Serbia’s capital Belgrade is situated at the junction of the Danube and Sava rivers, a location that’s made it the coveted prize of 115 battles throughout its millennia-long lifetime. From partying on floating splavovi nightclubs to sampling the Balkans’ signature liquor rakija, there’s plenty of things to do in Belgrade.
Be prepared for a delicious but messy snack at Spasa Bakery, where the house speciality is a Hungarian-style meat stew called goulash served in a sandwich. They simply cut a small bun in two, spoon the steaming, paprika-laced sauce onto the bottom half, add a dollop of melted cheese, and put the top half back on. Spasa is located on Skadarlija Street, a cobbled lane known for its bohemian nightlife and excellent restaurants. Nab a table outside when the weather is warm.
Recommended from as far afield as Dubrovnik, this hipster cafe sits in the shadow of the fortress walls and is often said to do the best coffee in Belgrade. The beans are home-roasted and weighed specifically for each coffee, whether for foam-decorated cappuccinos or punchy, smoky espressos. It’s also sought out for its grungy decor and ambience, its chilled beats – courtesy of a live DJ tucked away in the corner – and its craft beer.
Floating nightclubs are so much a part of Belgrade’s social scene that they have their own word – splavovi. Bobbing off the banks of the Sava, Sindikat is the top choice for the city’s nocturnal partygoers. It has capacity for about 500 hedonists, and is known for hosting the best DJs, having the most friendly atmosphere and attracting the most beautiful clientele. Book a VIP table in advance, especially if you’re visiting during peak summer.
The Gavez Club occupies a forest clearing on Belgrade’s Ciganlija river island, an hour’s walk south of the city centre. Don’t feel guilty about knocking back its colourful rakijas (a potent Balkan liquor made from grapes, plums, apricots and pears), because here they’re said to have magical and medicinal effects. There’s also a small but home-cooked menu of hearty Serbian dishes and a bamboo-covered stage where music and plays are performed. Seating is in a chalet-like interior or outside on wooden benches.
There is one structure that dominates Belgrade’s skyline, and luckily it isn’t any of the monstrosities on the waterfront. It’s the Church of St Sava, the enormous house of worship that stands proudly as one of the biggest Orthodox temples on the planet. It looks huge no matter where in the city you are – its vastness aptly demonstrates the real intimidating power of the peoples’s faith.
Tell anyone from Zemun that it is one of your favourite parts of Belgrade, and they may well curl their lip and decide that discretion is indeed the better part of valour. Zemun is theoretically a part of the capital, but up until the 1950s, it was its own independent town. The fierce independent streak remains in place today and rightly so. The architecture is different, the accents are different, the way of life is different and, oh boy are the haircuts different. Some of the finest restaurants also happen to be here, and the views from Gardoš are among the best in the region.
This article was originally written by Peter Ilchev, with additional reporting from John William Bills, and has since been updated.