Danube city Novi Sad is the jewel in Serbia's crown
It's not yet part of the EU, but Serbia's second largest city is already gearing up to be a European City of Culture. Ed Elliott was impressed by its scenery, architecture, food and laid-back atmosphere
SERBIA'S second city, Novi Sad, is just 60 miles north of the capital Belgrade – but it quickly becomes clear to me that things are very much more relaxed here.
"It's like being hit with a big tranquillizer," says my tour guide, Srdjan, as we stroll around Novi Sad, which rests on the banks of the river Danube.
My first taste of the city's easy-going ways comes amid the neoclassical architecture of Trg Slobode, its main square. It leads to a tree-lined pedestrianised street packed with alfresco bars, running all the way to the beautiful red tiles and bifora windows of the Bishop's Palace.
To the right of the palace, are the enticing ice cream shops of historic Dunavska Street, while a short walk in the opposite direction takes you to the house where Albert Einstein reportedly formulated the theory of relativity while living there with his first wife, Serbian mathematician Mileva Maric.
But it doesn't take a genius to work out that this compact city – dubbed the 'Serbian Athens' for its rich cultural past – is enjoying a revival. Improvement to the facade of the couple's former home (which is currently closed to the public) is part of the exciting preparation for the city's capital of culture status in 2021.
The celebrated title should spark a surge of visitors. They will find plenty to pack into a short trip, but they are unlikely to feel rushed while doing so...
WHERE TO STAY
Adjacent to peaceful public gardens, the five-star Hotel Park (hotelparkns.com/en) provides an ideal base on the western outskirts of the city.
The first president of the former Yugoslavia, Marshal Tito, spent new year here in 1977 and, although some vintage decor still reflects that bygone era, it also adds to the hotel's character.
Early evening drinks on the outdoor terrace are recommended, while those with a little more energy can make the most of the indoor swimming pool, sauna and fitness centre.
It is not unusual to spot a few famous faces under the grand chandeliers of the large, opulent lobby in early July as the Park is the hotel of choice for many artists and bands performing at the annual EXIT music festival. It also plays host to Serbia Fashion Week.
Downtown Novi Sad is a 20-minute walk away, while the short taxi ride will set you back no more than £3. Double rooms, including breakfast, start from £50.
WHERE TO EAT
Tucked away down a quiet side street close to the the Bishop's Palace, Fish & Zelenis (fishizelenis.com) fuses Greek, Dalmatian and Mediterranean cuisine to serve up fresh seafood, organic vegetables and homemade pasta.
Exposed brickwork, wooden beams, and trinket-filled shelves contribute to the small restaurant's cosy atmosphere.
Kick things off with a complimentary mojito-style mocktail – the mint with lime combination slips down a treat – before tucking into salmon, squid or sea bream, accompanied by a tastebud-tingling tzatziki.
You may easily feel full from the reasonably-priced mains (£6-13) but don't even think about skipping dessert. Serbia is renowned for its raspberries, harvested in June and July, and the fruit is expertly incorporated into a selection of sweet treats.
WHAT TO SEE
Constructed in the 17th and 18th centuries, Petrovaradin Fortress is the jewel in Novi Sad's crown. The formidable landmark was almost wiped off the map during the Second World War when German forces attempted to blow it up by placing dynamite in the labyrinth of tunnels which runs underneath. They succeeded in destroying the adjacent bridge but an Italian prisoner helped foil the fortress plot and the "Gibraltar on the Danube" continues to dominate the landscape high above the riverbank.
Enter through the lavish arch of Leopold Gate (free), visit the city's museum housed inside the former Gunners' Barracks (£2-3), and don't forget to have a gander at the quirky clock tower which has its hands the wrong way around (so the small hand shows minutes and the big hand shows hours) to aid far-off fishermen along the Danube.
The best way to see the fort – and the charming Baroque-style lower town – is with the expert knowledge of a guide on a free walking tour (novisad.travel/en/booking-tura). Expect limited access during early July when EXIT festival is held here.
WHERE TO RELAX
Serbia may be landlocked but there are still opportunities to sunbathe on sand. A little further downriver from the fortress, Strand – from the German word for beach – is a popular man-made stretch at the foot of Freedom Bridge, which is open all year (entrance around 40p).
Open since 1911, it now offers live music and coffee shops to attract crowds, and the shallow water provides the perfect place to play traditional ball game Picigin, adopted from nearby Croatia.
Alternatively, if you are looking for somewhere more central, the peaceful greenery of Danube Park's 750 trees offers welcome shade from the scorching summer temperatures.
WHERE TO ESCAPE
Known locally as the holy mountain because of its 16 hillside monasteries, Fruska Gora is 13 miles from Novi Sad and an easy day trip. The religious connection dates back to the 16th and 17th centuries when Orthodox monks were forced out of southern Serbia by the Ottomans.
Make sure you check out the fine frescoes of the Novo Hopovo monastery (free entry) – the area is also a designated national park and the lush green countryside, interspersed with fields full of sunflowers, can easily be explored on foot or bike.
On your way back to Novi Sad, stop off and enjoy a drink in the pretty town of Sremski Karlovci. Look out for a red marble fountain with four lions in the main square; according to legend, if you drink from it, you are destined to return to the town to get married.
HOW TO GET THERE
Air Serbia (airserbia.com) fly direct to Belgrade nine times a week from London Heathrow, with return flights costing from £179, while Wizz Air (wizzair.com) offer three flights a week from Luton.
:: For further information about Novi Sad and Belgrade, visit the National Tourism Organisation of Serbia (serbia.travel).