Discovering The Hidden Secrets of Belgrade
by Tony Santos
In recent years, Belgrade has become one of Eastern Europe’s better-kept secrets. Located at a key fork of the Danube and Sava Rivers, it has a remarkable history, while proudly wearing the scars of a turbulent past. It’s a city that has been destroyed and rebuilt countless times over several centuries, and with volumes of relics and remnants to show for it.
What’s particularly fascinating about Belgrade is how much there is to discover. Unlike many other European locales, Belgrade takes a bit more time and effort to get to know. Make the effort, dig a bit deeper, and rich memories are assured.
I first arrived knowing little about the city itself. This despite the fact that I’ve covered the Balkans quite extensively over the last two decades. Coming with a relatively clean slate allowed me to fully take Belgrade in, and without any prejudice or expectations. Here’s a primer for travelers looking for interesting things to do in Belgrade, while exploring on their own.
Belgrade’s “must-see” spots, like Kalmegdan Fortress…
Any Belgrade visit should lead off with the legendary Kalemegdan Fortress. This is a massive fortified complex that dominates the city-scape from virtually any vantage point, especially along the rivers. It’s certainly worth multiple visits. My favorite route to get there was to walk up the bustling Knez Mihajlova Street, a well-known pedestrian-shopping street, starting from the Republic Square end. After a short walk past Studenski Park, the fortress reveals itself, shrouded by greenery. There are several ways to enter, with each route offering its own share of history and relics.
The fortress was first built by the Romans in the 2nd century. Since then, it has been destroyed and rebuilt several times during Belgrade’s many wars and occupations. You’ll navigate through walls, ramparts, gates, holes, churches, and bunkers, all built centuries apart. Also worth visiting is the onsite Military Museum to view an impressive weapons collection which dates back to Roman times. At the Fortress’ tallest ridge, there is the Victor monument overlooking the Sava and Danube. From there, you’ll have a panoramic view of the “Novi Beograd” (New Belgrade) district which is dotted with modern skyscrapers.
Note that there are plenty of historical sites and museums to check out in the old city. This includes the Nikola Tesla Museum, which is also a must-see. It holds an amazing collection of the eccentric revolutionary inventor’s earliest drafts, invention prototypes, letters, and other notable memorabilia.
Belgrade’s unique nightlife…
Whether you’re a night owl or not, you’ll want to sample Belgrade’s after-hours. In recent years, Belgrade has become known for its vivid nightlife, especially along its river banks. Splavovi is the word that gets tossed around often by the locals when making plans for a night out. Those are the floating barge clubs and bars which are moored along the city’s two rivers.
The Splavovi are open well into the wee hours. While some are glitzy, modern, and polished, the older ones have a more rugged, classic charm. It’s important to note that the Splavovis are teeming with parties, music, and dancing every night during the summer. You’ll find virtually every genre of music to be enjoyed. Ranging from the most loved Serbian folk, classic rock, to every flavor of techno. After a few Splavovi forays, you may find yourself “barge hopping” as the locals call it. TIP: The local libation to try is called Rakija. Similar to hard schnapps, it’s a cheap and potent liquor that the locals swear by. Consume with caution!
Dining out at a Kafana, Serbia style…
The mainstay in Serbia’s cuisine is called Roštilj. It’s comprised of various grilled meats which are prepared and served in various styles. The usual side dishes are hot buns and grilled onions. You’ll find scores of restaurants around the city that focus on Roštilj. Another attractive aspect of Serbia’s typical fare is that it’s quite inexpensive, tasty and with plentiful portions.
Note that while there are a few vegetarian spots around the city center and shopping district, they’re quite hard to find elsewhere around the city. There’s no doubt that the Serbs love their meat.
Aside from the better-known dining spots in the old center, check out the local Kafanas. These are traditional Serbian taverns where Rakija is readily available, along with various local fare and local brews. The oldest Kafana in the city is enigmatically named “?”. While worth visiting for its exceptional Balkan cuisine alone, there’s so much more. The traditional music and the unforgettable social vibe all make hanging out at “?” worth the revisits. Over my five weeks in Belgrade, it became a regular nightspot for me.
Discovering Belgrade’s Bohemian roots on Skadrlija Street…
One of the best parts of discovering Belgrade is getting a glimpse of the city’s Bohemian heritage. Be sure to hit Skadarlija Street, cheekily considered “Belgrade’s Montmartre”. It still echoes the glory of a bygone era. Laid with ancient cobblestone and dotted with an endless array of terrace restaurants, taverns, and cafes, it’s a can’t miss.
The Bohemian spirit also thrives in the city’s Zemun district. Zemun Kej (Zemun Quay) is a picturesque waterside promenade and a key attraction. When you reach its end after a brisk walk, be sure to look to the top of the prominent hill on your left. You’ll see the Gardoš Tower, a monument commemorating the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The scenic view from the top is a highlight.
Visit Ada Ciganlija for a ‘beach day’ in Belgrade…
While there are many riverside beaches dotting Belgrade’s banks, the most popular is Ada Ciganlija. This is a sprawling beach that’s over seven kilometers long. For the locals, it’s considered the “seaside”. While fairly close to the city’s core, (it’s only 15 minutes from the center by bus or tram), the beach park is a world away. It’s nested on a nature-drenched island that was later transformed into a peninsula.
During peak summertime, this urban oasis hosts over 100,000 visitors a day. It’s where Belgrade’s city dwellers come to enjoy the outdoors and a wide variety of sports activities. These include golf, kayaking, rowing, jogging, bungee jumping, cycling, tennis, and many others. Whether you want to do everything or nothing at all, Ciganlija beach has you covered.
Explore Avala Mountain, just outside of Belgrade…
If you’re willing to wander beyond Belgrade’s city limits, make Avala Mountain a must-do. You can easily catch a city bus or shuttle to get there. This picturesque mountain park is covered in forest and is beloved by nature lovers and hikers. It’s a great spot for taking a leisurely stroll or having a picnic during a warm spring or summer day. All roads in the park lead up to the Avala Tower, a telecommunications giant. It’s easily the tallest structure of its kind in the region. If the weather is on your side, it’s worth paying the entrance fee to reach the top. The view can reach over 100 kilometers, overlooking the Vojvodina great plains region in Northern Serbia. It’s positively awe-inspiring.
Serbia’s capital city has it all…
With the vast history, delicious cuisine, world-class nightlife, and vibrant culture, it’s safe to say that Belgrade merits some time to fully appreciate. Invest that time generously, and the payoff will be unforgettable.
With each day, the city grew on me even more. The streets, parks, and neighborhoods of Belgrade have a way of presenting unexpected surprises, especially when it comes to the people. The key is to take your time, so you don’t miss out. What’s more, Belgrade is still quite cheap compared to other European cities and fast becoming popular among international travelers. Experience Belgrade before it becomes yet another overrun (and overpriced) Prague or Berlin.