The capital and largest city of Serbia lies at the confluence of the Sava with the Danube river. If you happen to be on a boat, right where the two rivers merge and look East, standing on a rocky hill are the walls of Kalemegdan fortress; that’s the nucleus from which Belgrade grew and developed. But then, turn your head right: on the other bank of the Sava is New Belgrade, that seems to bear no relation to its older counterpart. Finally, take a look at your left: far from appearing urbanised, the northern side of the Danube is green and covered in trees. Hard to believe you’re in the same place, yet here you are still: in Belgrade, a city of contrasts.
Recapping Belgrade’s history in a few sentences is no easy task. Inhabited since prehistorical times, throughout the last two thousand years the city and its surroundings have changed hands innumerable times and witnessed hundreds of battles. A crossroads between the West and the Orient, Belgrade has been razed and rebuilt, prospering and suffering tremendous downfalls, without ever seeming to find rest. Eventually, the city reached some stability in the late 19th century once it became the capital of the Kingdom of Serbia. Consequent development and modernisation occurred rapidly, especially throughout the Interbellum. Heavily bombed during WWII, as the capital of the renewed Yugoslavia Belgrade experimented with further growth and heavy industrialisation. Nevertheless, it was again left in tatters at the turn of the new millennium, after the collapse of Yugoslavia and the Kosovo War, when the city was bombed for the last time.
How many places would have withstood such sudden turnovers and quick changes of fate without losing their hope and vibe? Despite the (still) visible marks left by the war, the lack of urban homogeneity and the future challenges, Belgrade did. The city still stands proudly, embraced by its two rivers, and is alive and bustling, now more than ever. Although the last years have seen an increasing number of tourists crowding its streets, its potential is largely unknown to most people. Maybe because, as Vladimir put it, “Belgrade is a rough diamond, one that will probably not be shaped into something as lovable as most of the European capitals.” In a nutshell, the charm and beauty of this Balkan city lies in its marked contrasts, visible edginess, in its ability to reinvent itself without despising its past and to surprise both its visitors and citizens. These and other aspects have made Belgrade one of the most vibrant and alternative centres in the European urban scene.
Have you ever been to Belgrade? Start to pack your luggage, we’re looking forward to showing you the many faces of this rough diamond.
Day 1: 09:00 – 13:00
A long day of wandering awaits you: be sure to start off your first day in Belgrade with a breakfast of champions. If you are close to Jevremovac, the botanical garden of the University of Belgrade, I would suggest you have a seat either at Mali Princ or at Užitak. The first offers a a mouthwatering selections of cakes, cookies and sweets, to be consumed either in their pretty interior or in their green, leafy outdoor area. The latter, recently opened, is located in a quiet street of the centre, away from the noisy crowd. From the decor to the smell and the menu, everything is an ode to freshness.
Whichever choice you made, the Historical Museum of Serbia and Skadarlija are two must-go’s, both at a short walking distance. Devoted to the preservation and collection of Serbia’s artistic and historic heritage, the Historical Museum is one of the few ones currently opened in the capital – in fact, most museums are still undergoing refurbishment. The museum has become one of the most active cultural institutions of Belgrade, and beside its permanent collection it frequently host temporary exhibitions. Skadarlija is both the name of an old street and of a neighbourhood, known to be the ‘Montmarte of Belgrade’. The epicentre of Belgrade’s bohemian life at the beginning of the 20th century, Skadarlija has understandably become a crowded, yet absolutely pleasant, tourist spot. Venture into its picturesque alleys, and find DUB; start your own treasure hunt in this small, magic antique shop: if you’re looking for a present or an alternative keepsake to bring with you, DUB won’t let you down.
Day 1: 13:00 – 19:00
Skadarlija is home to many (often touristy) restaurants. Without trying to sort out to which category of restaurant it belongs to, Jazz Kafanica Bajloni is genuinely one of the most enjoyable spots of the area. Birches overshadow the tables outsides, the food is nice, and whereas during the day the atmosphere is relaxed and friendly, during the night the Bajloni offers excellent gigs and dance sessions. South of Skadalija, Sprska Kafana is not your usual kafana. The place has managed to keep up the hype since the 1980s, when it became a favourite of the actors of nearby theatre Atelje 212. In comparison to a regular kafana, here the crowd is more mixed, the atmosphere posher. Still, their homemade food is a blast, and the prices are cheap.
After lunch walk towards the Kalemegdan fortress, but take detours down the nearby streets along the way – which portray an often clashing mix of Neoclassical, Art Nouveau and Modernist buildings. Pop by Galerija Haos, a homely art gallery exhibiting both emerging and well-established artists. If you’re into fashion, also don’t forget to visit the showroom of Tamara Radivojević, where her silk and leather creations are displayed in a grey concrete interior.
Kalemegdan is just some blocks away: the park/fortress is the most famous monument of Belgrade and probably the most beloved. It hosts the Belgrade Zoo, the old citadel, and some historical palaces and churches. On top of that, it also offers scenic river views. Sunset approaching? Stroll to the bottom of the fortress, till you reach the confluence of the Sava with the Danube: the noise of the city will fade away and in front of you the waters of the two rivers expand to the horizon. Alternatively, if you’re not afraid of heights, head south and climb up the stairs of the big, yellow crane standing on the right bank of the Sava. The second favourite chillspot of our Spotter Xavier literally offers a breathtaking bird’s-eye view of the city and its surroundings.
Day 1: 19:00 – 23:00
Where now Little Bay stands there was once a run-down alley. After getting a total makeover and being turned into a restaurant, the place now looks like a theatre with curtains, balconies and Rococo decorations. Kitsch or not? Whatever, the interior is pretty impressive, and the cuisine is good – although the menu does not offer traditional Serbian dishes. For that, make a reservation at Mornar. What’s great about Mornar is not its interior – modest yet tasteful – but its rich menu of homemade Serbian dishes, huge portions and extremely cheap prices. If you don’t have a local grandma to cook traditional food for you, this is the closest you can get!
Once your appetite is fulfilled but your thirst is still present, just around the corner from Mornar is Maniac Pub & Bar. Veracious and unpretentious, rowdy and cheap (yet with good drinks), tiny and dirty, Maniac is a kind of a Serbian dive bar opened till morning hours – an experience not to be missed. Further west, in Dorćol, Ventil is one of the gathering spots of Belgrade’s young, hipster crowd. Drinks and snacks are basic – what’s cool about Ventil is the crowd, the vibe, the number of different events and its nice music selection.
Day 1: 23:00 – …
In the last ten years Belgrade has gained and strengthened a certain reputation for being a big hub for nightlife. Dubbed sometimes as the ‘Barcelona of the East’ or the ‘Berlin of the Balkans’, Belgrade is one of the few European cities that never sleeps. Ljutić is hosted in the courtyard of a beautiful, yet decadent Art Nouveau house (unless it’s winter – in that case the party moves into the cellar). The crowd is young and artsy, but the atmosphere is relaxed and free of any pretentiousness. For the ones willing to go harder than that: tucked away in a cave of Skadarlija, Sioux is an underground club hosting regular raves. Colourful decorations, psy-trance goa drum’n’bass music, a ‘dance till you drop’ policy, parties till the morning, that’s what you get.
Day 2: 09:00 – 13:00
In case you followed the suggestionsabove, odds are that you’d rather go to bed instead of waking up at 09:00. But, if you guys have behaved, for breakfast head to Amélie; its inviting garden and pretty interior will provide a tender awakening before you head to other side of the Sava, where New Belgrade is. The construction of New Belgrade (in Serbian, Novi Beograd) kicked off in 1948 in a previously uninhabited area, quickly becoming the most important architectural manifesto of and source of pride for the country’s communist government. Brutalist (at times eclectically bizarre) high rises and governmental buildings, large green areas and multi-lane roads characterize this area, which can hardly ever be defined as ‘beautiful’ – but is nevertheless striking. Among the most interesting sights figure Televizorke in Blok 28, a block of flats that due to the squared frame of its windows seems to be dotted with televisions, and the Genex Tower. The 35-storey-high concrete structure, also known as the Western City Gate, is the second tallest building in the city, and one of its most recognisable landmarks.
Day 2: 13:00 – 19:00
It borders the municipality of New Belgrade, but it couldn’t be more different: an independent town until 1934, Zemun is now one of the prettiest and best-preserved historic areas of Belgrade. Zemun never fell in the hands of the Ottomans, and to this days it still looks like a typical Central European town. Before wandering around its cobblestone streets and small squares, have lunch in one of the many local restaurants. If you stroll around the quay that offers beautiful views of the Danube, you could spot both Radecki and Šaran. Radecki, a suggestion of our Spotter Dušan, is right at the end of the quay, away from the hustle and bustle of its more crowded area. If you’re seeking to cut yourself off from whatever surrounds you, don’t hesitate: this is where you should head to. On the other hand, Šaran (Serbian for ‘carp’) is an exquisite fish restaurant. Intimate, simple, traditional – you can’t go wrong with it.
Not to worry if you’ve been stuffing yourself, as Zemun offers a number of opportunity for walks and strolls. Aside from the quay, the park of Zemun is a protected area of cultural and historic monuments, and a lovely place to rest. Stay in the area the whole afternoon, you won’t regret it – and before dark, make sure you climb to Gardoš. One of the three hills on which Zemun is built, Gardoš is one of the many magic panoramic spots from where to admire the river and sky when the sun is setting.
Day 2: 19:00 – 23:00
Say ‘Express’, and most people would think about trains. And indeed, Balkan Ekspres is a restaurant in an old Yugoslav Railway wagon. Situated 50 metres above the Danube river, on Gardoš hill, Balkan Express’ menu is as delightful as the view you can admire from its terrace – yes, turns out Belgrade is also the ultimate spot to snap some great panoramic photos. Alternatively, a Zemun apartment is now home to Salon 5. The restaurant serves delicious dishes in an intimate setting where contemporary art, design pieces form the 70s blend in harmony with its old architecture.
In case you’re moving back to the city centre, have some drinks at Meduza. The bar is lively and crowded, local DJs play fine tunes, and yet Meduza never turns into a noisy disco – the vibe is always chilled, an aspect that Bogdan really appreciates. Otherwise, down in hipster Savamala, you’ll find Casa Garcia. The man who runs the bar is originally from Spain but hold on, this is far from being the tacky Spanish place every centre can’t seem to do without. The crowd is mainly local, the drinks are as Serbian as they get and, like tons of other venues in Belgrade, Casa Garcia stays open till late.
Day 2: 23:00 – …
It’s your last night in Belgrade: bid farewell with a bang. Drug§tore is one of the latest additions to Belgrade’s party scene. This former slaughterhouse, mainly a venue for techno and tech house music, is now hosting some of the best parties and DJ sets in town.
Anyway, in case the weather is magnanimous and the temperature mild, remember to party on one of many splavovi (Serbian for ‘rafts) that dot the banks of the Sava and the Danube. Some of them go mainstream, few are definitely more experimental and alternative, others play traditional tunes… But regardless of the music, you want to be on one of them when the dawn comes and the first, discrete rays of sun start shining over Belgrade.
While you’re making your way home, do it along the banks of the Sava: under the Branko’s Bridge are love graffiti, poems and confessions written on the pavements. When our Spotter Svetlana happens to be here, she admits she can’t help noticing how romantic Belgrade looks across the river. I was there myself as well, during my last morning in Belgrade, dragging my body home. Across the river was Novi Beograd, behind me the city centre and the walls of Kalemegdan. I could hear the music coming from the nearby rafts, yet everything around me seemed quiet and peaceful. The colours of the sky reflected on the thousand faces of this rough diamond, and I couldn’t help thinking that Belgrade is beautiful the way it is – despite and thanks to its thousand contrasts.