Outspoken, adventurous, proud and audacious: Belgrade ('White City') is by no means a 'pretty' capital, but its gritty exuberance makes it one of Europe's most happening cities. While it hurtles towards a brighter future, its chaotic past unfolds before your eyes: socialist blocks are squeezed between art nouveau masterpieces, and remnants of the Habsburg legacy contrast with Ottoman relics and socialist modernist monoliths. This is where the Sava and Danube Rivers kiss, an old-world culture that at once evokes time-capsuled communist-era Yugoslavia and new-world, EU-contending cradle of cool.
Grandiose coffee houses and smoky dives pepper Knez Mihailova, a lively pedestrian boulevard flanked by historical buildings all the way to the ancient Belgrade Fortress. The riverside Savamala quarter has gone from ruin to resurrection, and is the city's creative headquarters (for now). Deeper in Belgrade's bowels are museums guarding the cultural, religious and military heritage of the country.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Belgrade.
Some 115 battles have been fought over imposing, impressive Belgrade Fortress (aka Kalemegdan); the citadel was destroyed more than 40 times throughout the centuries. Fortifications began in Celtic times, and the Romans extended it onto the flood plains during the settlement of 'Singidunum', Belgrade's Roman name. Much of what stands today is the product of 18th-century Austro-Hungarian and Turkish reconstructions. The fort's bloody history, discernible despite today's jolly cafes and funfairs, only makes the fortress all the more fascinating.
This must-visit museum houses an invaluable collection of more than 200,000 artefacts representing the fascinating, tumultuous history of Yugoslavia. Photographs, artworks, historical documents, films, weapons, priceless treasure: it's all here. It can be a lot to take in; English-speaking guides are available if booked in advance via email, or you can join a free tour on weekends (11am in English, Serbian at noon). Marshal Tito's Mausoleum is also on the museum grounds; admission is included in the ticket price.
Looming over Belgrade and topped with the tallest tower in the Balkans (204.5m), Mt Avala is a city landmark that makes for a pleasant break from the capital's bustling streets. The broadcasting tower, originally completed in 1965 but levelled by NATO bombs in 1999, was rebuilt in 2010 and now offers picture-perfect panoramas over Belgrade and beyond from viewing platforms and a cafe. Nearby, the Monument to the Unknown Hero by Ivan Meštrović honours Serbian victims of WWI.
One of Belgrade's top cultural sights, this recently renovated museum is a treasure trove of 20th-century art from the ex-Yugoslav cultural space. The 1960s concrete-and-glass modernist building, surrounded by a sculpture park, has great views towards the Belgrade Fortress across the Sava River. Conceptual art features prominently, including a 1970s video called Freeing the Memory from the region's most famous artist (and Belgrade native), Marina Abramović. One section is dedicated to the 1920s Yugoslav avant-garde magazine Zenit and the Zenitism art movement associated with it.
A visit to Tito's mausoleum is obligatory. The big man rests in an aptly gigantic tomb in peaceful surrounds. Also on display are thousands of elaborate relay batons presented to him by young 'Pioneers', plus gifts from political leaders and the voguish set of the era. The mausoleum is attached to the fascinating Museum of Yugoslavia.
This impressive collection of works by contemporary Serbian artists became Serbia’s first private museum in 2010, but remains somewhat hidden even though it's housed in a magnificent 1920s building in the heart of pedestrianised Knez Mihailova. The eclectic interior is a fitting backdrop to the range of styles on display. The permanent collection is a great overview of the main trends in Serbian art from the second half of the 20th century. The museum also hosts temporary exhibitions and events.
The ivy-swathed Ružica Church looks innocuous from the outside; inside, you'll find chandeliers made by WWI Serbian soldiers from spent bullet casings, swords, rifles and cannon parts as well as numerous frescoes, including those by famous Russian academy artist Andrei Bicenko. The church was originally an arsenal, then a military chapel before its restoration in 1925.
Commissioned between the two world wars by soon-to-be-assassinated King Alexander I of Yugoslavia, the Royal and White Palaces in Belgrade's exclusive Dedinje neighbourhood were residences of King Peter II and used by the communist regime after WWII. Today they are home to the descendants of the Karađorđević dynasty and can be visited only by guided tour. The two-hour tour (book through the Tourist Organisation of Belgrade; www.tob.rs) leaves from Nikola Pašić Square Wednesday and weekends from April through to October.
One of the few remaining symbols of ex-Yugoslavia, Marshal Tito's Blue Train nowadays serves as a mostly inaccessible museum but can be rented for travel or special occasions like film/video shoots, conferences, exhibitions or weddings. The wagons, from the ceremonial dining room and the Zodiac-inspired bar to Tito’s lounge, office and private rooms, feature Art Deco details, wool carpets and silk and velvet furnishings. The original locomotives are named after famous WWII battles such as Kozara and Sutjeska.