Belgrade is not your typical European sightseeing destination, and it often gets overlooked by travellers. Alternatively the bad boy and the beacon of the Balkans, this intriguing metropolis offers more than just grand architecture and signature dishes: its staggering history, coupled with creativity and laid-back hedonism, makes it a real lived-in city, not a living museum.
The White City’s crumbling facades have many layers – its irresistible pull is the life pulsating underneath. Much has been said about Belgrade’s nightlife, but when the sun is up there’s a whole other side to this vibrant, edgy capital. Here’s a look at its neighbourhoods, outdoors spaces, historic sights and museums.
The heart of Belgrade is Stari Grad (Old Town), loosely defined by the pedestrian Knez Mihajlova, the central Republic Square and the main thoroughfare of Terazije. But it’s in the following neighbourhoods that you’ll find the distinct spirit of the city.
Leafy residential Dorćol is the historic Turkish quarter hugging the Danube, home of Belgrade’s only surviving mosque and the lively Bajloni market. The trendy bars and cafes on Strahinjića Bana strip are known to attract the nouveau riche and are the place for people-watching. Soak up the neighbourhood charm at Smokvica, a courtyard cafe and the perfect chillout slice of Dorćol, or enjoy the innovative Supermarket concept store, art space and fusion restaurant. Nearby cobblestoned Skadarlija, the 19th-century hangout of down-and-out artists, has become a tourist attraction but retains some of the bohemian spirit in its art galleries and kafane (taverns) with traditional Balkan fare, roving Roma musicians and names like This Hat of Mine.
The riverside industrial Savamala district has been resurrected by Belgrade’s creatives, its derelict buildings hiding cool design and cultural centres and clubs like KC Grad. Beton Hala (Concrete Hall) is a converted warehouse and home to fancy-but-hip restaurants and bars with fabulous river views; try Toro Latin Gastro Bar for starters. Controversial Dubai-style waterfront development is in the works, posing questions about Savamala’s future; meanwhile, its street art is flourishing. Romantic spots include the gorgeous Bašta jazz terrace overlooking Brankov bridge. Up the hill, the venac (crescent) trio – Kosančićev, Obilićev and Topličin – outlines the baroque walls of the oldest part of town, Varoš Kapija (Town Gate). Today this is another hub of cafe and restaurant life with elegant though dilapidated passageways, art studios, antique shops, and Belgrade’s only synagogue.
Novi Beograd (New Belgrade) arose from the swamps north of the Sava river after WWII; it has its share of popular splavovi, or floating restaurants and clubs. In total contrast to the southside old town, this is communist urban planning on a grandiose scale, with sprawling blocks of wide boulevards and concrete apartment buildings – the ‘dormitory’ of Belgrade. For fans of brutalism, the ‘Western Gate’ is a must. A stroll along the Danube, past Friendship Park – with sycamores planted by Indira Gandhi, Queen Elizabeth II, the Rolling Stones and others – takes you to Zemun. The southernmost border town of Austria-Hungary until the end of WWI, today it’s another Belgrade neighbourhood. Come here to wander the maze of its quaint, narrow streets, and to enjoy excellent fish lunches and sublime Danube views from Gardoš Tower.
With a local: iBikeBelgrade’s relaxed cycling tours around town come with locals’ insights into the city lifestyle.
Out and about
Few cities can boast a setting as extraordinary as Belgrade’s. The views over the Sava and the Danube confluence from Kalemegdan are memorable – no wonder the Turks called it ‘The Hill of Contemplation’. The park blends harmoniously with the fortress; it’s the city’s premier outdoors destination, complete with basketball and tennis courts, chess players, souvenir sellers, observatory and a zoo. South of the centre are two huge – and adjacent – forest parks. Košutnjak, once the royal hunting grounds, has walking trails, swimming pools and even a modest ski slope. Topčider has been a popular picnic area since the 19th century, when its famous gigantic sycamore tree was planted.
Enjoying the rivers is one of the best things to do in Belgrade, and there’s more to it than river-barge revelry. In summer Belgraders flock to the pebbly beach on the Sava river’s forested Ada Ciganlija island-turned-peninsula-with-a-lake, where activities range from roller skating to bungee jumping. For fewer crowds, hop over to sandy Lido beach at the tip of the Great War Island, smack in the middle of Ušće (The Confluence); the rest of the island is a protected bird sanctuary. The Sava’s small Ada Međica island, once a fishermen’s hangout, is a wonderful secluded nature retreat with houseboats.
With a local: Belgrade Adventure is a kayaking exploration of the life on the rivers.
Start learning about Belgrade’s fascinating, two-millennia-long history at Kalemegdan Fortress. Countless battles have been fought over the mighty ramparts above the rivers since their foundations were first laid by the Celts. The highlights include the spooky Roman Well (actually built by the Austrians), the Nebojša Tower (a dungeon during Turkish rule), the tiny ivy-clad Ružica Church (once a gunpowder depository, with the candelabra made from WWI sabres and bullets), and the Military Museum where even parts of the infamous US stealth fighter shot down in 1999 are displayed.
The residences of Princess Ljubica and Prince Miloš are among the few remaining traces of Ottoman culture in Belgrade and a great introduction to the life under the 19th-century Obrenović dynasty. Sveti Sava Temple and Sveti Marko Church hold special historical significance. The former, one of the world’s largest Orthodox churches (albeit unfinished), was built on the spot where it’s believed the Turks burned the relics of the Serbian Orthodox Church founder. The latter is modelled on the venerated Gračanica Monastery in Kosovo and guards the tomb of medieval Serbia’s Emperor Dušan the Mighty.
The Royal Compound in Belgrade’s exclusive Dedinje neighbourhood is home to the descendants of the 20th-century Karađorđević dynasty but it can be visited on a guided tour of the lavish Royal and White Palaces, including their large art collection. Built between the two world wars by soon-to-be-assassinated King Alexander I of Yugoslavia, they were used by the communist regime after WWII. Tito’s mausoleum in the Kuća Cveća (House of Flowers) is a shrine to Yugoslavia’s lifelong communist leader; the adjacent Museum of Yugoslavia hosts though-provoking exhibitions.
For recent history, the shells of government buildings bombed by NATO in 1999 stand untouched in the centre of Belgrade as grim yet defiant scars from the city’s darkest days.
With a local: Belgrade Underground Tour is a subterranean journey through the city’s unseen history from Roman to communist times.
A spot of culture
If you only have time for a couple of museum and gallery visits, make it these two. The Nikola Tesla Museum houses the genius inventor’s invaluable personal inheritance (as well as the golden sphere with his ashes), but also has interactive science exhibits and informative tours in English. For Serbian art and culture, head to the Gallery of Frescoes to admire life-size replicas of priceless Byzantine religious art and ornaments from medieval Serbian monasteries.
The reopening of the Museum of Contemporary Art and the National Museum in October 2017 and June 2018 respectively – after being closed for years due to a massive renovation and lack of funds – was a long-awaited event on Belgrade’s cultural scene.
With a local: Beo Project Tours take in Belgrade’s art and culture from 30 different angles.
First published in May 2015