This Overlooked Serbian Fairy-Tale Town Is for You
On the Hungarian-Serbian border is one of the world’s best-kept secrets, an art-nouveau masterpiece called Subotica.
Editor's Note: This is the latest installment for our series on underrated destinations, It's Still a Big World.
While hordes of tourists vie to get the best shot of Gaudi’s art-nouveau buildings in Barcelona, 140,000 Serbian citizens live in the world’s best-kept secret, an art-nouveau masterpiece called Subotica.
Subotica has been described as a city plucked from the pages of a fairytale. The colorful buildings have a Hansel and Gretel-esque design that would make Instagrammers swoon, yet, surprisingly enough, Subotica hasn’t hit the design and travel world’s radar despite being just a two-hour drive from Belgrade, making it the perfect off-the-beaten-path find in Eastern Europe.
The area surrounding Subotica has been inhabited for 3,000 years, though the first mention of the city was found in written documents in 1391. Centuries later, it may have been the capital of the Serbian empire of Emperor Jovan Nenan Crni or Jovan Nenad the Black, though some of the murkiness in its past lies in the fact that it’s had 200 names since the 14th century and been ruled by five different countries since the 1920s.
While the city’s history is peculiar enough, it’s location on the Hungarian and Serbian border—a cultural crossroad—made it ripe and ready for art nouveau, a movement that took an ornamental and decorative approach toward all aspects of life, including architecture, around the turn of the 20th century. The main philosophy of art nouveau was to make everyday places beautiful for everyone, and that is verifiably true in Subotica.
In the 1700s, Subotica was dominated by a variety of architectural styles such as neo-Romanticism which appears in the Franciscan Church built in 1736. Baroque presented itself in Subotica’s Serb Orthodox Church in 1726 and in the Cathedral built 53 years later. It wasn’t until 1893 with the construction of the Leovic Palace, a home built by royal notary Simeon Leovic, that art nouveau made a modest debut in Subotica.
The Leovic Palace has Zsolnay ceramic tiles, or colored ceramic tiles made by Hungarian manufacturer Zsolnay, multiangular pinnacles, twin windows, and a tulip decorative motif—but compared to other art nouveau buildings in the city today, it’s a pretty muted design. However, in 1893, it was beyond anything the city’s residents had ever seen and the style stole their hearts for good.
Today, Subotica has 12 notable art nouveau buildings of different varieties. To any tourist, the style of all the art nouveau buildings will look considerably similar as they all adhere to the main elements of art nouveau. Only an art or architectural historian would be able to differentiate the small stylistic differences that originated from art nouveau movements that occurred in different parts of Europe around the same era. The Golden Lamb Hotel on Korzo Street is a good example of Munich art nouveau. The City Museum, built by the Vago brothers, famous Budapest-based architects and brothers named László and József, in 1906, is more reminiscent of Darmstadt art nouveau, while Viennese Secession art nouveau appears in the Former Town’s Tenement Building.
Most buildings fall in line with the Hungarian style of art nouveau, which is notable for using light colors, geometric patterns, ornamental designs of plants, and rounded shapes. Examples include the Raichle Palace, Palic, the Water Tower, and the Music Pavilion, all of which are spread throughout the small city and around Palić Lake to be discovered like little pieces of gold on a treasure map.
Hungarian art nouveau is perhaps best represented in Subotica by the work of renowned Hungarian architects Marcel Komor and Dezso Jakab. The two architects were responsible for the design of multiple buildings like the Grand Terrace and the Women’s Lido, two charming buildings located on Palić lake just a short 15-minute drive on the outskirts of the city. However, their three most notable works of art can be found within a leisurely stroll around the city center: the City Hall, the Synagogue, and the Subotica Savings Bank.
The Subotica Savings Bank was built in 1908 and designed by Komor and Jakab to have a rounded corner, windows with parabolic edges, and tones of red, gold, and green. The building sits in the middle of Subotica’s most popular street, Korzo Street, and true to the characteristics of the movement, it features shell motifs and decorative moldings on the exterior. Though in keeping with the idea that building would be a bank, Komor and Jakab added animal symbols like squirrels, beehives, and owls, to represent diligence, thrift, and wisdom, respectively.
Komor and Jakab designed the City Hall after the Subotica Savings Building, completing the structure in 1912. As the centerpiece of town, City Hall is a romantically-designed building notable for its red exterior and towering observatory that offers citywide sights 45 meters aboveground. The dancing waterfalls of the Blue Fountain which sits just in front of the building, guides visitors to take a closer look at a mix of floral elements, wrought ironwork, and stained-glass windows on City Hall’s exterior.
The beauty doesn’t end on the outside. Inside, City Hall is outfitted with terrazzo floors, colorful tiled ceilings, arched entryways, a grand staircase with a red carpet, and hand-painted columns with floral designs. Walking through City Hall feels as if you’re walking through a castle of a king, instead of a government building where people gather to discuss the needs of Subotica citizens.
Even though times have changed, City Hall’s design remains the same as it was over a 100 years ago, except for the fact that you can now order a hamburger and a side of fries in this gorgeous masterpiece. A McDonald’s was installed on the first floor, a quirky feature for a quirky city. In keeping with the Hungarian art nouveau style of City Hall, the McDonald’s maintains the original floors, ceiling, and walls, making it a fast food joint fit for a storybook town.
There is no denying that City Hall and Subotica Saving Bank are glorious examples of Komor and Jakab’s work, but it’s the Synagogue that is perhaps the most important building they ever designed for Subotica.
Built in 1902, the Synagogue is a five-minute walk north from City Hall along streets made picturesque by trees with full canopies that offer shade on warm days. Set off from the sidewalks by an ornate iron fence, the Synagogue rises above the tree line and is filled with wondrous features such as Zsolnay-glazed roof tiles, curved archways and ceilings, ceramic work, handpainted interiors, stained-glass windows, and stylistic symbols like tulips, carnations, and peacock feathers.
Today it’s the second largest synagogue in Europe, which is surprising when you consider that Subotica has a Jewish population of about 400. The city’s Jewish population commissioned the Synagogue at the turn of the 20th century, and by 1940, about 6,000 Jews worshipped under its dome. During the Holocaust, Subotica’s Jewish population were rounded up by Nazi-led Hungarian troops and sent to Auschwitz where they were murdered. By 1970, there were only 400 Jews in Subotica, and in 2004, there were 220.
After the Holocaust, the Synagogue fell into disrepair and it took decades for the city to rebuild it to its original glory. Conservation efforts for the Synagogue started in the 1990s, and finally, in 2018, the Synagogue reopened to the public as a city-owned building to be used for cultural and city events and service on Jewish holidays. The majestic multi-floor interior in tones of cream, red, green, and gold, shell-shaped stained-glass windows, and the detailed designs along the columns and curved ceilings are enough to evoke silence among visitors who become lost in the work of art.
Overwhelming feelings of awe are not limited to the Synagogue, but occur throughout Subotica, as the city has not stopped adding to their fairytale environment over the last 100 years. The colorful buildings along Korzo Street and the ornamental design of businesses like Boss Café all seek to add to the magical experience first launched by the city’s architects in the early 1900s. They made everyday places in a small Serbian city extraordinarily beautiful, leaving an everlasting mark for visitors to find.