Coming to Čačak in mountainous Western Serbia, you’ll pass more of your trip outside the town than in it. That is no insult to this likeable city of 73,000 but underlines just how much beauty there is in Čačak’s backyard. The undisputed treasure is the Ovčar-Kablar Gorge, easily one of Serbia’s most beautiful and culturally significant places.
In the shelter of two mountain peaks is a karst limestone canyon, home to many medieval monasteries that are active to this day. Maybe this wondrous setting lends itself to peaceful reflection, because we’ve got a few monasteries to visit on this list. Add to them spas, mountain ranges and some of the sights and attractions of downtown Čačak.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Čačak:
1. Ovčar-Kablar Gorge
West of Čačak is a place of mesmerising beauty, both for its nature and profusion of monasteries, which go back to the 1300s.
More than 30 monasteries were founded around the gorge, and this has led to comparisons with Mount Athos in Greece.
The rugged karst canyon is on the West Morava river and is named for the two mountains that tower above it: Ovčar to the north and Kablar to the south.
As you tackle the mountain trails and relish the views of the serpentine river and sheer cliffs, you’ll know who the gorge became a place of meditation and spirituality.
2. Tour Ovčar-Kablar’s Monasteries
Of the 30 monasteries established along the gorge, ten remain today, nine of which are still active.
The earliest were founded in the 14th century after religious communities at Mount Athos fled the island and headed into Serbia to escape attacks by pirates.
The majority are from the 16th and 17th centuries and had to be abandoned before being refurbished after Ottoman rule.
One that cannot be missed is the Monastery of the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary, which is on the left bank of the Morava and has frescos dating to the start of the 17th century.
Also see the remarkable Kađenica cave-church, where the remains of locals killed while taking refuge from the Ottomans are in two sarcophaguses beneath the altar.
3. Monastery of St Nicholas (Manastir Nikolje Kablarsko)
The oldest and maybe the most important of the remaining monasteries is at the base of Mount Kablar.
Its exact origins are vague, but judging by its architecture the church can be dated to the 1300s.
On the other hand a lot is known about the monastery and its monks in the 14th and 15th centuries because of the Nikoljsko jevanđelje.
These were illuminated manuscripts produced at this very complex and now kept in Ireland after disappearing in the Second World War.
In the Second Serbian Uprising, Miloš Obrenović hid from Turkish forced at St Nicholas, and coating the walls are frescos from 1567 to 1637.
4. Monastery of the Visitation (Manastir Sretenje)
On the right bank of the Morava, nobody is quite sure who established this monastery.
But its first mention was recorded in 1571 just 50 years before it was torn down.
It was restored thanks to the efforts of one man, Nikifor Maksimović, who later became Bishop of Žiča.
But that wasn’t the end of the monastery’s troubles as it was bombed by the Germans in 1941 and needed rebuilding once more.
There are beautiful murals by the 19th-century Čačak artist Živko Pavlović, and the church tower against Ovčar’s mighty peak is a photo opportunity of a lifetime.
5. Gradsko Šetalište
The most bustling urban street in Čačak is this east to west promenade.
Gradsko Šetalište has stately old townhouses decorated with stucco garlands, and these are interspersed with nondescript modern buildings.
The street is Čačak’s centre for commerce and dining, and is flanked by restaurants, shops and ice cream parlours.
On warm, sunny days Gradsko Šetalište comes to life, as families step out for strolls or to take coffee at the outdoor seating along the promenade.
6. National Museum
This institution has different departments spread across Čačak, but the permanent exhibition is in the palace of Jovan Obrenović.
This building dates to 1835 and was commissioned by the brother of modern Serbia’s first monarch, Miloš Obrenović.
Čačak and Serbia have come through a famously complicated and bloody history, and the museum will help you trace the thread of Serbia’s various fights for independence.
You can also inspect a host of riveting artefacts, from prehistory to medieval times.
Just some to peruse are jewellery, ceramics, statuettes, architectural fragments, Roman glassware and coins.
7. Umetnička Galerija “Nadežda Petrović”
Serbia’s foremost impressionist and fauvist painter, Nadežda Petrović was born in Čačak in 1873. Despite dying young while serving as a nurse in the First World War, she is held in high regard and appears on Serbia’s 200 Dinar banknote.
Her namesake gallery is dedicated to modern and contemporary art.
There’s a collection of Nadežda Petrović’s work, as well as pieces by some of the painters she met while studying in Munich.
You can also check out Yugoslav painting from the second half of the 20th century, and art being produced in Serbia today.
Finally there’s a biennial, from September to November, inviting dozens of artists around Serbia to contribute to a themed exhibition.
The 29th edition of this will take place in 2018.
8. Church of the Ascension of Christ
At the highest point of the city is a church that dates right back to the end of the 12th century.
According to tradition it was commissioned by Stracimir Zavidović who was the brother of the epoch-making ruler Stefan Nemanja.
One of the exciting things about the church is that it wasn’t pulled down during Ottoman dominion, and instead it was converted into a mosque.
It didn’t sustain damage until it was hit by guns during the First Serbian Uprising at the start of the 19th century.
Prince Miloš led the restoration efforts later that century, and the painter Živko Pavlović was hired to produce the 48 images in the iconostasis in the 1840s.
9. Spomenik Stepi Stepanoviću
Through all its years of occupation by foreign empires Čačak was notorious for putting up stubborn resistance.
So it’s no shock that one of the city’s most famous figures was a general.
Stepa Stepanović lived out his life in Čačak, and was one of the protagonists of the First and Second Balkan Wars and then the First World War.
Before those he had served during in a mind-boggling array of conflicts, rising up the ranks each time.
That progression is made clear at the monument in front of the general’s former residence.
On the street in front are plaques with details of every battle he fought in; needless to say the list is long!
10. Banja Gornja Trepča
Between the slopes of the Bukovik and Vujan mountains, Banja Gornja Trepča is a spa resort wreathed in beech and oak forest.
It’s only 18 kilometres from Čačak and you’ll know from the many igneous rock formations that a lot of seismic activity happens here.
There are three springs, each with same chemical composition as they have the same subterranean source.
There’s a tap in the town with water that comes out at 26°C, and it has a high magnesium, sodium, potassium and calcium content.
There’s also radon in the water, which makes it mildly radioactive! That doesn’t put off the health tourists who come for treatment for gastrointestinal and rheumatic disorders.
11. Vujan Monastery (Manastir Vujan)
Close to these springs is another monastery six kilometres outside of Čačak.
On a serene wooded slope, Vujan Monastery is dedicated to the Archangel Michael.
The story that has been passed down is that it was set up in the 1300s by a hermit who tended cattle on Mount Vujan, and that his remains are buried in the church.
But by 1597 it was torn down and abandoned for more than 200 years until the national hero Nikola Lunjevica revived it during the First Serbian Uprising at the start of the 18th century.
He was a friend of Prince Miloš and you can see his tomb in the new church’s narthex.
12. Ovčar Banja
Embedded in that heavenly scenery beside the Morava River is a spa resort that has existed for many hundreds of years.
In medieval times it was the biggest and most famous spa in Serbia and continued to draw thousands of visitors who bathed in its pools throughout the Ottoman period.
The spa’s baths were refurbished in 2011 and are replenished with waters channelled from the spring at 38°C. This is meant to be the optimal temperature for the therapeutic water to treat an array of disorders from sports injuries to rheumatic diseases.
The wellness centre offers a range of hydrotherapy treatments and massages.
13. Drvengrad (Küstendorf)
Some mountain villages are so pretty they look like movie sets.
And that’s exactly what Drvengrad is.
It was built from nothing in the early 2000s for Emir Kusturica’s movie Life Is a Miracle, the most expensive Serbian production ever.
More than 600 people live in the village, in chalet-style dwellings on streets named after famous personalities like Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Maradona and Novak Djoković.
There’s also a library, art gallery, church, a narrow-gauge steam railway (central to the plot of Life Is a Miracle) and a cinema.
This hosts the Küstendorf film festival every January, which has invited actors like Johnny Depp and Gael García Bernal since it launched in 2008.
Before you get to Drvengrad you’ll pass Zlatibor, one of Serbia’s top mountain destinations.
The landscapes are dazzling at this immense plateau in a crucible of seven mountain peaks.
These crest at just shy of 1,500 metres, giving Zlatibo a cool Alpine climate that promises crisp air and clear skies in summer, and consistent snow in winter.
The Tornikski resort is among the three most-visited in the country and with its system of lifts has a capacity for more than 5,000 skiers an hour.
If you were wowed by Ovčar-Kablar, you’ll be keen to see the Uvac Gorge where this emerald river twists around slender karst promontories.
Something you simply have to do in an Serbian city is book a table at a kafana.
These are typical Balkan taverns where a meal is no small proposition, involving several courses, rakija (strong brandy) and entertainment from folk bands.
Always a must for meat-eaters is pljeskavica, essentially a Serbian burger that blends lamb, beef and pork meat into one patty.
It comes in a bun with kajmak, a sort of soft cheese.
The Sava River puts freshwater fish like trout, carp and catfish on the table.
And feasts of grilled meat like kebabs, pork loins and sausages are consumed in summer, with shopska salad (cucumber, feta, onion, pepper and tomato) on the side.