Before I went there, I had few preconceived notions about what I would find in Belgrade. I had expected some remaining bomb damage and the usual type of city people who were curt and uncompromising, but I had also heard about ‘legendary’ nightlife and an edgy vibe. With cities as comparably mainstream as Prague being labelled ‘edgy’ despite their many smooth sides, I was understandably skeptical about Belgrade’s high ‘must-visit’ value. I was about as wrong as a kangaroo in a hat about that one, so feel I should doff my cap in apology to all Belgradians and lovers of that city. I am now something of an addict.
Sandwiched in between Hungary and Bosnia, Serbia is infamous for having taken part in a relatively recent war which contained innumerable atrocities on all sides. This, sadly, is why so many people choose to visit: they have an insatiable, burning curiosity about a city which is managing to pull itself out of the dark depths of war horrors into a lighter time, and where social norms are becoming…well…more *norm* for us delicate western souls.
Small Village Feel:
I will admit that I was one of those curious types, and my first impressions of Belgrade were not at all what I had expected them to be. Stepping from the night train and wandering out into early-morning sunlight, I was not met with sparkliness, or high blocks, but with lower-rise, slightly scrappy-looking buildings which had the air of having ‘been through a lot’. I liked it immediately and felt at ease even as a solo female traveller; safe among the small-town-esque splodges of architecture and away from the towering buildings and wide boulevards of Budapest. Even the local people greeted each other in the street, apartment blocks, and smiled at strangers. A city? Yes, maybe in terms of numbers – but it feels like a country town or village in its open welcome. Even its sloping, sometime cobbled streets are reminiscent of a bygone era.
I will freely admit that Belgrade is not blessed with an innumerable check-box tick-list of ‘places to visit’ or ‘things to do’, like Prague, Budapest or Rome, but – and here is the important part – it does not matter! It is the atmosphere you should go for, and the atmosphere which will hold all your memories.
So many parks!
Belgrade is a green city. I mean – really green. (Aside: I wonder whether this contributes to the laidback attitude of its people?) Around the impressive Kalimegdan Fortress which sits atop a small rise on the Eastern edge of the city is a huge, dappled-shade park, (also with a zoo in which I saw an Alsation-type dog sit peacefully in the peacock enclosure while its owner had a beer nearby) in which I fell asleep for half an hour in the mid-morning quiet (it’s a long story) and nobody bothered me. I felt utterly at peace, content and relaxed.
Ada Ciganlija is another huge expanse of park. It’s on the Novi Belgrade side of the Sava River and is where a lot of locals take their bikes to use the long cycle path there. It’s less peaceful than the park surrounding Kalimegdan Fortress, but is more filled with activities and sports opportunities such as *gasp* bungy jumping and swimming. It’s also slightly cooler than Kalimegdan, being right next to the river and just as shady.
Next to the National Theatre (pictured below – it has had glass placed over the old exterior to protect and modernise it) is a much smaller park – but this one gets the sun, so was relatively empty when I visited around lunchtime. There’s another grassy area near Skandarlije (see below) and yet another round the back of the Hotel Moscow. They are everywhere and lend the city a chilled-out feel which spills over into its nightlife.
Its people smile….and smile…and talk…and smile
It is no exaggeration to say that my visit to Belgrade changed the kind of person I am (see my post ‘Five life lessons learned from a recovering war-scarred city’) and the way I travel, and the people of Belgrade were fundamental in helping me see outside the Ruth-box and reform it. They are exemplary in their kindness, the twinkle in their eyes showing a glimmer of mischievous fun which is ready to come out should you be receptive to it, and their welcome is like no other. The guy I rented my studio apartment from, Bojan, was humble yet fun-loving, and tried his best to accommodate the check-in/check-out time preferences of both myself and the brother-sister twosome leaving the flat before me. He met me at the station at a ridiculously-early 7am, let me leave my rucksack in his own flat while the other people still occupied it, introduced me to his wonderful and charismatic mother, gave me tea and biscuits, lent me his deodorant when I couldn’t find mine and gave me recommendations for what to see in the eight hours I had to wander around his city. He smiled lots, and this became my overriding memory of the typical nature of those darn-positive Belgradians! I didn’t visit a toilet or have a coffee without someone talking to me and being interested in who I was – and this was not simply because I was a tourist, a traveller or a lone female; it was the norm This openness undoubtedly gives the city its safe and memorable atmosphere.
There are ‘things to see’!
- The Kalimegdan Fortress: plonked on top of a hill like an afterthought, but somehow has a sense of guarding the city too. It is the first building recommended by locals to visitors, and the history of occupations, bloody battles and the clashing of cultures held within and around its walls is clearly visible. Feel it and you will be closer to understanding the city and its people. Its gates are open 24/7 so you have no excuse…
- Skadarlija: The tourist board calls this ‘Belgrade’s Montmartre’ but in reality it has a very different atmosphere despite both being the cobbled hangout and dwelling-area of arty types. Whereas Montmartre is buzzing, both with tourists and locals, Skadarlija is chilled. There are guitarists playing traditional Serbian music in the restaurants (note for the faint-hearted: they will come right up to your table) and it has an ‘olde-worlde’ atmosphere that even Montmartre is seeing slip away.
- The Nikola Tesla Museum: I couldn’t help inwardly bouncing like a child when the light tube in my hand, disconnected from any power source, lit up ‘on command’. Wonderful.
- Sveti Sava is apparently the largest Orthodox church in the world – but what makes it very, very special is that it is not yet finished. During the Tito Communist years, all work on the then-new church ceased. Although it appears complete from the outside, the inside is still puritan-bare and has the air of history being made. And it is free to visit – but understanding that it is a place of worship is vital. Be quiet and respectful. As a woman, I didn’t have to cover my head, but I did wear long trousers.
- The Parliament and Old and New Courts – sitting on a slight slope right in the centre of Belgrade, these are stunning neoclassical buildings for those travellers who enjoy a bit of beautiful architecture. The Old Court building comes with its share of gruesome history like so many older buildings – King Aleksandr and his wife were thrown from a second floor balcony by their assassins in 1903. Perhaps this is why the President of Serbia’s office is in New Court.
- Another piece of fairly gruesome history can be seen in the bombed-out building of the Yugoslavian Ministry of Defence which was shelled by NATO. It is on Kneza Miloŝa and shows the still-present scars of the 90s conflict. A sobering reminder of how recent Belgrade has seen horrors.
- The ‘Ada’ Bridge: yes it’s ‘just a bridge’, but it is also a significant landmark for Belgrade, and a very complex piece of engineering to boot. It’s also beautiful, especially at dusk when the setting sun glints from its needle point and cables.
The river barges – ‘splavi’
A lot of Belgrade’s most memorable nightlife in the summer months is clustered around the banks of the Sava River in its floating clubs and bars known as ‘splavi’. For many, this is the abiding vision they carry away from Belgrade – of joyful, knees-up style partying until the early hours. A lot of travellers and tourists report having lost their self-conscious nature due to the friendliness of the local people and their willingness to welcome, and I was no exception. For me, it was the music – a heady mixture of lounge, trance, folk, funk, jazz and dubstep – which broke down those barriers I still had around my slightly reserved English character and let me go like a Belgradian.
- I went to a nameless club next to another nameless club moored on the riverbanks near Sveti Sava church – but that is as much as I can tell you. Clubs here come and go season-to-season. Try one, and if you’re not keen, move on to the next. Some have strict door policies so dress decently if you want more of a chance. Some are so full of bling they make P Diddy look tame. Just give each one a go.
- Before that, though, I had visited a bar in a seemingly random building: ‘Ben Akiba’ on Nuŝiĉeva was a Lonely Planet recommendation and was every bit as filled with intelligentsia as they had promised. Their cocktails are relatively cheap, and divine.
- My AirBnB host Bojan recommended the ‘Federal Association of World Travellers’ on 29 Novembra but I didn’t make it there. If anyone has, please comment to help other travellers. Thanks.
All in all? Belgrade is heady. It’s not smooth, but is making its way into Europeanism without losing any of its trusting friendliness.
Should you visit?
Hell yes – especially if you are open-minded with few preconceptions and like the feeling of a big city with a village atmosphere, café culture, interesting music and meeting lots of new people/making lots of new friends.
Which you do will depend on you.