“So, what have you been doing today?” asks the Crown Prince of Serbia. I can’t think what to say. It’s the first time conversation has dried up over the past few days; if there’s one thing I’ve learned about Serbians, it’s that they love to talk — about the war, about their country, about how they are perceived in the wider world, about films, about apples… anything.
This chat is a little different though. As I’d arrived for my visit at the Royal Palace, the prince had been holding court with a small group of American tourists from a cruise ship, regaling them with tales of Serbia’s past royals. They’d listened, enthralled, then queued to shake his hand, and that of his formidable Greek wife, Crown Princess Katherine. I’d expected a brief hello, but instead the prince, princess and I unexpectedly sat down for tea and cake.
“Have you seen anything interesting?” the prince prompts. I don’t think it would be particularly good etiquette to mention that I’ve come straight from former President of Yugoslavia Tito’s tomb at House of Flowers. It might be a little awkward as the Serbian royal family was exiled for nearly 60 years, forbidden to return after the Second World War by the communist regime. Everyone in Belgrade has something to say about Tito, ardent defenders or passionate decriers. I’ve got a feeling what the Crown Prince, born in exile in London, thinks of him. So I lie. “I’ve been… to the fortress.”
Before arriving in Belgrade I’d been a little concerned about talking to locals — my primary knowledge of the city came from news footage from the devastating Yugoslav Wars, which didn’t seem like a great conversation starter. I needn’t have worried: all the Serbs I meet are startlingly open and ready to chat. They all have a story to tell. That, it turns out, is the key to Belgrade — it’s not a pretty city, though there’s definitely beauty to be found and lots to see. Its sprawling, hectic, gritty, exciting edge owes everything to its past and its people.
I had genuinely been to Kalemegdan Fortress yesterday, where I’d stood at the top of the park, looking over the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers to one side, and the mountains of central Europe that begin to swell on the other. It was obvious why this was one of the most fought-over strategic points in southeastern Europe. First settled by the Celts, then the Romans, the city has been destroyed more than 40 times in its history, changing hands again and again.
“We party because we know it could all change any time,” a woman in a nightclub told me. “Serbs have a good time while we can.” And after tea with the prince, and a look round the palace, it’s off into the old town to find a bar, and have a good time while we can: something remarkably easy to do in Belgrade.
See & do
House of Flowers: Built in 1975 in the grounds of Tito’s official residence as a winter garden, this was where the president worked in his final years, and upon his death in 1980 was converted into his final resting place. It now belongs to the Museum of Yugoslav History and receives a constant stream of visitors — 17.5 million since opening in 1982. There’s an exhibition devoted to the individually crafted relay batons that were sent to Tito every year from all over Yugoslavia on 25 May — his birthday. 400 din (£3).
Royal Palaces: Set in a 330-acre estate in Belgrade’s swish Dedinje Hill quarter are two palaces. Built by King Alexander I, the Royal Palace was finished in 1929. Head downstairs to the basement, with its wine cellar, billiards room and cinema, painted in the style of the Terem Palace at the Kremlin (in Moscow). Featuring scenes from Serbian national mythology, it’s like an exotic fairytale come to life.
Kalemegdan Fortress: The monumental structure rises above the city on a ridge overlooking the confluence of the Sava and the Danube. It’s one of the most fought-over strategic points in the whole of Europe, and understanding the history of this fortress, which was built and destroyed numerous times from the 2nd to the 18th centuries, is key to understanding modern Belgrade.
Skadarlija: In almost any other city, an old bohemian quarter with cobbled streets, galleries and restaurants bedecked with flowers would be a tourist magnet. While there are plenty of out-of-towners enjoying the atmospheric streets, locals also gather here for incredible Serbian food as they sing along to traditional Roma bands who wander around the tables. It’s the perfect place to enjoy long, tipsy evenings in convivial restaurants and bars.
Republic Square: Familiar to many as the site of the 1991 protests against former president Slobodan Milosevic’s regime, this is the focal point of the city. It was here that Serbs celebrated the liberation of Belgrade in October 1944, and it’s the site of the National Theatre, occasional demonstrations and more frequent outdoor exhibitions. If someone says to meet ‘by the horse’ this is where they mean — by the statue of Prince Mihailo Obrenovic on horseback on Republic Square.
Church of St Sava: The white marble walls of St Sava can be seen from all over Belgrade and it looks as though this temple’s been there for centuries; it’s a bit of a surprise to discover it’s not even finished. With a 230ft high dome and space for 10,000 worshippers, it’s one of the world’s largest Orthodox churches. The foundations were laid in 1939 but during the Communist era work was stopped and the exterior wasn’t completed until 2004; the inside is still under construction.
Like a local
Banjica Forest/Byford’s Forest: Mention the name Timothy John Byford to anyone born in what was Yugoslavia in the 1970s or 1980s and prepare for them to melt with nostalgia — yet this Brit is almost unknown back home. He began his career working on Blue Peter but moved to Belgrade in 1971 and married Mila Stanojevic, with whom he created incredibly popular Serbian children’s television programmes. He adored birds and nature, and campaigned in the late 1980s for Banjica Forest to become an officially protected natural habitat because of its large numbers of nesting nightingales. The park, in the southern suburbs of Belgrade, is known unofficially as Byford’s Forest, after the man beloved by those raised on his shows.
Kajmak: This Serbian dairy product has a texture like clotted cream. It’s served almost everywhere — as an appetiser, on flatbread for breakfast, topping a burger, in a sauce for roasted meats such as veal shank. It’s made at home in a traditional fashion — raw milk is gradually boiled then cooked on a low temperature for hours, before being cooled and left to ferment for hours, or days. It might not sound appetising but it’s unbelievably delicious — and best enjoyed in Serbia as it’s hard to find outside the country.
Novi Beograd: At the end of the Second World War, Tito put a huge construction project in place to turn a massive swamp near Belgrade into an enormous European capital. Building began in 1948, with modernist concrete blocks. Today, it’s a fine example of communist architecture, with street after street of dense housing. The Western City Gate — known as Genex — is one of the most recognisable structures in Belgrade, as is the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sava Centre (which has hosted musicians from Nina Simone to Beyonce) and the Park of Friendship, along the banks of the Danube. There are also some great restaurants and places to stop for coffee: this is arguably the real Belgrade.
Parfimerija Sava: This isn’t just about buying scent; this traditional perfumery is a gateway to another era. This shop has been here since 1954 and it’s like a time capsule, with a wood-heavy interior, beautiful glass bottles and a secret area where the perfume is still made by hand. Once there were 23 such perfumeries in Belgrade; this is now the last one. Kralja Petra 75, Belgrade 11000.
Rakia & Co: A night out in Belgrade isn’t complete without a round of rakia. Most commonly made from plums, it’s a strong but delicious tipple. Other varieties include raspberry, apricot, quince or the honeyed version, medovaca. Serbians consider it healthy to start the day with a shot of plum rakia: for those who’d like to try that at home, purchase some from the Rakia & Co gift shop.
Yugovinyl: Record store fanatics, this one’s for you. This vinyl treasure trove has a vast number of records and genres, and friendly, enthusiastic owners. Crates of Yugoslavian punk jostle with moderately priced pop rarities.
Hotel Tesla–Smart Stay: This competitively priced, stylish four-star hotel is just a mile from Stari Grad, in tree-lined and hilly Vracar. There are lots of cafes and restaurants around, and it’s a short walk to Kalenic, a fantastic food market. There are just 17 rooms, with decor celebrating renowned scientist Nikola Tesla. The bedrooms are pretty spacious, with all but five including a terrace.
Hotel Townhouse 27: This 21-room establishment is tucked away on a residential street in the old town. It’s sleek and streamlined with large rooms, some with balconies overlooking the internal courtyard. It’s a design hotel in the true sense: local artist Gabriel Gild created sculptures, prints, photographs and graphics exclusively for the hotel and they’re dotted around the property.
Square Nine: Right in the centre of the old town, Square Nine is just moments from Kalemegdan Park. The facade is shiny and a little forbidding, the lobby huge, hushed and luxurious. There’s a super-stylish basement spa with lap pool, while upstairs the bedrooms feature warm wood and soft neutral tones in a distinctly retro style.
Restaurant Hyde Park: Very close to the House of Flowers, Restaurant Hyde Park: the quirky interior is bright but if it’s a sunny day, get a table outside in the beautiful garden overlooking the park, or in the conservatory. The vibe is eclectic French bohemian although the food is traditional Serbian with some Italian favourites, as is the very good wine list.
Three Hats: One of the oldest restaurants in Belgrade, it’s been serving Serbian food to artists, locals and tourists from its prime location in atmospheric Skaderlija since 1864. Everything is delicious but order plenty from the Serbian barbecue section — the homemade veal sausages and pljeskavica (grilled spiced pork, lamb and beef burgers) are particularly good.
Lorenzo & Kakalamba: Bonkers is the only way to describe this astonishing restaurant. All space is covered in crazy artworks and marvellous miscellany. The menu is a combination of Florentine cuisine and traditional Pirot (a region in Southern Serbia) dishes, and the decor is a crazy mish-mash of sheep hanging from the ceiling, stuffed toys and chairs that look like naked bodies.
Federal Association of Globetrotters: In the early 1990s, Belgrade had a thriving network of underground, speakeasy-type bars — those in opposition to Milosevic wanted places to speak freely and avoid his cronies. These days, the need for secrecy is gone but there are still speakeasies to seek out. This one (also known as the World Travellers’ Club) takes some finding: ring a doorbell in an inauspicious apartment building to gain entrance to a dingy stairwell, head down into the basement to a bar that’s a beguiling mix of granny’s front room and a bohemian courtyard garden, filled with knick-knacks and curios.
Ambar: Once a neglected industrial area by the river, Savamala’s empty warehouses and dusty buildings have attracted artists, entrepreneurs and hipsters. There are plenty of gritty bars and nightclubs but for something a little more swish, head to Beton Hala (Concrete Hall), which stretches along the riverfront, for drinks at Ambar — a cool, industrial space that serves excellent Balkan cuisine and is the place to be seen late at night.
Drugstore: Belgrade nightlife is legendary: fun, late and intense. Drugstore is a super-cool, dark and edgy techno venue in an old slaughterhouse, with plenty of space to get lost in. It’s huge and exciting, with big names from the international underground music scene turning up here as well as cutting-edge experimental projects, indie bands and local artists.
Getting there & around
There are direct flights to Belgrade from Heathrow with Air Serbia and from Luton with Wizz Air.
Average flight time: 2h 40m.
Trams and trolleys run on limited routes around Belgrade, while buses go everywhere. Rechargeable BusPlus cards can be bought from the driver but they’re cheaper if bought from kiosks across the city; or buy a paper ticket, which is valid for 90 minutes on all lines.
When to go
Summer can be very hot, but May, June and September offer temperatures in the low 20Cs and it’s usually fairly dry, so perfect for enjoying the city’s parks and sitting outside at cafes and restaurants. Winters are cold, with temperatures not much above freezing and quite a bit of snow.
DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Serbia. RRP: £13.99
How to do it
Regent Holidays has four nights from £765 per person, including return flights with Air Serbia, private airport transfers, a walking tour of Belgrade and a private tour of Novi Sad and Fruska Gora with English-speaking guides, and four nights at a three-star B&B in Belgrade.
Published in the June 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)