1. Belgrade’s been around the block
Belgrade is seriously old, and it’s seen a few things. Belgrade is the largest city in Serbia and its capital, but the “white city” has taken many forms since the beginnings of its settlement between 50,000 and 20,000 years ago. Thanks to its strategic location at the confluence of the Saba and Danube rivers, and intersection of Western and Oriental Europe, Belgrade has been fought over in 115 wars and razed to the ground 44 times, including by Attila the Hun, who had his way with the area in A.D. 442. In 1521 Belgrade was conquered by the Ottomans, and there followed a period of tug-of war between the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, who took turns destroying the city, each leaving behind a cosmopolitan legacy. Belgrade was also the capital of Yugoslavia from its inception as a kingdom in 1918, throughout the post World War II socialist era, right up until Serbia was the last man standing in 2006. Serbs are notorious for their nationalism, but many Belgraders still express a ‘yugonostalgic’ longing for the multiculturalism and porous borders of the socialist era, with their shared origins and languages (Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian are more or less reciprocal, although Serbian is the only one to use the Cyrillic alphabet).
Belgrade by night. Photo: Tina Djuric
2. It has a split personality
Bisected by the Sava river, Belgrade is a town of two halves: the old and the new. New Belgrade was constructed during the socialist era and the grid of blocks retains its Soviet feel. It’s definitely worth exploring the area to get a feel for this important part of the region’s history, but most of the action is confined to the ‘old’ side. Different again, on the same side of the Sava as New Belgrade is Zemun, which used to be a separate city to Belgrade—a fact its residents will not let you forget. While Belgrade proper was under Ottoman rule, Zemun was an Austro-Hungarian outpost. Nowadays Zemun is officially part of the city of Belgrade, but climbing to the top of Gardos hill or a seafood lunch at a kafana along the banks of the Danube still feels like a mini-break from the main metropolis.
The Danube all the way from Gardos to Dorcol. Photo: Ivan Aleksic
3. Don’t mention the war
Be conscious that most people you will talk to in Belgrade have lived through the trauma of the Yugoslav wars, which lasted for a decade until 2001, ending the pan-Slavic experiment. The violence perpetrated by Serbian forces led the fledgling post-socialist republic to be ostracised from the international community for several years, while internally they struggled under the corruption and repression of the Milosevic era. A quick walk down Nemanjina Street and you’ll quickly realize why Belgrade’s recent history remains so present in people’s minds—the enormous destruction of the Yugoslav Ministry of Defence buildings, bombed during the NATO attack in 1999, dominates the streetscape.