Things to do when Backpacking Belgrade
Belgrade is the capital of Serbia and the former capital of the defunct Republic of Yugoslavia. It represents something of a crossroads within Europe connecting the West to the East and to some extent the old to the new. Whilst Serbia itself is landlocked, it does form the body of the long corridor which joins the Mediterranean, to the Black Sea and if you look closely, can you see the influence of both in the quirky old country.
I backpacked Serbia for the first time earlier this year and to be honest, had very low expectations about its capital. However, I was left very impressed and Belgrade turned out to be one of the highlights of my whole Balkan trip; so much so that I am already planning to return for a boozy weekend break or something at the earliest possible opportunity.
Let’s take a look at the top things to do in Belgrade Serbia!
Nicolai Tesla, the 19th-century scientific genius, is histories most famous Serb and something of a national icon. Although Tesla was born in what is now Croatia and completed his important works in the US, he appears on the Serbian Dinar Banknotes, Belgrade’s airport is named after him and in Belgrade city, there is an interactive museum dedicated to his legacy and his works.
In the museum, you can find a few of Tesla’s letters, personal possessions, and his instruments. You can also watch a video about his works and see some live reconstructions of the experiments he conducted. Wear rubber soles…
Thanks to some high profile fanboys and a line of electric cars named after him, interest in Tesla’s work is at an all-time high meaning that the museum is now filling up to the point that tourists are been turned away. The museum is now the golden boy of Belgrade tourism. I therefore wholly advocate calling ahead during high seasons to avoid been turned away.
Belgrade Fortress and Kalmegdan Park
Kalmegdan Park sits atop a Belgradian hill overhanging the beautiful, blue Danube and overlooking the whole city. Its prominent position was of course born out of its original use as a working fort built to defend Serbia and Belgrade from the advancing Ottoman forces. Many Serbian towns and cities have prominent forces which tell the bloody tale of the nations violent middle ages when Christian knights battled the advancing Muhammadans.
The battlements are still in good condition and you can stroll along them and admire their imposing scale. The area around the Fortress has now been shaped into a wonderfully, pleasant park which is a fantastic place for a leisurely stroll. Because of the high position, the area is an awesome place to watch the sunset from. There are even stalls selling bottles of reasonably priced Serbian beer so you can sink a cold one, watch the suns descent and chat up the locals who come here to hang out. This is another solid staple of Belgrade tourism.
The grounds of Kalmegdan Park now house a Weaponry museum including some awesome outdoor displays of communist-era tanks, WWII artillery installation and even dis-armed missiles (I’m not sure exactly which direction they are pointing). The collection is well worth checking out even if you don’t want to go inside.
Skadarlija Old Town
The quaint little Skararlija has been a bohemian mecca since the 1800’s drawing artists, singers, buskers and ladies of the night for nigh on 2 centuries now. It’s creative heart and empty pockets have caused many to compare it to Paris’ Montmartre borough. Like Montmartre though, a wave of gentrification means that modern-day Skadarlija is now populated by the hip, upwardly mobile and a steady influx of tourists.
It remains a charming area with cobbled streets and old gaslights. The cafe and shop fronts look quirky and inviting and its great place to come for Serbian bar-bq’s or simply to take a beer and watch the street performers do their thing.
Museum of Yugoslavia & Tito Memorial
Despite some residual hangover from the brutal demise of Yugoslavia, Serbs are nevertheless very proud that their capital was Yugoslavia’s capital. There remains rather a lot of Yugo-nostalgia and Tito, Yugoslavia’s founding father and long-term leader (some would say mostly-benevolent dictator) is remembered very fondly indeed.
He now lies in-turned in a Belgrade suburb and you can visit his tomb to pay your own respects along with the busses of pilgrims from around the Balkans who come here daily to do exactly the same. His tomb is annexed to the museum of Yugoslavia which tells the story of the union and later the dissolution of the union and houses some fascinating exhibits. Do check out the “relay batons” which were carried the whole length of the nation and passed hand to hand before been presented to Tito himself.
Dine on Goulash
Serbian food is hearty, filling and a carnivores paradise. Whilst vegetarians may struggle to find anything at all, meat eaters delight on the filling, often delicious and always cheap fare.
Balkan and Slavic food is a mix of Austro-Hungarian, Greek and Ottoman flavors so are actually pretty diverse. Whilst Serbian food is not spicy, it is definitely flavorsome with plenty of Paprika being applied.
As a vegetarian, my favorite dishes are Borek for breakfast (hefty pie stuffed with cheese and spinach) and the Duvet stew which is essentially Serbian ratatouille. Carnivores are spoiled by the selection of grilled, skewered, cured or stew meats on offer but brace yourself for plenty of internal organs!
Whatever you eat, you can wash it down with Lav beer and homemade Polenka spirit. Serbian wine is also fairly decent and often comes in massive, oversized bottles.
I have listed a few of the best restaurants in Belgrade further down this post – scroll down in your feeling hungry!
Church Of St Sava
The splendidly white domed Church of St Sava is the center of the Orthodox faith in Serbia and the largest Orthodox house of worship in the entire Balkans.
Construction began in 1935 and completed in 1989. The dome is built on the site of an older one which was burned to the ground by marauding Ottoman’s. I am not sure the Serbian people have quite forgiven this yet…
The Gardos Tower
The Gardos Tower is known as the Millennium Tower and was built in 1986 to commemorate 1000 years of Hungarian’s settlers in what is now modern Serbia. It’s much better than London’s chronically naff Millenium Done anyway.
There is a small museum inside but the real value of the tower is climbing to the top for a view over the Danube River.
Party! Any Time, Any Day!
Serb’s love a good party and the nation is fast securing its reputation as a full-on capital of hedonism. Belgrade boasts an embarrassment of bars, pubs, and clubs catering to all tastes. On the blue waters of the Danube, you can find anchored barges which open all night as clubs pumping out “Turbo-folk” (quasi-nationalistic folksongs set to awful Euro beats) whereas on the gritty, city outskirts you will find much edgier, cooler options. My personal pick is KPTM which has a daily Techno or Psytrance rave starting at 5 pm.
Bars in Belgrade cater to all tastes but do expect some heavy drinking across all Serbian bars. Many of the best bars in Belgrade are located along the riverside but more hip joints are set in the cities outskirts. It may be worth taking cabs between them unless you fancy doing some walking (note, UBER was not widely available in summer 2018).
Wherever you do go, be prepared to dance and drink amongst some of the most beautiful women you will ever see in your life.
Note – I found Serb’s to be the least friendly and most intimidating people I have ever met in my life. Some people say similar things about Croatians and Russians. Therefore, making friends in the various watering holes of Belgrade can be challenging at first but does get easier as the night progresses and the drinks flow!
The Balmy Avala Tower was originally constructed as a communications tower and finished in 1965. Dating from the cities heydey as the Yugoslav capital, it is a classic example of the divisive communist style. It sits atop Mount Avala sending data across the city.
Whilst not exactly in the centre of Belgrade, it can easily be reached by taking an UBER (under $5) or street cab. Alternatively, you can take the bus from Voždovac/Banjica.
The tower was actually destroyed by NATO during their 1999 bombing but eventually rebuilt in 2010. Oh, and it is apparently the largest structure in the whole of the Balkans.
A Belgrade Bike Tour
I love getting on two wheels and believe its one of the best possible ways to see a city. Whilst there are a few steep hills in the city, the stretch along the river bank makes for some fine riding and there are loads of spectacular bridges to ride over. There are a number of Belgrade bike tour operators in place such as I Bike Belgrade, Belgrade Bike Central and Belgrade Bike Tours. I have not linked to them but you can easily contact them through Google.
Note that there is a fair bit of traffic and Serbian driving standards are more haphazard than in western Europe.
National Museum of Serbia
In case you’re in need of a culture fix then head to the National Museum of Serbia. The museum houses artifacts and manuscripts ranging from the Neolithic period to 20th-century art.
As well as stone and metal artifacts from Serbia’s pre-history, there are some fascinating medieval items dating from the days of the “Kingdom of Serbia” including a 1000-year-old Slavic copy of the Gospels. Then there is the art collection which ranges from Orthodox Religious Icon’s (which are a personal favorite of mine and a specialty of the region), the Renaissance wing, a Bosch masterpiece as well as offerings from Japanese art and even a Picasso.
Bombed Buildings of Belgrade
One of the most striking sites you will notice whilst exploring Belgrade, is the bombed, ruined buildings still standing in prominent, central locations across the city.
These date from the 1999 NATO bombing campaign which was designed to end the conflict in Kosovo and ultimately topple the Serbian regime at the time.
Why these shells have been left standing is a matter of debate and opinion. Some say they are left as reminders of the pain of war, others as Serb nationalist propaganda or it may just be that the city is too cash-strapped to do anything with them. Either way, they make for a stark reminder of a regrettable piece of Serbia and Belgrade’s modern history. Do not try to go inside them though as they can be very unstable.
Need More Info?
The above guide is intended as a very quick round-up of the (in my opinion) top sites and attractions in Belgrade. However, if you need a bit more inspiration and information then do read on for a list of some of the best bars, clubs, and restaurants I found in Belgrade.
Hotels in Belgrade Serbia
There are now plenty of decent hostels around Belgrade. Many of them are within walking distance of the central bus station although ascending the steep hill may be a struggle with your heavy bags. The most popular hostel in Belgrade is perhaps Balkan Soul which organises acceptable pub crawls.
Most Belgrade hostels charge around $10 per night for a dorm bed. The standard varies considerably. I don’t have any kind of referral scheme with any of them so will simply give you a list so you can search for them yourself on your chosen search engine provider.
Green Studio Lounge, Chill House, Hostel Che, Karavan Inn, El Diablo Hostel Belgrade, New Hostel Belgrade, Manga Hostel , Hostel Bongo, Sun Hostel, Balkan Soul Hostel ,Hostel Goodnight Grooves ,Hostel Play ,White Owl Hostel, City Break, Bed N Beer, Hostel Beogranjika, Hostel Home Sweet Home, Hostel Fair, Downtown Central Hostel, Green Studio, Stella Di Notte, Hedonist Hostel, Hostel Friends.
There are also lots of high spec Air B n B options for rent. You can get a decent room for $25 per night so this is certainly worth considering if you are not travelling alone – if you are alone then you may want a hostel in order to make some friends.
I guess there are also hotels in Belgrade but I never use them. Feel free to fill me in on this.
Couchsurfing is established in Belgrade and may be worth trying. It has not reached the cynical, saturation point of western Europe so you may very well have look finding a host. However, I did try it in other parts of Serbia and failed to get a response from anybody.
As I said earlier, Serbian food is hearty and carnivorous. If you are a Westerner you will find it cheap and be able to eat more or less wherever you please. As well as Serbian food you will find falafel, pizza slices and decent burrito’s which come in useful for vegetarians. Food in Belgrade is not quite as diverse as in other European cities and the vegan/vegetarianism movement is only making slow inroads.
Best Food in Belgrade
Kalemegdanska Terasa – is situated inside the Kalmagedan Fortress and Park and offers local specialists and Serbian food standards. If you are headed up to the Fortress for sunset then this could be a perfect place to get dinner.
Restoran Vodenica – is a floating restaurant. It is one the barge boats docked near the old town and specializes in fish dishes.
Restoran Oliva – Situated in the new town, Oliva was one of the first vegetarian restaurants in the city (if not Serbia) and remains amongst the best vegetarian restaurants in Belgrade.
Dva Jelena – Located in the bohemian Skadarlija on Skadarska street. The name translates as “Two Deer” and the firmly entrenched favorite haunt has been serving the best dishes of Serbian cuisine for almost two centuries now. The place is well renowned for the menus first created in the 1920s by the famous chef Žarko Dačić. Highlights are the meat specialties, such as steak Čika Đura, and the traditional regional dessert tufahija.
The local Serbian beer is called Lav which is cheap and average. Other Balkan beers are also available and equally cheap and well worth sampling. Serbian wine is surprisingly OK and comes in big bottles (look for the ones with images of Medieval Princes on) which means its great value. The local firewater is Raike and will give you a blackout and a sore head if not handled responsibly.
KPTM – KPTM is situated right on the edge of town. To get here you need to pass through the cheesy old town and out towards the rail tracks. Because of it’s secluded, run down location, KPTM is able to offer pumping Rave parties most days with no objections. This place is not flashy, not trendy, but is seriously cool.
The Black Turtle II Pub – This is one of Old Belgrade’s best traditional, Serbian styler pubs.
The Splav’s – The Splav’s are the famous, anchored barges floating on the Danube. They form the center of Belgrade’s nightlife especially in the summer months when there are raucous parties 7 nights a week. No two are the same and they cater for all manner of tastes and budgets. My pick is the bohemian Zappa.
There are literally hundreds and hundreds of bars in Belgrade and I cannot list them all – these 3 are simply a taster to get you going.
Getting To and From Belgrade Serbia
Belgrade’s Nicolai Tesla airport is Serbia’s major transport hub and there are regular flights here from all over Europe and the world. However, because Belgrade is yet to emerge as a leading city break destination, you generally cannot find the bargain basement, budget airline flights like you can to other European and Balkan cities. Hopefully, Easy Jet or Ryanair will get on that before too long!
Serbia’s other major cities are Novi Sad and Nis and both can be reached by a 4-hour bus ride from Belgrade central station. Busses are regular, advance booking is not needed and cost under $10. Both are worth visiting. Novi Sad is famed for the annual Exit electronic music festival and Nis has a tower made of human skulls as well as outdoor, summer parties right inside an ancient fortress.
If you want to leave Serbia after you finish in Belgrade, then there are also regular buses to Skopje in Macedonia. The journey takes around 6 hours depending on border checks and costs under $15. Sarajevo in Bosnia is another popular destination after Belgrade and again, the journey takes 6 – 7 hours ((depending on border checks) and costs under $15.
Timisoara in Romania can also be reached either by changing buses at the border or by taking a private shuttle which costs 1o Euro. Be warned, the shuttle is door to door which, whilst convenient, does add significant time onto what should otherwise be a simple, direct 3-hour drive.