Belgrade has the upbeat vibe of a city undergoing positive change and has quietly established a reputation as one of the world’s leading party destinations. As a legacy of the Yugoslav Wars and NATO bombing of Serbia in the 1990s, many Brits simply don’t consider visiting. Those who do are often impressed by the warmth of residents.
If you were to count the cafes around the statue of Prince Mihailova on Republic Square, the city’s heart, you’d be past 2,900 as you cross the River Sava and head into Novi Beograd (New Belgrade). A thriving cafe culture is ingrained in everyday life here having been introduced by the Ottoman Turks before they withdrew in 1866.
Salaries are markedly lower than those in the UK and food and drink is priced accordingly. You’ll pay the equivalent of around £1.50 for a beer in most bars and cafes, where it’s relatively easy to strike up conversations.
Belgrade Fortress is good place to start exploring. You’ll see evidence of the Turkish and Austro-Hungarian occupations and the ramparts offer views of the confluence of the Danube and Sava. For locals, the ornately painted Ruzica Church, by the Zindan Gate, has special significance. Inside are chandeliers made from First World War sabres and bullets; reminders of the nation’s heavy losses. Strolling along Knez Mihailova Street, the pedestrianised retail artery, allows you to view grand, late 19th-century architecture and takes you towards the Serbian parliament. Most locals would suggest you keep going to the Vracar plateau to see the Cathedral of St Sava, due for completion in 2035 and one of the world’s largest churches.
The city’s parks and 137 miles of riverbanks are also popular hang out spots. A favourite picnic patch is Topcider Park, where you’ll see a plane tree with a 55-yard span next to the former residence of Prince Milos. In good weather, people head to the 4.5-mile waterfront of Ada Ciganlija, a man-made lake with a pebble beach and numerous lounge-bars.
Change is afoot in Savamala, which has transformed from a riverside warehouse district to an area visited for its bars and clubs. Work is due to get underway soon on the Belgrade Waterfront redevelopment project, which will modernise the area and, it’s expected, perceptions of the city as a whole.
Where to eat
Built in 1823, Znak Pitanja is the oldest restaurant in the city and has a courtyard beer garden with a view of St Michael’s Cathedral. Since the 1890s it’s been known simply as ‘?’ due to the then owner’s uncertainty over what to call it following a dispute with church authorities, who weren’t impressed by the drinking and music at the establishment. The ‘name’ stuck.
The Turks, Hungarians and Austrians have all left their mark on Serbian cuisine. Menus feature cheese pies and goulash- and schnitzel-style dishes; plus many locals finish meals with a coffee prepared and served in a long-handled copper pot; as with Greek or Turkish coffee.
Most of the fruit and veg sold at the city’s green markets is organic, so you can enjoy first-rate salads, like regional speciality sopska — made with cucumber, tomato, onion, paprika and white cheese. For fish, head to Zemun, a town with a host of restaurants with terraces overlooking the Danube. Reka is popular, partly due to its live music. The seafood at Homa, a chic eatery in Belgrade’s Old Town, is recommended.
Many former warehouses in Savamala’s Beton Hala area are now busy riverside bar-restaurants. At Cantina de Frida, you can sway to live music while enjoying cocktails, tapas and steak accompanied by Serbian wine.
Art & design
After a period of relative isolation and introspection, Belgrade’s creative industries are beginning to flourish and gain recognition abroad. For boutique fashion, head to the centrally situated Belgrade Design District, a mall with more than 30 stores stocking clothing by Serbian designers, including Ana Ljubinkovic and Emilija Petrovic.
Mikser House, within a former warehouse, is both an airy cafe-bar, with a terrace and tall windows, and a temporary exhibition venue for artwork and designer products, including clothing created by young Serbs.
Supermarket, a concept store with a cafe, restaurant and regularly changing palette of products — including designer clothing, handmade shoes, toys plus household items — opened in 2008 on tiny premises once occupied by a supermarket. International brands are displayed alongside products by local designers, including Srdjan Jankovic and Valter Beko.
If you’re looking for Serbian products then keep your eyes open for bottles of the country’s often-underrated wine and rakija fruit brandy. Gorda and Kraljica are among the rakija brands to look out for.
At the tiny Bombondžija Bosiljcic sweetshop, ask if you can pop your head into the workshop where ratluk (Turkish delight) and striped candy canes are still made by hand. This is the last of the 120 such shops that once existed in Belgrade.
Should everyday traditions interest you, swing by the Zeleni Venac green market, where you can pick up organic fruit and veg, freshly made pasta plus local sausages and cheeses.
You can always head to the Delta City mall and USCE Shopping Center, in Novi Belgrade, if the weather takes a turn for the worse.
“Barges, known locally as splavovi or just splavs, are the deal in summer. The scene includes house, R&B and Serbian music,” says Alex Gemaljevic of night club service Belgrade At Night, which can arrange access to the hippest spots, like splav Freestyler, with a bar and a sound system to rival any land-based club.
Nightclubs are free to enter yet drinks are reasonably priced. Don’t waste time looking for a dancefloor, as locals simply get up and dance by their tables. If the weather’s fine, head to Terrassa, next to the zoo. This al fresco club with a lounge-bar feel, overlooks Kalemegdan’s Zindan Gate and is busiest from 11pm-1am; early by Belgrade’s standards. Later, for techno and house, head to Dragstor, if the splavs don’t appeal.
On Strahinjica Bana street, Jimmy Woo and Bistro Pastis are good for people-watching. From here, it’s a short walk to the kafanas of Skadarlija. In winter people hop between the bars and clubs of up-and-coming Savamala. Some have a pop-up feel, occupying sites in 19th-century buildings. Mikser and KC Grad are both well-established and Jazz Bašta’s terrace is a good spot to sip a local Lav or Jelen Pivo beer.
Top 10 local tips
02 Cycle around Ada Ciganlija lake and cool off with a refreshing dip.
03 Combine glimpsing the former Yugoslavian leader Josip Tito’s mausoleum with a trip to the Museum of Yugoslav History.
04 Use taxis with a company name, rather than those displaying only ‘Radio Taxi’ signs, and insist drivers use their meters.
05 Smoking is widespread. Don’t be offended if someone lights up while you’re dining.
06 Plan a visit to the annual Belgrade Beer Fest and sip your way through local brews and tried and tested favourites. (12-23 August)
07 Learn about Nikola Tesla’s inventions in the museum named after him.
08 Kayak under six of the Sava’s bridges on tours suitable for beginners.
09 Spend a day in the Zemun district, once an Austro-Hungarian border town with a fortress, plus a beach and a nature reserve on Great War Island.
10 Find out about the ambitious vision for Savamala’s redevelopment in the Belgrade Waterfront Gallery.
Belgrade: A Cultural and Literary History, by David Norris. RRP: £12. (Signal Books).
July Crisis: The World’s Descent Into War, Summer 1914, by Thomas Otte. RRP: £25 (Cambridge University Press).
The Diary of a Political Idiot, by Jasima Tesanovic — focusing on a journalist’s life during the NATO bombings of 1999. RRP: £10.99. (Cleis Press).
Wallpaper* City Guide Belgrade. RRP: £6.95. (Phaidon Press).
The Belgrade Phantom (2009). A thriller, set in the 1970s, based on a true story about a stolen Porsche being driven through the city’s streets and the authorities’ response.
The Black Bomber (1992). A film about an anti-authoritarian radio host.
Ultimatum (1938). A French film, set during the July Crisis, exploring the relationship between a Serbian officer and his Austrian-born wife.
Coriolanus (2011). Set in Rome but filmed in Belgrade and Serbia.
Published in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)