Belgrade


WHAT TO DO

Belgrade is the capital and largest city of Serbia. Its name is Beograd in Serbian and means 'White City'. It is located at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers, where the Pannonian Plain meets the Balkans. The history of Belgrade dates back to at least 7000 BC, making it one of the oldest cities in Europe. Its gritty exuberance makes it one of Europe's most happening cities. While it hurtles towards a brighter future, its chaotic past unfolds before your eyes: socialist structures are squeezed between art nouveau masterpieces, and remnants of the Habsburg legacy contrast with Ottoman relics and Socialist Modernist monoliths. Belgrade has an old world culture that, at the same time, evokes a time capsuled communist era Yugoslavia and a new world, EU contending cradle of cool.

Grandiose coffee houses and smoky dives pepper Knez Mihailova, a lively pedestrian boulevard flanked by historical buildings, all the way to the ancient Belgrade Fortress. This fort is the ideal spot to begin your tour of the city. Fortifications began in Celtic times, and the Romans extended it onto the flood plains during the settlement of 'Singidunum' - Belgrade's Roman name. Much of what stands today is the product of 18th century Austro-Hungarian and Turkish reconstructions. Note: over one hundred battles have been fought over the impressive citadel; it was destroyed more than forty times throughout the centuries. Entering from Knez Mihailova and passing through Kalemegdan Park, you'll first reach the Upper Town whose attractions include the Military Museum, Clock Tower and Roman Well. The Military Museum presents the complete military history of the former Yugoslavia. Interesting displays contain captured Kosovo Liberation Army weapons, rare guns, bombs and missiles. You'll find the museum through the Stambol Gate, built by the Turks and used for public executions. Next, climb the ninety foot tall Clock Tower for commanding views of Kalemegdan Park and Belgrade Fortress. The Roman Well is a mysterious waterhole of dubious origin and shrouded in horrifying legends. In the Lower Town, which slopes down towards the river, look out for the Gunpowder Magazine, Nebojsa Tower and Ruzica and Sveta Petka Churches. The huge Gunpowder Magazine was set up by the Austrians in 1718 as a safe place to hide artillery - today it houses a collection of stone monuments, including Roman sarcophagi, tombstones and altars. A former dungeon, Nebojsa Tower was built in 1460. It now serves as a museum, with some excellent exhibits on the Ottoman era, the First Serbian Uprising and Balkan freedom fighter Rigas Feraios, a Greek writer and revolutionary who was jailed and murdered here in 1798. The ivy covered Ruzica Church looks harmless from the outside. Inside, you'll find chandeliers, made by World War I Serbian soldiers, from spent bullet casings, swords, rifles and cannon parts as well as numerous frescoes, including those by famous Russian academy artist Andrei Bicenko. The church was originally an arsenal, then a military chapel before its restoration in 1925. Sveta Petka Church was built in 1937 above a spring that is believed to have miraculous powers. Djuro Radulovic's striking mosaics cover the small church's interior from top to bottom. Note: audio guides with a map of Belgrade Fortress are available from the souvenir shop within the Inner Stambol Gate, which is also where you must purchase tickets for the Clock Tower, Roman Well and Gunpowder Magazine.

From Belgrade Fortress, head to the massive Sveti Sava (Church of Saint Sava). It is one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world and is dedicated to Saint Sava, the founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church and an important figure in medieval Serbia. Sveti Sava is built on the Vracar plateau - on the site where his remains were burned in 1595 by Ottoman Grand Vizier Sinan Pasha. From its location, it dominates Belgrade's skyline and is perhaps the most monumental building in Serbia. Construction of the church began in 1935 and work on the interior continues today as the cupola is being adorned with a 13000 square foot mosaic, one of the world's largest on a curved surface. Note: work is expected to continue through 2020 - until then, visit the astonishing gold ceiling crypt and its stunning ornate chandeliers, Murano glass mosaics and vibrant frescoes. Next, make your way to the totally awesome Nikola Tesla Museum. Located at Krunska 51, it is dedicated to honoring the life and work of inventor Nikola Tesla, the man responsible for designing the alternating current (AC) electric system. This is the predominant electrical system used across the world today. He also created the 'Tesla coil' in 1891 which is still used in radio technology. The museum holds more than 160000 original documents, with over 2000 books and journals, 1200 historical technical exhibits, 1500 photographs and 1000 drawings. The museum's highlight is the glowing, golden orb - where Tesla's ashes are kept. Be sure to do the guided tour as it includes some interactive, experiment demonstrations. Note: the museum is open from 10a-8p and is closed on Monday. Another outstanding museum is the Museum of Yugoslavia, found at Boticeva 6. This must visit museum houses an invaluable collection of more than 200000 artifacts representing the fascinating and tumultuous history of Yugoslavia. Photographs, historical documents, films and weapons are all on display. Free tours in English are provided on weekends at 11a. Note: the museum is open from 10a-6p and is closed on Monday. Marshal Tito's Mausoleum (House of Flowers) is also on the museum grounds - admission is included in the ticket price. Josip Broz, commonly known as Tito, was a Yugoslavian communist revolutionary and statesman, serving in various roles from 1943 until his death in 1980. During World War II, he was the leader of the Partisans, often regarded as the most effective resistance movement in occupied Europe. While his presidency has been criticized as authoritarian and concerns about the repression of political opponents have been raised, most Yugoslavians considered him a popular and benevolent dictator. The recently reopened National Museum is located at Trg Republike 1 and has been a great source of national pride. Built in 1903 and reconstructed multiple times over the years, it awoke from the dead on Vidovdan (Saint Vitus Day), a Serbian national and religious holiday. The National Museum of Serbia is the largest and oldest museum in the country. Spread over three floors, highlights include works by Croatian Ivan Mestrovic, the most celebrated sculptor of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia; archaeological treasures from Roman era Serbia; and extensive galleries dedicated to both 18th and 19th century Serbian art and 20th century Yugoslavian art. Don't miss the museum's most haunting corner, where Stevan Aleksic's The Burning of the Remains of Saint Sava (1912) sits next to Dorde Krstic's The Fall of Stalac (1903), two hyper realistic and menacing oils on canvas. Across the street at Francuska 3 is the National Theatre. This glorious building from 1869 hosts operas, dramas and ballets during autumn, winter and spring.

Two additional museums worth a visit are the Museum of Contemporary Art and Zepter Museum. Located at Usce 10, the Museum of Contemporary Art is one of Belgrade's top cultural sights. This recently renovated museum is a treasure trove of 20th century art. The modernist building is surrounded by a sculpture park and has great views over the Sava River towards the Belgrade Fortress on the other bank. Note: the museum is open from 10a-6p and is closed on Tuesday. Found at Knez Mihailova 42, the Zepter Museum became Serbia's first private museum in 2010. Housed in a magnificent 1920s building, it has an impressive collection of works by contemporary Serbian artists. The eclectic interior is a fitting backdrop to the range of styles on display. The permanent collection is a great overview of the main trends in Serbian art from the second half of the 20th century. The space also hosts temporary exhibitions and events. Note: the museum is open from 10a-8p and is closed on Monday. Just up the pedestrian friendly street at Knez Mihailova 48 is Plato Knjizara. This long standing and well regarded bookshop has a fine selection of books and magazines in English. For music, head to Yugovinyl at Cetinjska 15. It's the best shop in town and has a large selection of records - with a big focus on Yugoslavia era prog, punk and new wave. After some retail therapy, enjoy a bit of relaxation therapy at the Jevremovac Botanical Gardens. Located at Takovska 43, Belgrade's beautiful botanical gardens are a peaceful oasis in the hectic city. It's a pleasant place to picnic, stroll or just chill under any of the shady trees. Be sure to check out the Victorian style greenhouse and the tranquil Japanese garden. After your zen experience, seek out the very cool KC Grad at Brace Krsmanovic 4 in the trendy Savamala neighborhood. This wonderful warehouse space promotes local creativity with workshops, exhibitions, music events and a cafe.

Next, make your way to the Orthodox Cathedral at Kneza Sime Markovica 3. Dedicated to Archangel Michael, this cathedral was constructed between 1837 and 1841 on the site of an earlier 18th century church. Built mainly in classicist style, it has a baroque tower and an impressive Romanticist iconostasis. Inside the crypt are the tombs of Prince Milos and his son Prince Mihailo, while great 19th century Serbian scholars, Vuk Stefanovic Karadzic and Dositej Obradovic, are buried in the church's graveyard. Adjacent to the cathedral at Kralja Petra 5 is the Museum of the Serbian Orthodox Church. The Patriarchate (Patrijarsija) building houses this collection of ecclesiastical items, many of which were collected by Saint Sava. From there, head to Sveti Marko Church at Tasmajdan Park. This huge five domed church, based on the design of Kosovo's Gracanica Monastery, houses priceless Serbian icons and the tomb of Emperor Dusan 'The Mighty'. Behind it is a tiny Russian Church erected by refugees who fled the October Revolution. It's the only Russian church in Belgrade, and houses a priceless collection of icons and relics. Conclude your Belgrade adventure by taking a city tour - underground or aboveground. Belgrade Underground offers a fascinating 2.5 hour tour of subterranean caves, bunkers and secret passageways. It covers the city's turbulent past, from Roman times until the Cold War. Note: bookings are a must; English tours run Tuesday (10a), Saturday (11a) and Sunday (2p) and are handled by Eurojet, a travel agency located at Gracanicka 11. Another solid choice is Yugotour, a mini road trip through the history of Yugoslavia and the life of its president Tito. Belgrade's communist years are brought to life in the icon of Yugo nostalgia: a Yugo car. Tours are led by young locals happy to share their own perceptions of Yugoslavia; they take in the communist era architecture of Novi Beograd, the Museum of Yugoslavia and Marshal Tito's Mausoleum, among other locations. Note: tours run every day starting at 11a.

WHERE TO EAT

Belgrade has plenty of great places to eat and have a drink. Its main pedestrian thoroughfare, Knez Mihailova, is lined with many cafes and restaurants. Start your day at Lokal Coffee Roasters, located at Alekse Nenadovica 24. This small but smart street side coffee joint and juice bar in the well to do Vracar neighborhood serves some of the city's best coffee. For superb pastries, head to Pekara Trpkovic at Nemanjina 32. The fact that this family business has existed for over a century in Belgrade's competitive bakery market is quite an achievement. There is usually a line, but the tasty burek (heavenly baked phyllo pastries stuffed with meat, cheese and vegetables) is definitely worth the wait. Dorian Gray can be found at Kralja Petra 87 in the Dorcol neighborhood. Much like Oscar Wilde (he wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray), this space has an elegance and offbeat feel all its own. Head here for an excellent breakfast and be sure to try the french toast sandwich with bacon. Soak up the art nouveau interior or take to the street level terrace for some serious people watching. Next, stop by two of my favorite markets in town. Kalenic Market can be found in the heart of the Vracar neighborhood, near the Sveti Sava Temple. This green market with produce brought from all over Serbia is Belgrade's biggest and the locals' favorite. Come here to try national delicacies, chat with the vendors, browse the trinkets section and chill out in the surrounding cafes. Located in the historical Dorcol neighborhood, just below bohemian Skadarlija, the century old Bajloni Market is one of the city's best open air bazaars. It is filled with stands selling fresh organic fruit and vegetables, cheese, fish and meat - plus everything from clothes to cosmetics and then some.

For lunch, make your way to Smokvica at Kralja Petra 73. With its attractive courtyard terrace, arty crowd and gourmet menu - 'little fig' takes you away from bustling Belgrade for just a bit. Enjoy innovative salads, wonderful tasting plates and cosmopolitan mains as you take comfort in a setting both rare and rarefied. If you fancy a true Balkan experience, To Je To! is your place. Located at Bulevar Despota Stefana 21, the name means 'that's it' and they're talking about meat. Piles of delicious meat, grilled in all its juicy glory, make up the menu here in the form of cevapi (grilled Serbian sausages), turkey kebabs, sweetbreads and homemade sarma (stuffed cabbage rolls). This spot is inexpensive, scrumptious and very popular with the locals. Found just off pedestrianized Knez Mihailova at Kralja Petra 13, Manufaktura offers Balkan dining in a modern ambience resembling an exquisite pantry. It has a good choice of meze (a selection of small dishes served as appetizers) and a separate deli section. Homegrown ingredients are sourced from across Serbia, while rakia (fruit brandy popular in the Balkans) and wine lists feature small family producers. If you enjoy ice cream like I do, head to Crna Ovca at Kralja Petra 58. This cheerful and always busy gelato shop sells some of Belgrade's best and boasts some wacky flavors - gorgonzola, peanut butter and chocolate covered pretzels - in addition to top sellers creme brulee and caramelized walnuts, pistachio and Plazma (a much loved Serbian biscuit). With over 25 selections per day, there is always something new and yummy to try. Another top notch spot for the good stuff is Moritz Eis, located at Vuka Karadzica 9. This ice cream chain does all natural premium sorbet and ice cream in both traditional and unexpected flavor combos, which change daily. You can go with the daring stuff like pesto and baklava, or stick with the house favorites - milk chocolate, honey and almond. Ingredients are sourced from small local producers.

For dinner, head to Dva Jelena at Skadarska 32 in Stari Grad (Old Town). A local icon, on a vintage street, it has been dishing up huge portions of hearty fare amid painted wood paneling, kitschy portraits and antique musical instruments for over 180 years. Rustic, unrefined and with the obligatory violin serenades, it is quintessential Skadarlija. Ambar is located at Karadordeva 2 - innovative small plate takes on Balkan cuisine are the go to at this stylish spot, the best of a handful of trendy options overlooking the river in Stari Grad. Everything from ajvar (Serbian salad) to mixed grills has been given a contemporary spin. Put your meal choices in the hands of the excellent and well versed staff and you won't be disappointed, right down to the superb Serbian wines. Staying along the river in the Zemun neighborhood, Saran is renowned as the best fish restaurant for its exceptional dishes, professional service and welcoming atmosphere. It can be found at Kej Oslobodenja 53 - menu standouts include freshwater river fish dishes like Smederevo style pike (grilled then baked under a flavorful smothering of tomatoes, garlic, onions and red peppers). Note: there is live Balkan music most evenings. One of Belgrade's best new restaurants, Bela Reka is modern and sophisticated, but fiercely dedicated to the traditional craft of Serbian cuisine, and is well worth the trek across the river to Novi Beograd (New Belgrade). Beautifully presented, meat leaning dishes are some of the city's best: perfectly spiced, Pirot style ustipci (meatballs), walnut and hazelnut crusted monastery chicken and homolje (sausage stuffed with cheese) are outstanding. An award winning baker fires up traditional lepinja flatbread in a clay oven and the goat's cheese comes direct from their own farm - you can pick some up in their artisan market. Be sure to save room for dessert and go with the ledene kocke, a delicious sponge cake resurrected from Yugoslavian recipe books. Note: the restaurant is located at Tosin Bunar 179 and reservations are recommended. I saved my favorite place for last - Iris New Balkan Cuisine can be found at Sarajevska 54. Belgrade's best foodie bang for the buck is this newcomer clandestinely occupying a first floor apartment south of the old train station. Courses from the tasting menu (changes monthly) are based around a single ingredient - whatever head chef Vanja Puskar has procured from organic farmers that week - and taken to new heights without leaving behind their Serbian origins. Memorable examples from my experience: a stunning Busa beef carpaccio with yogurt, olive oil and fried sourdough, a perfectly crisp pork schnitzel doused in green pea and mint cream with sage perfumed zucchini foam and a delightful fig stuffed chicken roulade on triple fried potato, with salty caramel and hop orange foam. Natural wines often accompany the eight course menus. Note: the restaurant is only open Wednesday through Friday and online bookings are essential.

End your evening in Belgrade with a drink or two. Found at Kneginje Ljubice 18, the very cool Blaznavac is one of the city's best spots for drinks. Plastered with murals and quirky collectables, it's used as an exhibition space for young artists. It also hosts live music and spoken word events. If the weather is nice, be sure to enjoy a cocktail in the outdoor courtyard. Around the corner at Simina 6 is Centrala. It is one of those neighborhood haunts that immediately feels like home. Owned by a local painter, it is lively - yet laid back. There are exhibitions held here, but the main attraction is its hospitable, happy crowd and a noticeable absence of pretentiousness. Nearby at Dobracina 5 is Rakia Bar. It's an ideal spot to celebrate rakija (rakia), a potent fruit brandy and the spirit of Serbia. English speaking staff will guide you through the 50 plus options, both traditional plum varieties as well as all types of other fruits - several of which emerge from their own distillery. Note: if you like something, pick up a bottle at Rakia & Co, their gift shop. For a truly unique experience, make your way to Kafana Pavle Korcagin at Cirila i Metodija 2. You can raise a glass to comrade Tito at this festive kafana (tavern). Lined with communist memorabilia and packed to the rafters with revelers, this table thumping throwback fills up nightly; reserve a table via the website in advance. Located near Belgrade Fortress at Kralja Petra 59, Bar Central is the headquarters of Serbia's Association of Bartenders - a fact made evident after one sip of any of the sublime adult beverages on offer. With a sophisticated interior and knowledgeable staff, this is serious mixology territory. Close by at Cincar Jankova 1 is the excellent Druid Bar. This cozy speakeasy is proudly anti WiFi and a self proclaimed 'no selfie zone'. What you can do here is savor skillfully mixed cocktails by impeccably dressed bartenders. They hold court behind a curved hardwood bar in a classy, bygone era atmosphere of chivalry and showmanship. As far as proper drinks in Belgrade go, it is one of my favorites. If you're in the mood for the strong stuff, head to Kultura Bar at Kralja Milutina 4. Proper ice is used at this joint and there's a fine selection of bourbon and whiskey for those who dabble in those circles. For a change of scenery, stop in at Idiott Bar. Found next to Jevremovac Botanical Gardens at Dalmatinska 13, this fun little bar is buried in a dark, old basement. It's loved for its 80s, punk and electro tunes - plus pinball machines. Note: the bar is open every day until 2a and it's cash (dinar) only. Finish up at Restoran Tabor, located in the Zvezdara neighborhood at Bulevar Kralja Aleksandra 348. This popular kafana is an authentic Serbian experience with captivating folk music, great traditional food, solid drinks and a room full of good time seeking locals who like to dance on the tables.

WHERE TO STAY

Belgrade offers a number of places to call home during your stay and there are 2 that I especially enjoyed. Both are in prime locations and provide exceptional service, modern amenities and comfort. The first is Square Nine Hotel, located at Studentski Trg 9. This stylish boutique hotel is a short walk from Belgrade Fortress and close to the action on Knez Mihailova. The sophisticated rooms feature contemporary decor, Italian linens, free WiFi, flat screen TVs and Nespresso machines. All have limestone bathrooms with heated floors and soaking tubs. There's a refined Japanese restaurant, a retro style lobby bar and a rooftop terrace with city views. Other amenities include a spa, an indoor lap pool, a sauna and a Japanese style hot tub.

A second option is Metropol Palace, located at Bulevar Kralja Aleksandra 69. Set in a grand building, this plush hotel is a short distance from the Nikola Tesla Museum and Sveti Sava Temple. Sleek rooms with modern decor offer minibars, complimentary WiFi and flat screen TVs. Upgraded rooms add sitting areas with sofas. Additional perks include a chic restaurant and a bar offering a terrace with park views. There's also a luxe spa with a hot tub and sauna.

Belgrade has a complex history, a dynamic culture, wonderful architecture and delicious food. It treated me well and I look forward to returning.