Bordering Kosovo in the west of the country, Novi Pazar might confound your expectations of how a Serbian city is supposed to be. The minaret in the centre is a giveaway, as Novi Pazar is 80% Muslim and because of its oriental spirit is sometimes described as a mini-Istanbul. The city’s story began in the 1400s when the Ottoman Bey, Isa-Beg Ishaković, planted his flag by the Raška River, building a fort, mosque, market and baths in one go.
This was all just a few kilometres from a much older place that is at the very core of Serbian identity: Stari Ras, a minutes to the west is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with a monastery, early-medieval church and the ruins of a fortress belonging to a lost capital of Serbia.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Novi Pazar:
1. Stari Ras
Begin your adventure into the World Heritage Site at this fortress near Novi Pazar, where the Raška and Sebečevo river merge . These ruins date to the 700s, when Novi Ras was in the Serbian state of Raška.
The ruined walls in an intoxicating mountain environment that infuses them with majesty and drama.
You have to leave the car behind and follow a trail to Gradina where this walled enclosure is a faint echo of a city that became the capital of Serbia before it was abandoned in the 1200s.
2. Sopoćani Monastery
Part of the same UNESCO site, this monastery took shape in the middle of the 13th century and is close to the source of the Raška River.
It was founded by King Stefan Uroš I, who is remembered as one of Serbia’s greatest rulers, and the church holds his remains.
You might get chills to see the frescos and know that they were composed when Uroš was still alive.
They all date to the 13th century and testify to the exceptional standard of Byzantine art in this period.
The crowning glory is the Dormition of the Mother of God from 1265, which looks more like a classical work than something composed in medieval times.
3. Đurđevi Stupovi
The architecture of this 12th-century monastery ordered by Grand Prince Stefan Nemanja sums up that marriage of western and eastern traditions.
The showpiece of this compound, St George’s Church is a synthesis of Romanesque and Byzantine art and architecture.
This style became known as the Raška School, and prevailed for the next 150 years in this region.
It has the naos, narthex and triple apse of an orthodox church, but with a marked Romanesque appearance in its flat walls and semi-circular arches.
There are two layers of frescos from the 12th and 13th centuries, also inspired by classical art and praised by UNESCO as the some of the finest in all of the Balkans.
4. Church of the Holy Apostles St Peter and Paul
The final monument in the World Heritage Site is a church anchored in Byzantine times.
It stands alone on a hillside amid a crowd of historic gravestones.
The first construction at this site was a baptistery in the 500s, which was replaced in the 10th century by the church that greets you today.
You’re looking at the oldest surviving church in the whole Balkan region.
The frescos are extremely valuable, as they show how religious art developed in this part of the world between the 900s and 1300s.
5. Altun-Alem Mosque
With a name that translates to “mosque with the golden finial”, Novi Pazar’s largest mosque is from the first half of the 16th century.
The mosque is in a compound with high brick walls, and is accompanied by a maktab (school) and courtyard with nišani (tombstones), around 30 of which have inscriptions.
The mosque itself has a minaret, and a single large dome, fronted by two smaller domes above an impressive arched porch.
This is a feature that is almost never seen in the mosques in this region.
The mahfil (gallery) is carved from wood, while the frame of the mihrab (niche to indicate the direction of Mecca) boasts masterful workmanship on its mouldings.
6. Isabegov Hamam (Novopazarski Stari hamam)
This Turkish bathhouse in Novi Pazar is a Serbian “monument of great importance” and was built by Isa-Beg Ishaković in the last decades of the 15th century.
This was an urban hamam, so it had a symmetrical plan in which identical male and female areas were separated by a central wall.
Each room has a dome, pierced with hexagonal openings, and there are 11 domes in all.
The baths were filled by fine marble fountains and there was a grand shardivan (special fountain for ablutions) on the north side of the building.
7. Fortress of Novi Pazar
Close to the baths in the city centre is another structure erected by Isa-Beg Ishaković.
Being in the middle of a city that has survived many wars, not a great deal remains of the fort, but there are interesting fragments in amongst the greenery of Novi Pazar’s City Park . What you see now is the result of a big reconstruction project that happened all over the Ottoman Empire following the defeat in the Battle of Vienna in 1683. There’s a chunk of the ramparts, a five-sided bastion and the only remaining tower among scattered ruins.
8. Amir-Agin Han
As a city on intersecting trade routes, Novi Pazar once had six khans, or inns for merchants.
They would spend the night here on their travels between Istanbul and Dubrovnik.
Amir-Agin Han is the most complete of the two remaining, and can be traced to the middle of the 17th century.
This is a gorgeous cantilevered building, with the outsized eaves that are a trademark of Ottoman houses.
It is also the last surviving element of the city’s bazaar that was on the bank of the River Raška.
It sat at the corner of this market, and had two floors of rooms for accommodating traders, as well as space for cattle, horses and even camels.
9. Stara Čaršija
Where the bazaar used to be there’s now a small tangle of pedestrian streets bounded by the river and the Granata Han.
This is the place to go if you want get in touch with Novi Pazar’s oriental flavour, as the mosque, Novi Pazar’s two khans and the hamam are all in this quarter.
The area is defined by its small, single-storey houses with terracotta roofs that have deep eaves and large shop windows.
These contain restaurants, traditional bakeries and jewellery shops.
10. Muzej Ras
In a city where east and west coexist you can bet that the museum has a lot of interesting stuff to show off.
In this stunning Ottoman mansion, your journey will begin in the Neolithic period with stone axes and pottery, and move through the Bronze and Iron Age, represented by jewellery, hairpins and sophisticated earthenware.
Much of the booty from the city of Ras has ended up in Belgrade, but there are seals, pots, brooches, crucifixes to peruse here.
From Ottoman you’ll see weapons, ornate wax seal stamps, hoards of coins, medals, smoking pipes, sumptuous jewellery and much more.
The ethnographic department also evokes that exchange between east and west in its traditional dress and everyday possessions from the 19th century like coffee grinders, liturgical items for dervishes and lanterns.
11. Novopazarska Banja
A stone’s throw from the centre of Novi Pazar is the city’s spa resort.
The hot springs here were frequented by the citizens of Ras throughout the middle ages.
Later, the Ottomans built two hammams and a caravanserai, and despite a few disruptions because of war, the resort’s success continues to this day.
Patients visit to bathe in and drink these chemically sulphurous waters, which rise at between 15 and 55°C. But the natural setting is just as good a reason to make the trip, as the volcanic Rogozna massif looms behind, reaching a height of almost 1,500 metres.
Novi Pazar’s residents drive up from in summer for walks and picnics.
12. Crna Reka Monastery
The story of this incredible monastery in the village of Ribariće is tied to Sopoćani.
Monks from Sopoćani were forced to flee to this remote hollow in the Ibarski Kolašin gorges in the 16th century.
The site dates to the 1200s and is unforgettable thanks to its cave-church, which you’ll approach via a covered wooden bridge across a ravine.
The excavated walls of the cliff were plastered and painted with frescos in the 1500s, and these are in excellent condition, especially as the monastery lay abandoned up to 1979. Today there’s a small fraternity of 13 monks.
13. Uvac Special Nature Reserve
For the day trip of a lifetime go north to the Uzac River.
In a mountainous dreamland, the river’s goose-neck meanders have sliced through the limestone to sculpt gorges, caves and promontories.
The nature reserve holds one of the largest cave networks in the country, with six kilometres explored so far, while wild boars, wolves and bears roam the forests beside the river.
The majestic griffon vulture creature has been successfully reintroduced to the Uvac Gorge after disappearing in the 20th century.
In flight you’ll have no trouble sighting this gigantic bird as it has a wingspan of three metres.
In the Golija mountain range to the north you can experience Serbia’s nature at its most primal.
These peaks rise between the Ibar and Morava Rivers and are strewn with medieval monasteries hidden in deep valleys amid spruce, fir and beech forest.
Golija is famously difficult to cross, with temperamental weather and stiff slopes inhabited by wolves and bears.
Not many hikers venture onto these peaks, but in spring or summer the circuitous mountain roads usher you past valleys decked with intensely colourful wildflowers to lakes with names like Nabeska Suza (Heaven’s Tear).
Novi Pazar’s most sought-after delicacy is mantije, which is made using an ancestral recipe handed down through families.
These are little pasty balls, filled with nothing more complicated than meat, onion and seasoning, all baked together in old furnaces in a large pan.
The only way to try them is with a yoghurt or sour milk sauce.
Taste-wise mantije are quite similar to another Serbian speciality, burek.
Just like burek they’re usually enjoyed at breakfast, although bakeries sell them at any time of day.