Belgrade wasn’t exactly on my bucketlist of cities to visit. Maybe I was a bit biased against Belgrade due to its role in the war in Yugoslavia. My first visits to the Balkan were to Bosnia and Croatia. Back in 2005 there were still many traces left of the war. Stories of atrocities carried out by Serb nationalists were still in the minds of the people. These stories influenced me as well and I never tought of Serbia as a holiday destination.
But when I went to Lebanon the cheapest ticket was Air Serbia with a long lay-over in Belgrade. I could have chosen a more convenient ticket. However, a short visit to Belgrade sounded exciting. I wasn’t expecting much, but that is maybe why it was such a pleasant surprise.
Obviously the war is long over and what I found was a new youthful spirit combined with an old Eastern European feeling. Belgrade is becoming one of the more hipster cities in Europe with plenty to explore. The city is vibrant and alive with a strong youth culture.
Old industrial buildings from Belgrade’s past as a communist city under Tito’s rule have been transformed into cultural centers. In addition there is beautiful architecture, green parks and a lively fresh produce market right in the centre.
I couldn’t imagine a better way to spent a long transit. Was it enough for Belgrade? Did it taste like more? In one day I could see most important sights, but it was just the tip of the iceberg and it definetly tasted like more. Two years later I returned for a longer visit to do the city justice.
The best things to do in Belgrade
1. Sava cathedral
The bus from the airport dropped us off near the Sava cathedral. The Sava cathedral is actually not a cathedral, but the largest and biggest Eastern orthodox church in the world. It is dedicated to the holy Sava, who founded the orthodox church in Serbia. The outside is more spectacular than the inside. Despite its importance, the inside of the church is rather simple with a small iconostasis.
2. Knez Mihailova street
From the Sava cathedral we walked through the shopping street Knez Mihailova towards the Kalamegdan fortress. It is a busy street with musicians playing their latest songs. It could be any modern shopping street in Europe, but I loved the beautiful architecture with the Austrian Hungarian buildings painted in pastel colours.
3. Zeleni Venac market
Near Knez Mihailova there is a neighbourhood called Zeleni Venac. There you will find one of the oldest green markets that is still functioning right in the heart of the city. From the fancy stores with modern brands in Knez Mihailova to simple stalls selling fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts and dried fruits.
4. Try Serbian food
The market made us hungry and Zeleni Venac is also home to some cheap local restaurants and bakeries. For lunch we tried out the Balkan version of kebab called cevapcici in which they stuff the pieces of meat in a breadroll with raw onions. It was cherry season and the market of Zeleni Venac was full of them, so our dessert were cherries as much as we could eat.
5. Skadarlija, the bohemian quarter
My favourite part of town was this small vintage neighbourhood full of young people, nice cafe’s and colourful restaurants. The history of Skadarlija began with the settlement of gypsies in 1830. In the nineteenth century several inns and cafe’s opened up that attracted prominent writers and actors. The car free cobblestoned street is still lined with art galleries and has a creative spirit.
6. Belgrade fortress and Kalamegdan park
We spent the rest of the afternoon in the Kalamegdan park where we watched the sun set over the Sava river. The fortress and the park is a popular place for both young and old. Old men are playing chess while young couples are exploring their new found loves.
7. Marcus church
The marcus church is a serene place. I found it more beautiful inside than the more famous Sava cathedral. From Knez Mihailova street it is a small detour.
8. Buying quirky souvenirs
Belgrade is also the place to buy quirky souvenirs. Tito magnets, putin t-shirts and unfortunately also a lot of nationalistic stuff that shows Serbia still hasn’t given up on its expansionist dreams. In line it is also supporting Putin. A tshirt claiming Alaska belongs to Russia with Putins stern looking face on it. It can be yours for a few euro’s.
Like I said before, Belgrade has much more to offer than what I could see in just one day. Even after a second longer visit I still havent seen everything the city has to offer. There are several churches and museums such as the Nikola Tesla museum, the Museum of Yugoslav history, the Military museum and the Belgrade city museum.
10. Free walking tours
The young people of Belgrade are quite proud of their city and are happy to guide tourists around to show the alternative side of Belgrade or the remnants of its communist past under Tito. There are several excellent free walking tours offered by Belgrade the Alternative Guide, Belgrade Free Tours and Belgrade Walking Tours. If you want to explore the alternative side of Belgrade on your own I can really recommend this Hipster guide to Belgrade.
Where to eat in Belgrade
Another good thing about Belgrade, is that it is cheap. Around the Zeleni Venac market are several cheap fast food eateries selling cevapcici’s and pita’s. Skadarlija offers plenty of nice and cosy restaurants with Serbian foood and is an excellent neighbourhood to go to for dinner.
For the best Cevapcici and other Balkan meat delicacies head to Walter Sarajevski Cevap. I can recommend Tufahije for desert. Apple stuffed with walnuts and cream.
Another good Serbian restaurant with Serbian specialities on a budget is Mala Gostionica.
How to get to Belgrade
Belgrade has a central location in the Balkans and there are frequent buses to other big cities in Serbia such as Nis, Novi Sad and others. There are also frequent buses to neighbouring countries, for example to Sarajevo (6 hours), Sofia (6 hours), Timisoara (3 – 4 hours), Zagreb (5-6 hours), Budapest (4-5 hours).
For train lovers don’t miss one of the most scenic journeys in Europe. Read more about this trip on my post about the Montenegro: express: the train from Belgrade to Bar