Belgrade: One of Europe´s best kept secrets
Genuine Balkan cuisine, hotels steeped in tradition, and some of Europe's most vibrant nightlife - all at half the price of other places in Europe. Belgrade might be the continent's best-kept secret.
After many years in the shadows, one of Europe's oldest and most historic capitals is back in the spotlight. On a small hill at the confluence of the Sava and the Danube, lies the Belgrade Fortress. The fortress watches over the city's inhabitants, as it has since it was built by the Celts around the year 279 BC.
Since then, both the fortress and Belgrade have had many rulers: the Romans, the Byzantines, the Ottomans and the Habsburgs - to name a few.
"The White City"
In fact, Belgrade is one of Europe's oldest capitals and can trace its settlement all the way back to about 5,000 BC. After a bloody civil war in the 1990s following the dissolution of Yugoslavia, and a brief period as part of a larger country together with Montenegro, Serbia has been independent since 2006. The turbulent history of both the country and Belgrade may have led some Europeans to overlook the Serbian capital as a weekend destination.
But that is a serious mistake. Bustling nightlife, lush parks, fantastic food, and low prices are just a few of the things you can experience in "The White City".
Where should you stay in Belgrade?
Belgrade is an ever-growing city. At the time of writing, the capital has just over 1.7 million inhabitants, spread across 17 major districts. If this is the first time you are visiting Belgrade, the old town — Stari Grad — is the recommended district for accommodation. If you stay in this area, you will be just a short distance from museums, bars, restaurants and shopping.
The storied Hotel Moskva
One of the city's oldest and most revered hotels is Hotel Moskva. With its 126 rooms and six suites, the hotel has housed famous names such as Nikola Tesla, Frank Sinatra, Julia Roberts, and Richard Nixon - to name a few. The hotel has undergone a major renovation in recent years, has its own spa and wellness centre and the renowned restaurant Tchaikovsky. The renowned bakery Café Moskva is on the ground floor. In 1974, a pastry chef in the bakery invented the cake called Moskva Snit. The cake became so popular that they now sell over 20 tons of it a year.
Luxurious Townhouse 27
If Hotel Moskva’s somewhat traditional style is not to your taste, Townhouse 27 can be a good option. A stone's throw from Belgrade Fortress and a three-minute walk from the main street, Kneza Mihaila, Townhouse 27 hotel offers large, airy rooms at a reasonable price with excellent service and a central location.
Square Nine is another luxury hotel in the Old Town. The hotel has its own spa and fitness room, as well as two restaurants mentioned in the Michelin Guide (albeit without a star).
Read also: Five restaurants in Dublin you can´t miss
Things to do in Belgrade
Belgrade city centre is not large and is best experienced on foot. Joining a guided walking group or booking your own guide is recommended if you want to experience the most important things.
Stari Grad is the site of many of Belgrade's most famous attractions. The aforementioned Belgrade fortress towers above the city and gives visitors an incredible vantage point over the city, the Sava and the Danube. The fortress is open to visitors for much of the day and evening, and admittance is free to the fortress itself. In addition to several museums on the site, you will also find Kalamegada Park by the fortress. The park is home to the Belgrade Zoo.
Kneza Mihaila connects the fortress to the rest of the Stari Grad district and the city centre. The pedestrian street is Belgrade's most famous shopping street, where you will find a number of international brands and shops. The street also has several shopping centres, and cafés and restaurants where you can sip something refreshing in your glass. Kneza Mihaila is also connected to the historically important Republic Square. Republic Square is home to the Serbian National Theatre and the Serbian National Museum.
If you're looking for shopping, you'll also find several shopping malls in the Novi Grad district, across the bridge from Stari Grad. Here, you can find several international brands such as Zara, Nike, and H&M.
The Bohemian quarter
Just below Republic Square, you will find the historic quarter of Skadarlija. The area has long been known as the Bohemian area, and remains so today, as a result of many of Serbia's artists, writers and musicians flocking there for its cheap lodging and booze. These days, the cobbled street is characterised by bars and a variety of traditional eateries, known as kafanas. Several of the kafanas are over 100 years old and offer traditional Serbian cuisine and live music.
In order to be called a katana, a restaurant must have its own band playing traditional Serbian music. Tip the band, and they will willingly play your favourite (Serbian) song.
Belgrade also has a number of exciting museums. Besides the National Museum, the Beograd Contemporary Art Museum is well worth a visit. The museum's exhibition contains around 8,000 works with art by both Serbian and international artists. Another fascinating place is the Nikola Tesla Museum. Although the inventor was born in what is now modern-day Croatia, his family was Serbian. Although the inventor may be best known as inspiring the name of the electric carmaker, Tesla lived an interesting life. At the museum, you can learn more about the inventor, as see a number of his original inventions, drawings, and models.
Radio Television of Serbia
The civil war in the Balkans from 1991 to 1999 may still be fresh in the memory of most Europeans. The bloody conflict erupted in the wake of the collapse of Yugoslavia, costing over 130,000 people their lives and sending millions fleeing. There are memorials in several places in Belgrade, but perhaps the most powerful is the ruins of the building that housed the national broadcaster Radio Television of Serbia at Tašmajdan Park. The building was bombed by NATO on April 23, 1999, costing 16 employees their lives. The building is today a memorial and has been secured against collapse.
Restaurants in Belgrade
There is no shortage of good eateries in Belgrade, a number of which can be found on the side streets of Kneza Mihaila. The Red Bread Café is a stone's throw away from the pedestrian street and is a good alternative for breakfast if you skipped it at the hotel. Here, you will find delicious sandwiches with homemade bread, baked goods, fresh juices, and good coffee.
On the Stari Grad side of the River Sava, in an area known as Beton Hala, you'll find numerous restaurants. The Cantina de Frida serves Mexican food, you can find Italian pizza at Druga Piazza, while Ambar serves more traditional Balkan cuisine. The steakhouse Tomahawk is located just up the street. Note that many of the restaurants in Beton Hala become lounges with live music or DJs as the evening progresses.
Traditional Serbian cuisine
If you want to experience more traditional Serbian cuisine, there is no shortage of options in the capital. Keywords for Serbian cuisine are barbecue, fresh bread, and heroic portions. As Belgrade is close to both the Sava and the Danube, there is also plenty of seafood on the menu.
The Dva Jelena kafana is over 180 years old and is located in Skadarlija. Famous names such as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Yugoslavia's late dictator Tito have enjoyed a meal there. Tri Šešira is another kafana on the same street that can trace its roots back to the 19th century. It was also the Serbian writer and painter Djura Jakšić’s (1832-1878) local for many years.
Rakia - the national drink
At the time of writing, Belgrade does not boast any Michelin-starred restaurants, but the BIB Gourmand does mention the fusion restaurant New Balkan Cuisine. Here, traditional culinary art is combined with international influences.
When you do sit down to a fine dinner, don't forget to sample the national drink, rakia (also known as rakija). It's a kind of brandy made from different types of fruit, so you just have to taste the different varieties until you find your favourite. In addition, the wine made in the country is steadily improving, and is often a quarter of the price of imported varieties. A good place to explore local wines is at the combined wine shop, wine cellar and restaurant, Mama´s bistro.
Night spots in the party city of Belgrade
For many in Western Europe, Barcelona, Berlin or London are often at the top of the list when choosing a city for parties and fun. The fact is that Belgrade has repeatedly topped the leaderboard in recent years when naming Europe's best party city.
Although most bars in the city centre close between midnight and 2am, a number of nightclubs stay open until the last guest goes home. Especially in the area along the River Sava, opposite Beton Hala, during daylight savings time you will find some of the city's best nightclubs. These nightclubs, so-called spalovli or splavs, are simply floating, outdoor nightclubs.
The splavs open in April and keep going until sometime in September. Most of the time, they specialize in a genre of music, so you have to do a little research before choosing your spot. Zappa bar, for example, plays classical rock, while Klub 20/44 focuses on electronica and techno. Some splavs only let in guests who have booked a table, so it might be a good idea to do some research.
In addition, there are regular nightclubs scattered around the city.
If late-night dancing on the Sava isn't quite your cup of tea, Belgrade has plenty of options. Among other things, there are several good cocktail bars around the city. Riddle Bar has no menu, but mixes drinks based on your preferences. Blaznavac kafe is a hip and trendy bar offering great cocktails and cheap beer.
If it's beer that tempts your palate, the Samo Pivo microbrewery ("beer only") might be just the place for you. In addition to around 500 different beers in bottle and on tap, the place has a variety of bar games and a large beer garden. The entrance can be a little difficult to find, as it is located in an underpass.
Bar Wurst Platz is another microbrewery that takes inspiration from Old Vienna and offers live music, good food, and a great atmosphere. Gunners pub is a five-minute walk from Bar Wurst Platz and is another pub with a number of local beers on tap.
If you are the type who cannot quite decide where or what you want to drink, Cetinjska 15 may be the answer you are looking for. Concentrated around a car park in a disused factory, you'll find everything from blues bars to wine bars. Here, you can sample your way to your own favourite.