After easing ourselves into our journey with a couple of days in Vienna and a slightly underwhelming visit to tourist-packed Budapest, we hopped on a bus followed the Danube down through Southern Hungary into the Serbian capital of Belgrade.
I don’t know too many people who have been to Serbia but the one’s who have been have loved it. I can now see why – Belgrade is amazing. We spent five nights here across two visits and I’d definitely come back again.
Belgrade was such a contrast from Budapest; as soon as we arrived into the town centre we felt a really good vibe from the area and got a warm and friendly welcome from all the locals.
A Rough Start
Our journey in could have been easier though. After a six hour bus ride we arrived in Belgrade in the evening to the realisation that our phone simcard had stopped working (as we were now outside the EU). We just assumed our phones would work so we hadn’t got round to downloading offline maps to find our way around, or looked into where the tram that we needed to catch to our hostel ran from or too. We also hadn’t been to an ATM by this point so didn’t have any Serbian dinars either – not the ideal start!
Thankfully, we soon found a money exchange by the train station and managed to get hold of some dinar’s in exchange from some euro’s that we were still carrying from Vienna. Another thing we neglected to do was to learn any Serbian prior to our visit so it took us a while to explain to people what tram stop we were after, but after half an hour or so we eventually found it.
After another thirty minutes of waiting at the tram stop to no avail I spotted a suspicious looking sign written in Serbian which contained our tram number and today’s date. Knowing how unlucky I usually am in these situations, I knew immediately what it was, but after a quick check with a local who translated it for us, it was confirmed that the only tram that went near to our hostel wasn’t running that weekend for whatever reason. Fantastic.
Our only remaining option was a taxi. I usually try and avoid taxi’s like the plague wherever I go as they are a bunch of robbing bastards, but at least in this case, our driver was a nice guy who called over a few of his mates to help with the translation beforehand so he knew where he was going (as he’d never heard of our hostel).
Whilst he was a lovely chap, our taxi driver obviously still charged us double the going rate for our journey due to a communication error at the start (I thought the journey was on the meter which it wasn’t). However, I didn’t mind this too much as I knew that all taxi drivers are robbing bastards and we weren’t exactly in a position of strength to argue further. Besides, we were arriving at our hostel almost two hours later than I’d told them we were so we were just pretty eager to get to our room and have a shower!
The Best Hostel Ever
Thankfully we checked in without issue and quickly realised that we’d struck gold with our hostel, which is probably the best place I’ve ever stayed.
We were greeted by the owner Dragan, who along with his friend Nikola runs the small ‘El Diablo’ hostel which only has four bedrooms and twenty beds. The place had a real family feel and he made us feel at home right away; with plenty of sass, sarcasm and character he became an immediate friend.
Within an hour we’d freshened up after our long journey and were already chopping and changing our itinerary after a conversation with Dragan, who knows the Balkans well and gave us some good advise on things to do in the region, as well as telling us that Hungarians are moody as fuck (see previous blog). As well as the wonderful hospitality, our room also came with an amazing breakfast for free everyday!
Over the next few weeks I’m really looking forward to learning more about the history of this region and how the make-up of the countries has changed over time, particularly given that some of the changes have happened in my lifetime. For now, however, here are our highlights of Belgrade:
1. Saint Sava Temple
It’s easy to get a bit of ‘church fatigue’ as you go around Eastern Europe and the Balkans, as the area tends to be littered with them. If there’s one to visit though, it is the Temple of Saint Sava, which at 80m is the biggest Orthadox Church in the world.
Whilst the view from the outside is impressive, we were also able to get a peek of the inside; the gold painting on the ceiling here reminded us of the Sistene Chapel in the Vatican City, just with far less tourists!
2. Belgrade Fortress:
Kalmegdan Park is a huge area of greenery at the top of town, where the Danube and Sava rivers intersect. At the top of the Belgrade Fortress are some of the best views of Sunset in Belgrade. We were there on a Sunday evening and got to witness a number of locals chilling out on the walls of the fortress enjoying the last rays of sunshine of the weekend.
We visited the fortress as part of a free walking tour; these are available in most European cities. These tours are ran by local guides and are tips based; we’ve done them everywhere we’ve been to and they’ve proved to be a great way to get our bearings of a new city and also hear a bit about the history of the place from someone who’s been there.
3. National Museum
I’m not a huge museum person but I was seriously impressed with the National Museum. It has recently been reopened and for the bargain price of 300 dinar (A$4), we were able to spend a couple of hours walking around and checking it out.
The downstairs has a huge timeline documenting the times of the Roman Empire with a number of artefacts that are thousands of years old. When you go upstairs, there are a stack of paintings from various era’s, including a Picasso!
4. Food and Drink in the Bohemian Quarter
One of the things that excites me most about this region is the food – we had some cracking meals during our time in Belgrade. One local delicacy is called ‘Cevapi’, which is a delicious selection of minced meat that is either served in a pita bread or on its own with sauces and chips/salad.
Skadarska Street is the ‘Bohemian Quarter’ of town, and contains a number of fine restaurants and bars. I can see this area becoming very touristy as things pick up here over the next few years but whilst we were there things were just perfect. On our first night we went straight to one of the fine dining restaurants on the street and got stuck into the local food and drink, whilst the band in the background took it in turns to sing and play for each table!
Belgrade is well known for it’s nightlife, particularly on weekends and there is a range of bars and pubs around that suit every taste. Over the course of our visit we did a little bar crawl of a number of pubs that are located next to each-other in a car park in the Bohemian quarter. On another night we also got a chance to sample some local cocktails and also some ‘Rakia’ a local delicacy which is about 40% alcohol – pretty lethal stuff!
5. Buildings & Street Art
An advantage of most of the old towns in Eastern Europe is that you can walk around on foot and get a good feel of the place as everything tends to be fairly central. Belgrade was no exception; there were loads of cool buildings and street art to be seen and also a lot of buildings damaged in the war which are still visible. The building below was damaged as a result of a NATO bombing in 1999 in relation to the Kosovan war.
Whilst we initially intended to go straight to Sarajevo from Belgrade, after speaking to our hostel hosts we have changed our plans and booked a hire car to explore the wineries and monasteries of Novi Sad and the north.
That is more than fine by me – Serbia is already high on the list of my favourite countries so I’m more than happy to spend a bit more time here!