Nis (Niš, pronounced neesh) is situated in the heart of the Balkan Peninsula and is the third-largest city in Serbia.
Most notably, Nis was the birthplace of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great – the man credited with converting the Roman Empire to Christianity.
In this travel guide to Nis you’ll quickly realize it is a city with a chaotic history spanning several centuries – much of it dark, but undeniably historically significant. Nis is a great city to learn about Serbia’s history, and is a good home base from which to see some of the country’s best ancient ruins.
What to See and Do in Nis
You must begin in the heart of the city at the Nis Fortress. This 18th century construction is situated along the shore of the Nišava River, atop the ruins of the ancient Roman military camp, Naissus. The fortress was built during Turkish rule (1386 – 1878) as was regarded as one of the most beautiful buildings in the Balkans.
The Nis Fortress was used as an armory, hammam (bath), and prison. Much of the original building is still standing. It is a free attraction where people are welcome to stroll the paths and check out the remaining constructions within. Inside there are restaurants, ice cream vendors, and stages where the main programs of Nišville Jazz Festival are held each year in August.
The bohemian quarter of Nis is Kazandžijsko sokatče, which means “Tinkers Alley” or “Coppersmith Alley,” is situated in the old town, on what used to be a street lined with craft workshops. Today it forms a pedestrian-friendly zone of restaurants and kafanas (cafés that serve more meat then they do coffee). Several of the buildings here date bath to Turkish rule.
No travel guide to Nis is complete without a mention of Skull Tower (Braće Tasković bb). The first thing you should know is that the name of the tower is not a metaphor. This is actually a tower made of skulls, about 3 meters tall, which was built by the Turks on the order of Khurshid Pasha. The skulls are those of Serbs killed by Ottomans during the Battle of Čegar during the First Serbian Revolution in 1809. The original tower had 952 skulls and was placed on one of the roads leading into Nis as a warning to the Serbian people. Nowadays the tower contains only 58 skulls. You can visit the tower inside of a chapel that dates back to 1892. The chapel is closed Mondays. Admission is 120 dinars.
Unfortunately, Nis too was caught in the horrors of World War II, and in 1941 became home to the Nis concentration camp (12. februar bb), which the Germans nicknamed the “Red Cross Concentration Camp” for the Red Cross station nearby. A tour of the Red Cross Concentration Camp brings on sickening feelings and immense sadness – a truly horrific time in European history. Through the years the camp housed 30,000 people, of which 12,000 were executed. The concentration camp is closed Mondays.
The Archaeological Hall of Nis National Museum (Nikole Pašića 59) holds a wide range of historical finds including millennia-old clay figurines, Roman era statues and currency, Medieval religious items, and a replica sculpture of Constantine the Great. The original bronze was discovered in Nis in 1900.
It is currently housed in the National Museum in Belgrade as part of a remarkable collection curated for the exhibition “Constantine the Great and the Edict of Milan.” The Archaeological Hall of Nis National Museum is not a large space, but there are several fascinating objects to see. The museum is closed Mondays.
See our episode on: Top Things to See and Do in Nis, Serbia
The ancient site of Mediana is the most visited day trip from Nis and is proof of the wealth and glory of the Roman city of Naissus. It is where Emperor Constantine was born and built a luxurious estate in honor of his birth city. Visitors can admire the ruins of a villa that once had beautiful mosaic floors and a heated bath complex (thermae). There is also a small archaeological museum on the premises. Mediana is located along the Nis – Sofia road, which used to be the “Via Militaris,” or Roman Military Road. Mediana is closed Mondays.
The palace of Felix Romuliana was commissioned in the late third/ early fourth century by Emperor Caius Valerius Galerius Maximianus, or Emperor Galerius for short. He built it to commemorate his retirement from the throne and named it after his mother Romula. It is a sprawling compound spread across 10 acres. You’ll be able to see the remains of the complex: walls, imperial palace, temples, monumental altar, public baths, and memorial complex, and a tetrapylon (four-walled monument that symbolizes where earthly and heavenly roads intersect). East of the palace are the mausoleums of both Emperor Galerius and his mother, which look like two round hills on the horizon – their symbolic elevation to the status of gods. Felix Romuliana is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
To see the impressive objects excavated from Felix Romuliana, and a chance to understand the palace complex, a visit to the National Museum of Zaječar is a must. The town is just a 15-minute drive from the site of Felix Romuliana and holds an impressive collection of mosaics, statues including a bust of Emperor Galerius, Roman coins, and aerial photography of the site. If you’re in Zaječar and feeling hungry, head to Vodenica (Windmill) Restaurant in the center of town, about two blocks behind the museum.
Justiniana-Prima-If you are craving more history and amazing barbecue, take a day trip to Leskovac, a town about an hour’s drive south of Nis. Most people stop in Leskovac on their way to admire the Byzantine ruins of the Justiniana Prima (Empress’ Town) archaeological site. Located about 29 km west of Leskovac, nestled among lush scenery, Justiniana Prima was an early Christian city founded by Emperor Justinian I. It served as the seat of the Archbishop from 535 to 615. The site contains what is left of an enormous basilica, the acropolis, lower town, and upper town. Walking around Justiniana Prima will reveal city walls, gates, churches, and large bath complex with hypocaust system (heated floors). Justiniana Prima served as the administrative and spiritual center of Illyricum, a Roman province that encompassed the central Balkan Peninsula.