Once there was a country called Yugoslavia. It was a federation of six republics that existed through most of the 20th century. For much of that time, it was essentially held together by one man, Josip Broz Tito. Marshall Tito died in 1980. Soon after, one republic after another broke out of the federation, and the country was dismantled.
As the 1990s began, the authorities in what remained of Yugoslavia were keen to keep up bilateral cooperation with other European nations. And that’s where I come in. I was in Belgrade on behalf of my then employer, the Norwegian government, to negotiate a bilateral transport agreement between our two countries. Eons ago, young ‘uns, and it was all work back then, not much play. Though I remember the lovely view over the confluence of the two rivers that flow through Belgrade: the Sava and the Danube.
Where the rivers meet
In the here and now, October 2017, it’s work as well, but of an entirely different nature. Now I am here as a guest of the National Tourist Organisation of Serbia, to have a look at what Belgrade has to offer the visitor. It’s a task I am happy to undertake.
I am here with my two lovely colleagues, Ann-Mari of Alltid reiseklar, and Annette of TravellingMunk. The three of us have formed a little collective we’ve called Sparkling Happiness. Scintillating name, isn’t it? (My kids think less scintillating and more naff. Luckily, they have no say.)
#SparklingInBelgrade is our first collaborative project. We will be sparkling elsewhere soon, so keep your eyes peeled for the hashtag #SparklingIn…
But enough about awesome us, and on to what you are here for – a bit of Belgrade inspiration.
Belgrade things to do
If you want to get a proper feel for the Serbian capital, stay a week. The party scene is outrageous; excellent cafes, bars and restaurants abound, and Belgrade’s creative art is a chapter all on its own. We had a mere three days in town, not enough, but still filled with all kinds of cool and unexpected encounters. Here are our 11 highlights. And then some:
1. Kalemagdan Fortress – destruction, dinosaurs, and spectacular sunset views
A wander through the grounds of Kalemagdan Fortress is obligatory. Simple as that.
But… I am interested in eating and the party scene, I hear you say; not historic, cultural… stuff. Well, hold on, give us a minute. You will want to have a look at these enormous grounds (we are talking 50 hectares – that’s about 124 acres, dear Yank readers), cause this is a happening, blood-and-gore-through-the-ages kind of place.
The fort was constructed in Celtic times. Since then, it has seen more than 100 battles. Millions have lost their lives at Kalemagdan and the fort has been destroyed more than 40 times! And rebuilt! How’s that’s for dedication. The present reconstruction is from Ottoman/Austro-Hungarian times.
There is a military museum here. I didn’t have time to step inside; it does promise a comprehensive look at the military history of this country once known as Yugoslavia. But looking at Kalemagdan Fortress today, warfare isn’t at the forefront of my mind. It is basically a large village green within the imposing walls, and it’s rather lovely for a peaceful evening walk. You’ll find funfairs, cheerful cafes, and a dinosaur park for the little ones, complete with sound effects.
There’s also a mysterious 60-metre hole known as the Roman Well, even though it probably isn’t Roman. So why call it that? The Austrians, who most likely built the present fort in the early 1700s, may have seen themselves as the rightful heirs to the Roman Empire, or possibly to the Holy Roman Empire (I know, confusing naming there, think Charlemagne). The hole being a mystery n’all, there are stories and urban legends aplenty. Was it a dungeon? Were people thrown in and abandoned? As late as 1954, a man killed his wife and tossed her down the Roman well.
The best part at Kalemagdan, though, is the view. We’re lucky to be here at sunset.
To get to Kalemagdan, simply follow pedestrianised main street Knez Mihailova until the end, and there it is. On the way, you can pick up Tito kitsch from the souvenir stalls; mugs or magnets with pics of the man himself, or remembrances of Yugoslavia.
2. Museum of Yugoslav History and Tito’s mausoleum
Yugoslavia’s history was a turbulent one, and you will find lots to remind you of that in this fascinating museum: photos, documents, weaponry, films, and much more. Just now, there is also a solidarity exhibition on Tito in Africa, with plenty of large b/w photos from the mid-20th century: Tito and Nasser, Tito and Ghadafi, and so on. I love photos from this era, and traipsed about here for an age.
The museum gives an interesting and nostalgic look at a country that no longer exists; especially the phenomenon that was Josip Broz Tito. Of course, a great leader must have a great mausoleum, and Tito is no exception. His memorial/grave is included in the entrance fee. This is a must-visit, I think. Marshall Tito was an important man for many decades. He was perhaps the only one of the mid-20th century communist/socialist leaders who managed to give that term a human (and humane) face, seeking to improve people’s lives in the here and now, not as a vague promise for some distant future.
Unlike some others, (Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il-Sung/Kim Jong-Il), you won’t see the man himself on lit de parade. Tito is entombed in a marble casket surrounded by white stones, green plants, relay batons from the Young Pioneers, and various medals, uniforms and gifts from notables around the world. In the building is also his office and a replica of his train. This peaceful place is known as the House of Flowers. However, if you are here on 25 May, you might run into a crowd; that is the Marshall’s birthday, as well as the Yugoslav Youth Day.
3. The first date horse
Now for something completely different. On Republic Square, outside the National Museum of Serbia, is the Prince Mihailo Monument. This is a Belgrade icon, and you won’t want to miss it. In fact, you cannot miss it, even if you want to. This is where everyone meets up here in Belgrade. Planning a first date? ‘Let’s meet at the horse.’
4. Supermarket Concept Store
Let’s start with my fave shop in Belgrade (and possible all of Eastern Europe), the colourful Supermarket Concept Store. You’ll find locally designed clothes here (and some imported), as well as jewellery, books, cushions and assorted goodies. Lots of unique accessories and surprises in this place. I was about to buy a gorgeous winter coat. Then I remind myself I already have 7 winter coats. In my current decluttering phase, that’s already six too many. Nevertheless, it is lovely and soft. And red! I don’t have a red winter coat. Hm, wonder if it’s still there…
5. Belgrade design district (Čumić District)
Once an abandoned shopping mall, the Čumić District has been given a new lease on life with recent renovations. You’ll find more than 30 little shops with unique jewellery, design, books, cool postcards, and unusual artwork. The artists are usually in the shops and will adjust clothes to fit you if you give them a day or two. The design district is smack in the middle of Belgrade, but through a passage at the back of other buildings, so a bit tricky to find.
6. Book shops and souvenir shops
Whaaat? Souvenir shops? Yes, seriously. Souvenirs in Belgrade are unlike any I’ve ever seen. Think exceptionally cool t-shirts, provocative bags, colourful umbrellas, and a large, coffee table Tito cookbook! Somehow, even the normal junk manages to be appealing. There’s a few particularly interesting ones on and near main street. Plenty of book shops still, as well. Heart-warming.
A little out of town
Do I know any Serbians, I asked myself before going. Why yes, I do. Darko, kumis guzzling fellow traveller from Central Asia, is the man to ask for recos. Here’s one:
I’d recommend going to Zemun, seeing at least Gardoš tower and then walking along the river on Kej (lit. Quay) towards Ušće (lit. Confluence) and then going back downtown.
The old town Zemun used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and it is easy to see from the architecture. After World War I, it became Serbian and is now a part of Belgrade. There are quaint streets and narrow stairways in Zemun, a ramshackle Sunday flea market and a lively fruit/veg/flower market. We climbed to the top of the Gardoš Tower and had superb views of Belgrade and the two rivers (see top photo).
The 8 kilometres back to central Belgrade was an extraordinarily pleasant riverside stroll, with heaps of colours and lots to see along the way.
Belgrade’s café scene is lively and innovative. With three days, there was only time to visit a few. We enjoyed every one of them. Here’s a small selection of cool Belgrade cafes:
8. Kafeterija Magazin 1907
Cafeteria. Not the sexiest of names, perhaps. This was Belgrade’s first shopping centre and the old style has been well preserved in this spacious airy 3-story coffee shop. Top floor is a microbrewery and the basement is for men, particularly hipster men, with a men’s barber and a men’s clothes and shoe shop. In the middle is the cafe (somewhere to hang while the boyfriend gets his hair trimmed?) Cool and unusual coffee-related souvenirs for sale.
9. Supermarket Talas
A nice place to have coffee, drinks or lunch over in Zemun. It’s is run by the same people who run Supermarket Concept Store and it shows. Good, plentiful and inexpensive food.
10. Riverside boats
Walking from Zemun back to Belgrade proper, you’ll pass by kilometres of splavovi (party boats) along the Danube that serve as accommodations or cafes or pubs or all three. We stopped at random at Botel Charlie for juice and a little riverside photoshoot. Nearer to the city centre is a Zappa boat. Bobby Brown has clearly made an impression around the world.
11. Kafe Domino
Back in the city centre, Kafe Galerija DOMINO on Kralja Petra 10 is a cafe, gallery and quaint shop in one, with views of Saborna Cathedral across the street. Just as we passed by, Serbian Prince Philip and Danica Marinkovic were married, wearing matching crowns! Lots of interesting wedding guests to look at.
12. Hotel Moskva
Wondering where to have afternoon coffee in Belgrade? Hotel Moskva is an institution and their Moskva šnit has been Belgrade’s favourite sweet since 1974. It is light, just the right size and has pineapple, cherries and almonds.
All in classical surroundings, piano music included. You know I love these olde worlde cafes.
Eat our food!
Darko’s top advice!
Now, I’m not much of a meat-eater, and, well, Serbia is a meaty kind of place. However, there are many options for the less carnivorous amongst us:
‘Go to any bakery and get Burek sa sirom (cheese pie),’ says Darko. ‘Try to get posna sarma in some traditional Serbian restaurant, the veggo version of our main dish,’ he continues. ‘Also, keep an eye out for posna/posno, meaning “fasting compatible”, thus having no meat.’
Here are a few of Belgrade’s fabulous restaurants:
This restaurant is just off main street Knez Mihailova and has indoor and outdoor seating with red umbrellas above (could’ve been temporary, so don’t count entirely on that).
Manufaktura offers Serbian food in a pleasant setting. The meze (tapas) and salads were delicious, varied, inexpensive and in large portions. We tried various Serbian specialities, including the ubiquitous ajvar (red pepper sauce), proja (cornbread), kajmak (fresh, unripened cheese), and a variety of local cured meats and cheeses. Another local speciality is cracklings: crispy, fried pork fat trimmings. I bowed out of that one, but was told it was tasty.
Drink rakija whenever and wherever you can!
That’s Darko’s next reco. And to that I say, hats off to you, господине!
Rakija is the local schnapps and comes in a variety of flavours. I tried quite a few; this chilled raspberry rakija from a small family producer at Manufaktura was my favourite.
Betonski (the Concrete Halls) along the Danube looks slightly futuristic all lit up in cool colours at night. It’s a lively place with lots of hangouts. We tried Ambar, a chic, innovative restaurant with very good Balkan cuisine and attentive staff. Slightly pricier than Manufaktura, but still inexpensive. Ann-Mari kept an eye on the tab and noticed we paid 800 NOK (about 75 GBP) for 4 people, including wine, coffee and rakija. Specialities include an innovative hamburger (pljeskavica) and cevapi (mixed grill). Large portions (spot a pattern here?).
PS: Ambar has two branches in the Washington DC area, as well.
Topping the list of Belgrade gourmet spots is Homa on Žorža Klemansoa 19. We chose the 6-course tasting menu with white, red, rose and sparkling local wines to accompany the fish, truffles, pork belly (I had sea bass), and the chocolate mint mousse served in a little clay flower pot.
The six courses are interspersed with various other little dishes, compliments of the house. I was happy with the more modest portion sizes here. Enormous portions always make me feel defeated; it just isn’t nice to leave more than half your plate.
16. Al Forno
On our final evening, we were tired and had an indecently early flight the next morning, so we looked around the corner from our city centre hotel and spotted Al Forno. Lucky for us. Cheap and cheerful with very good pizza.
The party scene
Didn’t engage in too much partying, but we danced for a bit in a packed little place, just by our city centre hotel, that might not have had a name (I can’t seem to remember). Afterwards, we checked out (of) Beti Ford.
One problem was ciggy smoke. Just so used to not having to suffer through it, it becomes extra noticeable when we do.
17. Sava Mala
Sava Mala is an intriguing area. From the outside, it seems we’re walking among ruins. And in a way, we are. Most of these buildings were demolished by World War II air raids and left as was.
But don’t let that deceive you. Sticking our heads inside the door (or inside the back garden), we found warm, cosy, colourful and very, very cool clubs.
This up-and-coming area houses innovative rooms and warehouses for music, debates, workshops and exhibitions. A closer look at Sava Mala is high on my list for next time.
More than 11? Did I get carried away? Again? Oops…
I’m not nearly finished with Belgrade. This is what I have in mind for next time besides more Sava Mala:
→ Muzej Nikole Tesle (Nikola Tesla Museum)
This was on my agenda originally, but I got too busy in the chill designer shops and with eating cake at Hotel Moskva, and lost track of time. Good reason to return, as this man fascinates me. Bonus: It’s possible to take part in various experiments here! A must for science geeks.
→ Remnants of the Balkan Wars in the 90s
NATO air strikes damaged quite a bit of Belgrade in 1999, but the scars aren’t very visible unless you look for them specifically. Volunteers have set up a remembrance trail of the scars, including the Chinese Embassy building and the TV tower.
→ Museum of Aviation
This Jetson Family-looking building houses a large collection of aircraft, including a crashed US stealth F-16 fighter jet shot down by the Yugoslav army during the NATO war in 1999. A 5-10 minute walk from Belgrade airport.
→ Belgrade underground
Mysterious tunnels and caves are all around beneath the city. Probably best with a Belgrade underground tour.
→ Great War Island
Where the two rivers meet is Great War Island. The war bit is a reminder of the past; today the island is a bit overgrown and home to 200 species of birds, vikendice (small holiday cabins) and Lido beach.
So folks, that’s Belgrade for now. There will be more from this city in Sophie’s World in the future. You can count on it!
Disclosure: I was in Belgrade as a guest of Serbia. All opinions are as ever mine and only mine. Wouldn’t be any point otherwise.