Serbia’s capital is always on the move – a constantly changing scene of new bars and restaurants alongside old favourites. After a scorching hot summer, temperatures are now perfect for getting the most out of the city’s lively café culture and Eastern Europe’s best nightlife. Here are a few reasons why Belgrade is a hidden highlight of Europe.
There aren’t many cities that have made use of its riverfronts as Belgrade has done. More than two hundred floating bars, clubs and restaurants known as splavovi line the Danube and Sava rivers, ranging from intimate little cafés to sprawling nightclubs that go on till dawn. Some are open only for the summer season, but others including Splav Play keep going all year round. Lovely views of the river come with cocktails costing less than 500 dinars.
The choice of restaurants in Belgrade is dizzying, and many are absurdly cheap by most European standards. The old town is full of traditional Serbian restaurants, where you can get Balkan staples such as cevapcici (meat rissoles) and roasted red peppers stuffed with cheese. Or you can join the trendy set in the cosmopolitan collection of waterfront restaurants at Beton Hala, where Italian, Spanish and Asian flavours dominate.
There’s rarely a quiet moment along Knez Mihailova, Belgrade’s broad, pedestrianised boulevard that cuts through the old town. Amid the buskers, street sellers and strollers, you can check out the shops or stop for a lingering coffee in one of the many cafés in front the street’s handsome nineteenth-century buildings. At number 26 is the Zepter Museum, an entertaining stroll through Serbian modern and contemporary art. There’s some fantastic art on display here – more than worth the 200 dinars admission.
Head to the eastern bank of the River Sava to Savamala, formerly a rundown area of derelict warehouses and decaying Art Nouveau mansions. Over the past few years, bars and clubs have been moving into the empty buildings and giving them a hyper-trendy new buzz. KC Grad and Mikser House have led the way in this funky regeneration, both set in old warehouses and offering a mix of live music, food, drink and vintage clothing stalls. Stop for a drink in the shabby-chic garden of Klub Dvoristance or cool industrial Prohibicija before stopping by Tranzit Bar for cocktails in its brick vaulted interior.
Cross the Sava to Zemun and you immediately notice the difference between east and west. Now a Belgrade suburb, Zemun had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918, and the Habsburg architectural legacy is unmistakable. But the atmosphere is typically Balkan, with the scent of Turkish coffee wafting from the riverside café tables and mingling with the tantalising aromas coming from the seafood restaurants. Climb to the top of Gardos Tower, built by the Hungarians in 1896, for panoramic views of Belgrade and the Danube.
Skadarlija is Belgrade’s closest thing to a touristy area, a nineteenth-century bohemian quarter where poets and writers used to hang out and argue over coffee, rakija and cigarettes in cafés along its bumpy cobbled lanes. You’ll still find the coffee, rakija and cigarettes – and some very bumpy cobbles – alongside old-fashioned Serbian restaurants where street musicians serenade diners with traditional folk songs. If that sort of thing normally has you running a mile, relax – it all adds to the merry atmosphere, and there’s no pressure to give a tip.
Kalemegdan is the oldest part of the city, a vast park that encompasses Belgrade’s history from Roman times onwards. It’s easy to spend a day here getting pleasantly lost among its tree-lined paths, exploring the imposing Belgrade Fortress and military museum and climbing to the ramparts for views of the Sava and the Danube. It’s the city’s green heart too, a chilled-out place for picnics and lazy walks. If you stop for a bite to eat at Kalemegdanska Terasa, you can listen out for the sounds of the animals next door at the zoo.
Ada Ciganlija, an island on the River Sava that’s been turned into a peninsula, is Serbia’s only Blue Flag beach – quite a feat for a landlocked country. In the height of summer it’s the city’s playground, thronging with people cooling off in the water, kayaking or having a go on the giant Total Wipeout-style obstacle course. But even once the summer season is officially over, you can still have a swim, refuel at one of the many waterside cafés, take a stroll along its leafy paths or hire a bike for a leisurely ride.
Top image © Datsenko Maryna/Shutterstock