The idea of a ‘cheap city break’ always sounds appealing, yet actually managing to find a veritable option can often be a rather galling exercise. Many cheap city breaks – when all’s said and done – are not especially cheap. In fact, some are quite the opposite when you do the math.
Of course the flights are cut-rate – that’s what lures us in – but when we arrive to discover that a bus fare sets us back €3 and a pint €5, any pre-conceived notion of ‘cheap’ goes flying out the proverbial window.
Thankfully, Belgrade is not one of those places. Not only is it cheap, it’s also every bit as brilliant as each TripAdvisor review probably says it is. Put simply, you will be neither broke nor bored in Belgrade, providing the unpredictable weather holds. I went last year, mainly to break up a long journey between Sarajevo and Budapest. I hadn’t expected much, but it actually turned out to be the highlight of my trip. Here is a list of ten things I did and would wholly recommend:
One: Free Walking Tour
Signing up to a free walking tour is often a surefire way of seeing all the sights worth seeing in a city. In fact, you don’t even have to sign up; just turn up, on time – with a few bank notes for a tip in your pocket – and you’re golden.
The Belgrade Free Walking Tour starts in Republic Square by Prince Mihailo’s statue at 11am through May to October and 12pm the rest of the year. It continues into the old Bohemian Quarter, rife with traditional Kafana bars; ‘Sillicon Valley’, known for its high density of women with breasts of high density; Kalemegdan Park; The Fortress; The ‘Victor’ statue, the city’s most iconic symbol, before finishing in Knez Mihailova Street.
The tour is extremely well represented by its team of guides, each of whom possesses extensive knowledge of the city and an impressive grasp of English with which to express it. There is even a complimentary round of throat-tingling Rakia (see below) provided for all those eager to give it a try. Perfect for beating the hangover from the night before.
Two: Visit The Fortress
Although a visit to the Fortress is included in the Free Walking Tour itinerary, it might be better to revisit and spend an hour or two going at your own pace, as there is lots to see. The fortress is divided into four parts and features stone structures that have been rebuilt on numerous occasions throughout centuries of foreign rule.
The highest section, Gornji Grad, is its most striking, with panoramic views of the city faced by the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers and the imposing monument of ‘The Victor’, who towers – naked (read why here) – above the rest of Belgrade.
Three: Drink Rakia in a Kafana Bar
Drinking rakia in Serbia is akin to drinking tea in England; there’s never an inappropriate time for it, whether morning, afternoon or evening. You can find it just about anywhere, but if you want to do like the locals do then head to one of Belgrade’s sundry Kafana bars.
Most can be found in and around the city’s bohemian quarter, Skadarlija, where it is said that many a desolate poet would invariably go to drown their sorrows. One such fellow has been sculpted from stone and now sits upon a rock on Skedar Street, the main thoroughfare of the area, with a discernibly tipsy look on his face. Traditional Balkan music is often played in kafanas by bands who literally sweat for their money; it is custom to tip by sticking bank notes to the clammy foreheads of the men, who are deemed lackadaisical if they don’t break a sweat. The famed ‘?’ kafana (6 Kralja Petra) is especially popular with locals and tourists alike.
Rakia, sometimes referred to as pálenka in Serbia, is distilled through fermented fruit and drunk throughout the Balkans. Popular flavours include plum, apricot and grape, though most Serbian rakias are often produced from mixed fruits. So intrinsic to life in Serbia is rakia that it is even custom to leave a bottle of it on the grave of the deceased who liked to drink it often.
Four: Party on a Splav
It’s difficult not to have good time when out partying in Belgrade, but in order to have the best time possible, you simply have to rock out on a splav – a barge used exclusively for intoxicating purposes. There are dozens of them scattered along the Danube that stay open all night and welcome punters in free of charge. They’re not too pricey once inside either, but be warned: the rakia flows on these party vessels and the hangovers are devastating.
Five: Buy a burger from Loki
Sometimes the best local grub is just a better version of something we already know and love. Belgrade, or more specifically Loki, happens to make the best burgers ever tasted by anyone. And they are enormous. Gargantuan even. Do make sure that you order their infamous gurmanska pljeskavica (if just to attempt the pronunciation), which comes sandwiched between two slabs of bread and a thick layer of their homemade, cheesy chili sauce. It is divine, and another exceptionally good hangover cure. Don’t expect much in the way of customer service though; this, unfortunately, does not meet its burger’s standards, although that would be an impossible task to achieve. Find it on the corner of ul. Kralja Petra and ul. Gospodar Jovanova.
Six: Rent a bike and cycle to Zemun
Beyond The Great War Island, which sits at the junction of the Sava and Danube rivers, lies the historical town of Zemun. Until 1934 it was classed as a separate town, but with the development of New Belgrade under Tito’s rule the town became part of the now vast urban area.
Many prefer to walk along the leafy promenade in order to reach Zemun but cycling there is a great way of burning off the calories most probably gained by all that alcohol and burger intake from the night(s) before. Its many squares are ideal for a spot of people watching and its highest point offers splendid views of the city, but the promenade itself is probably the best place to take in the culture offered in Zemun.
Seven: Visit the Tito Memorial Complex
Known as ‘The House of Flowers’, here is where lies the tomb of former Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito. The name derives from the fact that flowers used to adorn the tomb before it was closed to the public after the break-up of the socialist government. Now, the complex is fully open to the public though giant, white rocks occupy the space where the flowers used to be.
The idea is that sympathisers of communism visit to pay their respects to the benevolent dictator, but of course anybody may go, regardless of whether they are there out of respect or interest. Generally speaking, evidence of Serbia’s communist era is plain to see – the redeveloped Ušće Tower for example – but there is in fact an abundance of other architectural styles that form a large part of the city’s character.
Eight: Visit the Novak Tennis Academy
Basically, Novak Djokovic is God in Serbia. And since his successes started rolling in a few years back tennis has rapidly become a major sport for kids and teens. He now has his own training academy in Belgrade (63a Tadeusa Koskusca), where – if the timing’s right – you might be able to catch a game or even him! (unlikely though)
Indeed, his influence on Serbia cannot be underestimated – around 100,000 Serbs gave him a hero’s welcome after his legendary Wimbledon win in 2011 and Belgrade council members considered naming a massive bridge after him. He has achieved a hell of a lot to be fair, and Serbia don’t really have many other bragging rights when it comes to sport. So watching some kids hit a few balls over a net for an hour or so is the least you can do to show your support.
Nine: Buy an ice-cream from Moritz Eis
Put simply, Moritz Eis (9 Vuka Karadzika) makes the best ice cream you will ever try outside of Italy. It is incredible and an absolute must-do in Belgrade.
Ten: Change your money before leaving
Do not make the same mistake I did. Exchanging Dinar beyond Serbia’s frontiers is a very difficult thing to do – nobody would take the 3,000 or so Dinar (little over €25) I had accidentally taken with me to Budapest, nor in any other country after that, including UK. This is due mostly to the fact that nobody ever really wants Serbian money when they’re not in Serbia, so currency exchangers are likely to make a loss.
Have you ever been to Belgrade? Ever tried Rakia? Was this article helpful to you?