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Settled between Belgrade and Budapest on the banks of the river Danube, Novi Sad is one of Serbia’s most beautiful cities. Also nicknamed the Serbian Athens, is the first city of an EU candidate country to be ever named the European Capital of Culture, the prestigious title it will hold in 2021.

Author:  Ana Potočnik
Photo: Shutterstock

Novi Sad is the second largest city in Serbia and capital of the autonomous province of Vojvodina, with a population of just over 250,000. It has been characterised as “a chipper town with all the spoils and none of the stress of the big smoke”, as well as “having a vibe that is overall more liberal than in other Serbian cities”. Lonely Planet says that “Novi Sad isn’t nicknamed the Athens of Serbia for nothing: its history as a vibrant, creative city continues today in its established galleries and alternative music scene”.

Down the history lane

Novi Sad was named 2021 European capital of culture., making it the first city in a EU candidate country to ever hold the prestigious title.

Like many towns in Serbia, Novi Sad has had to endured more than its share of destruction, strife, and foreign rule, all of which visible throughout the town’s buildings and squares. It was founded in 1694, transforming over the centuries into an important trading and manufacturing hub as well as a centre of Serbian culture.

Main square with the monument of Svetozar Miletić in the middle, casted in bronze. Together with the marble stand the statue is seven meters tall

The city suffered devastation during the 1848 revolution but was subsequently rebuilt and restored. Ruled by Austria-Hungary until the end of WWI, Vojvodina joined the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1919. During the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, the city suffered significant damage when all three of its bridges across the Danube were destroyed, but they have been rebuilt since. Today, along with the Serbian capital city of Belgrade, Novi Sad is an industrial and financial centre of the Serbian economy. Nowadays, it is home to people of various ethnicities, whose cultural, ethnic, and religious made Novi Sad’s open-mindedness one of key features of the city. Always willing to give a fair hearing to new things and ideas. Indeed, the city is so diverse it has six official languages!

Žeželj Bridge connects Novi Sad’s city area and Petrovaradin. It was originally designed by engineer Branko Žeželj in late 1960. After being destroyed by NATO bombing in 1999, the bridge was rebuilt in 2018

Calling card attraction

Novi Sad’s major landmark is the famous Petrovaradin fortress, built by the Habsburg dynasty between 1692 and 1790. Located on the right bank of the river Danube, the fortress stood as a the last defence of the Austro-Hungarian empire against Turkish invasions. The imposing structure still dominates the landscape from 40 meters above the river stream. In fact, it is also one of the largest fortresses in Europe, with 16 kilometres of catacombs winding beneath it. Today, the fort is home to the city museum but is still remembered as the prison that had briefly housed the Yugoslav president Tito (at the time still a humble locksmith and a communist activist). A special feature of the defensive wall is the clock tower, which, unusually, has its hands reversed so that fishermen and guards can better tell time from a long distance. Today, the fortress also gives shelter to artists’ studios, restaurants, clubs, as well as a hotel. Not to mention the beautiful view of the city. Below the fortress, on the banks of the Danube, is the Strand (the German word for beach) which stretches 700 metres and is packed with sunbathers in the summertime. 

Trg Slobode (Liberty Square) is the largest city square, built in the 18th century

The treasures in the city centre

Novi Sad’s historic city centre is a treasure trove for architecture lovers – it abounds in buildings of different stylistic periods, including the gothic, baroque, secession and neoclassicism. The inspiringly named Freedom square is encircled by the neo-gothic Catholic cathedral and the neo-renaissance town hall, with a statue of Novi Sad’s greatest politician, Svetozar Miletić, erected in the middle.

Old town with new buildings

At the end of the Zmaj Jovina street, a short walk from the square, lies the Bishop’s Palace. One of the city’s most impressive architectures, the art-nouveau Synagogue building is also nearby. And there is no shortage of museums and galleries either.

Dunavska street: the oldest street with many names in the history. Houses are in neo-baroque style

The city’s oldest orthodox church, the baroque style St Nicholas’s church, was built in 1730 and is the oldest Orthodox church in Novi Sad. The original decorations were destroyed in the 1849 shelling of Novi Sad. In this church, Albert and Mileva Einstein baptized their two sons – Albert Junior and Eduard – in 1913.

Catholic Cathedral: Located in the city centre, it is the largest church in Novi Sad

Museum of Vojvodina is one of the oldest museum complexes in all of Serbia, while Matica Srpska is the oldest Serbian literary, scientific and cultural institution (originally founded in Budapest in 1864 but later moved to Novi Sad). Matica Srpska also has the second largest library in the country with over 3.5 million volumes, while the gallery keeps around 500 art pieces from the 16th to 20th centuries that provide deep insight into Serbian heritage and traditions.

First among equals

Among 200 cultural events taking place in Novi Sad each year, EXIT festival ranks the first among equals, being the laureate of the 2018 Best European Festival Award. The famous music festival has been taking place during the summer months inside the Petrovaradin walls since 2001, attracting thousands of music lovers from across the globe. Since inception, it has grown from being the biggest festival in south-east Europe to being one of the biggest in the whole of Europe. The list of famous names that have performed at EXIT over the years includes Guns N’ Roses, Snoop Dogg, Pet Shop Boys, and The Prodigy.

Other major cultural events include the International Book Fair and Art Expo, the International Street Music Festival, and the Novi Sad Jazz Festival, which due in November.

Novi Sad’s charming promenade with its famous souvenir shop

European capital of culture

Novi Sad was named 2021 European Capital of Culture, making it the first city in a EU candidate country to ever hold the prestigious title. Following the decision to award the honour to Novi Sad, the European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth, and Sport Tibor Navracsics said that “the opening of this prestigious European programme to those (candidate) countries seeking full membership is a way to bring them closer to and reinforce their cultural links with the Union.” The preparations are in full swing. In August 2019, Novi Sad mayor Miloš Vučević announced that the city would benefit from a new € 127m grant to construct three bridges, as well as redevelop the Karadjordje stadium and the Spens centre. Also planned, amongst others, a new music and ballet school, a City Centre Hall, a pedestrian bridge connecting Štrand with the little Ribarac lake, as well as a network cultural stations across the city. Novi Sad was also the European Capital of Youth in 2019.

Adriatic Journal


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