UK / Europe

Belgrade: Barhopping and bandits

A city of ancient fortresses, bombed out buildings and graffiti art, Belgrade is a patchwork of different moments in its conflict-ridden history

Amy Hughes

The best-kept secret about Belgrade is its most famous, but little known son, Nikola Tesla – yes, that Tesla. The car was named after the inventor whose discoveries have been life changing, like the induction motor, licensed by Westinghouse, and his alternating current (AC) electric power system. He and Edison were rivals. So, the first stop in Serbia’s capitol city should be the Tesla Museum, where there are electrical demonstrations of Tesla’s disruptive technology, including a towering Tesla coil and radio-controlled boat. Tours run every hour.

History and military buffs are well looked after with a fortress in town, dating back to 3BC and a neighboring museum. Views overlook the Sava and Danube rivers. Locals like to compare the Cathedral of Saint Sava to Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. It’s a bit of a stretch, certainly in scale, but Belgrade’s cathedral was constructed in the 1930s, and work has been ongoing, intermittently ever since. Serbia’s conflict-ridden history hasn’t helped, but it doesn’t detract from the spectacular domes and white marble exterior.

Still standing: Kalemegdan fortress
Still standing: Kalemegdan fortress

There’s lots to absorb just wandering the streets of the city … a landscape of bombed out buildings, some just hollow shells, awaiting makeovers as part of a façade renovation project due to start this year.

And then there’s the graffiti art. Yes, it’s considered art, legitimately. Some of Belgrade’s graffiti artists have gone to backed by international art dealers. For me, the most interesting one seemed to be a metaphor. I stopped to ask two suited locals for directions. They were friendly and hospitable, and showed me the way. As we walked down to the waterfront, they spoke of a well-known apartment building in Belgrade that’s a metaphor for what’s holding Serbia back. During the economic downturn, the building work had already begun, they explained. In most places, the building work was abandoned to spend money on necessities, at least temporarily. Here, they said, local politicians pushed the project forward, and bought apartments for themselves in the prime real estate for a song, constructed by laborers forced to accept low wages because there were no other jobs.

The politicians, I’m told, still own the flats. And, as I walked past one of the many walls painted with thought-provoking art, one of them illustrated a man with a suit and necktie, and a disproportionately large head. His mouth, wide open, had tall, narrow apartment buildings for teeth. Just down the road, I passed a toyshop with Monopoly in the window. It was a Serbian version, named KAPITAL, which seemed fitting.

Endlessly fascinating: the streets of Belgrade
Endless wonders: the streets of Belgrade

Unless you’re looking for heavy platters of pork, prepared six different ways, none of them healthy, steer clear of the traditional and tourist restaurants. There are a handful of “new cuisine” places embracing international food concepts, some using foie gras and truffle oil liberally (no complaints). Homa is one of these places. The all-white restaurant feels as though it could be in any major city, yet you’ll pay less than $50 for a tasting menu.

The bargain prices aren’t limited to Homa. Everything, it seems, is inexpensive here, making the other restaurants in Homa’s space well worth trying. The European press have been hyping Belgrade’s bar scene – making it out to be the new Ibiza – minus the sun and the sand. Belgrade is land-locked. Basta, in the city’s creative neighborhood, Savamala, is a good choice for its live jazz. There are also party boats on the Sava River, with DJs spinning Serbian and pop music.

The city is perfect for a weekend. It’s easy to get around on foot, and taxis are cheap. You can live like a prince, on a pauper’s budget. There isn’t much to buy in the way of take-homes, which makes it all the better. I’ve never bought so little, and come home with so much room in my suitcase.

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