Partied your way around Europe and looking for somewhere new to strut your stuff? Try a big night out, or two, in Belgrade
For a long time foreign tourists ignored it, but Serbia’s capital has emerged from the violent collapse of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and transformed itself into a cool destination renowned for its 24/7 nightlife. Yes, there are still dreary communist blocks, but the main streets are now lined with designer shops - and designer-clad locals - and battered old Yugo cars jostle for position, quite literally, with shiny BMWs and Mercs.
It’s a two-and-a-half-hour hop from the UK to Belgrade, and although there are no budget flights, once you’re there your Serbian dinar (which you can only get on arrival) goes a long, long way - probably something of a contributory factor to our collective hangover the morning after the night before.
Our first stop was one of the so-called ‘secret bars’, dissident watering holes that sprang up during Slobodan Milosevic’s regime. Tucked away behind inconspicuous courtyards or in city centre apartment blocks, the unpromising entrances give way to Tardis-like interiors. Among the best are the Federal Association of World Travellers, or Globe Trotters (Despota Stefana 7/1), full of eclectic clutter, and Ben Akiba (Nusiceva 8), popular with Belgrade’s movers and shakers. With potent cocktails at £2 a throw and local Jelen beer at £1 a bottle, we were well set up for the night ahead.
Most places don’t have websites, some don’t even advertise phone numbers, and there are no obvious signs outside. But ask any of the friendly and welcoming locals and they will point you in the right direction. Rather than staying in one place, Belgradians are nomadic night owls, moving from place to place when the fancy takes them. So rather than going out with any set plans, go with the flow and you’re bound to find somewhere you like.
Idiot, in a cosy vaulted basement in Dalmastinksa, is a lively, inclusive haunt attracting a mixed crowd of all age groups. Don’t miss taking a look at Strahinjica Bana, an innocuous looking street by day that turns into Belgrade’s ‘Silicon Valley’ after 9pm. To the bitchy they’re surgically enhanced; to others they’re examples of Serbia’s unfeasibly tall and beautiful women, often accompanied by bodyguard lookalike boyfriends bedecked in bling. A fun sight nevertheless and a great place to people-watch.
After midnight, the serious party animals come out to play. Whether you’re into house, blues, gypsy music or turbofolk – an unlikely coupling of Balkan folk and techno – if you’ve got the staying power, Belgrade’s got it all. One of the top clubs is cavernous Andergraund (Pariska 1a), with visiting European DJs, which is jam-packed and jumping until the small hours. For the record, most bars stay open until midnight or 2am and clubs close around 5am. Last year Serbia enthusiastically hosted the Eurovision Song Contest, so you’ll also find plenty of clubs serving up ample portions of Europop cheese.
And even if you’re out all night, try not to spend the whole of the next day in bed, as Belgrade has got plenty to recommend it after sunrise. Whilst it’s not a city that’s going to win top prize in any beauty contests, and evidence of the 1999 NATO bombing still exists, there are plenty of fascinating areas to explore.
Start off at the 17th-century Kalemegdan fortress, which maintains a watchful eye over Belgrade and offers panoramic views of the city’s positon at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. You can look around the old citadel, have a bite at the Terrace Restaurant, and then stroll around the park. Other top spots are Kneza Mihaila, the busy pedestrian street, and the cobbled bohemian quarter, Skadarlija.
If you’re feeling hungry you won’t stay that way for long, as typical Serbian cuisine is hearty, predominantly meat-based and there’s plenty of it. Sausages, goulash and slow-cooked leg of lamb are among the favourites and if you want to opt for a lighter option, check out the fish restaurants on the river in Zemen. Whatever you choose, the obligatory way to end the meal is with a plum brandy or two.
Communist leader and ex-Yugoslav president Joip Tito was buried in Belgrade and his mausoleum, set in a peaceful garden, is a popular tourist attraction. It also includes a large, and rather bizarre, collection of gifts that were given to him, such as ornate inlaid rifles, and highly decorative batons presented to him every year on his birthday following a youth relay.
If you’re staying for a long weekend, take time out to visit Novi Sad, Serbia’s second largest city 70km northwest of Belgrade. There are regular buses and trains, along with organised day trips for tourists. Highlights include the Petrovardian Citadel, with its museum and artists’ workshops. Every summer it also hosts the annual Exit music festival, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. En route it’s also worth stopping off at one of the 17 monasteries in rural Fruska Gora, which date back to the 15th century, and the pretty little baroque town of Sremski Karlovci, the spiritual and cultural centre for Serbs when they were under Austro-Hungarian rule.
Back at the hotel in Belgrade there’s time for a quick siesta before getting ready for another big night on the town. It might not be as well-known as some of the other capital cities in this eastern European neck of the woods, such as Prague or Budapest, but Belgrade is certainly a place to see and be seen. In the words of Radio 1 DJ and vinyl-addict Gilles Peterson: “Serbia is one of Europe’s coolest and most happening places".
JAT Airways flies daily from London Heathrow to Belgrade, and British Airways operates five flights weekly. Return fares start from around £170.
Where to stay
Hotel Balkan is a centrally located four-star hotel that offers double rooms from around £110 per night, including breakfast. Five-star options include Hotel Admiral Club, an atmospheric and beautifully decorated 17-room hotel located in the oldest part of Belgrade near the National Theatre and bohemian Skadarlija district; and Hotel Mr President, Belgrade’s first design hotel, where each of the 61 rooms features a portrait of one of the world’s presidents.
Where to eat
The floating Stara Koliba restaurant at Novi Beograd specialises in fresh river fish, including pike and perch.
The 2009 Exit festival takes place from July 9-12.