Serbia lies at the center of the Balkans. Thus, its history is essential in understanding the peninsula. Great empires fought for and conquered this beautiful piece of land. However, they could never conquer the Serbian spirit. Instead, Serbia was able to absorb all these cultural influences and turn them into a surprisingly unique style. To us, nothing symbolizes Serbia’s rich culture more than its over 200 orthodox monasteries. Dating back to the 12th Century, they represent a fascinating culture. Even under the rule of the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires, the monasteries were used as sanctuaries to preserve local art and traditions. Unesco recognized the importance of these architectural marvels when it included the most important ones in its World Heritage Sites list.
- 1 Serbian Monasteries
- 2 Raška School
- 3 Serbo-Byzantine Architectural Style
- 4 Morava School
- 5 Fruška Gora – Baroque Monasteries
The historic Serbian Orthodox Monasteries are divided into four different groups. Each corresponds to different historical circumstances and geographical conditions. Romanesque architecture influenced the Raška School Monasteries, which have one nave and one dome. On the other hand, Serbo-Byzantine monasteries and churches adopted the Greek cross shape, which often includes several domes. The Morava School monasteries are arguably the most authentic ones, with highly artistic decorative elements. Finally, the dominant style at the time of the Habsburg Empire, the Baroque, influenced the Serbian churches built around Serbia’s Holy Mountain (Fruška Gora) in Vojvodina.
The Easiest Way to Visit the Monasteries
Unfortunately, you can’t go to any of the monasteries on this list on public transport. Therefore, you have to drive there yourself or hire a local taxi. That’s how we visited the monasteries. Our driver took us safely and shared stories about his life. What we suggest is staying in the closest city, town, or mountain resort to each monastery. You can go from Belgrade to these places by public buses, and once there, hire your local driver. Check Belgrade’s bus station schedule here. It is the only website in Serbia with a reliable bus timetable. We have included some tips on how to visit four important monasteries below.
The Raška School Monasteries were built during the first Serbian Kingdom (12th and 13th Century) in the southwest of the country. The style owes its name to the River Raška, the lifeline of the First Serbian Medieval Country. The main feature of this style is the one vaulted nave building with one dome. On the west side, there is usually a narthex, and both the north and south sides are considerably lower. The Romanesque style that arrived here from the Adriatic coast influenced the exterior decorations. If you liked the outside, wait till you get inside. A unique iconography decorates the interiors of the Raška School Monasteries. These pieces of art are considered the golden standard of Serbian painting.
The Studenica Monastery is the largest and most important Serbian orthodox monastery. Stefan Nemanja, the founder of the medieval Serbian state, built it in the late 12th century. The fortified complex includes the Church of the Virgin, the Church of the King, Saint Nicholas Church, and the foundations of another medieval church. The church of the Virgin is the most important Raška School monastery with outstanding 13th-century paintings. The frescoes in the altar are the original ones, including the famous Crucifixion. In 1986 the Unesco included Studenica in its World Heritage Site list as an outstanding example of a Serbian Orthodox Monastery.
How to Visit Studenica
Studenica lies 57 kilometers south of Kraljevo, so you either have to drive there or hire a taxi with a driver. In Kraljevo we recommend staying at the Hotel Turist on Kraljevo’s main square. Another option is to set base in Kopaonik Mountain, 62 km south of the monastery. By doing so, you’ll be able to combine nature with architecture. In Kopaonik we recommend the Grand Hotel & Spa, one of Serbia’s best hotels. While you are in the region, you might consider visiting other monasteries such as Žiča, Sopoćani or Djurdjevi Stupovi.
Serbo-Byzantine Architectural Style
The monasteries built according to the Serbo-Byzantine architectural style are from the 14th century. Most of them are in Kosovo and North Macedonia. As you can tell, the Byzantine style influenced both the structure and decorations. The base is rectangular with a large dome in the center, and smaller domes on the four sides. Take note that big churches have five domes, while small ones only one central dome. Finally, notice the grey or yellowish stone and red bricks that decorate the facades of the Serbo-Byzantine Style Monasteries.
Serbian King Stefan Milutin built Gračanica in 1321 on the ruins of an older church from the same century (built over a 6th-century basilica). Of the large monastic complex, only the main Church of the Holy Virgin has survived. It is the most important Serbo-Byzantine style monastery with superb aesthetics and harmonious proportions. It has the shape of a double inscribed cross, with the largest dome in the center and the four smaller ones on each side. The polychromatic façade includes carved stone and two or three layers of brick in between. UNESCO included Gračanica together with three other monasteries, the Serbian Medieval Monasteries in Kosovo, in its World Heritage Site.
How to Visit Gračanica
Gračanica lies some 10 kilometers south of Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. Take note that Kosovo has its own borders and visa policy. Hence, don’t forget your passport and check beforehand if you need a visa for Kosovo. Additionally, car rental agencies in Serbia won’t allow you to drive inside Kosovo. Consequently, it’s best to stay in Pristina and hire a taxi with a driver or rent a local car. Regarding hotels, we recommend the Sirius Hotel, one of the best in town. Another option is to stay in Gracanica village. The lovely Hotel Gracanica is only 10 minutes from the monastery.
Built during the Serbian Despotate (14th-15th Centuries), the Morava School Monasteries dot the Morava River. Hence their name. The style evolved from the Serbo-Byzantine style. Buildings have two additional apses on the south and the north. Again, colorful stones and bricks decorate the façade, but even more ornamentally. Additionally, doors, windows, and arches have decorative reliefs. Look for the decorative rose window. As you will notice, large stone fortifications protected several Morava school monasteries from invaders.
The Manasija Monastery, also known as Resava, is the most important Morava School Monastery. The place is one of the best medieval monuments in Serbia. Despot Stefan Lazarević built it between 1406 and 1418 as his mausoleum. Hence, it was the cultural center of the Serbian Despotate. The monastery includes the Church of the Holy Trinity, the refectory (dining room), and a fortress with 11 towers. The church has two sections: naos (the main nave) on the east, and narthex on the west. A large dome and four small ones cover the naos, while only one central dome the narthex.
How to Visit Manasija
Manasija is some 140 km southeast of Belgrade. Most visitors go on a day excursion from the Serbian Capital. To stay close to the monastery, we recommend the Resavsko Etno Selo, a wonderful eco farm 17km from the monastery. You can take a bus from Belgrade to Despotovac and then hire your taxi or drive. Don’t forget to visit the nearby Ravanica Monastery. Other Moravska School monasteries are around Serbia’s royal Spa Vrnjačka Banja, and you can base yourself there. We are talking about Ljubostinja and Kalenić, but even Lazarica is not too far. In Belgrade, we recommend staying at the fabulous Hotel Metropol Palace. In Vrnjačka Banja stay at the gorgeous Hotel Slatina.
Fruška Gora – Baroque Monasteries
These baroque monasteries were built during the Habsburg Empire (16th – 17th Century) in the province of Vojvodina, northern Serbia. The Serbian medieval country fell under Ottoman rule in the late 15th century. That’s when the despot Family Branković decided to continue the monastery tradition in Vojvodina, a region under the Habsburg Monarchy. They chose the only mountain in Vojvodina for its strategic location close to the Ottoman Empire. Most monasteries are baroque, the style of the Habsburg Empire. However, some include elements of the three previous styles. The Fruška Gora Monasteries were the center of Serbian political and spiritual life for centuries.
The last Serbian despot of Syrmia, Maksim Branković, built Krušedol Monastery between 1509 and 1516. The main complex includes a male monastery and the church of the Annunciation. However, there is also a female monastery nearby. The monastery is the resting place of the Branković Family, two Serbian Orthodox Patriarchs, and king Milan Obrenović. The Annunciation church was originally built according to the Morava school style. However, it was reconstructed in the 18th Century in a baroque style. The tall spire, porch, doors, windows, and the outstanding frescoes are from that time.
How to Visit Krušedol
Of all the monasteries on this list, Krušedol is the closest to Belgrade, 72 km away. Actually, Novi Sad, Serbia’s second-largest city, is closer, 23 km away. The Fruška Gora mountain lies just south of Novi Sad. Thus, hire a taxi there to take you to Krušedol. In Novi Sad, we recommend Hotel Leopold I, part of the baroque Petrovaradin fortifications. Another great option is to stay in Sremski Karlovci, a beautiful historic town 11 kilometers from the monastery. The Premier Prezident Garni Hotel and Spa is the best in town. Don’t forget to visit other nearby monasteries like Novo Hopovo or Grgeteg. You can also take an organized day trip from Belgrade to Novi Sad, Sremski Karlovci and Krušedol.
Special thanks to Biljana Popović for her wonderful photos!