Serbia’s second city is on the Danube, upriver from Belgrade and downriver from Budapest, which exerted a historical influence on this place. By Serbian standards Novi Sad is rather young, and took off in the 18th century as a trading hub opposite the mammoth Petrovaradin Fortress, an Austro-Hungarian outpost. In the 1700s and 1800s the city blossomed into an unofficial capital for Serbian culture.This was briefly interrupted by the 1848 Revolution when the Hungarian garrison in the Petrovaradin Fortress smashed the city to pieces.
Everything you see is from the immediate reconstruction, but none of Novi Sad’s lustre was lost. The city’s love of art and music lives on at the EXIT Festival, one of Europe’s biggest summer music events.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Novi Sad:
1. Petrovaradin Fortress
A strategic prize on an outcrop by the Danube, Petrovaradin had been in the hands of the Ottomans for 150 years before it was wrested from them by the Habsburg Empire in the Great Turkish War.
Immediately in 1692 the Austrians went about building an eastern bulwark against the Ottomans: A Vauban-style fortress with dimensions that had never been seen before.
Most of that building is still standing, from its layers of angular ramparts to the system of catacombs and anti-siege tunnels underground.
You can book a tour of the tunnels or content yourself with pottering around the citadel, which has a history museum and restaurants with views of the Danube to die for.
2. Petrovaradin Clock Tower
On a square with a glorious view of the Danube and Novi Sad is the fortress’s Baroque clock tower, positioned high above one of the gates to the compound.
You might realise that something is amiss about the clock face, as the large hand has been swapped for the small one.
This was done so that fishermen way below on the Danube would be able to tell the time from further away.
There are benches on the terraces for you to savour Novi Sad’s cityscape, and as it faces west this side of the fortress is a joy around sunset.
3. Dunavska Street
There’s no better jumping off point for an amble around the city.
Dunavska (Danube) Street is an east to west thoroughfare that is partly pedestrianised and lined with stately mansions and townhouses.
Novi Sad’s residents have been coming here to amble and meet friends for as long as the city has stood.
The buildings you see are nearly all from the middle of the 19th century, built after Novi Sad took damage in the 1848 Revolution against the Austrian Empire.
These are painted in pastel shades and host restaurants, inns, bookshops, boutiques and cafes, while stands on the route serve popcorn and ice cream.
Many of those old buildings on Dunavska are protected cultural monuments.
4. Trg Slobode
Novi Sad is at its most distinguished on this square in the centre of the city, almost entirely bordered by historic architecture.
Trg Slobode (Liberty Square) is also referred to as Svetozar Miletić Square, and there’s a statue of this 19th-century figure in the middle.
Miletić was a former mayor of Novi Sad and a constant thorn in the side of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
His statue is cast in bronze and had to be hidden during the Axis occupation of the city and only replaced after liberation in 1944. Some other monuments to snap on the square are the Neo-Renaissance town hall from 1895, the Name of Mary Church and the Hotel Vojvodina, the height of luxury when it opened in 1854.
5. Danube Park
The city’s favourite park was landscaped in 1895 where Novi Sad’s annual fair used to take place.
In spring and summer it’s a sophisticated green space for a few minutes of peace, with a pond and a multitude of tree species like birches, hazelnut, willows and an ancient English oak that has been listed.
In winter you can come for some fun on the park’s ice rink.
There are also clues to Novi Sad’s cultural wealth in this period, in the nymph sculpture by Đorđe Jovanović and the statue of the 19th-century poet Đura Jakšić.
6. Museum of Vojvodina
This attraction in a stuccoed 19th-century palace on Danube Park documents 8,000 years of life in the Vojvodina Province.
The permanent exhibition is in two parts, the first charting the region’s past from prehistory to the mid-1800s and the second tackling the many events and changes that have occurred since then.
The museum’s crowning glory, quite literally, is a set of three Roman helmets from the 4th century AD. These are in exceptional condition, made of gilded silver and encrusted with glass gems.
If you’re fascinated by Vojvodina’s more recent culture there’s a recreation of a typical street scene from the beginning of the 20th century.
7. The Name of Mary Church
The tallest church in Vojvodina is on Trg Slobode (Liberty Square) and rises to 72 metres.
This majestic landmark replaced an earlier church that was hit during the 1848 Revolution.
Completed in just a couple of years in 1894, it’s a Roman Catholic church with a Neo-Gothic design and a product of the Austro-Hungarian Empire: Outside cast your gaze at the spire, patterned with glazed tiles baked at Hungary’s Zsolnay manufactory.
Inside you can properly appreciate the church’s stained glass windows, composed in Budapest, while the main altar in the apse was crafted in Tyrol.
8. Novi Sad Synagogue
A synagogue has stood at 11 Jevrejska (Jewish) Street since the 1700s.
The current one is the fifth version of the building, dating to the start of the 1900s and designed by the Hungarian Art Nouveau architect Baumhorn Lipót.
He also built the Jewish municipality and Jewish school buildings next door.
Before the Second World War Novi Sad had more than 4,000 Jewish inhabitants, a population now down to 400. The synagogue is a fine monument to behold from the street, but you’ll need to make advanced arrangements if you want to see inside.
Either that, or book a seat at one of the regular concerts, as the acoustics are superb.
9. Vladičanski Dvor
Also integral to any sightseeing trip in Novi Sad, the Bishop’s Palace is up there with the city’s most beautiful monuments.
Like so much of the city’s heritage it’s from the second half of the 19th century after the previous Bishop’s Palace was destroyed in 1848. This “new” building is in the Serbian-Byzantine style, with a clear influence from the medieval monasteries not far from the city in Fruška Gora.
But what is rare about this Bishop’s Palace is that a bishop still lives in these walls: The reason you can only see the exterior is that Irinej Bulović, the Bishop of Bačka calls this palace “home”.
Novi Sad’s sandy beach on the Danube is open all year, but really comes into its own from May to September.
This is when the string of restaurants and bars behind is open for business, and you can rent a deckchair or sun-lounger for the day next to one of Europe’s great rivers.
If you’re really daring you can also take a dip in the Danube, but there’s much more to do on dry land.
The park behind has a mini-golf course, several playgrounds for kids, sports facilities including a beach volleyball arena that stages international competitions.
During the EXIT festival there are also live sets on this beach.
11. St George’s Cathedral
This is Novi Sad’s main Orthodox church, although you wouldn’t know it from the outside.
The architecture is a kind of Baroque revival, as, like much of the city, the original 18th century building was torn apart in the 1848 Revolution.
While the outside is discreet, the interior is exuberant as it gets.
Your attention will be stolen by the iconostasis framing 33 icons and centred on two epic throne icons by the Realist Paja Jovanović.
You can also ponder the church’s frescos, painted by another prominent Serbian artist and member of the Munich school, Stevan Aleksić.
12. Matica Srpska Gallery
A must if you want a taste of Serbian art.
This gallery is run by Matica Srpska, Serbia’s leading cultural institution, and contains what is considered to be the richest collection of Serbian art anywhere.
These works are mostly from the 1500s to the 1900s and run the gamut from modern art and sculpture back to post-Byzantine icons.
The gallery draws on a vast archive of more than 7,000 pieces, so also stages new temporary exhibitions every few months.
13. Fruška Gora
Less than half an hour southeast of Novi Sad the right bank of the Danube becomes mountainous as you venture into pasture, woodland and vineyards, all protected by a National Park.
This is Fruška Gora, a massif interrupting the Pannonian Basin.
Riesling and Traminer grapes are grown on these slopes, which 90 million years ago were the shores of an ancient island in the Pannonian Sea.
Families head to Fruška Gora on summer days for walks, camping trips and barbecues.
You can also download a list of 15 orthodox monasteries, most from the 15th and 16th centuries, hidden in the woodland and ready to be tracked down.
14. Sremski Karlovci
Another of Vojvodina’s prettiest towns is a few moments down the Danube and wrapped in vineyards.
Sremski Karlovci is a compact old town, easily tackled on foot and with churches, halls and palaces that survived 1848 unscathed and all have tale to tell.
You can get a taste for the local wine at caves like Podrum Bajilo and the Zivanovic Wine Cellar, which also has a museum to bee-keeping.
But Sremski Karlovci’s fame lies in its cultural institutions and Serbian identity.
The town became a centre for learning in the late-18th century, when Serbia’s first Gymnasium (Grammar School) was established here.
Cultural figures like the poet Branko Radičević were educated here, and the library has one of the greatest archives of the Serbian written word in the world.
15. EXIT Festival
Much more than just a music festival, EXIT began at the Petrovaradin Fortress in 2000 as a protest movement against the government of Slobodan Milošević, who was overthrown in October of that year.
As far as music goes, what began as mostly electronic has embraced every other genre, from hip-hop to folk, reggae, metal and alternative rock.
The roll-call of bands and artists to have played EXIT is staggering and includes Snoop Dogg, the White Stripes, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, Morrissey, Patti Smith, Massive Attack and many more.
The festival lasts for five days at the start of July: There are three main stages, one for rock and pop, another for dance and finally one for hardcore and metal.
Side events, dj sets and acoustic gigs can be caught all over the city.