Belgrade is a city whose reputation has always preceded it, for reasons good and bad. In recent years though, the Serbian capital has well and truly extinguished any war redolent ambers there may still have been, earning itself accolades from the likes of The Times and Lonely Planet, who named it the top party city in the world in 2009.
Since then, Belgrade’s tourism industry has developed enormously, much of which can be attributed to its ongoing vibrant nightlife. Many partygoers tend to kick off a night on the town with a rakia or two within the famed kafana bars of the bohemian Strahinjica Bana. These old, traditional kafanas date back to the 19th and early 20th century and were the watering-holes of choice for some of the city’s most illustrious writers and poets, who gathered there to perpetuate their lifelong drinking addiction. There is in fact a statue of one such fellow found along Skadar street – the heart of Belgrade’s kafana culture – who was revered in stone on account of his exemplary alcoholism.
There are numerous kafanas scattered around Strahinjica Bana, all of which seem to have their own story. One, simply known as ‘question mark kafana’ owing to the mysterious question mark placed above its door, is allegedly so-called after the proprietor had to change its original name as another kafana had chosen it first. The story goes that the question mark sign was strung up while he mulled over his decision of what to call the bar, until eventually he decided to leave it as it was as the bar had become so popular.
However, Belgrade’s unique selling point is the opportunity to have it large on a barge, rather than in your standard club or disco. Although these barges – called splavovi in Balkan – never actually move, there is a glut of them to choose from, all spread along the banks of the Sava and Danube rivers. Most stay open to the public seven days a week during the summer and blare out Balkan anthems until the small hours. It’s an experience you won’t forget in a hurry.
Helpful locals will tell you that each barge is free to enter, though evidently this is sometimes not the case. I spent two nights partying aboard these sonorous vessels and, while I was eventually able to get in somewhere for free, many of the doormen – often of the better known splav – would routinely demand an entrance fee, despite having just allowed several Serbs to walk in free of charge moments before. Do not be tempted to just cough up the cash as it will most probably go directly into the doormens’ pockets. Keep moving and sooner or later you’ll find something.
Once on board, reeling your way across the gently swaying dance floor, you’ll quickly realise just what an excellent decision it was to come to Belgrade. There’s no other nightlife quite like it, despite the familiar Aussie/Brit dominant crowd. Apricot, cherry or plum flavoured Rakia flows like tap water on most boats and usually costs around 230 Dinar (€2) a shot. Be warned though; this stuff is lethal, and you will want to make sure that you are in a fit state for the next part of your night: getting home.
Given that you are on a river, it isn’t as easy as stumbling straight into a taxi and slurring the name and address of your hostel, which, come to think of it, isn’t so easy when the address is in Serbian. You have to walk a bit to find one first. Alternatively, you can attempt to find your own way home, though I wouldn’t recommend this if you are a) extremely drunk and b) extremely lost. The Danube separates Belgrade into two halves and if you accidentally walk in the wrong direction along either of the bridges that cross the river, you might just end up sleeping rough.
Yes, I’m talking about me.
A fully charged mobile stocked with credit and several travelling companions’ numbers should ensure that this does not happen.
Where to stay?
During my two nights in Belgrade I stayed at The Hedonist Hostel, a superb hostel with great staff and the perfect party atmosphere, found within the centre of the Old Town and just five minutes away from the main square.
Belgrade is linked to various other Balkan capitals, such as Budapest and Sarajevo, by bus and train. Click here for the train timetable. Alternatively, you can take a private taxi between Belgrade and Sarajevo or Budapest for just €25. Just ask at your hostel for details of how to book. The international airport is served by budget airlines JAT Airlines and Wizz Air.
Have you ever partied in Belgrade? What would you recommend?