Let’s explore one of the coolest and most exciting cities in Europe
Serbia is many things: fiery, complicated, romantic, spirited, fuelled by coffee and pride. Belgrade is Serbia in microcosm. After enduring a tumultuous, tragic and destructive 20th century, over the last couple of decades, it has established itself as one of the coolest and most exciting cities in Europe, while the rest of the country is rugged and beautiful. Pack your bags and let’s go!
I’m in Belgrade for a couple of days. What shouldn’t I miss?
Discovery and invention
Republic Square is a natural starting point for almost everyone visiting Belgrade. Dominated by the National Museum, the National Theater and the equestrian statue of Prince Mihailo, it’s often thought to be the very center of the city. (For the pedants among you, the actual, geographical center is considered to be Terazije square, around 100 meters south-west).
Whatever the truth, they’re both good places to begin. From there, head along Kralja Milana, across the huge traffic island at Slavija, and continue down Svetog Save to the Church of St. Sava.
This huge white edifice is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox churches in the world, and is not as old as you might think, its first stone having been laid in 1935. Under Communism, the continuation of its construction was canceled; it wasn’t until 1989 when the mighty dome was finally added.
For something older (but that, oddly, feels more contemporary), the Nikola Tesla Museum on Krunska is the place to be. This celebrates the life and works of Tesla, a pioneer in the fields of electrical and mechanical engineering, and contains over 1,200 technical exhibits, as well as drawings, papers, books and plans. The first part of the exhibition is a memorial to his life and work, while the second part is more interactive, with 3D computer-generated models of a number of his inventions and the like.
Back out of the city again (adjacent to the airport in fact), you’ll find the Aeronautical Museum, a giant, glass mushroom designed in 1989 housing a collection of over 100 aircraft from all eras of flight. Aircraft from the two world wars are displayed alongside more modern planes used in the Yugoslav Wars, and fragments of Nato aircraft shot down by Serbian air defenses. Sitting outside you’ll find larger planes, as well as what can only be described as an aircraft graveyard, giving those among you who love a bit of industrial decay something to swoon over.
The castle in the city
Kalemegdan Park is the largest public park in the city, located on a cliff where the river Sava meets the Danube. It’s divided into a number of areas and, since the 19th century, has provided the citizens of Belgrade with a place to meet, relax, stroll, hold events and generally bask in its elegance.
It contains Belgrade Fortress, the city’s most visited site, and the core of historic Belgrade. For centuries, the city existed purely within the walls of the fortress (it’s a big fortress), before slowly extending outwards. Its age, and use by various tribes and rulers of the different eras, has contributed to its mish-mash of styles, with walls, gates and towers dating from anywhere between the 12th and 19th centuries. It’s free to go in and explore, so you should definitely do so, even if you’re only here for a short time.
Otherwise, simply wander around the huge park, taking in the sights. The Military Museum is easy to find (head for the building with all the cannon outside!), there are a couple of churches and chapels dotted around the grounds, and there are also the grandiose Big and Small Staircases, sited on an old castle rampart and joined by the Sava Promenade. There’s something very romantic about watching the sun go down from the promenade, the deep red light reflected in the waters of the Danube.
Street art tours
One thing you may very well notice about Belgrade is the prevalence of graffiti. However, a great deal of it isn’t your usual tags and squiggles, but actual pieces of art ranging from sly characters appearing at doors and windows, to vast murals covering entire sides of buildings.
You can walk around and see them for yourself of course, but one of the best ways to learn about what connects these images to the history of the city and its individual neighborhoods is to take a street art tour. There are a number of such walks, often curated or even guided by one of the artists themselves.
These tours will take you into some less-frequented parts of the city, to the grey concrete blocks that sprang up throughout the Communist era and that are now being brightened up by people who know a blank canvas when they see one. Indeed, some of these pieces are now venerable Belgrade sights, with a couple dating back as far as 1989. If you want a bit of grit and street-level history with your art, doing one of these tours is an essential experience.
Embrace the alternative
Going hand-in-hand with the idea of street art and a love of using spaces to their fullest, Belgrade’s individual neighborhoods are worth exploring. Two areas that stand out are Dorćol, where the Sava river meets the Danube, and neighboring Savamala, just to the south.
The history of Dorćol is one that encompasses the military, industry, ghettofication, the mixing of many of the city’s religious and cultural aspects, leading to it being one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Belgrade. It’s home to the Bajrakli Mosque, dating from 1660 (although it has been demolished and rebuilt several times), the Church of Alexander Nevsky, The House of Bookseller Marko Marković (built in 1904 and seen as the ultimate architectural expression of the era), Serbia’s first thermal power plant, and the Beth Israel Synagogue. Just looking at that list tells you that there’s a lot to unpack when it comes to this part of town!
Savamala was designed to be one of Belgrade’s most upmarket areas, with urban planning and wealth coming into Serbia, turning several smaller streets into one Parisian-style boulevard (Krađorđeva), along which sprang up grand mansions, palaces, theaters and hotels. However, it was bombed heavily during World War II and then left in disrepair afterwards, turning what had once been a jewel in Belgrade’s crown into an abandoned, lawless part of the city.
It’s now being reborn, and for almost 15 years has been the byword for urban regeneration, with galleries, restaurants, bars and independent shops moving in. The quayside and the riverbank have been revitalized (not that everyone is happy about the relatively controversial way it’s been handled), but still, it’s often cited, along with Dorćol, as one of the coolest suburbs in Europe.
Investigate the history
The history of Serbia is a long, complicated and, at times, contentious one. From its place at the crossroads of Europe where the Ottomans met Austro-Hungary, its half-century under Communism, the breakup of Yugoslavia, and the Balkan conflict of the 1990s, it’s somewhere that needs context, and needs to be understood.
The Historical Museum of Serbia on Trg Nikole Pašića is located in a former bank, and since it started collecting artifacts as the Historical Museum of Yugoslavia in the 1950s, it has expanded its collection to around 35,000 items. It also stages temporary exhibitions about Serbian history from eras millennia ago to displays of contemporary art and sculpture.
A more modern but equally important museum is the Museum of Yugoslavia. It was originally (and still is) the Josip Broz Tito Memorial Center, a mausoleum to the man who was President of Yugoslavia from 1953 to his death in 1980. He’s interred in the House of Flowers, and his burial site can be visited.
Otherwise, the museum nowadays commits itself to telling the history of the region in the 20th century. The museum itself states that “Our mission is to be the place of open dialogue, to exchange knowledge and experiences on the social and cultural phenomena of the 20th century with all institutions, organizations and individuals interested in issues on Yugoslav heritage and Yugoslav past.” For the casual visitor, this is done with excellent and sensitive examinations of the (often harrowing) events that have taken place in this region of Europe, all the while helping to educate and inform.
You know what? I’m going to stay a bit longer
Coffee lovers rejoice: Serbia runs on the stuff. It chugs and glugs through its veins on an almost constant drip, a relic of Ottoman rule and the influence of Turkey. Today, however, traditional Turkish-style coffee is being, if not replaced by, then certainly put in competition with Italian-style hole-in-the-wall espresso stands and hip, stripped-wood-and-bare-metal coffee shops.
Belgrade restaurateurs are also combining the old and the new when it comes to food. Try, for example, kaymak, a traditional soft cheese, but flavored with porcini mushrooms, or take a typical Balkan dish like grilled, skewered lamb, but drizzle it with eggplant aioli. There are, naturally, plenty of places that do things such as traditional barbecued pork in a number of ways (sausages, steak, pork knee with delicious, crispily-glazed fat), but the newer combinations of trad dishes with a flavorful modern twist are where it’s at.
Why not wash your meal down with a bottle of local wine? Since the early 2000s, the country’s viniculture has been slowly growing in strength, charming even winemakers in countries more associated with the art, such as Italy and France. Around 65% of the grapes grown in Serbia are white, but the deep reds from varietals such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are an excellent choice with those rich, barbecued meals.
‘Beside the seaside’
An island in the Sava river that’s been artificially turned into a peninsula, Ada (officially Ada Ciganlija) is the place to be for Belgraders in search of a day at the beach.
The peninsula is covered with beautiful, dense forests, interspersed with the odd clearing or meadow, and while walking through the trees you might be lucky enough to see deer, pheasants or occasionally even quail. The real reason people flock here, however, is the beach. There’s over 7 kilometers of beach on which to lie back and relax, or for swimming, boating, kayaking, windsurfing, or anything else that involves being active on the water. Across the island, there are other sporting distractions as well, including a golf course, beach volleyball, a climbing wall, tennis courts… even paintball!
The summer also sees a number of cultural events take place on Ada, with open-air choir and orchestral performances, and there are also a number of restaurants and bars, with even a couple of nightclubs for that all-night, outdoor clubbing scene.
No matter when you come, there’s enough on Ada to easily spend at least a day here, either tiring yourself out or simply lazing around and doing very little!
A stark contrast: Zemun and New Belgrade
Until 1934, Zemun was actually an independent town, and looks more like your typical Central European town than the more Ottoman-tinged areas of Belgrade itself. It’s all cobbled streets and hidden squares, and feels… just different somehow. It’s a greener place than the rest of Belgrade, proud of its (counter-)cultural side, and has a number of protected historical sites and monuments.
Walk, eat (the seafood is something the locals are rightly proud of), drink, and climb Gardoš. This is one of Zemun’s three hills, and is the place for beautiful views out over the Danube and back across the red-tiled rooftops.
Even though they’re neighbors, there could be no more jarring contrast than between Zemun and New Belgrade (Novi Beograd). Construction began in 1948, and was planned to be a source of pride and forward thinking by the Communist government of the day. A ruthlessly and meticulously planned part of the city, its Brutalist buildings are… striking, to say the least. The most famous is probably the mighty Genex Tower (also known as the Western City Gate), 35 colossal stories of concrete and heft, which is now — for better or worse — one of Belgrade’s most recognizable structures.
No matter when you visit Belgrade, your trip is almost certain to coincide with one of the hundreds of festivals that take place year-round. Music, dance, food, drink, art, sport: you name it, Belgrade has it.
Every August sees the Belgrade Beer Fest, a five-day celebration of hops and froth that began in 2004 and now attracts almost a million visitors every year. The combination of over 45 breweries, live music ranging from punk to hip-hop and everything in between, and free admission means it’s unsurprisingly popular.
Mid-May is when Museum Night takes place, a common event in this part of the world where all museums and galleries are open for free with the majority putting on extra events, workshops or exhibitions. In a city as artsy and varied as this, however, it’s an extra treat, and a great way to spend a night with the locals.
The October Salon began in 1960, and in its long history has become one of the world’s most recognized forums for both Serbian and international visual artists. The festival consists of exhibitions, round tables, workshops, lectures, professional guides, and performances. A wilder show of artistry comes in the form of Open Heart Street, a tradition that began around New Year in 1988 — 89, and continues to this day. Acting, singing, street performances and more are seen by thousands of hardy souls who brave the weather to join in this huge street party.
There’s obviously not space here to cover every festival or event Belgrade has to offer, but rest assured, there’s always something going on!
Follow the Danube north from Belgrade and you’ll find yourself in Fruška Gora National Park, the oldest of Serbia’s five. Dense forests, rolling hillsides, farms and villages, and peaceful meadows are all here to explore, either by foot or bicycle, as are 17 ancient monasteries, and a number of vineyards — this being one of Serbia’s main wine-producing regions.
The Đerdap National Park is the nation’s biggest, and is geographically wilder than Fruška Gora, containing crashing rivers, gorges, over 1,000 caves, and iron-age archaeological sites, giving it its nickname The Iron Gates of the Danube.
Tara is Serbia’s most forested region, and is home to a wide selection of its wildlife, such as chamois, wild deer, wild cats, otters, eagles and falcons. Mount Tara is even said to be the domain of a legendary Slavic god!
To the south of the country lies the Šar Mountain National Park, with the park merging into the territory of the Dinaric Alps, the massive natural border between Serbia and North Macedonia. It’s an important ecological center in the region, being home to more than 1,500 plant species, of which 20% are endemic and rare to this part of the world.
Finally, the Kopaonik National Park is the highest mountain range in Serbia, and is home to some world-class winter sports venues; ski resorts with many miles of trails and pistes, as well as the warm, healing waters of the Jošanička Banja spa to warm you up once you’re done on the slopes.
Let’s get a wider perspective. What does the rest of the country have to offer?
Getting out of Belgrade, try visiting Novi Sad for the world-famous EXIT festival. Beginning as a student movement, 2020 marks its 20th anniversary, and it has been built into a wildly successful four-day-long party involving some of the biggest music acts on the planet.
For a very different musical experience, the small town of Guča, around three hours from Belgrade, hosts an annual brass band festival. Yep, that’s right. Since the first event in 1961, it’s grown into a massive event, a wild, noisy, blast of insanity that celebrates this most Balkan of musical forms. You’ll be swept along by the sheer energy and adrenalin that (along with the rakia) fuels the festival.
Leave the cities behind and you’ll discover that Serbia has some amazing countryside and fascinating stories to tell. Many medieval tales are yours to be uncovered if you so wish, and there are scores of wonderful castles to visit.
14th-century Golubac has been under the control of Turks, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Serbs, and Austrians but, since its restoration in 2005, it seems like something from an epic fantasy series. Smederevo Fortress is one of the largest in Europe and is now used as a city park, while Pirot fortress (otherwise known as Momčilov grad), was a defense against the Turks on the road from Belgrade to Constantinople, and Niš fortress stands proudly right in the center of the town of the same name.
For the adventurous, there’s a lot of countryside to play around in. But how? Well, for a landlocked country, Serbia is big on its water sports. After all, what it lacks in coastline it more than makes up for in its hefty rivers and sparkling lakes. You can head out for a day, or make it a real adventure and spend three days — or even a week! — kayaking and canoeing, combining these with trekking, rock-climbing and cycling if you want a bit of extra activity.
The Drina, Ibar and Lim rivers all offer some of Europe’s most challenging white-water rafting, and if you’d prefer to stay on dry land, you can attempt the Serbian section of the Danube cycle trail. The whole thing runs for 1,800 miles (2,900 km) through ten countries, but the Serbian part is a vaguely more manageable 365 miles.
Travel back in time by visiting Lepenski Vir, in the east of the country, one of the most important architectural sites in Europe. Located in the wonderfully-named Iron Gates gorge, this is thought to be the oldest human settlement on the continent, dating back to around 9500/7200–6000 BCE. Now protected under a giant glass roof, you can see the remains of what is sometimes referred to as “the first city in Europe” in that it was clearly a planned community, as opposed to a rag-tag bunch of structures. Along with the sculptures that have survived and recreations of what the building would have looked like, it’s a fascinating glimpse into a very distant past.
For a different way of peering into Serbia’s past, consider visiting one or more of their ethno villages. These are villages that have seemingly been trapped in a bubble, surviving into the 21st century as monuments to a simpler time. You can visit, stay there overnight in many cases, eat traditional Serbian cuisine, even learn an old craft or art.
Take Sirogojno, for instance. This beautiful collection of 47 wooden houses brought from the surrounding region, a barn, stoves for baking bread and cauldrons for distilling the famously aggressive local spirit rakija, a quaint wooden church and a selection of authentic tools and equipment for completing 19th-century chores. In 1980, Sirogojno was officially declared an open-air museum, and continues to charm visitors to this day.
Ravno selo, in the Vojvodina region, is located on a wide, flat plain, surrounded by flower-covered meadows under vast blue skies. It’s a wonderful retreat from the bluster of everyday life, the only sounds being the chirp of the birds and the occasional creak of the 15th-century windmill. Or what about Sopotnica, in the Vlach region: wooden cottages dotted about the hillsides close to beautiful waterfalls, and surrounded by hiking trails and forest. Try the local cheese, or pogača, a type of bread baked in the ashes of a fire.
A slightly more modern twist can be found at Sunčana reka, a retreat on the banks of the Drina river. Guests can stay in brick or wood cottages, and during the day take part in organized activities such as pony trekking, archery, quad biking, music or pilates.
So seek out the best of Belgrade and Serbia
While the capital is rightly seen as one of Europe’s up-and-coming cities for tourists of all ages and wants, the rest of the country is a winning combination of beauty, history, friendly people and stories waiting to be told. Maybe now’s the time to add your own chapter.