Belgrade is the capital of Serbia and home to approximately 2 million people. It is located in the center of the country at the confluence of Serbia’s two most important rivers: the Danube and Sava.
Belgrade is one of the oldest and most important cities in the Balkans that has changed hands countless times. It is not known when the city was founded, but the first record of Belgrade is from 297 BC when it was part of the Celtic state of Scordisci. In 1456, while part of the Kingdom of Hungary, the city withstood an attack of 100,000 Ottoman Turks. To commemorate the battle, Pope Callixtus III instructed all churches to ring their bells at noon. The tradition continues to this day worldwide.
The city eventually did fall to the Ottomans and became part of their empire for 300 years. In 1918, Belgrade became the capital of the newly formed Kingdom of Yugoslavia, a merger of multiple Balkans kingdoms. After World War II, this kingdom became the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia broke apart over the 1990’s and Belgrade became the capital of Serbia and Montenegro and eventually the Republic of Serbia. In 1999, Belgrade was heavily bombed by NATO and the United States to stop the Serbian aggression against Muslim Albanians in Kosovo.
Today the city is a peaceful jumble of architecture styles: medieval, Ottoman, Communist and modern. It is not a pretty city, but Belgrade is lively and walkable.
Top Sights (Must-Sees):
-Belgrade Fortress/Kalemegdan Park: Belgrade’s star attraction. This ancient fortress has weathered countless battles throughout the centuries. The fortress is massive and contains more than just ramparts: there are churches, the Belgrade Zoo, a military museum, a medieval torture museum and some restaurants. You could easily spend a half-day here to see everything. Admission to the fortress itself is free, but the museums are not.
-Tesla Museum: One of the world’s most famous historic figures, the inventor Nikolas Tesla, is Serbian. This museum contains a number of his inventions as well as his super-cool resting place. Visits to the museum are guided and include live demonstrations by local engineering students. You will be amazed.
-St. Sava Church: This massive church has been under construction since 1935, but work is nearly complete. The interior is full of golden mosaics. You won’t spend more than 20 minutes here, but will be very very impressed.
-Museum of Yugoslavia (Muzej Jugoslavije): This three-building complex tells the story of both the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1918-1941) and the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1945-1992). One building contains personal relics of former dictator Josip Tito as well as gifts from foreign heads of state. The second building contains the grave of Tito and his wife. The third building contains special exhibits about life in Yugoslavia. When I was there, it was a photo exhibition. The museum is located slightly outside the city center on what was Tito’s residential compound.
-Kneza Mihaila walking street: This is the main pedestrian thoroughfare in Belgrade and is the center of activity.
– National Museum: This museum is centrally located in Republic Square doubles as both the city’s main art and archaeological museum. The exhibits are magnificently displayed. Of special note are the Roman statues and coin collections.
Other Sights (If You Have Time):
Danube Riverfront: Belgrade’s slice of Eastern Europe’s most famous river is not very developed, but it is still a nice place to stroll. The most interesting sight is the boat nightclubs.
Belgrade Waterfront: This is a MASSIVE real estate development under construction on the Sava River. Once completed, the city will have 30 more skyscrapers. A new mall called Galerija Belgrade opened just one week before I arrived and is squeaky clean.
Zemun/Gardos Tower: This northern neighborhood of Belgrade remained part of the Austria-Hungarian Empire while the rest of Belgrade was under Ottoman rule for 300 years. It therefore has a drastically different feel. The old streets and buildings were preserved and there are Catholic rather than Orthodox churches. The Gardos Tower is the neighborhood’s most famous landmark and celebrates 1,000 years of Austria-Hungarian Rule.
BIGZ Building: Completed in 1941, this is one of the world’s best examples of Yugoslav modernist/brutalist architecture. The interior is full of graffiti and feels like you are in an apocalyptic video game like Resident Evil. That said, the building is completely safe and open to the public.
Ethnographic Museum: This small museum contains examples of native dress from around Serbia. The samples are very pretty.
Contemporary Art Museum: Located in a park across the Sava River from the center of town, the Contemporary Art Museum is a nice excuse to see another side of Belgrade. The museum is on-par with contemporary art museums in other cities.
White Palace: This is a historic palace from the 18th century and one of the few buildings in Belgrade from that time period. Located well outside of the city center.
Cathedral: Built in 1830, this is technically the city’s most important church. The interior is gorgeous and feels old.
Konak Kneginje Ljubice: Small palace/large home of an Ottoman princess. She had a pretty nice setup including a hammam. Staff is very helpful and speaks great English. Located across the street from the Cathedral.
Old Herzegovina: Old-school Serbian restaurant. Great atmosphere and food.
Walter: Modern Serbian mini-chain. Great skopska salad and cevapi.
Stara Koliba: Old-school Serbian restaurant on a boat near the contemporary art museum. The interior feels like a hunting cabin deep in the woods. Dishes were unusual. A unique experience.
Monument: Modern café with a variety of cuisines. They also make fresh juice. Half the restaurant is inside a 200-year old Ottoman hammam.
Trpkovic Bakery: This bakery has been open since 1905. To survive the past 120 years of Serbian history, you must be a DARN GOOD bakery. The burek is that good. Expect a line. Cash only.
Tri Sesira: Traditional Serbian restaurant open since 1864. The food is good, but not my favorite.
Dva Jelena: Traditional Serbian restaurant open since 1832. Located across the street from Tri Sesira.
Ferdinand Knedle: This place makes jelly-filled pastries that are similar to donut holes but more elaborate.
Boat Clubs: The most famous nightlife venues in Belgrade and the entire Balkans are the boat clubs located on the Danube and Sava rivers. The hottest club changes depending on the year.
Mama Shelter: This international chain of hip hotels has a location on top of a mall on the Kneza Mihaila walking street. The bar is one of Belgrade’s hippest.
Around the city center: There are numerous smaller bars and clubs around the city center. You won’t need to wander too far to find something.
Where to Stay:
Belgrade has a plethora of hotels and hostels. Compared to other European cities, lodging in Belgrade is very cheap and of great value. A hostel dorm is less than $10 USD/night. A 4-star hotel can be booked for $60 USD/night. There are currently no 5-star hotels in Belgrade. However, a St. Regis is currently being built as part of the Belgrade Waterfront development.
My recommendation is to find something with good reviews in the city center on Kayak or Expedia. Being in the city center is important in Belgrade because there is no metro.
Of special note is the Hotel Moscow. This is a historic hotel and a landmark in Belgrade. It was originally built to house Russian diplomats to Yugoslavia and has hosted nearly every celebrity to visit Serbia and has a really unique vibe (although I felt that the rooms in other 4-star hotels were actually nicer). Rooms here start at around $90-100 USD.
How to Get to Belgrade:
Most visitors will arrive at Belgrade International Airport. Belgrade is reachable from all over Europe, the Middle East and, famously, from New York City on Air Serbia. The JFK-Belgrade route has become extremely popular during the Coronavirus pandemic because Serbia will let Americans in without a test or quarantine.
From the airport, it is an 1800 dinar (about $18 USD) taxi to the city center.
Belgrade is located at the very center of Serbia. Nearly everywhere in Serbia can be reached within a 4-hour drive of Belgrade. Belgrade is also within a 5-hour car or bus ride from many other European cities including: Budapest, Zagreb, Sofia, Skopje, Timisoara and Sarajevo. This makes it an ideal stopping point on nearly any Eastern European road trip itinerary.
The combined bus-train station is located in the city center.
The city center of Belgrade is walkable. For trips outside the city center, taxis are widely available and cheap.
Belgrade does have a tram and bus system, but the signs are in Cyrillic so it’s probably not worth your time. There is no Metro.