When I make plans to travel to a city, I typically do a little research first, but Belgrade wasn’t even on my itinerary. The original plan was just to pass through on my way to Croatia, but based on recommendations from other travelers I decided to stop for a few days just to break up the trip.
I’m a bit ashamed to admit that the only words that came to mind when I thought of Serbia were ‘war-torn,’ ‘NATO bombing’ and ‘ethnic cleansing.’ My expectations for the country’s capital weren’t too high & I wasn’t sure what to expect.
I was completely blown away…by how much I LOVED it! I couldn’t believe how at-home I felt in a city where nothing is written in English.
(Granted, this may have something to do with the fact that I had just spent 5 weeks camping on a mountaintop and this was my return to civilization. When I heard my CS host say “water is cheap & it will stay hot – take as long of a shower as you want,” I almost started crying.)
I would describe it as a cross between San Francisco & Chicago with a somewhat Italian vibe. It is incredibly clean & well-maintained, with just the right amount of graffiti (I don’t trust a city without a sufficient amount of spray paint).
Belgrade is a city that has been completely demolished and rebuilt a whopping 38 times. It has been captured and under the rule of more empires throughout history that can be counted (okay, I’m sure you can count them, I’m just not going to).
Because of its diverse history this eclectic city has become a thriving blend of food, architecture, culture, style & music taken from all over Europe.
Here are some of the best parts of Belgrade:
Republic Square & the City Center
The horse in Republic Square is the most popular meeting place in the city, and sits in front of the city center. Atop it sits Prince Mihailo, who is credited with persuading the Turkish garrisons to leave Belgrade in 1867, making him somewhat of a hero. Unfortunately for him, most Belgrade citizens refer to his statue as simply ‘the horse.’
Behind it stands the National Museum, which has been under renovation for as long as anyone can remember (maybe 20 years, according to my tour guide). She is hopeful that with tourism starting to pick up in Belgrade, it might be completed in the next 20 years.
Keep walking and you will find a bustling pedestrian area with shopping, street food, cafes, more ice cream stands than you will know what to do with, fountains, artists & street musicians. And best of all?
Yeah, I know. My priorities might be a little screwed up that this is one of the first points I mention about a city. But when you depend on a WiFi signal for directions, finding a place to stay and your sole connection to the world in general, it is sort of a big one. Belgrade understands.
It’s not inconceivable to walk through the pedestrian area and keep a steady signal on your phone for several blocks. Half of the signals are open, and it’s easy to obtain passwords for the ones that aren’t. The people working at the outdoor cafes will usually tell it to you if you just ask – no order required.
Okay, I’m easily impressed, but hey – it’s the little things, right? The fountains in Belgrade’s city center are so clean you can actually stick your head down and drink from them or refill your water bottle.
Belgrade Fortress & Kalamegdan Park
This alone is enough to skyrocket Belgrade up in my esteem. I love all things castle or fortress related, and this one is particularly fun to explore. It overlooks the meeting of the Danube & Sava Rivers as well as providing the most scenic view in the city. The fortress itself hosts the military museum (the only tanks you will see lining the streets) and is divided into Upper & Lower Town, expanding into Kalamegdan Park. Like the rest of the city, it has been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times.
One of the things I found especially interesting was that it’s been fortified with a hodgepodge of both white & red stones. Why? Because the Turks chose to use the white stones found in the city’s quarry but the Austrians insisted on shipping in special red bricks from Vienna. Because, you know, no one uses local bricks anymore, darling.
It also contains dungeons & secret bunkers built by the Nazi regime that were only discovered when the Serbian army officially disbanded in 2008. I’m a sucker for secret dungeon-bunkers.
Deliciously affordable food
You can’t walk more than 15 yards without bumping into an ice cream or popcorn stand (I gave in once…or twice) but I was really surprised by the variety of food. Gyros, sandwiches, pastries, kabobs, Chinese food, sushi, salads, and something I had been craving for weeks: pizza.
If you’re ever in Belgrade & you want to try the best pizza ever (yep, that’s right, I called it and I am a Chicagoan – so I KNOW my pizza) head off the main drag and down Francuska street to Pizza Bucko. They put different toppings & sauces on the pizza and it is seriously transcendent. One slice is plenty to fill you up and will set you back a grand total of 100 dinar (about 85 cents). I, of course, ate two.
The place is a hole in the wall. Literally. There is no inside – you order through a cut out window. There is no seating so you have to walk around until you find an empty bench, but it is SO worth it. At any given time you’ll see locals lined up around the block for this pizza.
Local liquor that packs a punch
Remember the old Nokia slogan “Nokia: Connecting People”? Well the Serbs will tell you that Rakia connects more people than Nokia.
Rakia is a traditional Serbian liquor made from distilled fruits. The most popular flavor is plum, although I preferred the quince. I also tried the pear, which was a big mistake for a girl who doesn’t drink mass quantities of moonshine on a daily basis. Rakia has an ABV of approximately 40-80%. My advice when drinking Rakia: sip slowly.
However, if you do accidentally indulge in too much Rakia, soak it up the next morning with the traditional breakfast dish of Burek. Burek is essentially meat or cheese rolled up inside a fried pastry. When I asked my host what a traditional Serbian diet consisted of he said one word: meat. That’s when I knew I would get along just fine in Belgrade. (Sorry, vegans, you might have a bit more of a challenge.)
Beaches, rivers & walking trails around a lake
Belgrade may not have a coastline, but they don’t let that stop them. In addition to a small beach along the ‘island’ (technically more of a peninsula, but who’s counting?) there is also a man-made lake in an area called Ada Ciganlija. You can sunbathe along the shores, visit one of the floating restaurants or stroll around the surrounding path.
Watch out for bikers (or rent your own bike), runners & rollerbladers, because Belgrade is an active city. Sure, you’ll see people sitting around in cafes drinking wine mixed with coke (yes, really) in the middle of the afternoon but they also like to keep fit. You’ll see people playing every sport under the sun around Ada Ciganlija. You can even bungee jump over the lake if you’re in an adventurous kind of mood.
If you do walk around the lake, you’ll also run into…Stonehenge? That’s right, there is a replica of Stonehenge constructed over the river. Unfortunately, it’s slightly more graffiti-afflicted than the original.
Night Life & People-Watching Opportunities
Belgrade has a fantastic night life, including some damn good people-watching spots. Start in the city center & order yourself a drink, because you’re about to witness a classic historic ritual: fishing.
The men arrive around 6 or 7 pm and settle in with their keys sitting on the table in front of them. A little while later the most beautiful (and surgically-enhanced) woman in the city will start to appear, fresh from an exhausting day of spa treatments, shopping & hair salons. They will appraise the keys, have a drink, & head off with the man of their choosing.
No, they’re not prostitutes, ladies and gentlemen; they’re just good old-fashioned gold diggers looking to score themselves a rich husband. (If he happens to be American or Canadian, even better – they’re also on the hunt for green cards.)
Sorry men, but you have to be uber-rich to have a shot here. In the words of my tour guide, “don’t try to fake it – these girls can smell the money and they’ll eat you alive.”
After observing the ‘fishing’ ritual, head down the boats along the river or one of Belgrade’s hopping rooftop bars. Wander along until you hear some music that strikes your fancy (and there is quite the variety to choose from) and hop on in. Try your hand at Serbian dancing, which even I can manage, as it’s basically swaying from side to side with your hands in the air. Yep, that is exactly my kind of dancing.
A lot of travelers skip Belgrade, which I think is a real shame. This is a wonderful city with a fascinating history, diverse architecture, & plenty of culture. The people here were incredibly welcoming and helpful.
Whenever someone overheard me speaking English they would jump right in and point me in the right direction. Trying to figure out which bus to take or where to go would have been overwhelming if not for the kindness of strangers.
I also learned a great deal about Serbia’s current political situation and what is really happening in the Kosovo region. Hearing the whole story was definitely eye-opening. As my tour guide so succinctly phrased it
“Wars are games played by governments & paid for by the people.”
If you do make it to Belgrade, there is a free walking tour provided by Travel Time Collection that I highly recommend. It starts at the horse (obviously) at 10:30 am or 2 pm. They also have quite a few highly affordable tours including a pub crawl (€9), a river cruise (€7) and an underground secrets tour (€12). I wasn’t here long enough to enjoy everything they had to offer, but I’ll definitely check it out the next time around.