Belgrade is a welcoming city to be experienced at its best in the summer, when the bustling street cafes, relaxed river bars and city gardens come alive with stylish young people promenading the avenues, squares and parks.
On a previous New Year’s Eve visit, winter draped the grey city is a deep blanket of snow and provided its own allure. While providing a attractive monochrome beauty against Belgrade’s often blackened buildings, the snow kept hidden the city’s true beauty. It was time for that to change and so I returned in June.
This time I was in for a treat, as the start of summer heralded a bright new season for Belgrade’s infamous riverside splavs and café culture. Not to mention dance-until-dawn nightlife and some seriously fine dining.
With temperatures topping 36 degrees during the day and still well into the mid twenties at midnight, Belgrade is getting hot right now. Not only is the mercury rising, the numbers of foreign tourists to the city is also increasing, with people drawn to an unexplored city and the luxury of favourable prices beyond the Eurozone. In the first three months of 2011, British tourism to Serbia has increased more than twenty per cent, year on year.
Belgrade is the cultural heart of the Balkans, a city that beats with a youthful energy, drive and enthusiasm that has seen it rise up alongside other regional capitals. Indeed, so sure is Belgrade of its status as a major league player, it is considered a frontrunner in its bid for European Cultural Capital 2020. The civic, indeed national, pride that such an accolade would generate would be of at least equal value to the leg-up from associated investment and development opportunities.
My recent visit was so enjoyable, the people I met so engaging, I extended my stay by a further two days. Still that wasn’t enough to sate my appetite: I intend to return in a few months. A full list of my favourite Belgrade hang outs would be too long but I want to share some of my preferred spots. Hopefully they will give you some ideas and encourage you to visit a city that has left an indelible mark on me.
As my trip was for business and pleasure, I needed places to meet. Belgrade is full of cafes and bars to meet with friends, with Republic Square a good central location with plenty of places to sit and chat over coffee or a beer. If you fancy something more sweet, the terrace at Hotel Moskvar is an excellent choice, with a mouth-watering range of gateaux and cakes.
When meeting for business or spending a few hours on my laptop drinking fantastic fruit smoothies, the uber-trendy Supermarket is my destination. This large concept space is a café, restaurant and store for arty gadget and nick-nacks. Like many places in Belgrade, wi-fi is free, making it the perfect place to catch up on emails. Supermarket is where I like to recharge my batteries or meet to discuss business.
During the summer Belgrade’s welcome is as warm as the weather is hot. The city is literally buzzing with confidence and life overflows beyond the city to the shady Kalemegdan Park and down to the rivers Sava and Danube that inject Belgrade with an energy that is hard to beat. At night the river banks come alive with bars and clubs pumping out dance music. During the day, the cafes and pontoons along the shores are the place to be. At my favourite, Andrea Mia (Savski kej, blok 45, Novi Beograd), it was easy to relax and chat with friends as bikini girls and shirtless boys enjoy cocktails before dipping into the river to cool off.
For me, a city needs great places to eat and Belgrade definitely delivers on that one. As well as the standard cafes, the city is awash with some great restaurants. Tourists flock to traditional restaurants on Skadarlija, while just a few streets away there are plenty of good restaurants where the locals dine. By the river, I enjoyed a late supper at Iguana (Karadjordjeva 2-4), where cool jazz and an even cooler crowd relaxes under the caring eye of owner Goran.
Near Republic Square, the old-school style of the cosy Opera (Obilicev Venac 30) is an oasis of well-prepared Serbian dishes away from the pizza and ice cream cafes.
Views of the city are a rare treat at Caruso (Terazije 23). High above the city, the balcony tables are perfect to a romantic lunch or dinner. But for something more upscale and with food that never disappoints, I like Zaplet (Kajmakcalanska 2). This stylish and intimate restaurant with an extensive range of Serbian and Asian dishes is wonderful. The desert list alone will leave you coming back for more. The place is always busy so book ahead.
My top vote must go to scene new-comer Dijagonale 2.0 (Skerliceva 6 +381 11 2449 099). The month-old off-shoot of the Zaplet empire is a first class restaurant with a limited but carefully choreographed menu of fine dining. Staff are friendly and attentive, dressed in baseball boots, white shirts and skinny ties, giving the two-storey restaurant a relaxed atmosphere in which to enjoy some of the city’s best food. Just go there: you won’t regret it.
Further out of town, I enjoyed a lazy lunch at the exceptional Milosev Konak Restoran (Topciderska 1). Set amid beautiful parkland in Topceder Park in the exclusive Dedinje region of the city, this 1834 restaurant with a large terrace is a perfect place to relax and unwind over good food and wine. Expect to see some of Belgrade’s faces at neighbouring tables.
Belgrade is famous for its nightlife, and rightly so. As well as being home to some incredible DJs – including my friend Marko Nastic – Belgrade has clubs and bars to cater to almost any taste, from relaxed music cafes and stylish bars to international-DJ clubs and dance-all-night hang outs. Previously I have enjoyed Magacin and Noir, two of the city’s more exclusive hot spots with designer-clad clubbers in private booths. Tube is probably most familiar to London clubbers, in terms of décor and music choice, while KC Grad delivers a credible night out with hard dance and a good crowd.
This time, friend Bogdan Doncic was my nightlife guide. We met at Ander Bar, set in the rocks at the entrance to Kalemegdan Park. We moved to Freestyler, a large and glamorous riverside club with a friendly crowd dancing to a soundtrack of the latest international club hits. With walls open to the elements, this is the perfect spot to enjoy a great night partying with friends.
If you hang around, you can watch the stunning sun rise over Belgrade (I can recommend it!).
Obviously a city wanting to attract tourists can live or die on the quality of its accommodation. Belgrade has plenty of places to stay, suited to any pocket. Standards are generally quite good, with international visitors unlikely to be disappointed if they choose well.
On my previous trip, I stayed at the Excelsior Hotel. This beautiful period building is perfectly located near Parliament and within a few minutes walk of the most popular shopping and dining areas, and perfect to the key tourist hot spots. Rooms are clean, modern and quite spacious, while desk staff are friendly and keen to help. If you’re looking for a central city mid-range hotel with a high quality finish, the Excelsior could be right up your street.
During this visit I decided to try one of Belgrade’s many hostels. Taking my lead from Ivan Agbaba, owner of Belgrade’s only concierge service for corporate and tourist travellers (www.belgrade-VIP.com), I opted for the comfortable and friendly Mr Walker (Zagrebacka 9: +38111 3038 100).
Not being a hostel regular, I was unsure of what to expect on my arrival at Mr Walker. But I was pleasantly surprised by the warm welcome, the clean air conditioned rooms, and the free wi-fi. I had my own functional room with a TV, while the communal area offered a large LCD TV to enjoy the free tea and coffee. More importantly, the large shared bathroom was cleaned daily and fresh towels were provided on request.
Within four hundred metres of the bus stations and just ten minutes walk to the city’s cafes and clubs, this well-maintained downtown hostel is more like a home with friends or cousins. If you need advice, they have it (or will get it) and the staff will call taxis, book restaurants or arrange tours. My stay at Mr Walker was relaxed and I recommend you check it out.