The Balkan metropolis at the mouth of the Danube and Sava Rivers is a hot (and still very much insider) tip for anyone looking for a thrilling city trip filled with parties, culture and great cuisine.
With its ubiquitous East European concrete tower blocks, abandoned homes and façades still bearing the scars of the NATO attack in 1999, this city of 1.7 million people is not one of Europe’s loveliest cities, aesthetically speaking. But Belgrade, also known as the “Gateway to the Orient”, has a little bit of everything, and one thing above all – fascinating people whose seductive energy is all but impossible to escape.
We set out on our voyage of discovery through Belgrade with the landmark of the city, the mighty Kalemegdan Citadel, with its metres-thick walls and countless gateways. The origins of this mediaeval fortress, whose occupants have changed too many times to remember over the centuries, go all the way back to Roman times. A terrace off the banks of the river offers breathtaking views of the Danube-Sava Delta, across to the districts of Zemun and Novi Beograd and deep into the Pannonian lowlands. The Military Museum here shows the gory weapons used to attack and defend the fortress over the centuries.
Our journey on foot then takes us on, through rambling Kalemegdan Park and down into Belgrade’s old city district. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that this is exactly where the pedestrian precinct surrounding Knez Mihailova, the capital’s upmarket shopping street, starts. The splendid late nineteenth-century and art nouveau buildings of the pedestrianised streets here are home to chic cafés, countless bookstores, galleries and fashion outlets. (It’s well worth ordering something at one of the street cafés, or Kafanas, and just people-watching.) Marko, a gregarious student we get to know at the horseback monument at Republic Square, the main meeting point for young and old alike, enthuses that “Nowhere else are people quite so beautiful as in Belgrade.”
Young people here do indeed seem to attach extraordinary importance by their appearance, despite the fact that the average Serb earns around 500 euros a month, and many people need to do anything up to three jobs just to survive. “One of the symbols of our city is that while we may be poor, we always make the most out of everything,” Marko notes. And that principle applies not just to people’s appearance, but also to Belgrade lifestyle in general: so a supermarket is turned into a hip restaurant, closed-down factory premises are transformed into a super-hot party mile, an entire storey of a run-down block of flats is revitalised as a disco, and more.
Arguably the best evidence of this new, young and creative Belgrade is Savamala, the district behind the city’s Central Station. Old art nouveau façades and crumbling town houses remind us of better times enjoyed by this district, which borders on the banks of the Sava and the city’s former harbour, Beton Hala. The former workshops in the area, centring on the streets surrounding the Mikser House, already a legend and the location of coffee houses, shops and events, are continuously being converted into creative spaces like Ben Akiba comedy club and stylish restaurant Berliner, which serves Serbian delicacies and countless different varieties of beer in an atmospheric vault. Street art and graffiti seem to grace the walls of every second house you pass in the area.
If you love just taking a stroll and enjoying great food along the way, then Beton Hala, the promenade along the banks of the River Sava, is exactly the place for you. The stretch is home to many of Belgrade’s finest restaurants, including Sakura, the Toro Latin Gastro Bar and Cantina de Frida, to name just three. In the evening, meanwhile, the popular promenade is transformed into a great place to party, dine out and just hang out. The old converted ships on the river are home to some of the hottest clubs in the city, such as 20/44, where party people dance into the small hours to beats laid down by international DJs.
If party life is less your thing than culture and great cooking, you should make a point of visiting the richly traditional Skadarlija Street. Intellectuals and politicians have always met here, in the city’s Bohemian quarter, to exchange views with the people. The cobbled street is lined with countless cafés, traditional restaurants with live music, bookstores and antique shops.
Another landmark of Belgrade, idyllically located on Vracar Hill, is Saint Sava Cathedral, a building whose gargantuan proportions mean it resembles Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Saint Sava is one of the world’s greatest Orthodox places of worship, and the largest church in south-eastern Europe. Which is probably also why it’s been under construction since 1935, and is continuously being renovated. On the lower floor, you can watch the artists at work, busily painting the arched ceiling.
Frans, one of Belgrade’s best restaurants, is close by. Here, you can dine on international and traditional delicacies such as Prebanac, a beans dish, Sarma, or stuffed cabbage, and good, solid meat dishes straight off the grill, and all in a kind of botanic garden.
If you have time, cross the Brankov Bridge across the Danube in the direction of Zemun, the side of Belgrade which was once Austrian. You can enjoy a wonderful walk along the riverside promenade here, and enjoy traditional Saram, or smoked carp with dried plums, at Stara Carinarinca (translation: ‘Old Customs Station’) fish restaurant. Legend has it that this historic point is where the German word ‘Tschusch’ – now a mildly derogative word for people from the Balkans in general – originally started being used. For many centuries, the Danube formed the border between the Ottoman Empire and Austro-Hungary. When travellers arrived at the river, they would call out the word ‘cujes’ – meaning ‘listen out!’ and pronounced ‘tschujesch’ – to summon the pilot of a boat to ferry them across the Danube.
The Serbian capital is just around the corner from Austria. If you think you might want to take a look at the Serbian metropolis beside the Danube sometime soon, remember you can be in Belgrade within an hour from Vienna. Click HERE to book your flight now!