From war-torn capital to party town, Belgrade is emerging as one of the hottest city-break destinations in Europe
Belgrade isn’t going to win any awards for beauty – you can still see the ruins of bombed out buildings in many of the city’s districts. But for those with a sense of adventure, there’s plenty to discover in a city that’s coming of age. The former war-torn city has been hitting the headlines for its youth appeal: after years studying abroad during the Balkan war and following turbulence, Belgrade’s younger generation are returning with new ideas, new-found optimism and an irresistible party spirit.
Belgrade's dark buildings hide plenty of quirky attractions. The commanding Kalemegdan Fortress overlooks the Sava and Danube rivers and dates back to the 3rd century BC. It has a special place in Belgrade’s heart, not least because it’s the place where many young Serbs steal their first kiss. It’s easy to walk to from the centre of the city and entry is free.
Grab your lunch at nearby ?. That’s not a typo, by the way, but the full name of a smoky Serbian eatery, famed for its rustic style. It’s the city’s oldest restaurant, opposite the Cathedral (Kralja Petra 6), and serves traditional and good value Serbian food, like corn bread, slow-cooked sausage and beans, and lamb.
Then take a taxi out to Tito’s mausoleum, hidden in the hills. The memorial to the former Serbian dictator and leader of the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia is sombre, all white marble and framed photographs of the revolutionary leader, so scoot round that quickly if politics isn’t your thing, and head to the museum at the back. It’s a fantastic insight into what it must be like to be a political leader, full of gifts he received from other world leaders, from daggers and Japanese hari kiri knives to a full witch doctor costume from Bolivia. It’s like all the world’s best souvenirs have been gathered in the same place.
Summer in the city is hot, hot, hot (temperatures reach around 30°C), and on days like that the only thing to do is head to the beach. Belgrade is around 600 miles from the nearest seaside – Montenegro – but Ada Ciganlia island, in the middle of the city’s rivers, is the perfect fix. There’s a pebbly beach, a safe swimming area and even a bungee jump platform set up above the river. Expect plenty of rollerbladers and mountain bikers too, and if you’re feeling daring, cool off on the dry ski slope. It’s not very long and not very good, being indoor and made of carpet, but good for a laugh.
For dinner, head to rustic and romantic Skadarlija, with its classic Serbian restaurants, black railings and cobbled streets. Sesir Moj (Skadarska 21), which means ‘this old hat’, is the best of these, where you’ll be greeted by strolling minstrels in a restaurant decorated with paintings that wouldn’t look out of place on a houseboat. Expect mustachioed waiters, very strong Serbian coffee, plenty of meat, potatoes and stuffed peppers and a lot of smoke – the smoking ban hasn’t reached Serbia yet. A three-course meal costs around £15-20.
If that all feels a bit too twee, take a taxi out of the centre to Zaplet (Kajmakcalanska 2), which is cool, elegant and serves nu-wave food – that is, no heavy bread, pepper sauce or meat dishes. Local celebrities love this joint. Expect the likes of octopus salad, butternut squash risotto and delicate desserts. As with anywhere in Belgrade, tradition demands that you start your meal with a shot of schnapps – the local quince brandy is the best.
And then start your evening of fun on Strahinjica Bana street – otherwise known as Silicon Valley. No, it’s not the city’s technology capital; it’s an area of trendy bars, sharp-suited drinkers and some very buxom ladies – silicon-enhanced, hence the name.
Hunter bar, complete with retro wallpaper and huge elk antlers on the wall, is a funky spot, as is trendy Pastis, an unassuming and very popular French-style bar/bistro. Serbian beer – called Pivo – is about £1.20 a pint and is stronger than you’d expect. Bijoux nightclubs line the street here and stay open til the early hours; in the summer, they take to the water on barges around Ada Ciganlia, and are unmissable. Expect anything from regular Europop to Turbofolk, a local sound blending Serbian folk music with rock, which has to be heard to be believed.
Try the four-star Balkan Hotel in the centre of Belgrade. It's just a stone's throw from the main shopping precinct and walking distance from the Kalmadegan fortress. Or, if you're feeling daring, Hotel Mr President is a controversial boutique hotel taking world leaders and dictators as its theme. You could wake up in a room overlooked by a portrait of Stalin, Hitler or Lady Thatcher. Disturbing dreams guaranteed.
Fly to Belgrade with British Airways from Heathrow from £186 return.