Gabriella Le Breton, The Daily Telegraph, October 07, 2013
The fortress behind me forms the ancient core of Belgrade and was alternately ruled and conquered by Celts, Slavs, Romans, Byzantines and the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. The citadel, now a peaceful spot for picnics and strolls, has been a boundary between the West and the Orient for millennia.
Today, Belgrade incorporates the Old Town, south of the citadel, and the New Town on the opposite bank of the Sava. The city is a mix of languages, cultures, peoples and history, the threads of which are most apparent in its architecture. Walking through Kalemegdan Park from the Fortress, I reach the pedestrianised shopping promenade Knez Mihailova. Here, beneath the city library, lie the remains of a Roman fortress.
Walking along Knez Mihailova, neoclassical Austro-Hungarian mansions rub shoulders with academic-style villas, while ornate Renaissance beauties pose opposite brutal Soviet-style offices. Side streets offer glimpses of Bajrakli Mosque, the sole survivor of the 273 mosques built under the Ottomans.
Continuing through the Old Town, I reach Trg Republike (Republic Square), once the starting point of a Roman road to Constantinople and now flanked by the neoclassical National Theatre and National Museum (closed since 2002). From here, various sights beckon: the neo-Byzantine Temple of Saint Sava, an ongoing construction project started in 1936; the remains of the police and army headquarters bombed by Nato in 1999; and Kuca Cveca (House of Flowers), the mausoleum of Marshal Tito.
Belgrade from the Danube
Perhaps as a response to centuries of repression, Belgradians are inherently sociable and their city has become one of Europe’s hottest party destinations. Live music, dancing and consumption of rakija (fruit brandy) are standard in the kafanas (taverns) that line the cobbled streets of Skadarlija, the haunt of the city’s artists, authors and journalists, and in th bars of Strahinjica Bana in Upper Dorcol.
Come summer, Belgrade really comes alive, particularly along the shores of the Danube and Sava. Former warehouses and splavovi (barges) have been converted into slick restaurants, bars and clubs, and Ada Ciganlija, a former island in the Sava, becomes has been developed into a recreational area with beaches, sports facilities, cafés and bars. Locals and tourists alike pour on to Ada on balmy evenings and at weekends for waterskiing, picnics, concerts and festivals, with the world’s largest single pylon suspension bridge, Ada Bridge, as a backdrop.
Did you know?
Belgrade lays claim to over 125 miles of river bank and 16 islands.
Fly from Heathrow to Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla airport with JAT Airways (020 7629 2007; jatlondon.com) or from Luton with Wizz Air (0906 959 0002; wizzair.com ). Taxis between the airport and Belgrade city centre should cost no more than £13.]
Regent Holidays (020 7666 1244; regent-holidays.co.uk ) has specialised in bespoke holidays to the Balkans since the Seventies. It offers a three-night break to Belgrade from £375 per person, including return flight, transfers, b & b based on two sharing in the three-star Le Petit Piaf, and a half-day guided tour.
Where to stay
Le Petit Piaf £
This freshly renovated 18-room hotel is situated in the bohemian Skadarlija quarter and offers discounted weekend rates. Duplex suites are available for just £15 extra per night (00381 11 3035 252; petitpiaf.com ; doubles from £66, including breakfast).
Crystal Hotel ££
Smart, discreet four-star property located near the St Sava Church. Popular with business travellers. Rooms are spacious and well-appointed and staff are friendly and welcoming (715 1000; crystalhotel-belgrade.rs ; doubles from £100, including breakfast).
Square Nine £££
The chicest of Belgrade’s handful of five-star hotels, the 45-room Square Nine is located on Student Square and has a slick yet unpretentious decor, with many rooms, right, boasting large balconies. Two former Claridge’s chefs run the kitchen and there’s a pool and spa (3333 500; squarenine.rs ; doubles from £177, including breakfast).
Where to eat
Kafana “?” £
Dating back to 1823, Belgrade’s oldest kafana was “named” when orthodox priests from the neighbouring Saborna church refused to countenance the original owner naming it “By the Saborna Church’’ in the 1890s. In protest, he called it “?”, which has stuck ever since. Today, it remains a simple yet atmospheric establishment (Kralja Petra 6; 635 421).
Richly atmospheric, a 30-year-old Belgrade favourite, set in gardens designed to resemble a small Serbian village. Extensive menu with many local dishes (Bulevar Oslobodenja 18A; 2641 944; frans.rs ).
Kalemegdanska Terasa £££
The restaurant with the best views in Belgrade, located in Kalemegdanska park next to the fortress and above the zoo. Serves excellent food, ranging from fresh seafood and hearty traditional Serbian favourites to pastas and salads (Mali Kalemegdan bb; 328 3011; kalemegdanskaterasa.com ).
The inside track
Tucked in the basement of the Belgrade City Library are the preserved remains of a Roman fortress, unearthed during renovation works. The small Roman Hall is now used for readings, musical recitals and other cultural events ( bgb.rs ).
For a taste of traditional Belgrade life, enjoy a “Serbian fry-up” – cheese burek – washed down with yogurt at the tiny Spasovic café on Skadarska street in Skadarlija.
Get the most out of your visit to Belgrade and book a half or full-day tour with Srdjan Ristic, founder of Explore Belgrade! (64153 1524; explore-belgrade.com ). Born and raised in Belgrade, Srdjan boasts fluent English, encyclopedic knowledge of his country and city’s history, and endless enthusiasm.
Sample a glass of Serbian wine on the roof terrace of the sleek wine shop and bar Podrum WineArt (Visn¡jiceva 7; 2625 237).
At some point during your visit to Belgrade, you will be scammed by a taxi driver. Minimise your chances of this occurring by taking official taxis (marked by the letters TX at the end of the number plate), checking the vehicle has a functioning meter, and, where possible, negotiating a price before getting in.