Some say it is the ugliest city in the prettiest place. Others, that you have accomplished enough in your life for a day just by waking up in it. It is one of the most fought-for and contested urban settlements in the world. The white city, as its name translates from Serbian, frantic and hangover at the same time, lies on the banks of two rivers, like a drunkard on a bar. Yet, it’s breath is far more pleasant and its mood a lot more cheerful. As with every bohemian, there are many ways journey can take you. This is one of the possible routes.
A Hedonist Oasis
Touchdown in Belgrade can be painful, and it doesn’t matter if it’s by plane, train or a bus. Reminds of being born in a way. You don’t really get the hang of it immediately, but when you do, it gets a lot better. The city owes this weird first impression mostly to the fact that it drains its charisma more from an authentic vibe, than from its aesthetical magnificence. Although there are numerous beautiful streets and buildings, one gets to appreciate it really, only after interacting with the city pulse and its people.
Downtown is not too big, but somehow, Belgrade melts the clock very quickly, so getting a bed anywhere between Vračar and Dorćol areas gives a good starting point. Hotels, hostels and Airbnbs are plentiful. Getting to orientate is easy. The city lies on Danube and Sava confluence, and during the summer period the rivers are the ticking arteries of the city. There are several other landmarks, such as the Temple of Saint Sava and the Kalemegdan fortress that make it easy to find a way around.
Being very cheap by European standards, Belgrade is a heaven for heavy drinkers, meet lovers, smokers, gamblers and all other kinds of hedonists. Favorite local shot is Rakija. This strong alcoholic fruit brandy is popular all around the Balkan peninsula, but in Serbia it is considered a national drink and has an almost sacred status in folklore. The most common rakija is made from plums, but it is also available in other flavors literally in every bar in the country for about 1 -2 euro per shot. It is this thing that mainly drives the crazy nightlife and excess in the Serbian capital.
Smoking is allowed everywhere, and to follow up with the strong booze, food in Serbia is heavy, salty and consists mainly of meet, to say it modestly. Belgrade is lined with cheap Serbian restaurants where portions are ridiculously large and cost just about 7 or 8 euros. Not to mention hundreds of fast-food venues with BBQ offers like meat stuffed with meat stuffed with more meat and cheese. The locals are especially boastful about the quality of their homemade specialties such as kajmak and ajvar, that are, as rakija, best to get either over a “local connection” or on a vegetable market.
Day 1 - Kafa and Kafana
A short walk from start to the end of the main downtown Belgrade pedestrian street Knez Mihailova, is like a journey through several centuries, a polylogue of epochs and architectural styles, all confronting each other in a single row of buildings. This characterizes the entire city and gives it kind of colorful eclectic chaoticness, sometimes even madness, that you either love or hate.
Knez Mihailova, still, is a wonderful street always full of people and life, musicians and artists, young and old. Before exploring it, I like to grab either an ice cream from a nearby place Crna Ovca in Kralja Petra street, or a coffee at Koffein in Cara Lazara. They even make the Greek freddo espresso, although for some reason they call it Greek frappe.
Another great bakery nearby is Mandarina that established itself in the last few years as one of the best sweetshops in the city. When real hunger strikes though, Belgrade usually takes of its Central European mask and the Balkans jump out. A great place to feel this centuries old mix of Slavic culture, Eastern Orthodoxy and Islamic influence is kafana simply called Znak pitanja or “The Question Mark”.
Hidden among bigger and newer buildings, surrounded by cars and under the shadow of the Cathedral Church bell tower, lies the oldest working kafana in the capital. Question mark is nestled in an 1823 Balkan-style house built by un unknown Greek architect. Tavern was open just three years after the construction of the object was finished. As the city itself, it had a dramatic history but managed to survive Balkan wars, two world wars, communism, revolutions and privatization after it was finally proclaimed a monument of culture.
Although exposed to mainstream tourism and a bit less cheap than the other surviving old town kafanas, The Question mark has been keeping the unique ambient and spirit of ancient times for the last two centuries and has kept on doing it in 2019. In the night, live music, performed by a traditional orchestra consisting usually of contrabass, violin, accordion, tamburas (small guitar) and acoustic guitars fills the air with tunes from the beginning of the previous century.
Last time I visited The Question Mark with my UW and life partner and two friends, from Spain and France, a man sitting on a table next to us heard our conversation, joined the band and started singing, first songs in Greek, and then Serbian songs dedicated to France and Spain. It was very emotional and the voice of the man was incredibly powerful. He was a big old man with a grey beard, nice stature and piercingly intelligent look, despite drinking heavily. Turned out he is a regular customer, an old bohemian, sitting on the same table for the last fifty years. That is The Question Mark.
Once the night settles in and bars start to fill up, Cetinjska street is usually the place to be for starters. Around the middle of the street, behind a car ramp, a plateau surrounded with bars, clubs, and restaurants opens up as waves of noise and people pour in and out. Nestled in an old industrial area, Cetinjska plateau offers a variety of musical settings, from DJs to live metal, punk, jazz etc., so there is pretty much something for everyone’s taste. Combined with great craft beers, good prices and a Berlin-like atmosphere, it sounds like an almost perfect place. Yet, because of constant protests from the neighbors that complain against noise in the area, music goes off at midnight, 1am Friday and Saturday, while the final whistle comes an hour later. Only place that survives the hour is SubBeerni centar.
Just before the music’s over, I like to jump to the street over, that brings a completely different vibe. Paved in stoned blocks, Skadarska street descends down parallel to Cetinjska and forms the backbone of Skadarlija area, or the city’s Bohemian Quarter. Famous for its Montmartre-like setting, many traditional old kafanas with live music and wild atmosphere, it is always full of people, tourists and locals alike. Contrary to the oriental atmosphere of The Question Mark, Skadarlija kafanas give more of a 19th century Parisian saloon kind of feeling and a “Old European” scent. Taverns Dva Jelena and Tri Šešira are my favorite ones. I never book in front, so I have to kiss several doors before finding a free table. Once inside, I don’t hesitate to leave before getting kicked out. Unless all the money ends up clipped on musician’s instruments, shirts and foreheads.
Kafanas usually close around 4am so it’s good to know after party places. There are a few in Belgrade, and some of them are Manijak for metal/alternative lovers, and KPTM or Dragstor for techno, RnB etc.
Cultural break... Day 2
There is a saying in Serbia: “You take a nail out with another nail”. So no matter how wasted you ended the previous day, if you repeat it one more time, you will definitely feel better.
A stroll down Terazije and Kralja Milana streets towards Slavija square is wonderful in the morning. Famous city landmarks like the Old and the New Palace of the Serbian Kings line the way, and there is a great view both on the Saint Sava Temple and the National Assembly building. A park with a monument dedicated to writer Ivo Andrić who is the only Serbian Nobel prize winner in history is in the middle of it all, a spot to escape the city noise in its midst.
Further down, Cvetni trg or The Flower Square, has several cool gardens with the view of Yugoslav Drama Theater building. Good place for a coffee stop before heading up to Krunska street to Nikola Tesla museum. This area is called Vračar and there is a nice wine places like Pampour or cool bars like Monks that can also come in handy, if following up to the saying.
Tesla’s museum is today hosted in an early 20th century villa, and even though pretty small, it holds the ashes of the great scientist as well as a significant collection of his manuscript and personal things. Reconstructions of Tesla’s most famous inventions like Tesla coil are also exhibited for live demonstration. Entrance to the museum is possible only with tours that start every hour. It’s not recommendable to people with pacemakers though.
Whenever around here, I find myself tempted to sit down at a nearby place called Kalenić kafana for a shot of rakija and a massive meal.
This old school city tavern is different from the old town taverns in one thing – it has no music. Here, it’s all about the murmuring sound of conversation and resonating collisions of forks, knifes and plates. The tastiest and cheapest are the daily dishes. Whether it’s goulash, tripe and chitterlings or sour cabbage with pork ribs and knuckles, it is impossible to miss.
...and another round!
One of my main Belgrade nightlife guiding principles is: “If it’s not live, it’s probably not worth it”, and among the places that usually have great live music on weekends is Ciglana, or The Heavy Industry Lovers Club. Situated in an old factory brick house, place started off as an art workshop of sculptor Viktor Kiš. In years, Kiš transformed the place with his creations and today Ciglana is comprised out of big Art Depo gallery where performances are organized during spring/summer seasons, and the small winter club, both with amazing interiors. The repertoire is exciting and refreshing – from gypsy music, to fusion and jazz, world music of all kinds, along with performances of exotic and plainly weird art troops from around the world.
Day 3 - The River Siege
Having time to settle thoughts and impressions is important as much as gathering them. While medieval forts preserved inside big cities are usually not the best place to do just that, Belgrade’s Kalemegdan makes an exception. This massive fort complex that towers over the Sava and Danube confluence covers a huge area of what once was the entire town. Today it is entirely open as city’s biggest public park, with possibility to walk and climb, more or less, every wall.
Kalemegdan is a maze consisting of layer upon layer of history. Built first by the Romans as Singidunum, a military town protecting the so-called Limes or Danube border, fort that we call Kalemegdan was destroyed and rebuilt by many nations – Romans, Goths, Huns, Avars, Slavs, Austro-Hungarians, Turks and Serbs, all left their mark. No wonder that even today when most of the places around the world are overcrowded, it is still possible to find an isolated place between these ancient walls, contemplate on the majestic river view and have a puff of something to go with the flow.
The Zoo, incorporated in to this labyrinth of walled terraces and passages, is an indeed strange and beautiful place. Wild animals in this unusual setting give Belgrade Zoo something so cinematic that film greats like Hitchcock praised it, while the famous Serbian director Emir Kusturica in his movie “Underground” immortalized the story of the 1941 German bombing of the Zoo, after which the surviving animals fled and roamed the city freely. There is even a veteran to tell the tale – Muja, an American alligator. Born somewhat before 1936, since 2007, Muja is the oldest living alligator in the world. Although he lost his leg due tu gangrene, he is healthy, but not very cheerful and agile, old warrior.
On the way down from Kalemegdan, the path through lower town leads towards Karađorđeva street. Around the number 31, almost completely hidden in an alleyway passage, lies a vinery called Klub Vinarija. It boasts an amazing interior – artificial caves, or wine cellars where a century ago barrels were stored after being taken of the river docks from the merchants.
Tranquil atmosphere of the underground will quickly disperse when continuing further down to Savamala district, a party area where life evolves solely around bars and clubs.
A range of options in Savamala is from very posh, relaxed, to dodgy underground places. Depending on budget and taste, one can find anything. For rock’n’beer mood there is Čorba kafe; when jazzy then Jazz bašta; for more standard clubbing, Hype, Ben Akiba or Tranzit. Cool places are also Gajba and Savin mali. Places to drink and dance are plentiful, and Belgraders like to use it. Fridays and Saturdays are the best, but people still party during the whole week.
Street art and rakija - Day 4
Downtown Belgrade, in all its mix of excellence and misery, holds a surprising free exhibition – a street art project, set up by a sports team fans. Well, as they say, you can’t spell Partizan without art.
The Belgrade black & whites are the country’s biggest team alongside Red Star. Having a less massive fan base on a national level then its archrival didn’t weigh down on Partizan. On the contrary. It helped it evolve into something more than just a football, basketball or a water polo club.
It became a form of an alternative stand, almost a cultural institution of its sort, as a counter to a more mainstream and massive Red Star following. The Partizan fans say: “On Partizan games we listen to punk. On Red Star games, they listen to Ceca (Serbian folk star)”.
Being as it is, a group called Grobarski Trash Romantizam (Gravedigger’s Trash Romanticism) together with Grupa JNA, made a series of murals dedicated to all the great actors, poets, musicians etc., that gave their voice to support Partizan.
Starting from Braće Jugovića street and towards Kalemegdan, then down to Simina towards Francuska and continuing in the same snake-like manner until Cara Dušana street, this route lasts about an hour, hour and a half but it includes not only over 12 murals, among them some dedicated to international greats such as Joe Strummer of Sex Pistols, but the entire upper Dorćol area with many beautiful buildings like Belgrade mosque, kafanas like The Writers’ Club, restaurants, designer and vintage shops, old and new crafts that make this quart a beating heart of Belgrade for the last 100 years.
In the midst of this area, in upper Dobračina street, there is a bar that is a must visit, especially after a few days of drinking the most common types of rakija, or mainly the so called šljivovica, that is made from plums.
In Rakia Bar, local stuff comes in such a variety of tastes that several visits are necessary in order to try out all of the flavors. Raspberry, cherry, honey, lemon, walnut, apricot, peach, name it – it’s there. Do it all at once and you will walk out on all four legs… If you walk out.
But if you do walk out and night catches you there, all the way down the same street, in Lower Dorćol area, there is another plateau similar to one in Cetinjska, just with a bit more food on the plate. In Dobračina 59b, a bunch of places emerged in last few years, and the once eerie looking abandoned industrial area turned into a creative hub for artists and young people in general. Besides Dorćol Platz, that hosts exhibitions, workshops, charities and concerts, there is a great Serbian restaurant Holesterol, that brings traditional recipes with a modern touch; a tasty bakery Šarlo; and a micro roastery Pržionica that serves one of the best coffees in the city.
Day 5 - Trip out of center
Leaving any city without stepping outside its center would mean an incomplete experience and probably a wrong impression. Although outside of the tourist zone Belgrade has many visible problems, there is a lot of beautiful places and during the day, Ada lake, or the Belgrade sea, is definitely one of the best to spend the day. Except for bars and clubs, Ada offers a wide range of sport activities, bike trails, water sports and bathing of course.
After having a dip and relaxing in this oasis hidden practically in the middle of the city, it is easy to reach New Belgrade – the evil communist twin of old town Belgrade that emerged after WWI out of a sandy marshland, thanks to a massive youth volunteering action.
A whole new city was built meant to serve several purposes, Mainly, to house an increasingly rapid growing city population, and the other to promote the communist ideology through aesthetics. New Belgrade is one of the best examples of brutalist architecture in entire Eastern Europe. Despite being rather gray and even after 30 years of make-up process, it is still predominantly communist, but the feeling you get in NBG bloks is both of ghetto like hood and a calm chill area for a lower middle class where there is no reason to feel unsafe.
Especially interesting are bloks 61 to 64. A copy-paste style line of brutalist staircase-like buildings spread beyond the eye can see, basketball and football courts are full and smell of burned greenery is in the air. It’s one of the most cinematic points in the city, and a lot of movies and commercials have been filmed there.
Across the street is Blok 45 that leads to the riviera. It stretches almost all the way to the center. Coast is lined with splavs, as the Serbs call the floating raft bars/clubs, that offer everything from rakija to chocolate soufflé. In spring and summer it’s perfect to rent a bike or roller blades and explore the river. You get not only to enjoy nature, but also to see the city “skyline” that’s best visible from the water level.
Splavs closer to Branko bridge are better for clubbing and can be a perfect choice for long hot summer nights.
For the end of a bohemian visit to Belgrade, exploring the area called Zemun can be an ideal way to recapitulate and literally view Belgrade afar. This small, former Austro-Hungarian border town became part of Serbia a century ago and merged with Belgrade in the following decades as the city expanded. It has a very sweet old town nestled on the Danube river bank, looking toward Kalemegdan in the distance. The old buildings, even though in Central European style, are so packed up, that it looks more like a Greek island. Next to the riviera, restaurants, taverns and bars add up one after the other. Šaran, one of the oldest and really the best fish restaurants in the city is here, as well as restaurant Toro, specialized in an unforgettable beefsteak experience. Cheers and Bon appetit!
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