Serbia, the land where I was born. The place where my entire family on my dad’s side still lives. I left here at a very young age but I’m fortunate enough to have returned so many times. This misunderstood country has gone through generations and centuries of tumultuous conflict, yet the people remain strong and enduring. On this trip through Europe, one of my goals was to spend quite a bit of time with my family in Serbia, and Daisy and I did just that. Our stay in Serbia took us to the capital city of Belgrade. I was very excited to return to Belgrade having only been there once before. I was also excited to see what Daisy thought of this incredible place. She’s lived in some of the biggest cities (London, New York and LA) and I was curious how she would take to the Serbian culture in a large city.
We spent about a week here and really soaked up the culture and the people. There is never a dull moment here and the people as always, make every place special. I also speak Serbian (albeit with terrible grammar) which makes things a little easier, however, it is entirely possible to get around here speaking only English. With anyplace you go, the locals appreciate you trying to speak their language. Here are a few key words to know :
Hello – Zdravo (Z-dra-voh)
Thanks – Hvala (h-va-lah)
Please – Molim (mo-leem)
Beer – Pivo (Pee-voh)
Water – Voda (vo-dah)
Bye – Cao
Serbian people are very kind in general. No, I’m not just saying that because I’m biased, most people who visit would agree with that. They are very social people and they can be seen enjoying a coffee and smoke at all times of the day. Which is why I have called this place, the capital of cafe culture. No matter what time of the day it is, you will see most cafe’s are filled with patrons. Even on a random Tuesday at 11:00 AM. Now, this is for a few reasons. The first one being that Serbians simply enjoy social situations and their love for coffee and cigarettes for that matter is unparalleled (and yes, I’ve been to Paris, Vienna, Amsterdam, London, and many other coffee havens). Second, the coffee and cigs are very cheap (think less than a dollar for each a coffee and a pack of cigarettes), even for the wages that they are paid here. Thirdly, the country is still developing, so unemployment is still higher than that of developed western countries. What better thing to do than drink and socialize with your friends then? And finally, Belgrade is a student town. All of the country’s major universities are situated here and there are in turn, many many students enjoying themselves at their leisure.
We ended up speaking to a few different people here about life in Belgrade. When you’re here, you’re a part of a strong social culture, and as mentioned, they are experts in socializing. Daisy and I spoke to a few different people here about life in the city, and most people love the laid back lifestyle that they enjoy. Perhaps at times, if the industries were stronger, it would allow for more jobs and economic strength, but irrelevant of all that, it seems that people enjoy themselves here no matter the circumstance. The Serbian government has even elected to leave some buildings unaltered that were bombed during the NATO strikes as a symbol to their people that even the gravest circumstances can be overcome.
Belgrade is also at the confluence of two massive rivers that flow through Europe, the Danube and the Sava rivers. Belgrade is often called the bridge between Eastern and Western Europe. Much of the balkans recent history was under Turkish rule and Belgrade was at the edge of the Turkish empire. There is an interesting blend of cultures here and the influence left behind by the Turks still exists in Belgrade. Kalemegdan, the massive fortress which is the historic capital of the city attests to this (more about it below).
Belgrade is not typically on the tourist path, although that seems to be changing as the years go on. This gives you an opportunity to really explore this place without all the tourist mayhem that comes along with the territory. Here, you will have a true cultural experience.
Where we stayed
What we have learned while traveling is that you never want to stay too close to the main bus or train station. This is a general rule, but usually these areas are pretty sketchy. Instead, do your due diligence and find a good neighborhood. Here is my recommendation for the best areas to stay in Belgrade for sightseeing and being close to the top cafe’s and hotspots. We stayed near the Trg Republika (Republic square), near the famous Hotel Moscow, which is a perfect launch point to enjoy all the cafe’s and sights that are around Belgrade. There are many other spots to choose from, but we always like to be in a more central location as that allows us to easily walk the city and see the sights. Walking around is by far the best way to get a feel for a place and to really understand how the locals live. We spent a week in an Airbnb and a few days at the Authentic Belgrade Centre Hostel.
Below are some of my favorite spots and attractions around Belgrade. Of course there is so much to see of any city, but I feel that the places mentioned below will provide you with a great cultural experience. This can be split in 2 full days, or 3 if time permits.
Belgrade is quite a large city (~1.3 million inhabitants) and there are many suburbs of the city. Most of the top city sights are located near the city center around the Trg Republika. If you only have a few days, or even a few hours to explore the city, here are the spots that will give you a proper experience of the city.
This gigantic fortress was first constructed in the 6th century by the Romans. Over the years it has changed rule in-numerous times and is always the center of Belgrade. This is still the case today. The Fortress lies on the edge of the convergence of the rivers and is quite a thing to behold and walk around. You can spend hours sitting in the parks and enjoying the views. I would also recommend to bring a beer or have some wine as you walk around, open bottles are legal here so long as you’re not causing a stir.
Enter the fortress and head towards the North West side, there is a beautiful garden area and the best views of the Sava and Danube rivers converging can be see from here.
Inside the fortress grounds there are some battle towers to see, one of the most prominent being Nebojsa tower on the NW side of the fortress. Also, be sure to go inside the gunpowder room which has now been converted into an ancient museum full of Roman artifacts which you can walk right up to (obviously touching is forbidden).
If you’re a fan of European History, a must see is the military bunker which brings you to cold War Yugoslavia and was supposedly built to withstand an air raid from the Soviet Union (Yugoslavia was only part of the USSR’s iron curtain until 1948). Near the bunker is the Pobednik Monument ( The victor monument) which was built to commemorate Serbia’s victory over the Ottoman & Austro-Hungarian empires (Balkan wars and First World War) which in essence granted her independence. This monument stands over 14 meters (~42 feet tall) and looks over the confluence of the two rivers.
On the Northern center of the Fortress grounds lie two spectacular churches. The first being the Ruzica church (The church of the rose), which was also used as a military church in the 19th century. The ivy that covers the church makes it one of the most unique churches in the world. Be sure to step inside and admire the interior. There are some parts of the walls and chandelier that are made from weapons. The second church which sits directly below the Ruzica is called Sveti Petka (St. Petka).
After exploring the churches, head up into the inner fortress walls and admire the view. You will most likely see plenty of young Belgradian’s sitting on the fortress walls enjoying the view and socializing. Feel free to sit but please be careful, there are no ropes or barriers of any sort, and since the structure is centuries old, it’s definitely not up to code!
The entire North East of the fortress is the Belgrade Zoo. It’s fascinating really, how they have all the animals within these fortress walls. I have mixed feelings about animals in captivity, but this zoo is worth a visit and is one of the oldest in Europe. They also have some cheetahs that are literally on the edge of the fence and look like they are about to jump out. For sunset walk back towards the center of the city towards the Republic square down the main pedestrian street, Knez Mihailova.
The path from Kalemegdan to Terazija (Belgrade’s center square) via the Knez Mihailova street is an exercise in window shopping, coffee inhaling and people watching all rolled into one. This street is the shopping capital of the entire country and is one of the most beautiful pedestrian zones in Eastern Europe. There are literally hundreds of coffee shops to choose from, and the costs, especially to Western travelers are exquisite. For example, you can have a beer or wine for around $1.00 and even order food for a couple more. You could quite easily spend most of your afternoon here. It is usually busy at all times of the day but increases in the afternoon. One of the busiest cafe’s is the Boutique which is on the edge of Trg Republika. The ones on Knez Mihailova are going to be slightly more expensive, so look to the side streets for better deals.
For a perfect ending to the evening, head to Skadarlija (Ska-dar-lee-yah). It’s a quaint street near the Republic Square (see map), and is the bohemian center of the city. The road is all brick and is lined with the best (and most expensive) restaurants in the city. It’s a beautiful, romantic but touristy area and perfect for a date night. We ate at the Dva Jelena (Two Deer) restaurant but there are plenty more places to choose from, and it really depends on what food you’re in the mood for. There is always live music being played and some of Serbia’s best cuisine can be had in Skdarlija. Be sure to try the Cevapi (Che-vah-pee), a delicious skinless sausage which is the national food of Serbia (and basically all the ex-Yugoslav countries). Another local favorite (myself included) is the spread called Ajvar (Ay-var), it generally contains eggplant, bell peppers and garlic and possibly chili peppers too. It is orange-red in color and is usually served with the bread. If not, be sure to ask the waiter to bring some!
Sveti Sava Church
This is the mothership of all Christian Orthodox churches in Serbia and one of the biggest church buildings in the world. This is just a short walk South East down the Terazije Boulevard. The church can’t really be missed as it dominates the skyline of old town Belgrade. The interior is still under construction and may take a while to complete as it is only being funded by donations. There is a Statue of Karadjordje (founded modern Serbia) on the west side of the church and its an awesome spot for photos!
A visit to Belgrade would not be complete without a visit to the Nikola Tesla museum. He is arguably Serbia’s proudest citizen as well as one of the most influential people in modern history. He, more than any other person is responsible for our modern way of life. I’m about to geek out a little here (I’m an Electrical Engineer by trade ;)), so if you’re not interested in reading about electricity or science, please skip this section! With inventions such as the induction motor, Alternating current (AC) and radio and many more, Tesla has literally transformed the way we live. This museum showcases these inventions in a very interactive way. There are large cross sections of motors, a remote controlled boat (made to his specs over 100 years ago) and even a Tesla coil (basically a high voltage transformer), and the demonstration will make the hair on your body stand up, literally. Daisy obviously had to volunteer… Lol!
Nightlife in Belgrade
Belgrade has been called the nightlife capital of Eastern Europe. Unfortunately, while we were there, we were still recovering from a flu, so we didn’t party like we planned. But, there are many awesome places to go. It really depends on the season that you’re there. In the summer, the party is on the river, literally. They have massive pontoon boats that are converted into nightclubs, and in the winter the party moves closer to the center of the city. We found this awesome resource for all Nightclub related activities.
Belgrade is a special city literally at the crossroads between East and West. The history here runs very deep and the people are all interesting and very social. I asked Daisy what she thought after our week there and was happy to hear that she really loved it. It’s now one of her favorite cities in Europe! A place where you can live the digital nomad lifestyle (coffee culture) during the day, enjoy all the history, culture and energy of the city in the evening and the dining, nightlife and overall social happening at night. We are even considering getting an apartment there!
What were your thoughts of Belgrade before reading this post? Is Belgrade on your list now? Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more from our Eastern European adventures!