Belgrade today is known for nightlife, clubbing and a fun-loving lifestyle, but its past is scarred by war. Over the centuries, it was conquered and demolished dozens of times, standing at the historic crossroads between two mighty empires, Turkish to the east and Austro-Hungarian to the west. Even at the very end of the 20th century, the city was bombed by Nato.
But Belgrade’s citizens like to compare their city to the mythical phoenix bird that always rises from the ashes. Here are five things to see and do — all free — that illustrate the Serbian capital’s poignant history, mix of cultures and contemporary easygoing lifestyle.
Perched on a 125-metre-high cliff, the ancient Kalemegdan Fortress was built to fend off conquerors. Its ridge overlooks the confluence of the Sava River and the Danube, and offers a magnificent view over the new part of town and the plains that lie ahead.
Over the centuries, at least 100 battles have been fought over this site, and parts of it have been erased 44 times. What remains today has been rebuilt many times. The fortification has massive gates and bridges. Kalemegdan hosts a military museum with a collection of tanks, cannons, guns, and other military vehicles.
River banks and Ada Ciganlija
A stroll down the hill from Kalemegdan leads to the rivers. There is a cycling and walking path upstream along the Sava River, which is a wonderful way to explore this side of Belgrade. The path first passes the tourist port — a popular area that is dotted with old warehouses turned into restaurants and cafés.
Under the Branko’s bridge, next on the route is the Sava Mala area, a historic centre turned into a design and nightlife hub. An industrial zone by the Belgrade Fair then leads into Ada Ciganlija, a lake resort that is Belgrade’s favourite relaxation and picnic area. The water in the lake is clean and there is a 7-kilometre route around it, again filled with cafés and restaurants that stay open late into the night in the summer months.
Nato bombing ruins
Going back into the city, Kneza Milosa street, one of the busiest traffic arteries, hosts Serbian government buildings and some embassies. As the capital of the former Yugoslavia during the communist era, Belgrade was the seat of both Serbian and Yugoslav governmental administration. This country broke up in the early 1990s in a series of conflicts largely blamed on the nationalist policies of then-Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic. Serbia became an international pariah and was bombed in 1999 by NATO to stop the war in Kosovo. Ruins of Serbia’s military and police headquarters in central Belgrade are still standing unrepaired. The authorities say there is not enough money to clear them.
Skadarlija is the old Bohemian quarter of Belgrade and dates back to the late 19th and early 20th century. The cobblestone street testifies to the relaxed way of life in Belgrade, largely centred around the famous kafane — local restaurants. Skadarlija’s kafane always have been a meeting place of prominent poets, politicians and sportsmen. The restaurants here offer traditional cuisine, most notably the rostilj — grilled meat — over a rakija — fruit drink — as live bands play traditional songs.
Open green markets
Open green markets are another typical and favourite Belgrade feature. There are several scattered throughout the city, the best known being the Kalenic market in the residential area of Vracar. The time to visit a green market in Belgrade is either Saturday or Sunday, sometime during the morning. This is still Belgraders’ favourite way to shop for fruit, vegetables, eggs and dairy products, despite dozens of cash and carry supermarkets that have sprouted recently.
Usually, families have favourite vendors from whom they buy fresh white cheese and a local specialty, kajmak, a dairy product that resembles cottage cheese and is best eaten spread on a piece of bread. Market vendors will chat with you and let you taste their products.