Belgrade rests at the former border between the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. Thanks to its position, it changed hands regularly and is heavily influenced by both empires. Serbia’s history can be divisive and I will admit I still do not fully understand the Yugoslav wars. I did not learn about the wars in school, only through first hand accounts in my travels. History changes based on who is telling it, and I heard many different variations. In Bosnia, the Serbs were making a land grab. In Kosovo they wanted independence. In Serbia, no one talked about anything but the NATO bombing of 1999. Although the history is hard to get a grasp on, the city itself is not. Belgrade is a very welcoming and friendly city despite its tumultuous past. It is one of those cities where you go for the sites and end up staying for the nightlife.
What to see in Belgrade
This massive fort showcases a mix of architecture from the Thracians, Ottomans, and Austro-Hungarians. The fortress itself consists of the upper and lower for and is absolutely massive. It’s high point on the hill offers an excellent view of the city of Belgrade. It’s full of locals and tourists alike wandering the old walls on a nice day. It is located in one of Belgrade’s largest green spaces, Kalamegdan Park. To me, the fort wasn’t the most curious thing in the park. I was more interested in the dinosaur park, a grassy area featuring life size statues of dinosaurs. No one was in it, not even a child, so I don’t really know why it was there. The dinosaurs in front of an ancient fort make for an interesting view. The park is also home to one of Europe’s oldest zoos. Because the name Belgrade translates to “white city”, the zoo originally showcased albino animals. Today, it’s home to animals of all shapes and colors including the worlds oldest captive alligator.
Under the park there is a totally different side of Belgrade, its tunnels, bunkers, and other hidden curiosities. The most popular underground site is the Roman Well. It’s not actually a well and it’s not actually roman. It was actually built by the Austro-Hungarian empire to use if the fortress was under siege and they couldn’t leave to get water. Unfortunately during their digging they never hit water so instead, they transferred water to the well and used it as storage. Local stories say that the Austro-Hungarians also used it to torture their enemies, dropping 8 soldiers into the well, leaving them for a few days, and then dropping knives in for them to use as they wished. Local stories also say that Alfred Hitchcock was inspired by the story for his future films, but our guide couldn’t say what movies so I remain skeptical.
Where to drink in Belgrade
Rakia is the Serbian spirit. It’s made both at home and commercial and is around 40%, but can be even stronger. It comes in all different flavors from classic to honey even to carrot. Honey rakia can be quite sweet, so it goes down easily, but it’s still just as strong and can easily get the best of you after a couple shots. Head to rakia bar with a couple of friends and split a few shots between you friends to try a variety of flavors.
Blaznavac Cafe Bar
This whimsical bar is located just blocks from rakia bar. There is a good variety of straight forward beer, wine and cocktails, but nothing special. The real draw of this place is the atmosphere. The patio and bar is is colorful and full of kitschy artwork. During the day, the atmosphere is pretty laid back, but at night the music goes up and the artwork is illuminated in with flashing multicolored lights.
This Arsenal bar is a craft beer joint in the middle of downtown Belgrade. This tap list is full of local, Balkan, and international brews. My favorite was a White IPA from Dogma, a local brewery with a tap house just 10 minutes outside of the city center by car. The white IPA was a unique combination of a Belgian Wit and a hoppy IPA. It was both malty and hoppy without the flavors clashing. Like most Balkan bars, Gunner’s does allow smoking. I had one designated bar outfit so that only part of my bag smelled like an ashtray.
What to eat
Staples of Balkan cuisine are meat and bread. We had some particularly good meat and bread combinations in Belgrade. For me, the standout was Cevapi, small sausages usually served inside bread with onions and some cabbage. If you’re feeling fancy or just love cheese as much as I do, you can also add shredded white cheese to your sandwich. You’ll see it on all the menus as “white cheese.” It tastes like feta but is shredded and forms a nice coating around the sausages. This cheese is also used in the popular Shopska salad. A salad of chopped tomatoes and cucumber coated in cheese. The Balkans have taught me that the best way to eat your vegetables is to coat them in cheese.