Novi Sad, a Serbian City Shaped By the Habsburgs

Home to 23 national minorities, 4 official languages and three religions, this ancient Austrian city on the Danube is the 2021 European Capital of Culture.

When travelers think of Novi Sad, they usually start with the Danube, the Austrian architecture, the wide Panonian plains, the mix of cultures, the long-necked Tamburica lute, the spicy Slavic food and good wine. Also known as the “Serbian Athens,” Novi Sad has also spawned many important artists, writers, scientists and athletes who lived and worked here, such as tennis player Monika Seles and Austrian swimmer Mirna Jukić. Albert Einstein, too, spent time in Novi Sad with his Serbian wife, Mileva Marić.

Connections between Novi Sad and Vienna are old and very deep, with the Empress Maria Theresia, the godmother of the city. In the 18th century, merchants from Novi Sad came forward and effectively “bought” independence from Austria, and the Empress signed the city charter giving it the Latin name Neoplanta, the New Orchard, called Neusatz, in German, Újvidék in Hungarian and in Serbian, Novi Sad.

With about 290,000 inhabitants, Novi Sad is Serbia’s second- largest city and sometimes called “Serbian Athens.” Austrian swimmer Mirna Jukić was born here, while Albert Einstein spent time in the city with his Serbian wife Mileva Marić./ (C)Flickr/Aleksandar Milutinovic

A Home for Everyone

The era of the monarchy left a huge imprint on the architecture of Novi Sad, one that is totally different from other cities in Serbia, which were more influenced by the communists. Over the Habsburg era, many of the most recognizable city sights were built or rebuilt, such as Petrovaradin fortress, originally built by the French General Charles Eugène de Croÿ in the 17th century and later rebuilt by the Austrians. It took 88 years, with 16 kilometers of underground corridors, deep wells and some hidden mechanics that helped Austrians build the most impregnable systems of warfare in Europe. The fortress has never been conquered.

To honor Serbian contributions, Maria Theresia gave a unique gift to the people of Novi Sad – what today is known as the “drunk clock,” whose big hand expresses hours and small hand the minutes, so people from the opposite shore could easily see what time it was – even in their cups. The hours were what mattered, because people led much slower lives. Many locals still describe the Austrian era as one of the best in the city’s history, because of the rich cultural heritage left behind, but also because the Austrians taught them to create an orderly society, with respect for the state system. Even today, if someone behaves particularly nice, locals will say, “Oh, that is the Viennese school!” – an homage to the beautiful manners they associate with Austrian traditions. Cosmopolitanism, understanding of diversity, a slower lifestyle and calmer behavior than Serbians from the South – these are the qualities that locals attribute to the Austrian time.

That era also influenced the Serbian language, and many phrases and expressions from German are still used. So today you might hear that someone’s bluza (Bluse or blouse) has fleku (Flecken or stains) or that someone wants a kuglu (Kugel or scoop) of ice cream.

Novi Sad was at the crossroads of many countries and migrations over the centuries, and a lot of people from abroad made their homes there. So, the city’s demographics are quite colorful with 23 national minorities. Because of this, city law recognizes the official use of Serbian, Hungarian, Slovak and Ruthenian languages and scripts. There are also three dominant religions: Christian Orthodox, Roman Catholicism and Judaism. And so all residents can follow the programing, the National Broadcasting Service’s Radio-Television Vojvodina broadcasts in ten minority languages.

While the predominant religion in Serbia is Christian Orthodox, in the heart of Novi Sad, you will find Catholic, Orthodox and Evangelical churches, and a synagogue. Locals report an appreciation among the communities, with respect for one another, and for the different religions, customs and cultures. Even the school holidays reflect this, beginning on the 24th of December, the Catholic Christmas Eve, and ending on the 14th of January, the day of Orthodox New Year, so that no one feels left out.

“One of the greatest memories from my childhood is of my Hungarian neighbors, who really took care of me, played and spent time with me, as well as made my growing up better,” remembers Srdjan Petrovic, an economist from Novi Sad.

Even though the city’s young people describe their lives as good, some of them still hope to taste life abroad and build a future in the EU.

“It would be much better if our government could improve our path to join the European Union, which would give young people access to the labor market and to all the other possibilities offered by the EU concept, including a stay for more than 3 months,” said Aleksandra Panic, a young architect who did an internship in Germany last summer.

Dunavski park (Danube park, right) was formed in 1895 and is one of the symbols of the city. Right in the middle of the lake, a small island was named Eržebet, after the Empress Elisabeth of Austria. / (C) Flickr/Aleksandar Milutinovic

Spring, summer and autumn in Novi Sad are reserved for entertainment and cultural events. Everywhere you go, you can hear street musicians, watch plays in Serbian or Hungarian movies on outdoor screens, attend music festivals, tour through the museums or go to a traditional restaurant on the banks of the Danube to enjoy culinary specialties from Vojvodina. Dishes with fish, the famed Index sandwich (a grilled club) and the wines of Fruška Gora – these are all things you must try if you want to feel like a local. A walk from the city center to Petrovaradin Fortress, an ice cream in Dunavska street, partying with friends on Laze Telečkog Street, feeding ducks in Danube Park, or playing volleyball on the city beach, or Strand, (another Habsburg remnant), are things proud locals take as a given in the capital of Vojvodina.

Novi Sad has lived through many chapters – from the Habsburg monarchy, German fascism, Yugoslav communism and socialism to modern democracy – all reflected in buildings and monuments that point to the challenges and difficulties of the city’s people. Through it all, they are open to the new and are proud of the cultural and ethnic diversity, which in 2021, will make Novi Sad one of the most unique European capitals of culture. 

Novi Sad’s Monument to the Victims of the Raid is dedicated to innocent citizens of the city who lost their lives in a mass shooting of civilians by the fascist occupier in the so-called “January raid,” January 21-23, 1942. A bronze composition of a family, 4 m high, with 78 plaques was unvei- led in 1971, by the sculptor Jovan Soldatović. The names of the victims are written on 66 plaques in Hebrew, Serbian, Hungarian and Slovak./(C) Flickr/Aleksandar Milutinovic

Things to Know

Novi Sad, the capital of the Serbian region of Vojvodina, has about 290,000 inhabitants. The architecture in the city center is strongly influenced by the Habsburg period.

In 1748, at the request of the population, Empress Maria Theresia named the settlement below the castle a “free, royal” town. It was called Neoplanta and the population was allowed to translate the name into their respective language: This is how the names Neusatz, Újvidék, Novi Sad, which are all still used today, came about.

Novi Sad is the home of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Science Institution, Matica srpska, which was founded in Budapest
in 1826 and transferred to Novi Sad in 1864.

In the Serbian National Theater in Novi Sad, the international theater festival Sterijino pozorje was established in 1956 and takes place every year.

Novi Sad’s Theater/ Újvidéki színház, a Hungarian-language theater, was founded in 1974 with the idea of maintaining the cultural identity of Hungarians in Novi Sad.

At Radio-Television Vojvodina the program is produced in Serbian, Hungarian, Croatian, Slovak, Rusyn, Romanian, Romany and, since 2011, German.

The EXIT, the largest music festival in Serbia, attracting over 200,000 visitors from 60 countries, has taken place at the Petrovaradin Fortress every year since 2000.

Aleksandra Mikić
Aleksandra Mikić is a journalist from Belgrade, who recently made Vienna her home. She is passionate about photography, exploring and running her travel blog on Instagram: @ms.fluffy.

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