Belgrade (Београд; Beograd) is a vigorous, high-energy city, where throughout spring and summer all ages throng the streets at all hours. With a seemingly endless supply of bars and clubs, its nightlife is one of the unexpected high points on any European itinerary.
The city sits at a strategic point on the junction of the Danube and Sava rivers – something that has proved a source of weakness as well as strength over the ages: Belgrade has been captured as many as sixty times by Celts, Romans, Huns, Avars and more. The onslaught continued right through the twentieth century, when the city suffered heavy shelling during World War II and in 1999 withstood 78 days of NATO airstrikes.
All that considered, contemporary Belgrade is pretty picturesque. The mingling and merging of styles can be off-putting, particularly when a row of beautiful older frontages is interrupted by a postwar interloper, but the grand nineteenth-century buildings and delicate Art Nouveau facades still stand alongside the Yugoslav experimentation, eloquent witnesses of the city’s time under the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires.
The city’s most attention-grabbing attraction is the Kalemegdan Fortress. Just outside the park boundary is the Old City, whose dense lattice of streets conceals Belgrade’s most interesting sights. South of here is Belgrade’s central square, Trg Republike, and the old bohemian quarter of Skadarlija, beyond which lie several more sights worth seeing, including one of the world’s largest Orthodox churches. For a spot of rest and recuperation, head west across the Sava to the verdant suburb of Zemun, in New Belgrade, or further south towards the island of Ada Ciganlija, Belgrade’s own miniature beach resort.
Top image Zemun © DeStefano/Shutterstock
Belgrade can now count on a stack of terrific hostels, many within striking range of the stations – Hedonist Hostel is particularly good, and sited in the old town. In addition there's an affordable, if not particularly exciting, crop of centrally located budget hotels.
In the summer months Belgraders flock to Ada Ciganlija(literally, “gypsy island”), a stretch of wooded park along the bank of the Sava just south of the centre. The island’s sandy beaches have earned it the local nickname “Belgrade’s seaside”, and city-dwellers enjoy its giant water slides, waterskiing and naturist area; there’s even bungee-jumping. A gleaming new addition to the Belgrade skyline is the Ada Bridge, which skirts the easternmost tip of the island; a seven-span superstructure over 950m long, and rising to a height of some 200m, it is the largest single pylon suspension bridge in the world – the views of it from the island are stunning.
Трг Републике Trg Republike
Трг Слободе Trg Slobode
Краља Петра Kralja Petra
Краља Милана Kralja Milana
Кнез Михаилова Knez Mihailova
Змај Јовина Zmaj Jovina
Around five minutes’ walk along Kralja Aleksandra beyond the Parliament Building is the Church of St Marko, a grandiose, five-domed neo-Byzantine structure modelled on the revered monastery of Gračanica in Kosovo. It holds the tomb of the Serbian Emperor, Tsar Dušan, protected by muscled stone guards.
Dominating the skyline south of Terazije is the magnificent gilded dome of the Church of St Sava, at Svetosavski trg in the Vračar district. Built on the spot where the Turks supposedly burnt the bones of the founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church in 1594, it is a perfect example of the way religious and national identities fuse here. It also stakes a fair claim to be one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world, with a cavernous interior that has been under stop-start construction for over a hundred years. The church is a twenty-minute walk south of Trg Republike.
Not for nothing is Belgrade now regarded as one of Europe’s foremost party towns. There are a staggering number of places to drink and dance, with heavy concentrations along Strahinjića bana (known as “Silicon Valley”, and not for its technological innovations), Obiličev venac and Njegoševa, to name but three streets. In summer, it’s all aboard the splavovi – floating bars and clubs – to dance the night away. Most are concentrated on the bank of the Danube behind the Hotel Jugoslavija – a conspicuous block on the main road towards Zemun – and along the Sava around the Brankov Bridge; two of the most popular are Freestyler and Blaywatch. Most clubs don’t get going until at least 11pm and usually stay open until around 4am.
Belgrade’s restaurant scene has improved markedly in recent years and you’ll now find an increasing number of ethnic restaurants alongside those serving traditional Serbian food, all at easy-on-the-pocket prices. If you fancy a spot of open-air (though entirely unexceptional) dining, complete with live music and a bit of tourist tack, then head to one of the traditional tavernas lining Skadarska.
A short walk northeast of the Konak lie two interesting museums. At Studentski trg 13, the Ethnographical Museum is a lively people’s history of crafts and clothes in the Balkans. Beyond here, at Cara Uroša 20, the Gallery of Frescoes houses replicas of 1200 of the country’s most fêted medieval frescoes – a must if you don’t have the opportunity to visit the originals at the monasteries of southern Serbia, Macedonia and Kosovo. The style is fresh and colourful – lots of puce and blue.
Splendidly sited on an exposed nub of land overlooking the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers is Kalemegdan Park, dominated by the fortress of the same name. The whole complex is a paean to Serbian heroism, topped with the proud Victory Monument of 1912. Originally built by the Celts in the third century BC, before expansion by the Romans, the fortress has survived successive invasions; most of what remains is the result of a short-lived Austrian occupation in the early eighteenth century. The best of the attractions is the Military Museum, where a history thick with conflict is divertingly presented; one of its most prized acquisitions is part of a US stealth bomber downed during the 1999 conflict.
At Kneza Sime Markovića 8, the Konak of Princess Ljubica was built on the orders of Prince Miloš Obrenović in 1831 to accommodate his family. Eventually the abode of a nineteenth-century noblewoman, it underlines the Balkans’ position as a cultural crossroads: a Napoleon III-themed room sits alongside a Turkish-style room with a Koran stand. It seems nineteenth-century Belgraders loved socializing too: there’s a big semicircular sofa for chatting guests in nearly every room. Look out, too, for themed events in the vaulted basement.
Well worth the trip is the Museum of Yugoslav History, located around 1.5km south of the centre on Botićeva 6. The centrepiece of the complex is the House of Flowers, designed in 1975 as Tito’s winter garden and now housing the former president’s tomb. The adjoining museum holds a wealth of exhibits, including gifts presented to Tito by foreign dignitaries, and thousands of batons used in the annual “relay of youth” which took place on 25 May each year to celebrate Tito’s birthday.
A short walk north of the Church of St Sava is the engaging Nikola Tesla Museum, which celebrates the pioneering work of the eponymous nineteenth-century inventor and engineer. Tesla is credited with inventing the AC current, while other notable achievements include the development of wireless communications and remote control technologies. Alongside papers, tools and personal effects, the museum contains the urn with his ashes. Demonstrations of his experiments are usually held hourly.
The Orthodox Cathedral isa rather stark Neoclassical edifice built in 1840 featuring a fine Baroque tower. It is the resting place for several members of the mighty Obrenović dynasty, as well as Serbia’s greatest literary hero, Vuk Karadzić. Opposite, at Kralja Petra 5, stands the Museum of the Serbian Orthodox Church, where a small collection of bejewelled Bibles and other gorgeously decorated paraphernalia is housed in the HQ of the Patriarchate.
The Parliament Building (Skupština) has seen its fair share of drama. In October 2000, after Milošević tried to claw back the presidential election he’d lost, hundreds of demonstrators forced their way into the parliament building and threw fake ballot papers out of the windows as the building blazed inside. The Parliament was again the scene of protests after Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008.
The main street leading south from Kalemegdan is Kneza Mihailova, a pedestrianized korzo (promenade) with narrow, pretty fronts. It becomes more commercialized and hulkish at its southern end as it approaches Trg Republike (Republic Square), the city’s main square. An irregularly shaped space, it’s dominated by the imperious National Museum (which has remained closed for years awaiting renovation), in front of which is a grand statue of Prince Mihailo on horseback – this is the traditional meeting place for Belgraders.
East of Trg Republike is Skadarlija, the former bohemian district that centres on charming, cobbled Skadarska. South of Trg Republike is the wide swathe of Terazije, which slices through the commercial and business hub of the city.
If you’re after peace and quiet, head across the Sava River to New Belgrade and the west bank suburb of Zemun, a jumble of low-slung houses and narrow winding streets centred around the hilly waterside district of Gardoš, which holds the Baroque Nikolajevska Church, the city’s oldest Orthodox church.