The first thing I wanted to do upon arriving in Belgrade was check into a hotel and crawl into bed. After a four-hour drive on hair-pinned roads and cobbled town streets, I stumbled out of the car gasping for air while trying to hold in the contents of my stomach (or whatever was left of them). I was in no fit state to walk around the city in 32 degrees.
It wasn’t the first time that the travel pill had failed to work its mojo on me. However, unlike previous occasions, I wasn’t going to let motion sickness ruin my day. We only planned to spend two days in Belgrade, and it was already midday.
Three hours later, I was sipping an iced coffee in the heart of the city and trying to convince my Serbian friends that it wasn’t too hot for another stroll through the Old Town. After all, we hadn’t even booked a room for the night yet, so we didn’t have anywhere else to go. Our only other option would have been to remain seated under a large patio umbrella, which had a fan and water sprayer attached to the shaft, and order a second round of cold drinks. I wasn’t too keen on this last idea, but my friends had already been eyeing the smoothie menu.
“Why do you like Belgrade so much?” Maja asked.
I detected a hint of disapproval in her voice, so I just smiled.
“No, seriously – What do you like about Belgrade?” she asked again.
She was the one who had strongly opposed the idea of giving up our cool spot in the shade for a walk around the city. The other two were still undecided. I glanced at my watch, then back up at her.
“I can spend the next hour telling you all about the things I love about Belgrade so far. Perhaps we’ll even have time to get a third round of drinks.”
Maja sighed, then put the menu away. A few minutes later, we were back on the streets of Belgrade.
By Sunday afternoon, I was completely enamored with Belgrade. Maja still couldn’t understand why, and neither could her fourteen-year-old sister, Ana. They wanted to know if Belgrade was more beautiful than the other European capitals that I’d been to so far, but I told them that I don’t compare cities in terms of beauty and grandeur.
“It’s about the emotions that a city evokes in you” I explained, confusing them even further.
And on that note, here are the reasons why I fell in love with Belgrade – and why I think you would, too.
The laidback vibe
Belgrade is a city that perfectly suits my personality. Besides being drawn to its raw, unembellished beauty, I was also intrigued by the city’s audacious spirit. Belgrade does not conform to anyone’s expectations, which is probably the reason why many tourists feel disappointed when visiting the city. On the other hand, it openly welcomes those who are willing to embrace its true spirit.
Belgrade is still scarred by its tumultuous past, but the Serbian capital is finally prepared to patch up those scars and build an improved future. This sense of hope and optimism is mostly palpable in the city’s burgeoning hip scene and its new endeavours in the cultural sphere.
Our first stop in Belgrade was in the beautiful and historic neighbourhood of Zemun, which used to be a town on the Austrian border and part of the Astro-Hungarian Empire. Just like many other places in Belgrade, Zemun exudes a friendly, laid-back vibe. Its twisting cobbled lanes, old pastel-coloured houses and authentic atmosphere make Zemun a joy to explore on foot.
I was still trying to dispel an unrelenting wave of nausea when we got to Zemun. We took a walk through the flea market and along the river promenade, soaking up the town’s bohemian vibe. This is when I realised that, no matter how unwell I would feel in the next couple of days, Belgrade was about to become my new favourite city.
The rich history
I had almost zero knowledge of Serbian history before visiting the country, so I was surprised to learn that Belgrade is one of the oldest cities in Europe. It is also the only capital city in Europe that lies on the confluence of two rivers – the Danube and the Sava. And, one last interesting fact – Belgrade has the second oldest sewer system in Europe.
Besides being a restless photographer, I’m also a self-confessed history nerd. One of the places on my list of things to see in Belgrade was Kalemegdan Fortess, which dates back to the 4th century BC. When we got there, the sun was at its full force. We sweated our way through the park and along the ramparts, trying to ignore the fact that no sane person would choose to explore the unsheltered citadel grounds at that infernal hour.
Belgrade was founded by the Celtic tribe of Scordisci and was later conquered by the Romans, who built a fortified camp on the hill overlooking the Danube and Sava rivers. After being destroyed by the Goths and the Huns in multiple invasions, the fortress fell in the hands of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, and remained a stronghold of the Byzantine Emperor until the 12th century.
In 1521, Serbia came under Ottoman rule, and Belgrade became one of the largest cities in Europe at the time. During the the Serbian Uprisings of the 19th century, the Serbs tried to erase all traces of the long Turkish rule. Many Islamic buildings were destroyed, including 60 or so mosques. The Turkish Embassy in Serbia has tried to preserve what’s left of the country’s Ottoman heritage, including the tomb of Grand Vizier Silahdar Ali Pasha in Kalemegdan Park.
After spending an hour and a half exploring the city’s colourful past in the scorching heat, I was in dire need of a cold shower and a well-deserved nap, so I asked my friends if the hotel was far from the centre. Biljana shot me an apologetic look.
“I haven’t booked a room for us yet,” she confessed, “I meant to do it earlier but I totally forgot.”
There’s a certain gritty beauty about Belgrade. Some might say the city is rather dull and dusty, and perhaps a bit too grim, but this ugliness is partly what gives Belgrade character. Even the rickety, worse-for-wear trams add to the city’s unique charm.
Belgrade still bears traces of the country’s dark past. The New Town (Novi Grad) is replete with hideous Communist tower blocks and derelict edifices. Buildings that were severely damaged during the 1999 NATO bombings lie in a dilapidated state. In fact, some of these bombed places have become popular tourist attractions in recent years. But this doesn’t mean that Belgrade is short of sites with aesthetic appeal.
Walking through the streets of the Old Town almost felt like being transported back to the 1920s, when Art Deco was all the rage. Some of the prettiest buildings in Belgrade are found on Knez Mihailova Street. This long, pedestrian street is protected by law for its historical significance, and also for being one of the oldest streets in the city. Gorgeous buildings embellished with intricate carvings line both sides of the street. Being an overenthusiastic photographer, I couldn’t help but stop at almost every building to capture the decorative facades from multiple angles.
Just when I thought I was done taking photos for the day, we ended up at the stunning Church of Saint Sava, which is the largest Orthodox temple in the Balkans. This breath-taking structure reaches a height of 82 metres and can accommodate as many as 10,000 people.
The cafe culture
If we had to return to Belgrade, I would spend a day exploring the city’s coffee scene. Cafe culture is an important part of the city’s identity. Walk down any street in Belgrade’s Old Town and you’ll come across a myriad of cheerful coffee shops – and a few quirky ones.
Coffee drinking is a long-standing cultural practice in Serbia, dating back to the Ottoman period. Coffeehouses in Belgrade were introduced by the Turks, who called this business kafane. In the 20th century, Belgrade’s coffeehouses, or kafanas, became a popular meeting place for Serb peasant leaders and young Serbian nationalists.
In the 1970s, cafe bars started cropping up everywhere in the city as coffee culture became an essential part of social life in former Yugoslavia. Nowadays, Belgrade’s cafe bars also specialise in traditional cuisine, while Turska (unfiltered Turkish coffee) remains the most popular type of coffee drink among locals.
The city’s suave cafe culture is ingrained in every day life. This became even more apparent on Saturday evening, when the quiet streets of the Old Town turned into a hive of activity. Within an hour, the air became filled with the aroma of coffee. Suddenly, I was no longer interested in exploring the streets of Belgrade. All I wanted to do was sit down for a cup of coffee in Knez Mihailova and watch the world go by. And for the rest of the evening, we did just that.
The lack of tourists
Can you imagine walking through a European city in the peak of summer without getting stuck in slow-moving crowds at popular attractions? No hordes of tourists clogging up the streets, and no selfie-sticks sticking out at you from every direction, either. Total bliss.
Serbia remains one of the least-visited countries in Europe. This means that, besides being one of Europe’s best-kept secrets, Belgrade is also a very cheap place to visit. The city is on the mend, and the future looks promising. Thanks to its thriving nightlife and lively cafe culture, Belgrade is slowly emerging as one of the hottest destinations in Europe.
When Biljana told me that she hadn’t yet booked a room for the night, I honestly thought we would end up sleeping in the car. At 6.30pm, we sat down for another coffee in Knez Mihailova. Biljana took her phone out and started looking for hotels with available rooms. I stared at the foamy cup of Turkish coffee that had just been placed before me, patiently waiting for some good news.
“I’ve found a room,” she finally said. “It’s 50 euros for the four of us, breakfast included.”
I sighed with joy, but at the same time, I didn’t look forward to getting out of the Old Town and heading back to the formidable streets of Novi Grad. The price suggested that the hotel was located on the outskirts of the city, probably in one of the ugly Communist buildings that we had driven past earlier.
“I guess we’ll have to give up our lucky parking spot to get to the hotel tonight,” I said, gazing up at the beautiful buildings around us, possibly for the last time.
“Not really. We’re sitting right in front of the hotel.”
Visiting Belgrade: What you need to know
ACCOMMODATION: I stayed at Atlas Travel Point Centre Suites, a traditional building just off the main street (Knez Mihailova). The rooms are spacious and quite cosy, and there are plenty of restaurants and cafes in the area.
WHAT TO PACK:
Pickpocket-proof clothing: While Belgrade is not a crowded city, I highly recommend investing in some anti-theft clothes for your travels. Check out this cool clothing with hidden pockets.
Comfy shoes: Walking shoes don’t have to be dull and boring. Check out these comfy and quirky shoes.
5-Hour Small Group Food Tour with Local Guide – Visit a local bakery, explore a food market, indulge in Balkan cuisine & much more.
2.5-Hour Small Group Walking Tour – See the main attractions of the city, including Belgrade Fortress.
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