The cliches state that in Belgrade you will eat royally well and end up on a riverboat dancing to Turbo Folk amongst the impossibly tall and good-looking Serbian people. Sometimes it’s nice to discover the stereotypes are true
Beograd, the “White City,” is the capital of east-west-Grecian-Balkan culture. If you think that is as clear as the Danube’s muddy waters than you’re not alone. This dynamic city was once the capitol of Yugoslavia, a much larger country that included Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Kosovo and Macedonia (not the Greek one). But much like the car that bears its name, the country split apart after a few good miles down the red road.
The fall of communism meant a resurrection of old grudges that led to a brutal war over territory. Serbia became much smaller and less well-liked. But despite the bad blood Belgrade remains the main metropolis of the region attracting people from all over former-Yugoslavia for work and play. Factor in 500 years of Ottoman rule, a 30-year emperor, the Austrian-Hungarian empire and the Romans, what you’ve got is a melting pot of Europe’s greatest empires and greatest failures. More importantly you’ve got a place that’s seen the dark side and is ready to party.
Best of the Beaten Track The most obvious place to start any Belgrade tour is Republic Square, recognizable by the loiterers who are either waiting for someone or waiting for something to happen. The square is abutted by the National Theater on the east and the Serbian National Museum on the north. But, before you sequester yourself from the common man inside these fine art institutions, take a walk down Knez Mihailova (Prince Michael) pedestrian street. Brand names stores and cafes catering to tourists line the boulevard, but the architecture is the real thing to see as it is one of the only sections of town where the glory of the Kingdom of Serbia maintains its magnificence. Remember to look up so you don’t miss out on the details of the Viennese-like structures on either side, then look down again to avoid tripping on that accordion player.
The boulevard will lead you straight for Kalemegdan Park and the Belgrade Fortress. Kalemegdan is a landscaped park with Danube views on the northwest side and booths selling trinkets, keep walking through and you’ll find yourself at the entrance to the Belgrade Fortress. This maze of trenches and walls safeguarded the city for hundreds of years, and now acts as a memorial to the Turkish, Roman and Serbian leaders buried there.
Next stop the Nikola Tesla Museum in Vracar (pronounced Vrachar). Check the museum’s website for English tour times. You can wander the place without a guide, but you’ll need him to turn the machines on, that’s the fun part. The whole tour, film included, takes less than an hour and you’ll be electrified (sorry, couldn’t help myself) by the results.
Skadarlija, or the old Bohemian quarter, ends the day well. Outdoor bass players, low-lighting and flowers inspire love in the most stoic of souls.
Lodging in Belgrade runs the gambit from luxury hotels to mattresses in alcoves. But most people choose the middle ground and opt for furnished apartments. No two interiors are alike in a Belgrade apartment; while you may have skylights in one, another will give you a loft and still another will surprise you with green shag carpet and sturdy Yugoslavian furniture. If you are travelling solo, or don’t fancy a flat, then consider theGreen Studio Hostel. It was rated the best hostel in Belgrade by Lonely Planet. And no wonder when you get a free welcome beer, all you can drink coffee and tea, free laundry and a place to sleep for a handful of euros. Got money to burn? Swank it up at the Metropol Palace Hotel which has played host to some of Belgrade’s more distinguished guests, such as Elizabeth Taylor. The newly remodeled building pulses with a steady rhythm of well-dressed folk night and day.
People claim that one of Belgrade’s few assets is its extraordinary nightlife. I think it’s one of the many, but truly the experience is a unique one. Begin the evening’s rhythm back in the Dorcol neighborhood at the Blaznavac Kafe. The house was once the residence of one of Serbia’s prime ministers but one can barely recognize it from all the psychedelic murals. Next on the list is an underground nightclub, Klub Geca. It’s dirty-rocking-electric-80’s pop-metal fun. Now it’s time to head to the riverboats. Cross the bridge and go down the stairs. Those ripples on the water aren’t just the current, they’re the non-stop bumping of the boats’ sound-systems. For some serious clubbing look to Lucas with its Turbo Folk scene on the water. Klub 20/44 is a cheaper, more casual alternative. Watch the sun come up over the cityscape as you shake it to the progressive beats, then think to yourself – wow! Why haven’t I come here before? Still haven’t had enough? Ask someone to tell you how to find Mama’s. Technically it doesn’t exist, but everyone knows where it is; the place never closes.