The Serbian capital lies atop and around 20 hills, and this strategic position has ensured a long and turbulent past. Founded as a Neolithic settlement 8,000 years ago, it was later used by the Romans as a huge fortress, whose remnants are now the Kalemegdan park. Since then, it has been battered and bombed, leaving its streets a surreal mix of medieval and Ottoman, 18th-century monuments and World War II howitzers.
Let’s not pretend. No one goes to Belgrade for the architecture or fresh air: what makes the city attractive is its relaxed approach to living, the great nightlife and a distinctive character that can only come with longevity. In spite of its history, Belgrade is a contemporary city in spirit, currently undergoing restoration of its former pride. Falling between East and West, it is a place where the Orient and Europe meet.
If New York is ‘the city that never sleeps’, Belgrade is a rough ’n’ tumble, low-budget version. Cosy coffee shops, bars and clubs are places you go to throughout the week; they’re not saved for weekends. Nightlife starts late – never before 10pm – and goes on well into the next morning.
The Belgrade spirit, a sort of general openness to the world, mostly evolved in traditional restaurants (kafanas) with excellent traditional cuisine. Cigarettes and coffee are both consumed with a clear conscience, because what’s the point in life if you deny yourself small pleasures? The food is a far cry from the low-fat, sugar-free menus of the rest of the world. The 19th-century kafanas of Skadarlija Street in the Bohemian Quarter serve traditional meat dishes, grilled lamb and beef goulash. There’s no improvisation here: Serbian cuisine is straightforward, natural and tasty.
Most cities faced with Belgrade’s gruelling past, both recent and historic, would crumble and fall into oblivion. But this capital is made of sterner stuff. It stands true, like an old lady who – in spite of her age – still looks amazing. Looking to the future, Belgrade will be the place in Europe. Not because it is full of beautiful women (while average monthly income equates to about Dhs1,400, many women spend twice that amount on their appearance).
Not because you can become a billionaire for as little as Dhs5 (the hyperinflation of the 1990s has left behind old bank notes for 500 billion dinars, now sold as memorabilia). No, it’s because Belgrade is a living, breathing jigsaw of Oriental kitsch, second-hand Europe, socialist realism and occasional contemporary pearls.
Austrian Airlines flies from Dubai to Belgrade daily, via Vienna. Return fares start from Dhs3,000 (including tax)
Where to stay
Life Design Hotel (+381 11 35 34 300, www.lifedesignhotel.rs/eng)
Where is it?
On the Balkan peninsula in south-eastern Europe, at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers.
Moderate continental. A south-eastern and eastern wind called ‘košava’ brings fair and dry weather in autumn and winter.
More than 80 per cent of residents are Serbian. The rest are Bosnian, Hungarian, Roma, Croat, Albanian, Slovak, Vlach, Romanian and Bulgarian.
Church of St Sava; the Kalemegdan Citadel; the ruins of NATO bombing; the grand House of Flowers, Tito’s mausoleum.
Little Ruzica church, which is cut into a steep hillside; late-night clubbing – don’t even bother to head out until 10pm.
Where’s the buzz?
During the day, ‘Circle of Two’ (the inner part of the city centre); at night, on river barges on the New Belgrade side of both rivers.
World’s largest Christian Orthodox Church
Cathedral of St Sava.
Singidun, meaning ‘white city’.
Kneza Mihaila, now one of the city’s main shopping streets.
NATO bombing campaign during the Kosovo War
March 24 to June 11 1999. Almost 1,000 aircraft were involved, resulting in approximately 500 civilian deaths. The objective was to force Yugoslav troops to withdraw from Kosovo, and led to the fall of Slobodan Miloševic´.
Red Star Belgrade have been both World and European club champions, winning the European Cup and Intercontinental Cup in 1991, as well as the Mitropa Cup in 1958 and 1968.
Novak Djokovic´ was victorious in the Australian Open in 2008, the same year Ana Ivanovic´ won the French Open. Jelena Jankovic´ was ranked world number 1 in 2008/9.
Pljescavica, the grilled meat skewers served from street stalls.
Most memorable graffiti
‘If you’re lost in Belgrade, don’t despair. You’re still in Belgrade.’
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Quality of life