During the 1990’s horrible things transpired in the former nation of Yugoslavia, bringing devastation not seen on European soil in decades. The country experienced civil war as old rivalries over land and religion stirred ethnic violence. The end result was a bombing campaign by the USA and its allies on the former Yugoslavian capital of Belgrade, which became the capital of Serbia after the country broke apart into several new nations.
Bell and I had rented an apartment in Zagreb, Croatia for 3 weeks two summers ago and I decided to take a two day trip to be an American in Belgrade and get a small taste of Serbia. The train ticket was cheap enough, only the equivalent of €40 ($50 US) roundtrip for two 7 hour legs. The train wasn’t the most comfortable ride in the world, but if it’s comfort over adventure you seek, go to the beach.
Upon the train’s initial arrival into Belgrade, I was taken aback by Novi Beograd (New Belgrade). A small cluster of towering grey communist era housing blocks was a spectacle of a greeting. As was the small run down train station that featured a broken electronic currency exchange board with rates hand written and taped over the electronic grid. Then there was the awesome souvenir pictured below, not the most welcome of greetings for an American visiting Belgrade alone.
I hadn’t booked a hotel so my first order of business was finding a place to stay on a blisteringly hot July evening. I was able to get a map from tourist information in the train station and set off for the Stari Grad district (“old city”). I checked rates at a few places until I found the reasonably priced Hotel Royal (the Queen of England would not be caught dead here). The lobby looked decent enough but the room was a total dump- small, extremely hot and run down. But for €33 (just over $40) for a private room with shower in one of the best locations in the city, you just don’t get much, even in Serbia.
After changing and checking the bed to be sure there were no bed bugs, I set out to grab a few drinks. I stumbled on a bustling venue with a huge outdoor bar and managed to find an open stool among the crowd. After ordering, the man next to me inquired where I was from- “American!?” he said. “What are you doing in Belgrade?” He immediately offered me a shot and later subsequently told me he was banned from the US for 10 years because he told the US embassy they were terrorists after they continued denying him a tourist visa to visit his sister in Chicago. He also told me that Americans misunderstand Serbia and that it is a safe place. “You can sleep here all night and nobody will bother you” he said, pointing to the concrete in the middle of the city. He also insisted on picking up the check for the beer I ordered, along with the shot he bought me, after I decided to move along to another venue. I quickly discovered that Serbians are both hospitable and very outspoken. Being politically correct or afraid to offend is not in these peoples DNA.
I was struck by how fashionable people strolling along the main shopping promenade of Knez Mihailova were. On average, people were dressed just as well as those in wealthier western European countries, if not even better. It’s a wide pedestrian only shopping street, unlike many of the narrow ones like the Kalverstraat in Amsterdam or Grafton Street in Dublin that are almost always too congested during business hours. A wide variety of luxury and brand name shops line the long avenue, complemented by great architecture. Surprisingly, I think it’s one of the absolute best shopping streets in Europe to stroll down.
Belgrade also offers some great sites to see, like the Kalemegdan fortress and park. This is the oldest part of Belgrade that dates back over 2,000 years. The park is great to stroll around and offers fantastic elevated views of where the Danube and Sava rivers converge. Serbians aim to flex their military muscle by showing off a plethora of old tanks and automatic weapons at the military museum. The large Belgrade zoo is also located within the complex and houses some 250 species of animals, making it one of the largest zoos in Eastern Europe.
And the food is Belgrade can be pretty fantastic, at a great price. A tasty meal in the beautiful restaurant and pub district called Skadarlija is an absolute must on a visit here. I even received a complimentary honey liquor shot after my meal. In just 2 days in Belgrade I received about 5 free drinks, despite being of a nationality that people there hold some hostility towards.
Belgrade was a unique experience and I wished I had a bit more time to explore more of Serbia. Have you been to Serbia or is it on your list of places you would like to visit? If you have an interesting story about travel in Belgrade, share it in the comments below!