Saturday, 22 February 2014

To Belgrade!

Parliament Building in Belgrade
Serbia has in recent decades received bad publicity because of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, a legacy that continues to shape much of the politics of the region. But away from politics, the capital Belgrade has earned itself a reputation of a different kind -- it has emerged as Europe's top partying destination. Unfortunately, I'm not much of a party animal so I can't suggest which clubs or parties to attend. What I can do, though, is to suggest what you should see/do in this city. Most of the sites listed here are situated in Old Belgrade.

View of the Sava from Kalemegdan
Kalemegdan Fortress: Belgrade's central park offers beautiful views of the city and the point where the Sava and Danube rivers meet. The former military fortification is still dotted with fortress walls and an observatory. Here too you will find the statue of The Victor, one of Belgrade's symbols. One trinket seller told me this statue by the famous Ivan Mestrovic has the best butt in Belgrade. You decide. 

Skadarlija: This is Belgrade's main vintage quarter and is filled with cafes and restaurants. It seems this area (right) got its bohemian status in the last few decades of the 19th century, especially after 1901, when prominent writers and art practitioners moved into Skadarlija's inns after their previous residence was demolished. The street is paved in cobblestone so do yourself a favour and wear comfortable shoes. The same trinket lady (who commented on The Victor's butt) actually knows Novak Djokovic (a professional Serbian tennis player) and his family. The conversation about Djokovic came up when I remarked that I was initially surprised his magnets were being sold at her stall (I had forgotten for a moment that he's Serbian). 

exhibit at Zepter
Knez Mihailova Street: Belgrade's main pedestrian street which has plenty of shops and cafes. This is also the home of the Zepter Museum, which exhibits modern/contemporary art, and the Belgrade City Library. Closer to the entrance of the Kalemegdan Fortress used to be the headquarters of OTPOR!, the civil youth movement that is credited for the downfall of Slobodan Milosevic government in the year 2000.

Republic Square: The city's main meeting point. Around here you'll find the equestrian statue of Prince Mihailo Obrenovic, the National Museum and the National Theatre. At the time of my visit, there was an open exhibition detailing the plight of Serbs in Kosovo. 

Tito's Mausoleum and the Museum of the History of Yugoslavia: Here you'll find the grave of Josep Tito, the ex-Yugoslav President. The Museum houses artifacts from Yugoslavia and around the world which were gifted to Tito in his years as president. 

Nikola Tesla Museum: For those of you interested in physics, this museum is a must-do. For the uninitiated, Tesla made significant contributions to the development of electrical engineering. Believe it or not, he even laid the groundwork for today's mobile communications. Little wonder then that the man is held in very high regard among Serbs. At the time of my visit, I had missed the English-language tour so do drop by early in the day or call ahead to find out what time it would be conducted. Otherwise, you could walk around on your own to see Tesla's personal effects and models of his inventions. Most exhibits also have some explanation in English.  

the view from my hostel's
St Sava Cathedral (left): This is Serbia's largest Orthodox Temple and was built in several phases from 1935. It is said that the temple is visible from any corner of Belgrade because it sits on a hill. I couldn't see it from my hostel though.

Other notable buildings: There are several you should look out for. One is Hotel Moskva (left), built in the Art Nouveau style in 1906. There's also the bombed out Ministry of Defence (right), which was shelled during the NATO bombing in 1999. At one point, the government had talked about demolishing the structure due to safety concerns. But the city's residents protested, saying it should stand as a reminder of the country's past. The last I heard though is that the area is being cleared for development. There's also the Palace of Serbia (below right) in Novi Beograd. It used to be the seat of the Federal Executive Council (Government) of Yugoslavia. Foreign heads of state are apparently received here. It seems there are rooms decorated in the style peculiar to virtually every country in the world.

Novi Beograd (New Belgrade): This area is on the other side of the Sava and is a planned city built in 1947. A lot of businesses have moved here due to more modern infrastructure and larger available space. Also in Novi Beograd is the little town of Zemun. It was separate from Belgrade up until the early 1930s when developments in New Belgrade brought the two together. Zemun has an old town and some restaurants and cafes for you to while away an afternoon/evening.

Square in Zemun
Getting In

I got into Belgrade by bus from Zagreb -- this took about 7 hours. There are also connections to some cities in Western Europe. 
By air, you can fly in with carriers such as Qatar Airways, Lufthansa, Austrian, Turkish Airlines and Aeroflot. 
By train, there are connections to Budapest (Hungary), Prague (Czech Republic), Moscow (Russia), Kiev (Ukraine), Sofia (Bulgaria), Thessaloniki (Greece) and Zagreb (Croatia).

When to go

I went in late March and it snowed (yes, it's climate change). High season is between June and September.

How many days

I spent almost 3 full days in the city mostly on foot. I have to add that I skipped the major museums so if you want to do those, an additional day would help. And if clubbing is your thing as well, 5 days seems like a decent bet.


Serbian dinar. You should be able to get some from money changers around the city.


With Their Backs to the World: Portraits from Serbia by Asne Seierstad