Since the days of the Roman Empire the city of Niš has been at an unofficial boundary between East and West. One man who bestrode that divide was the Roman Emperor Constantine, who was born right here in ancient Naissus and went on to found a “New Rome” at Constantinople. The Ottomans had control of Niš from the middle ages to the 19th century, and left an imperious fortress that still has a 16th century mosque inside.
There are also a few eye-opening memorials to violent episodes in the city’s past, like a tower of skulls built by the Ottomans to warn against uprisings, and a Second World War concentration camp, left undisturbed as a memorial. On the lighter side there’s sumptuous nature outside Niš at river gorges, the Suva Planina mountain and the city’s hot springs.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Niš:
1. Niš Fortress
Right on the Nišava River is the daunting Ottoman fort that was completed in 1723. This encloses an ancient citadel and has been settled since a Roman camp was founded here more than 2,000 years ago.
The new fortress was a massive undertaking: It covers 22 hectares and comprises more than two kilometres of walls.
You’ll arrive via the ceremonious Stambol gate, and there are lots of intriguing old details among the parkland inside.
One is the Turkish hamam, near the gate from 1498. There’s also mosque, Bali-Behy, dating to 1521, a lapidarium with Roman tombstones, a powder magazine and a monument to the liberation of Niš from 1902.
2. Skull Tower
A grisly reminder of the bloodshed of the First Serbian Uprising is a tower literally made of rows of human skulls in quicklime.
The story goes that during the Battle of Čegar, the Serbian trenches were being overrun by attacking Ottomans.
So the commander Stevan Sinđelić personally detonated the powder magazine, obliterating his position on Čegar Hill to avoid being taken prisoner by Vizier Hurshid Pasha.
Some 952 Serbian skulls were collected from the battlefield and became the material for this tower in 1809 to deter another uprising.
After the Ottoman withdrawal in 1878, most of these were removed and buried.
But a 4.5-metre remnant of the tower is housed in a chapel and contains 54 skulls.
Niš, or Naissus, was taken by the Romans in 75 BC and became a camp on the Via Militaris, a road across southeastern Europe from what is now Belgrade to Constantinople.
As it happens, Emperor Constantine was born in Naissus in 272 AD, and you can visit his birthplace at the Mediana archaeological site.
Southeast of the city, this villa the most complete Roman vestige in Niš.
You can make out the remnants of a grand peristyle (open fountain surrounded by a colonnade). Beside the peristyle under a canopy are the ruins of marble columns, mosaics and traces of frescoes, as well as the heating system for the villa’s baths.
4. Archaeological Hall
Like Skull Tower and Mediana, the Archaeological Hall belongs to the National Museum of Niš.
Many of the artefacts unearthed in this ancient city are on show here.
These go back long before the Romans arrived, to when Niš was a Bronze Age settlement in the 6th century BC. From this time there are Celtic swords, ceramics, items of jewellery, bronze hairpins and male and female figurines.
And from the Roman days you can see sculptures discovered at Mediana, representing Dioysus and Satyr, the Greek God Asclepius and his daughter Hygia and finally Jupiter on his throne.
There’s also a life-sized statue of Emperor Constantine, which is one of three imperial portrait sculptures on show.
5. Tinkers’ Alley
On Kopitareva Street, opposite the glass facade of the Kalča shopping mall you can dive into the city’s last surviving craftsman’s quarter.
This street is from the time of Ottoman rule and was plotted in the first half of the 18th century.
The main livelihood was tinsmithing, and it’s a trade that continued here right up to the 1990s.
Since then the quaint cobblestone alley has opened up to tourists and tinkers have been replaced by the cafes and restaurants that now occupy these 18th and 19th century buildings.
6. Crveni Krst Concentration Camp
After the Second World War ended this concentration camp was preserved as a poignant memorial to the Jewish, Serbian and Romani people imprisoned here.
The Crveni Krst (Red Cross) camp has been left alone since the war and feels eerily like it has only just been abandoned.
You’ll be given an introduction to the camp at the entrance and there are information panels dotted around the site to fill you in.
After the first mass executions began in 1942 there was a breakout in which 15 prisoners managed to escape, an act met with a brutal response by the Nazis.
7. Bubanj Memorial Site
During the Second World War those mass executions took place on Mount Bubanj just to the west of the city.
It is estimated that 10,000 prisoners from the Crveni Krst camp were killed on this hilltop.
Right after the war the hill was turned into a memorial park.
And before long a sculpture was erected in the clearing at the crest.
It was the work of Yugolsav artist Ivan Sabolić and depicts three clenched fists to symbolise the defiance of the children, women and men who died here.
8. Latin Church in Gornji Matejevac
With a scenic location on Metoh Hill above the village of Gornji Matejevac is a Byzantine church that built in the 1000s.
It’s one of only a few monuments in the region to predate the Nemanjić Dynasty, which ruled Serbia and much of southeastern Europe in the middle ages.
The church has a condensed cross floor plan, and bears the classic Byzantine method of white stone alternating with red brick.
Although none of the medieval decoration remains, the church’s brick dome is marvellous from the inside.
The name “Latin Church” actually refers to merchants from Dubrovnik, known as “Latins”, who worshipped at the church in the 17th century.
9. Officers House
Facing the fortress ramparts across the Nišava is a stately building from 1890 with an interesting past.
This first opened as a restaurant but was soon purchased by the army as an officers mess, and during the First World War it became the temporary seat of the Serbian parliament.
Numerous resolutions were passed here that would have a lasting impact on Serbia and the region.
The one that would truly transform this part of the world was the Niš Declaration in 1915, more or less the birth of Yugoslavia as an idea.
It stated Serbia’s aim to unite the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes under one nation, a move that still has repercussions today.
10. Holy Trinity Cathedral
The city’s cathedral is a product of the Treaty of Paris in 1856, in which the Ottomans pledged to recognise the rights of Christians in their empire.
Construction took place over the next few decades and the church was consecrated after the liberation of Niš in 1878. The design is an engaging mishmash of Serbian-Byzantine, Neo-Renaissance and Baroque styles.
At the altar the illustrious 19th-century Realist painter Đorđe Krstić was hired to compose the 48 icons in the iconostasis.
Sadly the originals were lost in a fire in 2001, but the building and its decoration have been completely restored.
11. King Milan Square
Also just across the water from the fortress, this square came about in the 1720s during its construction.
Shops and khans (merchant inns) were set up here as the city grew along the riverbank.
A little later there was a market on this square, where the local landowners would sell the leftover goods they had accumulated from their tenants as tax.
When Niš was liberated the old Turkish-style townscape was swept aside and this square was given a fresh Central European air.
Despite the 20th-century tower blocks on the west side there’s still a pleasing row of 19th-century houses on the square’s eastern edge, with cafe terraces in front.
12. Niška Banja
A few kilometres to the southeast is the city’s spa, which has traces of Neolithic civilisation going back 3,300 years.
Naturally the Romans were fond of Niška Banja and built an ancient resort around its five springs.
The Roman bath and its two pools, clad with mosaics hark back to this time.
Thousands of years later, people still visit to bathe in the water and soak in the mineral-rich mud.
The water comes out at between 36-38°C, and is actually mildly and harmlessly radioactive due to the natural presence of radon! It is claimed to be most beneficial for coronary issues, cellulite and to rehabilitate orthopaedic injuries.
To the south is the stirring sight of the Suva Planina mountain, cresting at more than 1,800 metres and with fragments of the Via Militaris Roman road on its slopes.
13. Jelašnica Gorge
Carry on east and you’ll find yourself at a bewitching nature reserve.
You can pass through the two-kilometre Jelašnica Gorge by car on a winding road to get a good look at the walls of dolomite that culminate with jagged, teeth-like rocks.
There are few places to park up, and set up camp or just stop for picnic.
All have views of the gorge’s ghostly rock formations and abundant foliage.
There are also caves in the cliffs, the ruins of a Roman fort are still visible in beside the gorge, as well as the Ripalijka waterfall, which is enchanting.
The Sicevo Gorge on the Nišava River is also in reach, and has walking trails and two hydroelectricity plants from the early 1900s.
14. The Nišville Jazz Festival
For four days in the middle of August the city’s fortress puts on the biggest jazz festival in the Balkans.
Nišville began in 1995 and was the first music festival in Serbia to be recognised by the Ministry of Culture as a national cultural event.
The festival books leading jazz, blues and soul artists, but also has a broad church, inviting fusion bands that blend jazz with Balkan folk.
In 2017 Patti Austin, Al Foster and Candy Dulfer were in the lineup, while previous editions have welcomed Ginger Baker, Solomon Burke and Osibisa to the stage.
15. Traditional Food
Now, a meal at a kafana (typical Balkan tavern) is something you have to try at least once in Niš.
Kafanas are much more than just somewhere to eat, as meals come with live entertainment and a host of time-honoured customs.
One of these is toasts with rakija, a powerful fruit brandy and Serbia’s national drink.
Eating at a Kafana is a multi-course event, beginning with a meze and ending with coffee.
Out and about there are a few delicacies that Niš does better than anywhere else: Burek is a phyllo dough pastry filled with meat or cheese, while pljeskavica, is a grilled patty from seasoned beef, lamb and pork in a pita or a bun with a spicy cheese filling (urnebes).