’re traveling in summer, hopefully you’ll have better luck.

Things to Do in Novi Sad
Things to Do in Novi Sad
The Strand?

Additional Info

With its recent designation as a European Capital of Culture, Novi Sad has been receiving a lot of hype lately. And when looking at pictures of the historical center in the Novi Sad guide above, the city does indeed appear beautiful.

The reality is, however, that the charming historical section of Novi Sad only makes up roughly 20% of the entire city. A large majority is comprised of drab concrete buildings with absolutely no charm or atmosphere. The more you explore, the uglier the city becomes.

I’d even go as far as saying that Belgrade is the nicer looking city overall, as its traditional architecture is spread far and wide and not just limited to one or two districts.

While Novi Sad may not live up to the hype, it’s still worth a visit, especially since it serves as a great base for other, more charming towns in Vojvodina, such as Subotica, Sremski Karlovci and Sremska Mitrovica.

And for those with their own transport, Novi Sad can be used as a base from which to explore Fruska Gora National Park.

As Serbia’s second-largest city, you’ll find numerous bus routes linking Novi Sad with the rest of the country. Despite having a very different vibe from Belgrade, the two cities are only 90 minutes apart, with buses leaving very frequently.

Belgrade and Novi Sad are also linked by several trains which run throughout the day.

I managed to find a direct bus from as far away as Novi Pazar, while you can also find direct buses from cities like Kruševac and Niš.

Internationally, Novi Sad is connected with many major cities in the surrounding Balkan countries as well as nearby Hungary.

The bus and train stations are located right next to one another to the north of the city. If you don’t have a lot of luggage, you can easily find public city buses to the center or wherever it is you’re staying.

But if you opt to take a taxi from the station, beware.

A Warning About Taxis

Traveling with lots of luggage and staying at the other end of town, I decided to take a taxi from the bus station to get to my accommodation.

While I’ve traveled more than enough to know how shady taxi drivers at bus stations can be, the one I encountered told me he’d use the meter.

I’d heard from my host that a taxi from the station should only cost 400-500 RSD, but the meter ended up showing 1000!

I wasn’t quite prepared for that, as the last time I fell victim to a rigged meter was many years ago in India. Even worse, the guy even wanted to charge me 50 dinars for putting luggage in the trunk!

Standing in front of my rental apartment, I called the host before handing over any money. The driver was threatening to take me to the police station and kept trying to grab my suitcase. But as soon as a local appeared, he suddenly calmed down and said ‘Ok, Ok, 500.’

The ordeal wasn’t quite over yet, as after taking my money, he began insulting me in Serbian and English and things nearly escalated. Fortunately, though, he got back in his car in drove off before the situation got out of hand. Needless to say, this was a horrible first impression of Novi Sad.

Admittedly, my guard had been down after my very pleasant experience with a driver the previous day in Novi Pazar. But what is one arriving in Novi Sad supposed to do?

As ridesharing apps don’t exist in Serbia, be sure to look up a list of official Novi Sad taxi companies online and call them when you arrive at the station. They’ll send you a driver at a fair price.

By far, the best place to stay in Novi Sad is its historical center. Highly-rated options include Garni Citi Hotel Veliki, or for those on more of a budget, Guest House Villa Lord.

In my case, I intended to stay within walking distance of both the main bus station and the city center. Finding a nice-looking rental apartment on Booking at a good value, I checked its location on Google Maps and was relieved that it would indeed be walkable to both.

It wasn’t until closer to my stay that I checked more carefully, noticing that the addresses on Booking and Google were totally different! Despite the names being the same and the pictures being similar, I ended up on the western edge of town, far away from everything. Unfortunately, the booking was non-refundable.

Novi Sad has a decent public bus network so I was still able to get to wherever I needed. But traveling through the ugly modern parts of Novi Sad each day really diminished my impression of a city that’s most well-known for its beauty.

I imagine that most people who rave about Novi Sad are those who base themselves in the historical center and never leave. And if you can afford it, that would certainly be the best thing to do. Otherwise, basing yourself near the bus station would be convenient for day trips throughout Vojvodina.



Booking.com

If you have limited time in Serbia and are basing yourself in Belgrade, consider this top-rated day tour to Novi Sad, which also includes wine tasting in the scenic town of Sremski Karlovci.

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