No visit to Belgrade is complete without at least half a day spent in Zemun. This picturesque neighbourhood on the Danube’s right bank was formerly a separate town, located across the river from central Belgrade.
Although formally part of the Serbian capital since 1934, Zemun still retains its distinct identity and a small-town feel. This is not surprising given that between 1739 and 1918 Zemun was not even in the same state as Belgrade – for those two centuries, it was part of the Habsburg Empire, while Belgrade was first a border city in the Ottoman Empire and then the capital of the newly independent Serbian kingdom.
The most obvious reminder of Zemun’s time as an Austro-Hungarian border town is its most iconic sight – the Janos Hunyadi tower, better known as Gardoš. The brick-and-stone tower rises from the middle of the remains of a medieval square citadel, and offers some of the most beautiful views of Belgrade across the Danube, over red-tiled rooftops and ornate church steeples. It’s named after a Hungarian hero who died here after defending Belgrade from the Ottoman siege of 1456, and was built in 1896 to mark the 1000th anniversary of Hungarian settlement in central Europe.
Next to the tower is Zemun’s cemetery, where elaborate tombs stand as relics of its multicultural past. Among many wonderful turn-of-the-20th-century memorials and more recent hyper-realistic sculptures marking the graves of infamous Serbian criminals, watch out for the graves of Rebecca and Simon Herzl, paternal grandparents of Theodore Herzl. The founder of modern Zionism, Herzl was allegedly inspired in his thinking by a famous Zemun-based rabbi, Yehuda Alkalai.
Although Zemun lost most of its Jewish and German residents during and after WWII, its lower town still bears traces of former cultural diversity, with its main Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish places of worship all located not far from each other. Just below Gardoš, the 18th-century baroque Nikolajevska Church – Belgrade’s oldest and Zemun’s most beautiful – is filled with faded monochrome frescoes and many relics which give it an eerie, ancient feel. Close to Zemun’s city park stands Belgrade’s only functioning Franciscan monastery, dedicated to John the Baptist, and a short walk from there is the former Ashkenazi synagogue (which now, somewhat bizarrely, houses a restaurant).
Architecture aficionados will also enjoy many monumental modernist buildings that were built in Zemun between the two world wars, from the Lutheran Evangelical rotunda in Tošin bunar street, to the hulking art-deco Air Force Command building at Avijatičarski trg. The latter was bombed during the 1999 NATO airstrikes and has not been repaired since, but it’s still one of the most graceful buildings in Belgrade featuring a giant art-deco statue of Icarus on its side. You should also check out the faded Hotel Jugoslavija, which used to be the epitome of Yugoslav socialist luxury, hosting the likes of Queen Elizabeth II, Richard Nixon and Neil Armstrong in its heyday.
Apart from gorgeous architecture, Zemun’s other defining feature is its small-town atmosphere, best experienced at the market which stands between the central Veliki trg and Masarikov trg. Zemun market is considered to be one of the best in Belgrade, and it offers a great variety of local dairy and meat produce which the merchants will normally allow you to taste. If you’re a bit more peckish, you can also snack on girice (fried small fish) which are sold at the many of the market’s fishmongers, or try one of Belgrade’s best bureks (cheese or meat pies) at nearby Petrović bakery on Veliki trg.
Zemun’s culinary scene is a big draw for Belgraders, who come to many restaurants lining the Danube promenade to feast on river-fish dishes and the beloved spicy riblja čorba (fish broth). The venues range from informal budget joints frequented by fishermen, like Radecki, to more upscale places such as Paša, Galeb and Šaran. If river fish is not your thing, consider trying excellent traditional grills at Naja, steaks at Toro or local home-cooked food at cosy Ćiribu Ćiriba.
In addition to delectable food, Zemun’s restaurants are famous for live music and raucous atmosphere in the evenings. In the past few decades, Reka acquired an almost mythical reputation and you’d be considered lucky if you can nab a table there on Fridays and Saturdays. If you’re looking for a casual place to grab a drink and enjoy the view of the Danube, look no further than Kaš, a local craft brewery located inside an old slaughterhouse, or Crna Ovca pub, just below Gardoš, which also brews its own beer.
On warm summer days, you can take a dip in the Danube. During July and August, a pontoon bridge connects Zemun with the Great War Island where you can relax on the beach or go for a stroll around the protected nature reserve. Alternatively, try stand-up paddleboarding at Daska i Veslo beach bar beside Hotel Jugoslavija, which allows you to see Zemun at its most beautiful from the river, as the sun sets below Gardoš tower.