Before I looked into exploring eastern Europe a little more thoroughly, I would have been hard-pressed to pinpoint Belgrade — or Serbia, for that matter — on the map. Serbia is a landlocked country bordering probably most of the Slavic countries and some others, many of which came together under the former Yugoslavia (Land of the Slavs): There are Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina in the west, Hungary to the north, Romania, and Bulgaria toward the east, and North Macedonia due south. Plus, Kosovo, which is not recognized as an independent state by Serbia. The capital, Belgrade, lies to the central north of the country.
Though land-locked and relatively far from the sea for a European country, Belgrade sits on the confluence of the river Sava and the Danube, allowing it to sparkle in a hilly, green landscape. That said, Belgrade is not often visited by overseas travelers coming to Europe, and even many of the Danube River cruises do not reach this far east.
So, what you have is a capital city devoid of tourist crowds, yet filled with a history that stretches between Roman times to very recent unrest fighting for independence, and an eminently liveable city, filled with cafes and restaurants, great shops, and welcoming and friendly people. What more does one need for a great city break?
Here are my reasons why you should visit and give Belgrade a chance to shine.
1. The Belgrade Fortress
This was my first stop when exploring Belgrade. Because of the strategic location of the Kalemegdan Fortress on a land spit reaching into the large confluence of the Sava River and the Danube, this spot has always been the favored spot for fortifications. First, the Romans built one here, then over the following centuries, the fort kept being destroyed and rebuilt by Romans, Serbs, Turks, and Austrians. You name it, they built a fort here. Wandering around the huge complex surrounded by a large park and stunning views gives you a great first impression of Belgrade and its history.
2. Stari Grad: The Old Town
Just on the doorstep of the fortress lies Stari Grad, the “Old Town.” It’s not an obvious old town center like in most European cities, where a usually round medieval core was often surrounded by sturdy city walls, and inside was a huddle of old, crooked buildings alongside cobbled lanes. Here it is a real mix of buildings in a relatively modern shopping area along and off to the sides of the lovely, pedestrianized Knez Mihailova Street. While on the main drag, you could nearly be anywhere, but dive into the little side streets, and you’ll find small, typical cafes and restaurants and older shops.
Head further east toward the other side of this neighborhood half encircled by the Danube, and you find lovely residential streets, making you look up and choose a potential apartment for yourself.
3. The Bohemian Skadarlija
Part of Stari Grad is the eclectic Skadarlija street, probably the most fun street in Belgrade. Not grand, or stunning, instead it is full of bohemian vibes, street art, cute little, colorful houses, and plenty of restaurants and cafes inviting you to stop. This is the place for lunch, or dinner, because all the restaurants are incredibly affordable and serve up vast portions of meat-heavy local cuisine.
My husband and I tried Dva Jelena, sat outside in the sunshine and watched the world go by. We ate cevapcici, skewers of minced meat; a pork ‘braid’ with sauerkraut, and ox-cheeks with mashed potatoes, plus a sample of local beer and wine, and ended up barely able to walk, but paying a fraction of what lunch would cost in any other European city.
4. The Electrifying Nikola Tesla Museum
Nikola Tesla is probably Belgrade’s, and Serbia’s, most famous son. The name is in everybody’s mind because of the electric car company and its co-founder Elon Musk, but few know anything about the name’s owner, Nikola Tesla. The small museum in Belgrade is crammed full of his history and his many inventions, and it quite literally sends out sparks when during the tour some of his electrical inventions are fired up. It is truly interesting, and while a tour is obligatory, it won’t take up too much of your time.
5. Walking To Zemun
Spending an afternoon or morning walking along the Danube, looking at its many houseboats, and stopping for coffee along the way is a must when in Belgrade. But this outing is even better if you start in the suburb of Zemun some 7 miles from Belgrade center. The best way is to only walk in one direction and take a bus or taxi to Zemun and then walk back.
But do allow some time to be spent in the small town itself. Zemun used to be a border town between the Ottoman and Australian empires and is too cute for words. The bustling town is filled with small and brightly colored houses and it has a great tower with even greater views and a plethora of restaurants along the riverbank of the Danube.
6. Superb Inexpensive Meals
I know I keep going on about food, but this took me completely by surprise in Belgrade. To be honest, my preconceptions of Serbian or Slavic food were all kebabs and cevapcici (which is true, and they are yummy), but the number of superb fine-dining restaurants which, for us as visitors, were ridiculously cheap, is impressive.
Try Magellan, for example — so good we went twice. Located in the somewhat Soviet-style new Belgrade across the Sava, this nautical-themed restaurant serves incredible, non-cevapcici food. Then there is Salon 1906, which is located in a building that will take your breath away. I believe it was an old bank, and the ceilings, décor, and double staircase are unbelievable. Not quite that cheap, but still cheap compared to a similar setting and menu anywhere else in Europe; this is one for a special occasion.
7. The Markets
I have mentioned before that Belgrade is a liveable city rather than a touristy one, and that is also reflected in the city’s markets. Locals shop for fresh food here, and it is fun to be in the middle of that and to see the local produce and other goodies for sale. My favorites are the vast market called Kalenic, which is like a market city, and not far from the St. Sava Temple (see below), and the rather lovely Zeleni Venac. Zeleni Venac is near the city center and is marked by an assortment of strange red-and-white roofs.
8. Numerous Cafes
I had not known that Belgrade has a distinct coffee culture, and, as far as I know, it doesn’t. It just seems that the people of Belgrade have a thing for trendy coffee shops, large and small, cute and industrial chic, but all serving decent coffee and always some great cake and other dishes.
I found so many but simply did not have the time to constantly stop for coffee, so my husband and I agreed to forgo the hotel breakfast and instead eat out for breakfast every morning, and then add a few extra coffee stops during the day. Try, for example, the Kafeterija, or Coffee, Tea, and Sympathy with a balcony looking out across Park Terazijska terasa.
9. St. Sava Temple
This is Belgrade’s Sagrada Familia. Well, not quite, but this vast temple, or Orthodox church, is not only the largest Orthodox Church in use, but construction has been ongoing on and off since 1935. Nearly finished though, it is as vast on the outside as it is extravagantly decorated and gilded inside. It is an incredible building that is well worth taking time out to see.
10. Metropol Palace
There are plenty of hyper-modern hotels in Belgrade, and equally some historic places, but for me, the Metropol Palace is very much a part of the city’s Yugoslav and Serbian history. And, looking at the guest list ranging from political names such as Leonid Brezhnev and Che Guevara to film greats like Brigitte Bardot, Elizabeth Taylor, and Kirk Douglas to astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, and so many more, you feel in quite illustrious surroundings.
What really brings the pride of the Belgrade people home to me is the special in-house chocolate cake service you get in the rooftop restaurant. The coffee and cake are served on the blue-and-white china that was first used in the 1950s when the hotel was opened and holds a pride of place in the glass vitrines in reception, showcasing some of the hotel’s history. Oh, and the views are great from the rooftop terrace, too.
Pro Tip: Language
Language can be a bit of a problem, as tourism is not widespread, nor is the English language. You will get by in most hotels, restaurants, and cafes, but asking a stranger on the street for directions can be problematic. Make sure you get some roaming credits for your phone to use maps and translation services, and take the business card of your hotel with you to show to people should you need guidance.