48 hours in Belgrade

So, it’s late in the evening, your workday is finished and its time to plan that eagerly awaited weekend break. Looking at the map of Europe, glass of wine in hand, there are so many incredible options to choose from. You could try strolling around the misty canals of Amsterdamor take time out for people-watching along the ChampsÉlysées in Paris. Been there, done that? Then try option number three – the overlooked capital of Serbia, Belgrade.

Belgrade from above

Belgrade from above

Often associated with NATO bombing in 1999, Belgrade has developed rapidly during the last decade, leaving its tumultuous past far behind it. Now the city exudes a new found confidence, with hip bars, trendy cafes and delightful restaurants attracting throngs of tourists and locals alike. An expedition to Belgrade should be cheap, safe and satisfying – be sure to do extensive research on hotels, there are some amazing bargains!

Usually, most weekend trips begin at Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla Airport, located roughly 12 kilometres west of the city centre. The bus trip to Slavija square in downtown Belgrade is cheap and effortless. Unfortunately, you might bear witness to some of the city’s more undesirable quarters on the journey from the airport. Tiny, ugly grey buildings make their uneasy presence felt as airport buses constantly pass by. Dirty children play in the mud while rubbish burns in random corners, filling the quarter with thick, acrid smoke. It feels slightly like the slums of Rio and it isn’t a good first impression. Nor is the second impression, for that matter.

The area around Slavija Squareis rough – overcrowded with beggars and a distinct air of insecurity.  Smells like petrol, urine, dirty socks, smoke and pizza collide and overload the senses, while plastic bags flutter in the wind overhead. Trolley buses stop nearby, unleashing more crowds onto the pavement around you. Once you escape all these unpleasantries, the atmosphere changes and you feel like you’ve arrived in another world. The overwhelming concoction of smells dissipates, leaving you with more pleasant aromas – perfume shops and street corner barbecues. Knez Mihailova Street is the main pedestrian shopping quarter, bustling and atmospheric. It’s easy to kill a few hours here in a multitude of diverse and interesting shops. The buildings are nice here too – throwMilanandViennatogether in your head and you’ll get the idea.

LeavingKnez Mihailova Street, it becomes immediately clear that the rest of the city isn’t so beautiful, yet there’s something special about it. Shabby grey high-rise flats make their presence felt on both sides of the river Danube. The Beograđanka is the king of Belgrade’s tall, ugly buildings at 101 metres. It towers over the city centre and its horrendous façade makes a useful reference point. Nevertheless, cute, characteristic houses and cafes spring up around every corner while lizards dart in between cracks on crumbling red-brick walls.

The old bohemian quarter of Skadarlija is full of life and well worth visiting. Locals sit outside cosy little cafes, sipping cappuccinos, discussing the latest news while artists paint pictures in various alcoves. Multi-coloured cats move stealthily from table to table, hoping something tasty drops from the busy diners above. There are some very special pubs in this quarter, especially one where the family which owns it serve you from their living room, while they watch TV. It is very open and friendly. The Temple of Saint Sava is another city centre highlight. This massive cathedral is still unfinished, but still looks spectacular. It is Belgrade’s most beautiful and recognisable building, under construction on and off since 1935.

You can also take a stroll along Kneza Milosa Street, where interesting sights await. In between various government buildings, the bombed-out shells of several former military installations can be seen. It is quite an eye-opener. It feels eerie to see such damage in a seemingly modern European capital city. Serbian officials are adamant that the damage is too costly to repair, but locals fromBelgradeare absolutely sure the buildings are kept as a tourist attraction. Maybe they are right – it certainly seems to be a hit among the tourists.

Head to the unmissable Belgrade fortress, located in the heart of the Serbian capital, at the confluence of the Sava andDanuberivers. The oldest part of the city, it dominates the landscape, offering spectacular views. The fortress is impressive enough during the day, but come back at night with a bottle of wine, sit back, relax and enjoy the flickering lights of cars passing over the Adabridge or the horns sounding from barges passing to and fro along the Danube.

The next day has to be spent on the Danube itself – a boat trip is obligatory inBelgrade. There are so many options to choose from and most are easily affordable. Some of the smaller boats offer the best atmosphere, with tickets starting at €1.50 with cold beer for 45c per bottle. Sounds good? It damn well is. Young Serbs wave from houseboats, leaping into the river to escape the summer heat. The boat passes old rusting docks; a giant disused crane tilts towards the passengers like some metallic preying mantis saying hello. As the sun sets, the boat passes a power station before turning back towards the formerly grey city, now bathed in a peaceful pink hue by the setting sun. Happy tourists keep drinking beer – this is as good as it gets.

After the boat trip, everybody’s hungry, so its time to enjoy the very best Belgrade has to offer. Meat. Lots of  it! The Serbs are well known for their love of meat dishes and vegetarians are best advised to visit another country. Some of the best meat dishes are definitely ćevapčići, pljeskavica, and pečenje. Most are served with salad, boiled potatoes and bread. Statistics on food show that Europeans certainly take their cuisine seriously, andSerbia is no exception.

There is an extensive selection of wine and beer on offer – the best beer is Jelen, a delightful Serbian lager, perfect to quench one’s thirst during the hot summer months. A welcome and powerful digestive is offered in the form of Serbian rakija. The very best thing about the food inSerbia, however, is that it is incredibly cheap. A main course in a restaurant costs as little as €3 or €4.

So, Belgrade is wholeheartedly recommended. If you want to stray off the beaten track and visit a relatively new tourist destination, book your flight now. The people are friendly and Belgrade is a city of contrasts – the aforementioned slums quickly give way to a lovable bohemian culture, filled with friendly locals and delicious food. It’s possible to enjoy everything Serbia has to offer on a small budget. If you really want to enjoy Belgradeto its full potential, you have to come in summer. That delicious cold Jelen and a big plate of ćevapčići are sure to be waiting.

Written by: Seamus Murphy

Photo: Igor Jeremic

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