Though it’s certainly worthy of a longer stay, Belgrade is often a highlight of a wider adventure across the Balkans. If a day in the Serbian capital forms part of your whistle-stop itinerary, rest assured that your 24 hours in Belgrade will have you coming back for more.
Strategically positioned at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, Belgrade dates back over 7,000 years and has been the subject of many wars and conquests. From sampling rakia to wandering through the bohemian district and discovering the city’s historic fortress, there is no shortage of things to do in Belgrade.
Have breakfast at Red Bread
Start the day with forest fruit pancakes or a cheese and prosciutto omelette at one of Belgrade’s most popular breakfast spots, Red Bread. A quirky café with a vibrant yet cosy interior – think brightly coloured armchairs and hanging overhead lamps – Red Bread is a popular morning hang-out spot at the heart of the happening Dorćol neighbourhood, and the perfect place to begin a tour of historic Belgrade.
Step back in time to the Belgrade of old
Start your journey at nearby Republic Square (Trg Republike). Well and truly Belgrade’s central meeting point, this buzzing square is home to some of the city’s most recognisable public buildings: the Neo-Renaissance National Museum, which reopened on 28 June 2018 following over a decade of renovations; the 19th-century National Theatre; and the monument to Prince Mihailo Obrenović, who is credited with ending Ottoman domination over Serbia in 1867 and is depicted here on horseback. To sound like a Belgrade local, ask your friends to meet you ‘kod konja’ (by the horse).
From here, head down Knez Mihailova (Prince Mihailo) Street, the city’s main pedestrian shopping area. This lively thoroughfare houses an array of architectural styles, with the oldest buildings dating back to the 1860s. Look out for the City of Belgrade library, once the Srpska Kruna hotel, built in the Romantic style in 1869; the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, constructed in 1923 and 1924 in academic style with elements of Secession architecture; and the former Ruski car (Russian Emperor) café on the corner of Knez Mihailova and Obilićev Venac streets, built in 1926 in late Art Nouveau and early Art Deco styles.
Lined with department stores, boutiques and coffee shops, Knez Mihailova Street presents an opportunity for some retail therapy. Avid readers will love the vibe at the homely Laguna bookshop, while anyone on the lookout for an unusual souvenir should stop by Katapult. This veritable treasure trove of antiques, handmade jewellery and clothes is worth a visit for its grand entrance hall alone – never has souvenir shopping felt so opulent. For a caffeine fix, turn onto Kralja Petra Street to experience some of Belgrade’s best coffee from Cafe&Factory6’s on-site roastery.
At the northern end of Knez Mihailova stands the entrance to the Belgrade Fortress and the surrounding Kalemegdan Park. Originally built in the second century by the Romans, the fortress was consistently destroyed and rebuilt from then until the 18th century, resulting in the distinct historical layers visible today: the Romans, Ottomans, Austro-Hungarians and Serbs all left their mark on this monumental fortress overlooking the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers.
While exploring the citadel and park, pay special attention to the Victor monument rising above the fortress, across the water towards the distant Fruška Gora mountain. An enduring symbol of Belgrade, this bronze sculpture of a nude male figure holding a falcon and sword (as symbols of peace and war) was erected to commemorate Serbia’s victory over the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires during the Balkan Wars and World War I.
While Belgrade’s centre is easy to navigate, for extra historical insight and local insider tips the Tourist Organisation of Belgrade offers a range of tours, including a free walking excursion.
Try traditional Serbian barbecue in Belgrade’s bohemian district
After an active morning pounding the streets of the capital, some sustenance is in order. Your quest for lunch takes you to Skadarlija, Belgrade’s answer to Paris’s Montmartre. Known as the city’s bohemian quarter due to its popularity with Belgrade’s literary and theatre set in eras past, Skadarlija is a colourful cobbled street lined with kafane (taverns). Among the best of these is Tri Šešira, a rustic yet elegant restaurant specialising in traditional Serbian cuisine. Here you can try barbecue specialities like pljeskavica (spiced meat patties made from a mixture of pork, beef and lamb) with ajvar (a red pepper paste popular throughout Southeastern Europe) or Karađorđeva steak – a breaded, rolled veal or pork steak stuffed with kajmak (a dairy product similar to clotted cream). The bohemian atmosphere lives on at Tri Šešira, where a troupe of musicians entertain diners with traditional tunes.
Marvel at the Church of St Sava
Work off lunch with a gentle 35-minute stroll southwards, passing the 1908 Art Nouveau-style Hotel Moskva; Novi Dvor, a royal residence of the Karađorđević dynasty dating to 1911; the Yugoslav Drama Theatre; and Slavija Square, famed for its musical fountains.
Before long you will see the imposing dome of the white marble-clad Church of St Sava rising up ahead – the largest Serbian Orthodox church in the world, and the largest Orthodox place of worship in the Balkans. The monumental building, which stands at a height of 82 metres (269 feet) and houses 49 bells, is dedicated to St Sava, a Serbian prince, Orthodox monk and first archbishop of the independent Serbian Orthodox Church.
Belgrade’s very own Sagrada Familia (Gaudí’s famously incomplete Barcelona church), the Church of St Sava has been a work in progress for over a century. While the plan for the church was laid in 1893 – with its location chosen as the spot where it’s believed that the Ottomans burned the relics of St Sava in 1594, in an attempt to break the Serbian spirit – progress was stalled by the two world wars, the anti-Orthodox sentiment of the socialist Yugoslav government and the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. A trip downstairs to the crypt reveals a vibrant interior, in stark contrast to the largely bare walls of the central nave: elaborate frescoes, ornate chandeliers, gold ceilings and Murano glass mosaics all vie for visitors’ attention. A symbol of both national identity and endurance in the face of adversity, the Church of St Sava is, understandably, a point of pride for many Belgraders.
Discover the Yugoslav era or visit the ‘Belgrade Sea’
If more history is the order of the day or rain clouds are gathering over Belgrade, explore Serbia’s recent history at the nearby Museum of Yugoslavia. Housing over 200,000 artefacts, this must-visit museum chronicles the turbulent history of Yugoslavia, with a particular focus on the life and work of former Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito. Also on the museum grounds is Tito’s mausoleum – the House of Flowers – where gifts from political leaders and foreign dignitaries, along with decorated relay batons presented to him by young socialist ‘Pioneers’, are also on display.
On the other hand, if the sun is shining and spending a lazy afternoon outside sounds appealing, pay a visit to the ‘Belgrade Sea’. Serbia may be landlocked, but, come the summer, Belgrade turns into a beach city. This is largely thanks to Ada Ciganlija – an island on the River Sava that was turned into a peninsula, creating a lake (Lake Sava) in the process. With seven kilometres (four miles) of beach, Ada Ciganlija is the go-to spot for swimming, kayaking, windsurfing and sunbathing in the summer months, while cyclists enjoy the plentiful bike paths through the island’s lush forest.
Sample Serbia’s national drink, rakia
Get the evening off to the best possible start by seeking out Belgrade’s premier rakia – a fruit brandy most commonly made with plum. There is no better place to take your first steps into the world of rakia than at the simply but aptly named Rakia Bar. Located in hip Dorćol, Rakia Bar has over 100 varieties of the Serbian schnapps, from the traditional plum (šljivovica) to the sweet yet tangy raspberry.
Get a taste for contemporary Balkan cuisine
Tradition meets innovation at Ambar, a chic restaurant at riverside foodie and nightlife hotspot Beton Hala. Here, classic Balkan dishes are given a creative twist – kajmak gets a makeover, with porcini and hazelnut among the varieties available, while classic pljeskavica can be served with sweet potato in a kimchi and yoghurt sauce.
Party on a splav
To end the night in true Belgrade style, you’ll need to head onto the river itself. Anchored along Belgrade’s waterways are a host of floating bars, clubs and restaurants known as splavovi (or splav for short). Rising to popularity in the 1990s, when the former Yugoslavia embraced Western-style capitalism, splavovi were once the domain of the Serbian elite – now there’s a splav to suit every taste and budget. Although the splav scene comes into its own in the summer season, Club 20/44 is among the venues to stay open throughout the entire year, whatever the weather. This club plays a wide range of music – from disco and dubstep to techno – and drinks are reasonably priced.
For a more chilled conclusion to the evening, there’s no better spot for a nightcap than the cluster of bars hidden behind bohemian Skadarlija at Cetinjska 15. Once the site of the BIP Brewery, since the brewery declared bankruptcy in 2015 Cetinjska 15 has become a hub of alternative culture and is home to an array of hipster bars, cafés and galleries. Reflect on your day in Belgrade over a beer or Serbian wine on the terrace at local favourite Dvorištance, a whimsical bar with live music and a distinctly retro feel.
For more information on visiting Serbia, visit the website of the National Tourism Organisation of Serbia.