Bucket List Worthy
Countless cities have been been crowned belle of the European ball, from perennial hipster fave Berlin, to recent critical darlings like Lisbon and Budapest, to the French city of Bordeaux, which was Lonely Planet’s #1 choice for 2017. If you want a truly outstanding Europe city break, however, you need to get away from this hype.
And ahead of it: Belgrade is shaping up to be the continent’s next must-visit city. An eclectic metropolis that’s equal parts grit and glitter, whose history is as complicated as its culture and cuisine are easy to access, Serbia’s capital should be at the top of your list—here’s why.
It’s the Balkans’ One-Stop Shop
Most Balkan countries have within their borders diverse architecture, emerging foodie scenes, breathtaking natural sights and cultural testaments to the region’s fractured history. Belgrade has all these things within its city limits.
Looking down Belgrade’s main Terazije Avenue from Republic Square, for example, draws your eye to the Temple of St. Sava, the largest orthodox church in the world. Walking toward the cathedral reveals a cityscape that undulates between Soviet, neoclassical and ultra-modern, punctuated by green spaces like Tasjadman Park and must-visit museums like the one dedicated to Serbia’s most famous native son, Nikola Tesla.
To the north is Kalemegdan, a fortress erected in the mid-19th century to celebrate the expulsion of the Turks from Serbia. Here you not only enjoy history, but a stunning view of Belgrade’s defining geographic feature, the confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers. With more than 3,000 trees covering its 53-hectare footprint, Kalemegdan feels like an escape from the city, although it’s in the heart of it.
You Won’t Believe How Cheap It Is
As you look down into the waters of the Sava from the fortress walls, you’ll notice a long line of boats in the river: These are Belgrade’s nightclubs, which are at the heart of the city’s reputation as a nightlife hub. Across the river, in old-world Zemun, you’ll find a café culture to compete with anywhere in Western Europe, and some of Serbia’s top-rated restaurants. TIP: Enjoy a hearty seafood dinner waterside at Saran.
Dining on the water and clubbing in houseboats might sound extravagant, but it’s not expensive in Belgrade. In fact, it’s easy to find full Serbian meals with wine, starters and desserts for under 20 CAD per person, while beer and local spirits under 100 Serbian dinars (an amount worth little more than a loonie) are as common as Orthodox crosses and local people eager to practice their English with you.
The cheap trend also extends to Belgrade’s accommodation, which tends to skew heavily toward apartments. Of course, whether you nab a dorm bed at City Zen Hostel for just 10 CAD, or splurge on a room at the five-star Hotel Moskva (rooms here after often priced under C$200, an unbelievable bargain for Europe), staying the night in Belgrade is as unlikely to break your bank as dining or drinking here.
Or getting around: The vast majority of Belgrade is walkable, and what isn’t is a cheap bus or taxi ride (Uber isn’t here yet) away.
Serbia’s Wine Country is Down the Road
There’s plenty in the heart of Belgrade, whose Serbian name Београд means “White City,” to keep you busy for days. On the other hand, Belgrade offers several enticing day trip options, with two must-dos in particular: The charming old town of Novi Sad, Serbia’s adjacent second city; and the wineries of Sremski Karlovci.
Traveling by bus or train to Novi Sad deposits you in the Communist-chic “new” city, but it’s just 20 minutes by foot to the historical core, which sits along a bend in the Danube. Crossing the river takes you to even more picturesque Petrovaradin, whose fortress not only provides a stunning panorama of Novi Sad, but is home to half a dozen incredible restaurants.
Further downstream, Sremski Karlovci is impressive in its own right, particularly the 360º view you enjoy from the golden cross atop Vidikovac Hill. It’s the wineries just to the east of the town center that are the star here, however. Notable ones include Vinarija Kis and Durka Winery, but the area you find them in is compact, so follow your curiosity. Fun fact: Bermet, Serbia’s most famous dessert wine, was a favorite of European royal courts, most notably the Habsburgs of Austria.
To Say Nothing of the Rest of the Balkans
Although Serbia maintains shaky relations with Bosnia and Kosovo, whose sovereignty it doesn’t officially recognize, Belgrade’s central location makes it a great place to start or end a trip through the Balkans, or to base yourself as you explore outward. Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport enjoys nonstop air service to every Balkan capital, while long-distance buses operate to every bordering country, including Kosovo.
Not that you’ll want to leave—Belgrade, in spite of how rough it may look at first impression, is one of the most cozy, comfortable cities in Europe. Coupled with its uncompromising coolness and its incredible cheapness, it’s not surprising to imagine as one of the continent’s future tourism hubs, even if visiting now allows you to enjoy the city as the locals do.