Although Belgrade has been around for quite a while now (as a Neolithic village in Vinca, the a Celtic and then Roman fort, then a border city of many an empire, and finally the capital of Serbia) it has constantly changed, often violently, and the winds that sweep though the Danube valley constantly blow its people to and fro. Hence, somewhat surprisingly, there is precious little ancient on display (“old building” in Belgrade is from 19th or early 20th century), but plenty of eclecticism, as the city reinvents itself and maintains its various identities. Thus despite being ethnically relatively homogenous, it has a quite cosmopolitan air in all of its exuberance.
The recent past hangs in the air in both physically in the ruins of Generalstab and mentally, but in terms of trends (fashion, cultural, musical or gastronomic) Belgrade is in step with the times and even tries to punch above its weight for a cultural place under the sun with a strong street art scene and many a ambitious designer building on its tarnished cool.
To be enjoyed, Belgrade should be approached with an open heart and understood as a mix of cultures and influences, rather than a coherent whole: it has a chunk of a Middle-European lime tree lined streets and cafes, a scoop of a socialist crumbling grandiose projects, a whiff of a Mediterranean trading city, and a side of chaotic turbo-suburbs. Those into black tourism will (thankfully) only find a few obvious signs of destruction (Generalstab, Police buildings in Kneza MIlosa, the television building from the NATO bombing; remains of the old library and Staro Sajmiste from WWII). Despite what some of my friends thought, the other ruined buildings are due to neglect rather than direct war destruction.
Below are the must-sees in Belgrade (in order of importance), with a bit of history (more detailed explanations on Wikipedia, but the locals love chatting about history) and a few suggestions for where to rest. If you are staying in the city center, the city is walkable and all sites, apart from the Tito’s memorial and Zemun are within a 30-minute walking distance from Trg Republike. All of the main sites listed below can be crammed into a weekend visit for a keen and obsessive tourist (despite being a native I have a very touristy approach to Belgrade and having done it, I can vouch for it).
By far the showstopper, the Belgrade fortress (known as Kalemegdan – “the field of war” in Turkish) has been the heart of Belgrade since its foundation. Perched on a limestone hill, it dominates the confluence of the Danube and Sava, offering sweeping views across the Panonian plane. It has been around since the Romans (white stones in the walls are from then) and has seen though many a ruler, before it became a romantic park. Not to miss are the statue of the Victor by Ivan Mestrovic (the greatest Croatian/Yugoslav sculptor), the observatory tower and Ruzica, Belgrade’s oldest church (note a chandelier made of WWI bullets and sabers). If you have some time, take a stroll below the fortress (where the medieval city used to be) and see the lapidarium in Barutana (statuary from the Roman times housed in the old gunpowder store) and Nebojsa Tower, which used to be a prison.
For the animal lovers there is a pretty (and pungent) zoo, interesting more for the setting in the fortress, than for the poor animals.
In the 19th century Dorćol (“cross roads” in turkish) used to be the Turkish and Jewish part of town. During post-Ottoman modernization, it developed into a grid of tree-lined streets. Nice to stroll around and people gaze it has a genteel feel, although the natives, “Dorćolci”, maintain the illusion that they are quite a rowdy bunch. It is best to start from are the Student park and the University house (Captain Misa Buidling) with its romantic oriental details, see the old Belgrade stock exchange (now Etnographic museum, with a nice museum shop and not too dull a collection), go down Kralja Petra, past the Jewish Community building and turn left into Jevremova street to see Bajrakli Mosque (16th Century), the only surving mosque from the Ottom times (many others having been levelled during modernisation in late 19th Century). Also of note a dervish tomb next to the Natural Sciences Faculty and Vuk and Dositej Museum (a Turkish era building with a garden which used to house the first university in Belgrade). Finally Skadarlija (aka “The bohmeian quarter”) is a bo+it of a tourist trap and is really only a short, cobbled, street with old kafanas. It is nice to visit in the evening to hear the live music playing and to see the copy of Sebilj fountain, a gift form the city of Sarajevo
3. Saborna Crkva (the Cathedral) and Kosančićev venac
Across Knez Mihajlova (the main axis of old Belgrade) from Dorcol, area around Kosancicev venac used to be the Serbian part of the city. Appropriately the area around it houses the Belgrade Cathedral (in pleasant Austro-baroque) and the patriarch’s court. Next to the church is the oldest surviving Belgrade kafana (cafe/restaurant) “?”, so named due to clergy’s request to be renamed appropriately for its sacred location. Across the road, in Balkan style, is Princess Ljubica’s house where this first in the remarkable line of estranged wives in Serbian political history used to live. Further down Kralja Petra, down the stone paved road is one of the nicer views over New Belgrade and the art-nouveau house of Mihajlo Petrovic Alas, a famous mathematician. If you walk to the left you will find the (badly-marked remains) of the old National Library that was fire-bombed by the Nazis on 6th April 1941, and with which perished many medieval manuscripts and historical documents. The crumbling square offers a nice view of the cathedral spire and is one of the rare remains of what Belgrade used to be like in the 19th century.
4. The axis: Knez Mihajlova/Terazije/Kralja Milana/Hram
The main pedestrianized promenade in old Belgrade, Knez Mihajlova is the axis of Belgrade life and a meeting place since the olden days. Although there are few remarkable buildings apart from the elegant city library by Kalemegdan (housing the remains of the Roman Forum of Singidunum) and pretty beaux-arts Academy of Arts and Sciences in the middle, there are plenty of galleries worth popping into (Zepter Museum and the SANU gallery being the pre-eminent) and even more cafes to lounge and watch the Belgrade fauna going about its business.
Trg Republike is the focal point of Belgrade life and is flanked by the National Theatre and the National Museum. The museum is in the process of renovation for the past 11 years, however it does house a few exhibitions and is worth a look, if for nothing than for Mestovic’s Caryatids. In the middle of the Square, a site of many celebrations and protests in the past 20 years, is the equestarian statue of Prince Mihajlo, a moderniser who managed to wrest Serbia from the last clutches of the Ottoman empire in the mid-19th century.
Following the course of Knez Mihajlova, towards the Vracar hill and St Sava Temple, are Terazije, the former main square. Hotel Moskva, a beloved art-nouveau building, with the most famous (and still decent) cake shop in Belgrade (try Moskva šnit) dominates what used to be the main town square and that now is graced by an awkward looking stone fountain that was brought from the princely grounds of Topčider.
Further on are Beograđanka, Belgrade’s first sky scraper, JDP (Yugoslav Drama Theatre, the preeminent theatre beautifully rebuilt by Zoran Radojčić and Dejan Miljković) and the mess of Slavija square in whose middle are the remains of the first socialist thinker in Serbia, Dimitrie Tucović. Up though the leafy Sveti Sava street is the temple of St Sava. Still in the process of building, the project has been around for a century, constantly stalled by wars or inclement politics. The temple is supposedly built on the spot where the remains of St Sava, Serbian medieval saint and educator, were burnt.
If interested in medieval art, Gallery of Frescoes houses reproductions of Serbian and Byzantine medieval frescoes and will give you a glimpse of the architectural treasures of central Serbia without leaving Belgrade.
5. The Power Quarter: The Parliament, Royal Palaces and Tašmajdan
Taking left from Terazije is Nikola Pašić square and the Serbian parliament. The construction of the neo-baroque building took almost 40 years until it was finished in 1938 to house the parliament of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The building is notable for both its architectural detail (note Toma Rosandić (another Croatian master sculptor) horse statues) and its stormy history. The most recent memorable episode happened on 5th October 2000 when it was stormed and set on fire during the anti-Milošević riots.
No less violent is the history of the royal palaces in the part across the road. The Old Court now houses the Belgrade City hall, while the New Place houses the Presidential office. The park was also a site of one of the many regicides in Serbian history, when in 1903 Obrenović dynasty was deposed and replaced by the rival Karađorđević family. Both buildings sustained massive damage during WWII bombings.
Across Takovska street from the Parliament and behind the monumental post office building, is Tašmajdan park and the church of Saint Mark. The church is modeled after Serbian medieval monasteries and houses the remains of the most powerful of Serbian medieval rulers Car (Emperor) Dušan. The park, at the site of an old cemetery and a stone quarry, is overlooked on side by the NATO-bombed TV station, which still remains in ruins, as a memorial to those who perished during the raid.
Down Kneza Miloša street, at the corner with Nemanjina street are the Government of the Republic of Serbia and the New Generalštab (Army HQ, designed by Petar Dobrović), the most photogenic of the ruins from the 1999 Nato Bombing. Due to the lack of funds and high architectural value necessitating costly renovation, the hulking building is still awaiting the re-build, although one tower of the building is still in use.
6. Tito’s Memorial and Dedinje
A bit further from the genteel Dedinje hill is the site of the Museum of Yugoslav History, which often hosts exhibitions about the social history of Yugoslavia and Josip Broz Tito, the life-long president of SFR Yugoslavia and a remarkable character. The museum and the adjoining plateau are remarkable monuments of the elegance of socialist-modernist architecture. The museum complex also includes Tito’s memorial, which is located in the “House of flowers” which used to be a glasshouse in his residence, overlooking the Vračar hill. Tito’s estranged widow, Jovanka Broz is also bured next to him.
If you have some time on your hands, next to the museum complex is the Partizan Stadium (Partizan is the bitter (and currently better) rival of Crvena Zvezda (Red Star), which it recently is beating in the Belgrade derby). The stadium (aka Stadion JNA [Yugoslav National Army stadium) used to host the one of the largest annual ceremonies in Socialist Yugoslavia, celebration of relay handover to Tito for his birthday on 25th May. A bit like the Olympic torch, the relay, designed by sculptors, would travel through Yugoslavia in the olden days carried by hands of the proletariat and end up in Belgrade, where with much pageantry, it would be handed over to Tito (or his successors).
Dedinje is dotted with both the old money pre-WWII villas (many of them in process of being returned to their owners) as well as kitchy monstrosities of the Milošević-era nouveau richesse. The most awful is the villa of Karić family, which has a triumphal arch and a number of lion statues.
On top of the hill, is the summer palace of Karađorđević dynasty. Beli Dvor (White palace), which is synonymous with the palace, is an elegant necolassical building, however the main attraction is the lovely terrace of the Royal Court, built in neo-Serbo-byzantine style by the White Russian emigrees, looking towards Topčider and Košutnjak and the court church. Entry is with a tour only over the weekends (as the heir apparent lives in the palace) so make sure to check if there are tours available
7. Savamala, Beton hala and Ušće
For the past 5 years, old town district of Savamala, on the banks of Sava river, between the Central train station and Kalemegdan ,is the place to be for Belgrade’s hipsters creatives. Drawn by the crumbling charm of grand 1920s buildings of this once-prosperous part of town (derelict Hotel Bristol hosted royalty before WWII, now it is a cheap drinking den), designers and artists, started the gentrification process. Many of them related to the Mikser festival (annual hipster-fest of art and design, centered around Mikser House, a cafe/club/design shop) Now the Emiratis have decided to redevelop the industrial parts of the area, and it is changing rapidly. Many buildings of note are related to Luka Ćelović a major benefactor of Belgrade University and founder of the Belgrade Zadruga (Belgrade cooperative bank), which is housed in the beautifully domed and recently renovated eclectic masterpiece in Karađorđeva street. It currently holds the plan for the future of Sava mala, the Belgrade Waterfront project, which is of contested architectural quality and has suspiciously little to do with the spirit of the present day Savamala.
A bit further down river is Beton hala, which used to be an industrial port storage, but is now home of some of Belgrade’s swankiest cafes and restaurants. The river promenade passing by Beton hala stretches around 7 km and links Ada Cignalija and Gale Muskatirovic sports center (which has Belgrade’s hottest gym, perched above the Danube). For the sporty ones, I can highly recommend going for a run there at dusk as the sun sets and colours go crazy over the rivers.
The promenade on the New Belgrade bank of the Sava, passes some of the most remarkable socialist-era architecture: Ušće tower (former HQ of the communist party, bombed in 1999 and ironically redevelopped as office space), Museum of Contemporary Art (MSU) (amazing collection, sadly closed for refurbishment for the past 7 years), SIV (now Palace Serbia, a marble behemot housing many ministries and the former seat of the Yugoslav government), and formerly grand, now-closed, hotel Jugoslavia.
Up-river are the remains of the Old art deco fairground (Staro Sajmište), the first development on marshy the left bank of Sava and, during WWII, the site of a notorious Concentration camp, in what was the independent state of Croatia (NDH) where many of Belgraders (including much of the sizable pre-war Jewish community) lost their lives. The spot is marked by a monument.
Both sides of the rivers are packed in the summer with revllers going to «splav»s, clubs on river floats that stay open until wee hours
An Austro-hungarian border town, Zemun has been annexed to Belgrde with the construction of New Belgrade, however Zemun still has a distinct small town look and feel. There are many nice restaurants with live music on the bank of the Danube and the view from the Millenium tower (constructed to mark thousnad years of the Hungarian state in its southernmost city) is worth the hike. Like Dorćol, Zemun has a very stong sense of hyper-local patriotism, with many Zemunci being famous for their toughness, a reputation much stengthened in the 1990s when many of its sons became prominant mafiosi (many of them interred in the beutiful Zemun cemetery)
9. Niche appeal
Of course, there are few other more niche sites to visit if you were to extend your stay:
- Architecture buffs could benefit from driving around new Belgrade to visit Genex Tower (the brutalist western gate of Belgrade), peculiar buildings aroung Jurija Gagarina street and Sava Center, a conference centre/cultural centre.
- Those more interested in the Serbian history could venture to Topčider park, which was the royal grounds during the Obrenović dynasty and houses a museum of the Serbian uprisngs in the old Balkan-style palace and also has a pretty stone church.
- Further afield is Avala, which has a Mestrovic WWI monument dedicated to the unkown soldier and also has a (bomberd but now restored) Avala tower, which offers amazing views over Belgrde and Central Serbia.
-On particularly warm summer days, visiting Ada, a sports centre with an artificial lake is a good idea, both for the possibility of a dip in its murky (but cleanish) waters and watching sculpted bodies of Belgrade’s image conscious youth.
-Those into seeing how Belgraders live day to day, should visit a fresh produce market (Kalenic and Bajloni are the most popular) and maybe take a bus to one of the residential suburbs (all are safe).
- Those who despise urbanism should visit the warren that is Kaludjerica, and unplanned suburb of haphazard houses and aesthetically dubious houses.