Capital of Vojvodina and, with a population of more than a quarter of a million, Serbia’s second-largest city, Novi Sad is a relatively prosperous, commercial, industrial and university town on the north shore of the Danube in the Bačka region of the province. Long referred to as the ‘Serbian Athens’, Novi Sad has always been a centre of culture and learning and the atmosphere of its small but elegant city centre seems somehow a little more refined than that of the capital.
What to see and do in Novi Sad
Most of the city’s sights are within a small area of the centre. The hub is spacious Trg Slobode, with the neo-Gothic brick-clad Roman Catholic cathedral on one side of the square and the City Hall facing it on the other. In the centre of the square stands a statue of Svetozar Miletić (1826–1901), one of the most prominent Serbian politicians of the 19th century – a 1939 creation of the seemingly ubiquitous Ivan Meštrović.
The figure, in a strident, almost ranting, pose faces towards the cathedral, his back turned on the elegant City Hall (Gradska kuća): the neo-Renaissance, two-storey building that is a copy of the town hall in Graz, Austria. The Roman Catholic cathedral (Katedrala – Župna crkva Imena Marijina) opposite was built between 1893 and 1895, at the same time as the City Hall, on the site of a former 18th-century church. The building, with three naves and a 76m-high tower, is not a cathedral at all – the seat of Bačka’s bishopric is actually further north in Subotica – but rather, a parish church dedicated to Mary. Over the years it has been its impressive size, rather than its ecclesiastical status, that has caused it to be known as the ‘cathedral’. The interior is richly carved, with four altars and 20 windows designed by Czech and Hungarian stained-glass craftsmen. The roof has a steep pitch and is strikingly patterned with multi- coloured Zsolnay tiles.
The Bačka Bishop’s Palace (Vladičanski dvor) is the residential palace of the Serbian Orthodox bishop in Novi Sad. It was constructed in 1901 on the site of a former palace that dated from 1741. The building style is curiously eclectic: a mix of secessionist and Serbian Romanticism, with pseudo-Moorish plasterwork decoration on red brick. In front of the palace stands a statue of Jovan Jovanović ‘Zmaj’ (1833–1904), the city’s famous doctor and children’s poet.
The Orthodox Cathedral Church of St George (Saborna crkva Svetog Georgija) lies just behind the palace. The present church was erected on the same site as an older one from 1734, which was burnt out, like so much else, by the Hungarian shelling of the city in 1848 and 1849. The restoration took place between 1860 and 1880, with a second phase of work from 1902 to 1905, when the bell tower was erected. Inside, there is a total of 33 icons on the iconostasis and two larger icons by the famous painter Paja Jovanović who also designed the stained-glass windows.
Leading off from here is the pedestrian street of Dunavska, one of the city’s most attractive thoroughfares with many 18th- and 19th-century buildings. The City Library (1895) is on the corner with Gimnazijska and further down, close to the junction with Ignjata Pavlasa, is the Museum of Foreign Art (Galerija – Zbirka Strane Umetnosti) at number 29. Beyond here, the street runs along the edge of a pleasant park with a small lake – Dunavska Park – a leafy escape from the city bustle. The park’s fountain has a sculpture The Nymph as its centrepiece, the 1912 work of Đorđe Jovanović, a prominent Serbian sculptor of the period.
The small St Nicholas Church (Nikolajevska crkva) is the oldest Orthodox church in Novi Sad, mentioned in official records from 1739 as the endowment of the Bogadanović family, wealthy merchants in the city at that time. The church served as both a Serbian and a Greek Orthodox place of worship for many years. It was damaged in the 1849 bombardment of the city, and again in 1862, after which it was renovated at the expense of benefactors Jovan and Marija Trandafil. The church, unusually, has a small gold-plated onion dome in the style of a Russian Orthodox church.
The Gallery of Matica Srpska was founded by Matica Srpska in Budapest in 1826 and opened to the public in 1847. In 1864, the gallery was transferred to Novi Sad and it was placed in its current building in 1958. The gallery, one of the best collections of paintings in the country, represents Serbian artists working in Vojvodina from the 17th to the 20th century. The collection is spread throughout 19 rooms and laid out in chronological order.
The ground floor is given over to copies of frescoes taken from various Fruška Gora monasteries. The works on the first floor are mostly 18th century and are largely of a religious nature and by unknown artists. In the rooms representing the 19th century, the works of Pavle Simić (1818–76) and Đura Jaksić (1832–78) feature heavily but there are also some fine, very human portraits by Pavel Burković (1772–1830) and by Nikola Aleksić (1811–73), whose women all seem to wear a provocative expression that lies somewhere between conspiratorial and sexually precocious.
Getting to Novi Sad
Over 30 buses a day link Novi Sad’s long-distance bus station at Bulevar Jaše Tomića 6 with Belgrade; some of these are express buses that use the motorway, while others are slower and stop more frequently along the way. Fares are between 500din and 800din, depending on the speed of the service. The larger towns in Vojvodina like Subotica and Zrenjanin are also well connected, with at least ten departures a day, but even more distant destinations like Niš or Novi Pazar have at least one direct daily service.
The city has a number of international services too, with fairly regular buses to Vukovar, Osijek and Zagreb (Croatia), Sarajevo and Banja Luka (Bosnia), Budapest (Hungary), Skopje (North Macedonia) and Budva, Tivat and Podgorica (Montenegro).
For the immediate future trains no longer link Belgrade with Budapest by way of Novi Sad railway station. One train a day serves Budapest, leaving mid-morning, although this requires a transfer of trains at Kelebija on the Hungarian border. Of the domestic services, nine trains leave daily for Subotica, and ten run to Sombor; both services take around 2½ hours to complete the journey.
Novi Sad does not have its own commercial airport, but it is only an hour’s drive from Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla Airport. Arriving from abroad, it is possible to pre-book a transfer between Budapest or Belgrade Airport and Novi Sad with local taxi firms like Genelux or Heligon; these charge for the whole vehicle so the cost will be dependent on the total number of passengers – if all seats are taken it will be around €10 per person. Transfers can also be booked online at belgradeairporttransfer.com.