Belgrade is gritty and raw; a real city. After bouncing through fairytale Slovenia and down the stunning coastline of Croatia, the city of Belgrade was jarring. A stroll down the length of the main thoroughfare is a feast for the senses: honking horns, thought-provoking architecture and the scent of grilled meat mingled with cigarette smoke wafting through the air. We were in awe of the deeply-rooted traditions and how they meshed with quirky new trends. The history of the city both fascinated and perplexed us.
Belgrade is a city of layers with a timeline that stretches back to 7000 BC. As a highly desirable location at the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers, the land has been conquered and claimed by numerous empires; destroyed and built up again. In the last two centuries, Belgrade has been under Ottoman and Habsburg Rule, then named the capital of Yugoslavia and is currently the capital of Serbia. The buildings that remain are time-stamped by their architecture; ornate facades from the Habsburgs, stark brutalist structures from the communist era and modern glass buildings that have recently been constructed. Many large projects, like St. Sava Church, remain unfinished, while half-demolished buildings bombed by NATO in 1999 remain untouched and crumbling.
We struggled to make sense of the still evolving city, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying. We explored the city streets. We sampled the local cuisine. We journeyed beyond the city limits. Regardless of our inability to connect with the city, we were almost overwhelmed by the number of things to do in Belgrade. For first-timers – or for repeat visitors that didn’t exactly click with the city – we suggest these 8 things to do in Belgrade to get acquainted.
8 Things to Do in Belgrade
Take a Tour
We wanted a local’s perspective. We wanted someone to take us by the hand and say, “This is Belgrade – and this is why we love it.” So, we joined the free city walking tour by Belgrade Walking Tours. The three hour walk through the city, which was highlighted by a local’s interpretation, shed light on a few subjects that we grappled to understand. From the city center, we walked through the Bohemian Quarter then to the Fortress as our guide gave us a basic history lesson peppered with pride and a personal account of the NATO bombardment of Serbia.
Through the same company, we joined two other tours: Underground Belgrade and Zemun. The underground tour was insightful – we wandered through Tito’s bunker, down to a Roman well and into a wine cellar, where we drank local wine and learned traditional Serbian dances. Zemun is a neighborhood across the river that was once a separate city. We joined the free tour hoping to see a drastically different enclave in Belgrade. Unfortunately, our visit was on a chilly, misty day when the town was nearly vacant, so Zemun fell flat for us. Perhaps, on a brighter, busier day it would have been a better experience.
For a quick tour around the city sans-guide, we hopped on Tram 2. The route loops through the city in both directions, passing Kalemegdan, the Old Town and Slavija Square. Tickets can be purchased from the driver for 150 RSD (about $1.35 USD). Or, for free, walk the Tram 2 route.
Eat Grilled Meat
Vegetarians beware: Belgrade is a carnivorous city. From fast food stands to traditional taverns, they crank out copious amounts of grilled meat. We quickly grew fond of the heart-attack platters, not much to the liking of our waistlines. Really, you can’t go wrong when ordering meat in Belgrade, but to aid in the number of choices, here are our recommendations.
Our top-three dishes:
- Pljeskavica – similar to a hamburger and best stuffed with cheese.
- Karadorde Steak – rolled veal (or pork), stuffed with kajmak (cream), then breaded and deep-fried…and delicious.
- Burek – a flaky, meat-filled pastry that is a staple throughout the Balkans. It’s available at every bakery and acceptable to eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner or late-night ‘snack’ (often accompanied by yogurt to aid in digestion).
Our top-three restaurants:
- “?” Tavern (Kralja Petra Street 6) – The oldest tavern in Belgrade, serving traditional cuisine in a historical setting. It’s slightly touristy, but the staff are friendly and the interior is cozy, often with live folk music (and there’s outdoor seating in the summer).
- Cubura (Makenzijeva) – Hidden outside the center, finding Cubura is half the fun (mostly because it is tagged wrong on several sites; click here for the correct location on Google Maps where it is tagged in Cyrillic – Чубура). Tucked into a garden setting east of St. Sava Temple, the grilled meat, which is absent of flavor-enhancers or sauces, is a favorite of locals.
- Leskovacka Pljeskavica (Balkanska 4)– Fast-food, hole-in-the-wall, walk-up joints are a Belgrade specialty and we tried several. However, none compare to the burgers (and service) at Leskovacka Pljeskavica. You need two hands, a big appetite and little more than small change for these hefty burgers to-go.
Visit Serbian Orthodox Churches
There are many religious buildings in Belgrade, but the most impressive – and the most important to the Belgradian people – are the Serbian Orthodox Churches. From historic to unfinished, the churches accept visitors who come to pray and light candles. For those who have never been in a Serbian Orthodox Church, there are a few notable differences from Catholic and other Christian churches.
In Serbian Orthodox Churches there are no chairs or pews, frescoes cover most of the walls and a decorated iconostasis (a screen) separates the nave from the sanctuary. When locals come to pray, they often kiss the door on entry, purchase a bundle of tall, yellow candles and then move from one altar to the next, kissing the picture of the saint they are praying to. The candles are placed and lit in a tray of sand on the upper or lower level – upper if praying for someone still living, lower if praying for someone deceased. We recommend stepping inside these five Belgrade Serbian Orthodox Churches (listed from west to east):
- St. Petka Chapel – The small St. Petka Chapel built in 1937 has an interior completely decorated with tiled mosaics. St. Petka is located next to Ruzica Church in the Lower City of the Belgrade Fortress.
- Ruzica Chruch – Ruzica Church is tucked along the outside of the western wall of the Belgrade Fortress. It was built in the 18th century on the same site as a previous church (which was destroyed by the Turks in 1521). The most unique feature is the two chandeliers that are made from bullet shells.
- St. Michael’s Cathedral – One of the most important Serbian Orthodox Churches in Belgrade, St. Michael’s Cathedral was built in the 19th century and the bell tower can be seen from various points in the city center. The iconostasis glitters with gold and the ornate frescoes painted on the interior walls illustrate stories from the bible.
- St. Mark’s Church – Styled after the Gracanica Monastery in Kosovo, St. Mark’s was built between 1931 and 1940, however, the interior remains incomplete. Completed are the iconostasis, a few mosaics and two small areas featuring tombs.
- St. Sava Temple – Dedicated to St. Sava, the founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church, the massive St. Sava Temple – one of the largest churches in the world – sits above the city on the Vracar plateau…unfinished. Construction was started in 1935, but due to conflicts, construction ceased. Building resumed in 1985 and in 1989 the central dome was completed. The church, mostly a shell due to budget constraints, is still under construction, but open – and can accommodate 10,000 visitors and an additional 800 singers in the choir at one time.
Watch Sunset from Belgrade Fortress
The Belgrade Fortress and adjoining Kalemegdan Park make up the most historic part of Belgrade. The fortress stands atop a cliff looking over the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers. There are recorded mentions of a civilization living within the walls of a fort on the same spot as early as the 3rd century BC. Through the centuries, the fort was expanded and destroyed – and the site of many battles. Today, it’s a recreational space for residents and tourists.
With winding paths, towering monuments and plenty of viewpoints, spending time at the Belgrade Fortress is a leisurely way to idle away an afternoon. It’s also the spot for watching the sunset. There are a few cafes at the fort, but we preferred to bring our own bottle of wine or a few beers and find space along the fortress wall to watch the sun sink into the horizon.
Drink Like A Local
Kafanas (traditional cafes and bars), are abundant in the city – and no better way to try to make sense of Belgrade than to join the locals in one of the smoke-filled rooms. Coffee is always available – and always cheap. We could order a coffee for about $1 USD and sit for hours without anyone bothering us. Beer is also cheap and on every menu. Lav and Jelen are the top mass-producers, but during our time in Belgrade, we sought out craft beer, which was well worth the effort and the upgraded cost! (Read our dedicated Craft Beer post here!). But, for a real taste of Belgrade, try the rakija – even better if it’s homemade. It usually comes in a shot glass, but it’s meant to be sipped (so don’t shoot it!). The potent liquor is strong and gives a good punch to the stomach…kind of like Belgrade itself.
Finding kafanas is easy; they are everywhere. We often just walked until we found one that was crowded or empty or just looked cool – depending on our mood. When looking to imbibe, we veered toward Samo Pivo for craft beer, but found a few hidden gems, like Idiott Bar, when we wanted to try something different.
Party on a Splav
Despite Belgrade’s economic woes and recent conflicts, the city is known for its vibrant nightlife. And, they don’t just party in warehouses and bars, but on splavs, floating river barges permanently tethered to the shore. Each boat features a different style, often with matching dress codes. Many don’t open until late in the night, with some not opening their doors until after midnight.
Since we seldom party to dawn, we thought we might have to take a pass on the splav experience, but not all are nightclubs. One that suited our style was Lemon Chili, a brightly decorated and laid back splav open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. As a bonus, the menu offers a break from the usual beefy options and the cocktails are reasonably priced (two thumbs up for the house specialty, Lemon Chili cocktail).
Go to the Top of Avala Tower
The Avala Tower stands atop Avala Mountain outside of the Belgrade city limits. The current tower, which stands 670-feet-tall, is a replica of the original telecommunications tower built in 1965 that was destroyed in the NATO bombardment. The tower features two viewing platforms – the lower level is indoors with a café and the upper level is open air (but has glass partitions). An elevator whisks visitors to the platforms for 360 degree views of the area. Getting out of the city helped us get a different perspective of Belgrade…and a fresh breath of air (as well as a chance to work off some of our meat intake)!
Getting to the tower in the non-summer season wasn’t as straightforward as we would have hoped. We had to take two buses*, which took us as far as the base of Avala Mountain. With some signs only in Cyrillic, we followed the ones in English – which meant we hiked to the tower along the road (much longer, not as steep of an incline, very few cars), rather than on the more direct walking path. In the summer, a public bus takes visitors from the city up the hill to the base of the tower.
*From the city, take Trolly Bus #41 to Bastovanska (Баштованска). From Bastovanska, take the #401, 403, 405 or 407 bus to the base of Avala Mountain. Consult www.eway.rs for more information – and it’s always a good idea to check with the driver. Tickets need to be purchased for each segment, as the tickets do not include transfers. Single tickets can be purchased direct from the driver for 150 dinar each (be prepared with exact change) or a BusPlus card can be purchased and loaded from almost any newsstand.
Shop at the Green Markets
There are plenty of shopping opportunities in Belgrade – along the main pedestrian street, Knez Mihailova, there are department stores and boutique shops galore. For a real Belgrade shopping experience, however, we headed to the Green Markets. Outdoors and under tents, individual stalls offer everything from fresh produce to deodorant to leather jackets to used TV remotes.
We perused the heaps of colorful vegetables and gaped at the trinkets and relics available for sale. Watching the people was even more intriguing. Men stood around empty market stalls playing chess, women whispered and laughed and salesmen tried to sell us everything from fresh fish to antique cameras.
Our Top Tips for Your Trip to Belgrade, Serbia
Where To Stay
During our visit to Belgrade, we stayed in this awesome Airbnb Apartment. Not already a member of Airbnb? Use this link to create an account and save money on your first stay!) However, for those who prefer staying in traditional accommodations, there are many hotels to choose from in – or close to – the city center. Check out these top-rated hotels (based on guest reviews!) for your upcoming trip:
Or These Hostels:
Before You Go
- Don’t forget to pack a pair of lightweight and comfortable walking shoes. I (Sarah) have traveled with these shoes by Columbia, Skechers and Reef. Kris prefers wearing these shoes by Merrell and Sanuk.
- We’re certain you’ll be snapping tons of photos during your trip. Rather than relying on your mobile phone to capture the sights, upgrade to an actual camera for higher quality photos. We travel with a Canon Rebel (which takes amazing photos, but can be a bit clunky) and a Canon PowerShot ELPH (which takes beautiful pictures, is slim and lightweight – and the new models are wifi enabled so you can share your trip pics to social media in real time!).
- It’s easy to get turned around or lost in any new city! Be sure to have a good city map and/or guidebook prior to arriving.
- We think travel insurance is essential! If you haven’t already obtained travel insurance for your trip, travel protected with World Nomads.
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