I arrived in a sleepy city and it felt like there were as many bleary eyed passengers as there were airport staffers and taxi drivers out there taking a yawn the moment I landed. The airport was relatively empty and was without the hustle and bustle of other mega airports which I have been in. It was nice. Crowds get me on my nerves in the mornings and I do like to slowly wander around the terminal not having to worry about long maddening queues and irritable customs officers.
There was no one at the tourist information desk and no map available so I sauntered off to pick up my bags and to bus into the city. Thankfully I had done enough research to know that bus A1 goes from the airport into the city. I had planned to reach the city by 9 to pick up my train ticket to Bar (Montenegro) the same night. I hopped onto the bus right by the arrival exit, paid 500 RSD and was ready to be off. Everything went very smoothly and the tiny bus set off after 15 minutes with us packed like sardines and in half an hour, I alighted right infront of the bright yellow train station.
There was a slight breeze, heavy clouds and people were still bleary eyed. I left my bags at the train station (left luggage costs 110 RSD for 24 hours) after collecting my tickets and asked for directions to Republic Square which was a 20 minute (uphill) walk away.
After a quick breakfast, I sat by the Statue of Prince Michael in the corner of Republic Square waiting for the free Belgrade Walking Tour to start. I’ve always liked free walking tours. Most of them are pretty good because you get to learn about a new city from a usually very enthusiastic person who usually loves it. There were a few companies to choose from and I finally settled on one of the free walking tours after some research.
The tour did not disappoint. It was informative, the guide was very engaging and I had an amazing 3 hours exploring the city with the guide Zeljko(Jacob). As we wandered around from Republic Square to Skadarlijia, Silicon Valley, Kalemegdan Park, the Fortress and ended off near Knez Mihailova Street. We were given a pretty condensed history lesson on Serbia’s past from the Ottoman / Habsburg rule in the 16th Century to the Revolution and then finally the more recent wars. We covered a ridiculous amount of content in 3 hours and history aside, Zeljko talked about architecture, influences, food, drinks, geography, language and even linguistics.
The highlight for me was how this guy whipped up a bottle of home-made honey flavoured rakija halfway through the tour in the Bohemian district of Skadarlijia for all of us to taste. Never have I been on a free walking tour where I was given free souvenirs (maps, postcards, specimen yugoslav notes and alcohol) and an amazing narrative of the city. My legs did not feel tired one bit and I was sad when it finally ended at 2pm.
After stopping by the national bank to get a bank note printed with my face on it (Zeljko let us in on this little secret not many knew about!), I had a little brisk walk back to Republic Square for another walking tour with a different company. Perhaps I was finally getting tired, perhaps the 35°C was starting to get to me (or perhaps I have been spoilt rotten by Zelkjo on the previous tour). I found myself unable to absorb as much detail as I did on my first tour and in between, I started spacing out. That said the second tour was a paid one and it covered content and places not included in the first. With the second tour, the group covered places such as an underground well, underground bunkers, a man-made cavern housing sarcophagi and an underground wine bar/pub.
The places were interesting but I felt that it could have been better if the guide had been more enthusiastic and informative. He could have used these places to tell more amazing stories and to engage us if he wanted but it felt as if he was feeling the heat as much as us and that he would much rather sit in some cafe having an iced coffee. That said, we walked around and covered a similar route to the first tour I had just, this time, entry included parts of underground Belgrade which was pretty interesting.
After having a few glasses with the group, I rushed off for dinner at one of the traditional restaurants in the Bohemian district of Skadarlijia and was blown away by tastiness and the amount of meat on the mixed grill for one at approximately 10 Euros.
Traditional Mixed Grill for one!
I had a quick walk back to the train station for my journey to Bar and quickly popped by a supermarket for some supplies (I have heard sooo much about the lack of food, the delays and the general lack of comfort on these old trains) before boarding the train in time at 8 pm.
If only I had more time in this amazing city. There were so many other attractions I had penciled in but had completely no time to cover. I was however glad that I managed to see the more important bits and to learn so much in my 12 hours there. I will be coming back in the next two years and am looking forward to covering the other Balkan states.
10 tips for an amazing time in Belgrade!
1. Get hold of the local currency before arriving!
Many Kafanas (local bistros/pubs/bars), institutions and shops do not accept the Euro. If they do, it is likely that you will be given change in the local currency. Also, it can be difficult to find a money changer in the city. I remember seeing one in the airport and another in the train station. Alternatively, you can always try changing some money at a hotel.
2. Bus / Walk around – Taxis rip you off!
Getting around Belgrade is easy. The bus / trolleybus network is pretty extensive and it is cheap (150 Dinars – 210 Dinars). If you are staying in the central area, most of the main attractions will be within walking distance and there will be no need for buses, trams or trolleybuses. If you are out at night, there are also night buses running till 3 in the morning and most bus stops have a map with details in Serbian and English. For details of Bus Route, check out this link HERE.
Try to avoid taking a taxi as much as possible. It is overpriced for the short distances travelled. I have read so much about the taxi scams and about unlicensed taxi drivers preying on tourists and visitors. If you do have to take a taxi, go with a licenced company such as Beogradski Taxi for your ride (pre-bookings can be made).
3. Go on a free walking tour!
I have gone on and on about the two walking tours earlier in my post and shall not elaborate any further. Do drop me an email or a comment if you would like the contact or if you would like to know which company Zeljko is in and I would be more than happy to link you up with the right walking tour!
4. Map out the attractions you would like to see in the city!
There is so much not covered in the walking tours and these include attractions such as the Church of St. Sava, St. Pekta’s Chapel, Crkva Svetog Marka, Tower of Sibinjanin Janko, the Nikola Tesla Museum, Museum of Yugoslav History, Bajrakli Mosque, Avala Mountain, Avala Tower. I would suggest doing a free city tour and thereafter, visiting the other attractions in the city.
5. Go on other tours (if you would like to find out more)!
There are many other tours offered in the city by various companies and these tours include tours around Zemun (old town), tours around underground Belgrade, communism tours, historical tours, tours of mysterious belgrade, alternative tours and pub crawl tours. Belgrade has so much to offer and these tours are but the tip of an iceberg.
6. Hang out in Kalemegdan Park and the Fortress!
Kalemegdan Park and the Fortress is a 15 – 20 minute walk from Republic Square. It is the largest park in Belgrade and possibly the nicest. Located on a cliff overlooking the River Sava and the Danube, it is also the spot where the two converge and is the perfect place for a nice stroll with a view and a picnic. Kalemegdan Park has so much history simply for its geography.
The fortress used to be the core of Belgrade and its historical time stamp goes all the way back to the 3rd century. It is said that he who controls the fortress, controls the land before it and because the vast Pannonian plains lie beyond the fortress, Belgrade has had its fair share of different masters – the byzantines, romans, slavs, hungarians, turks, ottomans just to name a few. Walking around the fortress, one will see the imprints of the different masters through the various architecture and builds of the fortress.
7. Have a meal in Skadarlijia!
Skadarlijia can be found in Stari Grad (old town) and is known to be the bohemian district of Belgrade. Historically, it used to be the area where gypsies used to hang until the 19th century wave of artists set up base in Skadarlijia. There is an old brewery towards the end of this bohemian street that used to brew its beers from the spring water coming from its backyard.
Skadarlijia has since evolved into a tourist attraction with numerous traditional restaurants, kafanas, a hotel, art galleries, antique and souvenir shops. It is still a really nice laid back area to be in and I truly enjoyed my short time spent there!
8. Drink with the locals in a Kafana!
On my tour, emphasis was given by Zelkjo on the importance of a Kafana in the local serbian culture. It is the place to eat, to drink, to dance, to have too much Rakija and have a merry good time. Kafanas are essentially THE place to gather, socialise, to bounce ideas off each other and perhaps to plan assassinations (such as the one of the infamous austrian archduke).
Kafanas remind me of ther serbian equivalent of english pubs where one can sit for hours ordering food and pint after pint. Its good fun with loads of character although, probably not as popular as actual clubs these days.
9. Go out and have fun at night!
I have heard so many before me say that the fun in Belgrade only begins at night! I only wish I had enough time to see this for myself. But judging from the locals I have met, I believe wholeheartedly that the locals there love a good night out and that they truly know how to have fun. I was told by the locals that apart from clubs such as Mr Stefan Brown, Vanilla or the Tube which are all pretty amazing, the clubs to be are in those floating river clubs along the Sava and Danube.
10. Meet the locals!
They are an amazing, fun loving, friendly and passionate bunch. I have not encountered a nasty, mean spirited serbian who was grumpy, unfriendly and unhappy. Everyone seemed so happy to see everyone and the obvious guides aside, happy friendly serbians included shopkeepers, security guards, old bus drivers, train conductors and random strangers off the street. Most people spoke such fluent english and I did not find it difficult at all to converse with the locals.