When my Serbian friend (who lives just a few blocks away from me in Cape Town) announced that she was travelling to Belgrade, Serbia, to visit her family, I was super excited. When she invited me to visit her while she’s there, I was beside myself! I mean, how often does one get the opportunity to visit a foreign country for free (well, I just had to pay for my plane ticket and sightseeing) and have some great company by your side who can tell you all about the local culture and help with translation? Needless to say, it was an incredible adventure!
Like a phoenix
Belgrade is such an interesting city to visit. It was my first visit to a Balkan country and I had always been fascinated by the Balkan region’s history and culture; and very conscious of the fact that there was so much I needed to learn. Belgrade is a very old city (dating back as far as 7000 BC) that, like a phoenix, has risen from the ashes many times over the centuries. Due to its strategic location (at the confluence of two international waterways, the Danube and Sava rivers), the city has been the battleground of countless wars, the most recent being the Kosovo War and NATO bombing in 1999. There are a number of museums and tours that tell you more about Belgrade’s turbulent history.
Youth and optimism
Despite of what the people of Belgrade had to go through, the city has a remarkable feeling of youth and optimism. It is something that left such an impression on me! The majority of people are not well-off; there are not enough jobs; and there are still signs of the war’s destruction (some buildings have been left in their bombed states to serve as a memorial for the bombings); but there is also much renewal and the city is slowly waking up to tourism. There are no masses of tourists yet, but there is so much to see. It’s a gem waiting to be discovered!
Because of all the wars, the city has an interesting mish-mash of different architectures: from the old fortress to romanticism and beautiful Art Nouveau to ugly communist buildings. I enjoyed trying to guess which era a building was from.
Cafés and nightlife
There are lots of beautiful parks and wonderful cafés that spill out onto cobblestone sidewalks. There are lovely shops, markets and, if you’re into clubbing, I’ve been told that Belgrade is the place to be. (There are big boats on the river where people party until sunrise!)
If it’s rather opera and musicals that float your boat, there is the beautiful National Theatre where I attended a performance of Verdi’s opera Otello; and the Terazije Theatre in close vicinity, where I saw the entertaining musical Zorba the Greek (in Serbian! Ha ha. Yes! Despite not understanding a word, I still knew the story and music and enjoyed it very much).
There is a good public transport network of buses, trams (both old and new), taxis and they are also busy building a beautiful brand new metro. Many of the younger people can speak some English, while the older people will try their best to help you, even if they can’t speak your language.
Belgrade is very affordable – even for this poor South African (our currency is very weak!). So, I can just imagine how you could spoil yourself with dollars, euros or pounds.
Another great thing about Belgrade is that it is a very pedestrian-friendly city. You can walk almost everywhere. There is a Tourist Information Centre on Knez Mihailova Street (Prince Michael Street), which is Belgrade’s main pedestrian and shopping zone and leads all the way to Kalemegdan Fortress, the city’s famous landmark. Interestingly, Belgrade is named after this very fortress: it’s name means ‘white fortress’ or ‘white town’ in Serbian (and most other Slavic languages). At the tourist info centre you can get free maps, information and book tours.
Even though I was lucky to stay with a friend, I still did a lot of sightseeing on my own and managed really well. I felt safe and it was easy to get around with a map, ‘dobar dan’ (‘good day’) and a friendly smile.
My Belgrade Top 5
I experienced so many wonderful things during my week-long visit to Belgrade and saw so much, that it’s impossible to write about everything. So, I decided to make a list of my top 5 Belgrade highlights:
If you can visit only one place in Belgrade, it should the Kalemegdan Fortress. Also known as the Belgrade Fortress, it is situated atop a 125-metre-high hill, overlooking the Great War Island and confluence of the Sava river into the Danube. In ancient times, the Belgrade population was concentrated within the walls of the fortress.
The views from here are stunning and it’s easy to see why Belgrade has such a strategic reputation and is referred to as the ‘Gateway to the Balkans’ and ‘Door to Central Europe’. When Belgrade was conquered by the Turks in the 16th century, they renamed the Belgrade Fortress ‘Kalemegdan’, which means ‘the fortress amidst battlefields’, which explains why the fortress is referred to as both Belgrade Fortress and Kalemegdan.
The fortress is surrounded by the beautiful large Kalemegdan Park with excellent views and lovely shaded spots to rest and enjoy a picnic after some serious sightseeing. Entrance is free to the fortress and park and you could easily spend half a day there.
Nikola Tesla Museum
Nikola Tesla was a brilliant Serbian physicist, engineer and inventor, famous for his discoveries in the field of electricity, such as alternating current (AC), the Tesla Coil and radio. Yup, Tesla and not the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi is considered to be the true father of radio. Apparently Marconi used many of Tesla’s patents, including the Tesla Coil, a device essential to sending and receiving radio waves. And there have been many lawsuits.
Though Tesla was a brilliant scientist, he was a terrible businessman who failed (or refused?) to see the commercial value of his inventions. As a result, he died a pauper in New York and only received proper credit for many of his inventions long after his death.
I’m not a scientist, but I found my visit to the Nikola Tesla Museum super interesting. I think what really helped was the brilliant (and fun!) guided tour that included great explanations and demonstrations of Tesla’s inventions. There is also an interesting exhibition of Tesla’s personal possessions, drawings of his inventions and an urn containing his ashes (which I found a bit weird).
The museum is housed in a beautiful 1920’s villa and it’s cool to know that Belgrade’s international airport is named after Nikola Tesla.
The Temple of St Sava
The Temple of Saint Sava is said to be one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world. It is a famous Belgrade landmark that can be seen from many parts of the city. Construction of the Neo-Byzantine-styled church started in 1935 and, while the exterior has now been completed after many delays (most notably the 20th century wars), the interior is still unfinished due to the complex frescoes, and massive mosaics that have been planned for the domes.
Despite the unfinished interior, the church is already being used for important religious events. It is not often that one gets to see such a huge building in the making. Don’t forget to visit the beautiful completed crypt which has some beautiful frescoes and iconography. I was lucky to visit the crypt during a service, which just added to the special atmosphere.
I’d love to revisit St Sava when the interior is completed one day. I’m sure it will be stunning!
Zemun is a gorgeous town on the old Austro-Hungarian border that only became part of Belgrade after the First World War. Situated on the banks of the Danube, the town boasts beautiful Austro-Hungarian architecture and great views across the river of Kalemegdan and Old Belgrade.
Zemun’s most famous landmark is the Gardoš Tower, a Romanesque tower built by the Hungarians on the site of ruins of a medieval fortress. Make sure to climb the tower to the top for stunning views over Zemun, the Danube, New and Old Belgrade.
From Zemun you can take a a walk along a long promenade all the way back to the Belgrade city centre (crossing the Danube via a long bridge). I tried to walk all the way, but it was just that little bit too far, so I covered the last stretch by taxi.
Skadarlija is a lovely old bohemian neighbourhood situated in the old town (Stari Grad), where many poets and artists gathered in the 19th and early 20th century. It is home to great cafés, art galleries, antique shops, a market and stunning street murals.
Skadarlija still has a strong artistic flavour and is a wonderful place to explore. Make sure to take the side alleys – I discovered quite a few little gems this way, especially some fabulous street art. I took so many photos that I decided to dedicate a special blog post to Belgrade’s street art.
Have you visited Belgrade yet? What other gems did you discover?
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