Maybe you’ve checked off the obvious European capitals. If this is your umpteenth time abroad and you’re craving something new—something with a cosmopolitan pulse, where your limited language skills are no barrier, and your friends are soon to follow (on your glowing recommendation, of course)—go to Belgrade.
Like Hungary to the north, Serbia is a link between two worlds. It has the grit—and graffiti—you might expect from eastern Europe, but the bustle advancements of the west. (Nikola Tesla’s legacy is a strong one, as Serbia is one of Europe’s technological hubs. It’s no athletic slouch, either: Serbia took silver in the Rio Olympics in men’s basketball, and tennis pro Novak Doković is also from Belgrade.) I digress: Serbia has been a middle ground through recorded history, sandwiched between the Byzantine and Roman empires, and again between the Ottomans and Christians. Then, after Yugoslavia’s dissolve in the early 90s, Serbian borders enclosed numerous ethnic groups, mainly Croats, making modern-day Serbia a melting pot of cultures and beliefs.
It’s been an independent nation since 2006, and the Serbian capital, Belgrade—once the capital of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia—is home to 1.6 million and counting. You can’t place Belgrade alongside the behemoths like Paris or London—and that’s a good thing. But you can spend a long weekend in ‘Little Berlin’ (a nickname bestowed upon the city because of its post-war renaissance and notorious nightlife). You’ll experience a kinetic world-class destination that knows how to eat—lord, does it know how to eat—as well as drink and celebrate.
Here’s a taste for what’s in store on your visit.
How to Get to Belgrade
AirSerbia runs direct flights to and from JFK (10 hours flying east), but also has direct flights throughout Europe if you’re planning a multi-country excursion.
Where to Stay in Belgrade
Hotel Metropol Palace
While much of Belgrade falls into one of two categories (brand new/boutique, or old timey/authentic), Metropol Palace lands confidently in the middle. It’s not boutique by any means, but it plays host to a business crowd, while feeling luxurious enough to calm everyone down. It’s part of the Marriott Luxury collection, which should tell you a lot about its stately interiors and excellent standard of service. While you’re there, have a fancy dinner at Forty Four, or enjoy Greek cuisine and a cocktail from their rooftop restaurant, Twenty Two.
One of the newest arrivals to Belgrade, Square Nine is a certain sign the city is ready to compete as a world-class tourist destination. Square Nine is instantly comforting, with wood, bronze, and stone design elements. It puts you square between the city’s commercial heart and Kalemegdan Park, and attracts a young, hip clientele. Besides lunch on the patio, you can dine al fresco at Japanese restaurant Ebisu (with a view), or white-tablecloth style at The Square. Even if you’re staying elsewhere, don’t pass up the chance to see the hotel’s lobby (and grab a drink at the Lobby Bar) or to pass through en route to the rooftop for a cocktail.
What to Do in Belgrade
Kalemegdan Park and Fortress of Belgrade: Kalemegdan lies on a bend of the Danube, at the Sava River confluence. From the waterfront perimeter of the park—a natural fortress itself, some 125 meters above the rivers—you can see panoramic views of New Belgrade, the business district across the river to the east, as well as the backside of the Pobednik statue, which guards the walls and commemorates the Serbs’ victorious efforts in the Balkan War and WWI. You’ll see from here why Belgrade was such valuable real estate on Europe’s largest river; this fortress guarded Belgrade between the 2nd and 18th centuries, for much of which it contained the entire city. Spend a couple hours in the park, meandering the fortress walls, gawking at its cheeky dinosaur statue park, or even the Belgrade Zoo (which is famous for its large pride of white lions).
Church of Saint Sava: The city’s most familiar landmark, this Serbian Orthodox church is built on the grounds where Saint Sava was burned by the Ottomans. Don’t miss the church’s golden, glowing crypt, with murals painted on every ceiling.
Ada Lake: Spend an entire afternoon here, particularly in the warmer months, relaxing by the water with a drink from Smokvica, or passed out under an umbrella. Rent a bike to cruise along the trails, or have a picnic.
Kovilj Monastery: You’ll see a few things on this list that might require a car rental, but you can combine them all into one day. Foremost is this 13th-century Serbian Orthodox monastery, founded by the church’s founder, Saint Sava. The monks make and bottle their own rakia (fruit brandy, a Serbian staple), and, in addition to visiting their jaw-dropping church, you can also catch the monks chanting for a real fly-on-the-wall experience.
Afternoon in Dorćol: Spend a few hours perusing the hipster-populated streets of Dorćol; you can shop for clothes from local designers.
A night in Skadarlija: Restaurant- and bar-lined Skadarlija could entertain all your nights in Belgrade, so don’t leave the city without enjoying the bustle of this boho enclave.
Republic Square: You can orient yourself around this famous square at the center of the city, which is also the site of Serbia’s National Theatre and Museum (an icon of the city’s Art Nouveau architecture, too).
Kneza Milhalia shopping street: While it’s known for being Belgrade’s main commercial thoroughfare, you can also see lots of the city’s most remarkable architecture while cruising Kneza Milhalia.
Nikola Tesla Museum: This is a museum commemorating the life, achievements, and influence of the famous inventor.
Zvonko Bogdan Winery: Schedule an afternoon visit to this vineyard just east of Subotica and just south of the Hungarian border. (And get a bottle of Cuvée No. 1 as a souvenir.)
Day trip to Subotica: If you want to see more than Belgrade on your long weekend, hop in the car and spend the first half of your day in Subotica (stopping at the above vineyard and monastery on the way home). You can also access the city by train from Belgrade. Subotica, just south of the Hungarian border, has about 100,000 people and is known for its Art Nouveau buildings (seriously, check out the Art Nouveau McDonald’s…). Peruse the hand-painted walls of town hall and the city synagogue. It’s almost otherworldly.
Hit the clubs: We’re not about to tell you what’s currently cool, or what type of crowd goes where. Ask around for the best clubs in town, which change by the season. You should inquire about dress codes, too, just to be ready. Perhaps you’ll party on the Sava riverside, on a boat, or at a VIP table.
Where to Eat and Drink in Belgrade
Mala Fabrika Ukusa: This is a proper taste of Serbian food, in all its hearty, colorful glory. You’ll eat until your seams burst…whether that’s the plan or not.
Restoran Kafanica: If you don’t mind the one or two chickens pecking their way around the restaurant, this is one of the few remaining classic Serbian spots, teeming with provincial splendor. (Oh, and if the chickens make Restoran Kafanica sound unrefined, it’s far from it.) This is perfect for an authentic (and romantic) dinner.
Mali Vrabac: This is a reliable pick along the boisterous Skadarlija thoroughfare. Try to get outside, so you can watch passersby and hear the musicians that make their way up and down the road—though you’re just as likely to get a serenade indoors.
Holesterol: Meat, meat, and more meat. This spot in hipster Dorćol lays its menu out according to the good cholesterols and the bad—with no prejudice for the one you pick. Come for a merry lunch or dinner.
Ebisu at Square Nine: A new staple in Belgrade, this Japanese restaurant at Square Nine has a terrace overlooking the park, and some of the most buzzed about plates in town. (Get the negroni.)
Autsajder Bar: Pick your poison: rakia, craft beer, cocktails, whatever. And find a dancing partner at Autsajder.
Cantina del Vino: Enjoy Cantina’s French wine selection—or sample their huge offering of Serbian wines, available as tastings.
District Bar: Make your way here for a hipster nightcap after dinner in Skadarlija. It’s tucked in a nook amongst a bunch of other bars, all blending locals with visitors.