With a name meaning “Royal City” in Serbo-Croatian, Kraljevo is where the nation’s medieval kings were crowned. This ceremony was performed at Žiča, a glorious 13th-century monastery on the edge of the city decorated with original frescos.
If you have a penchant for medieval art and history you’re in luck because the fairytale Maglič Castle and many more monasteries are all close to Kraljevo. Maglič rises far above the Ibar River, which itself is a sight for sore eyes in early May when lilacs planted in medieval times burst into flower. Try to be here for Veseli Spust in July when tens of thousands of people make their way downriver to Kraljevo in a light-hearted, slightly drunken flotilla.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Kraljevo:
Catch a taxi or bus to this monastery, which is revered for what the building means as much as the architecture on show.
The monastery was ordered by Stefan the First-Crowned (also responsible for Maglič Castle, coming up next). And in medieval times a Serbian king wasn’t officially the king until he’d been anointed at Žiča, so from the 13th century on seven kings were crowned here.
There’s a neat symmetry to this fact, as the monastery also has seven doors.
The church’s frescos are fabulous, the oldest going back to the 1200s and portraying scenes like the Dormition of the Mother of God and the Orthodox staple, Christ Pantocrator.
2. Maglič Castle
An awesome sight from any angle, this 13th-century castle is on an insurmountable promontory hundreds of metres over a meander in the Ibar River.
Its name comes from the Serbian word, “Magla” for fog, and in winter these walls are often enveloped in mist.
In the courtyard you can inspect the ruins of the barracks, palace and a church, while the outer walls comprising seven towers and keep have been restored.
There are wooden walkways and stairs helping you get about and relish the heart-lifting views of the mountains and Ibar Valley.
3. National Museum
A little way west of the centre of Kraljevo, the National Museum is on a cute square beside the cathedral and opposite St Sava Park.
In this handsome Neoclassical building from the 19th century there are permanent exhibitions of art, archaeology and ethnography, which were reconfigured in 2008. You can indulge your curiosity for medieval Kraljevo, the Ottoman period and learn about the litany of conflicts that the city has been caught up in.
There’s a room dedicated to bourgeois life in the city in the 19th and 20th century, as well as the bleaker story of a mass execution by the Nazis in October 1941.
4. Valley of Lilacs
The rugged walls of the Ibar River gorge below Maglič are draped in lilac trees.
According to legend, these were planted by King Stefan Uroš I as a romantic gesture for his betrothed, Helen of Anjou.
She was a French princess and helped usher in an era of learning and culture in the 13th century.
The lilacs come into flower at the start of May, and for the last decade this event has been marked with a festival, The Days of Lilacs.
At this time there are medieval-themed goings-on at Maglič Castle and the Žiča and Studenica Monasteries.
5. Veseli Spust
Translating to “Happy Downhill” in English, Veseli Spust is a non-competitive regatta down the Ibar from Maglič to Kraljevo.
This is a big, silly flotilla at the start of July, and up to 20,000 people join in whether there’s blazing sunshine or pouring with rain.
The vessels can be pretty makeshift, people go bobbing past in wooden rafts, old military landing craft and inflated tyres.
There’s no real danger as the river is shallow and slow-moving.
On the picturesque 25-kilometre route you can hear the strains of jaunty brass bands and catch the scent of barbecues.
Revellers also use buckets to hurl water at people on other boats, all in good humour of course.
6. Gospodar Vasin Konak
There are “Konaks” in most cities in central and southern Serbia, and these started out as residences for senior administrators in the Ottoman Empire.
The style was adopted after the Ottomans were ousted, and that is the case with this distinguished house from 1830 in the centre of the city.
Master Vasa’s Konak was commissioned by Prince Miloš Obrenović as a residence for the city’s Bishop, and is in the leafy surrounds of St Sava Park.
And it remained the seat of the diocese up to 1941. It’s a fine half-timbered building, with stone walls up to the first floor, beneath a fine wooden gallery that is covered with extended eaves.
Inside there’s now an orthodox spiritual centre dedicated to the influential mid-20th-century Bishop Nikolaj Velimirović.
7. Trg Srpskih Ratnika
Something about Kraljevo that we haven’t mentioned is the city’s remarkable layout.
Apparently this was devised by Prince Miloš: He drew a very rough sketch of what he wanted in a pan filled with sand using his finger, and the architect Laza Zuban put this into action.
There’s a very orderly grid system around a circular central square, Trg Srpskih Ratnika (Square of the Serbian Warriors). This space has a lot of gravitas on street level and you may spend some time there as it’s home to the tourist office.
In the centre is an impressive monument to the fallen in the Second Balkan War and the First World War, inaugurated in 1932
8. Holy Trinity Cathedral
Kraljevo’s cathedral has an intriguing origin story, also involving the first prince.
Miloš Obrenović spent time in Kraljevo during the Second Serbian Uprising at the start of the 19th century.
He made his camp on the site where the church stands today.
At the time there was just a small wooden building to serve as a Christian place of worship in Ottoman tomes.
Miloš is said to have made a vow to God that he would build this church if he helped him defeat the Turks.
After liberation Miloš fulfilled his promise and the building was erected between 1824 and 1839.
On a twisting road beside the Ibar Valley there’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it’s one excursion you simply have to make.
UNESCO describes Studenica as medieval Serbia’s largest and richest monastery.
Studenica was set up in the 1100s by the Grand Prince Stefan Nemanja and has two churches built from white marble.
The location is almost dreamlike, with an epic mountain backdrop and circular fortifications enclosing the complex.
In the Virgin’s Church and King’s Church there are frescos from the 1200s and 1300s, in excellent condition given their age and the times they lived through.
10. Hermitage Cell of St Sava
When you head to the Studenica Monastery bring some walking shoes, because you can also hit the riverside trail to journey to this network of monk’s cells, hewn from the face of a cliff.
It is claimed that St Sava himself lived in these dwellings in the 13th century, and there are still monks residing there today who will show you around.
The cells are about 12 kilometres or a two-hour walk from the monastery, and pass by a few sites with interesting pasts.
One of those is the marble quarry exploited by the Grand Prince Stefan Nemanja, St Sava’s father, to build the monastery churches.
11. Mataruška Banja
Hardly 10 kilometres out of Kraljevo you’ll find yourself in the spa resort of Mataruška Banja on the Ibar.
In a cauldron of wooded mountains, this destination is bliss at the height of summer for its clean, crisp air and low humidity.
The hot springs in Mataruška Banja are proven to be the most sulphurous in Serbia, and rise from more than a kilometre below the earth’s surface.
No matter the season they cascade from the ground at a rate of 27 litres a second.
Health tourism began here in the interwar period and there’s a steady flow of visitors today seeking balneotherapy treatments, mud wraps and the like.
Kraljevo is a city with five mountain ranges on its doorsteps.
The most convenient of these is Goč, directly south and with its highest point standing 1,216 at metres.
The range is cloaked with beech, pine and oak forest and on trails you’ll happen upon fragrant wild herbs and wild strawberries in early summer.
When it’s warm, the Gvozdac lake is somewhere to cool off and relish the scenery.
And in the snow-sure winters you can come to the ski resort at Dobre Vode.
This is a modest affair, with two downhill runs and five cross-country trails.
13. Vrnjačka Banja
Also in the Goč range there’s another spa escape in a bewitching setting in the Vrnjačka and Lipovačka Valleys.
Vrnjačka Banja is touted as Serbia’s most prestigious spa, and this is partly down to the efforts of Prince Miloš Obrenović who intended it to be Serbia’s equivalent to Carlsbad.
Vrnjci is also one of Serbia’ most popular brands of mineral water.
The springs have been visited by many generations of bathers since the Bronze Age.
The Romans made it official though, establishing the spa resort of Aquae Orcinae, and their hot baths have recently been excavated.
There are seven springs in all, one of which, Topla Voda, bursts from the ground at body temperature (36.5 °C).
14. Gradac Monastery
If you want to squeeze in one more monastery, make it Gradac, which is a longer day trip to the south of the city.
Like all of the historic monuments near Kraljevo, Gradac is in a jaw-dropping location, on a plateau on the wooded eastern slopes of the Golija range.
It was born in the 13th century on the orders of Helen of Anjou, and was finished after Stefan Uroš I had died.
The couple’s tomb in the church shows them carrying a model of this building to indicate that they built it together.
The monastery was abandoned in Ottoman times before being renovated in the 1900s, and now has a community of nuns.
If you want to dine out in Kraljevo Kafanas you have to schedule a visit to a Kafana, a traditional Balkan tavern.
A meal at one of these establishments is a sort of crash course in Serbian hospitality and culture.
Meals involve six courses, bands will play folk music and encourage everyone in the establishment to sing along.
A few Kafanas to keep in mind in Kraljevo are Čutura, Kafana Štab and Kafana Čaršija in the marketplace.
Some of the dishes on offer at Kafanas are meze, shopska salad (cubed feta, cucumber, tomato, onions), soups and masses of grilled meat.
Pljeskavica is always worth a try, it’s a burger patty made from lamb, pork and beef, and comes in a bun or pita.