Belgrade, home to an ancient fortress held successively by the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires, Communist-era architecture and a vibrant nightlife of modern floating nightclubs on the Danube and Sava rivers.
Belgrade is the capital of Serbia and formerly of Yugoslavia. Called the White City, its foundation date back to the 4th century BC with Roman foundations under Belgrade Fortress in Kalemegdan Park. Belgrade, at the crossroads of East and West, has been of strategic importance to several empires – Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, Austrian & Serbian empires.
Belgrade’s tourism has rebounded in the last 10 years post the wars of the breakup of Yugoslavia and is now known for a vibrant night life. The city has grown in the last 100 years from 89,000 to 1.7 million. The rapid growth can be seen in this sprawling city with architectural sites including the Cathedral of Saint Sava (Serbia’s largest Orthodox structure), the 19th century Belgrade Cathedral and at several museums including the Nikola Tesla Museum.
Top 10 Things to Do in Belgrade
Belgrade sightseeing should start where every story, tale and myth about Belgrade begins – the Fortress. The name Belgrade (or Beograd in Serbian), means a “white town” or a “white fortress” and was first noted in the 8th century. Belgrade Fortress is located on top of a 375 foot ridge at the confluence of two European rivers – the Sava and the Danube.
For centuries the city population was concentrated only within the walls of the fortress, and thus the history of the fortress, until most recent times, equals the history of Belgrade itself going back to the 3rd century BC. The fort was invaded more than 100 times with inhabitants through the centuries including Thracian & Dacian tribes, Celtic Scordisci tribe, Romans, Goths, Huns, Byzantine empire, Bulgarian, Hungarians, Ottomans, Turks, Austrian-Hungarian, Serbian occupation. The fort suffered damage up through World War I and II.
Today, Belgrade Fortress is the largest free attraction of the city with its gates open 24/7, all year round. Walking through the ruins, you will hear the tales of the battles and the legend that Attila the Huns grave lies under the fortress.
Belgrade Fortress overlooks the Save and Danube rivers and is surrounded by battlegrounds that has now been converted to Kalemedgan Park. Kalemedgan derives from two Turkish words kale (fortress) and meydan (battlefield) (literally, “battlefield fortress”). The park is made for strolling and to enjoy the views.
The Pobednik “The Victor” monument was built in 1928 to commemorate Serbia’s victory over Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empire during the Balkan Wars and the First World War. The sculptor, Ivan Meštrović, created a standing bronze male figure with an eagle in the right hand and a sword in the left on a pedestal in the form of a Doric column. The statue looks forward across the confluence of the Sava and the Danube.
Branko’s Bridge connects Old and New Belgrade and was built on the place of former King Aleksandar I Bridge, which was destroyed in the beginning of the WWII to prevent the Nazi German army from entering Belgrade. Although its original name is Bridge of Brotherhood and Unity, Belgradians call it Branko’s Bridge since the street named after Serbian poet Branko Radičević leads towards the bridge. The park also overlooks the New Belgrade bank of the Danube, which is very popular because of number of restaurants, cafes and floating nightclubs called “splavovi”. The spot to be on hot summer nights, floats are open until early morning hours and many people often “greet” dawn while parting.
Saint Sava Temple, the largest Orthodox temple in the Balkans, can seat more that 10,000 people at one time. The church is built on the place where Turks burned the remains of Saint Sava. Saint Sava, born as Rastko Nemanjić, was son of Serbian ruler Stefan Nemanja and founder of Hilandar Monastery on Athos Mountain. In 1219, he founded Serbian Orthodox Church by winning independence from Byzantium. He is considered a Serbian educator, saint and patron of schools and educational establishments.
The style of the church is Serbo-Byzantine. Including the cross on top of the dome, it is 82 meters high. Construction started in 1895 and lasted over 100 years because of wars, poverty and the communist rule. The church exterior was completed in 2004 and the interior decoration of the temple is still ongoing including a central dome mosaic of Christ Pantocrator with each eye at 12 feet wide. The greatest achievement of the construction process was lifting of the 4,000 ton central dome with copper plating and the cross, which was built on the ground and later lifted onto the walls. The lifting, which took forty days, was finished in 1989.
Saint Sava Temple is known for its polyphonic bells so make sure to get to the Temple at a full hour to hear them.
Republic Square is the main meeting place, where most tours will start from and a great place to grab a coffee and people-watch. The Square is contains a monument of Serbian Prince Mihailo on a horse and two of most important cultural buildings, the National Theater and the National Museum.
Prince Michael, Mihailo Obrenović III (September 16, 1823 – June 10, 1868) was Prince of Serbia from 1839 to 1842 and again from 1860 to 1868. His first reign ended when he was deposed in 1842, and his second when he was assassinated in 1868. He is remembered for the complete expulsion of the Turks from Serbia and liberation of the remaining 7 cities still under the Turkish rule in 1867. The names of the cities are carved on the monument itself and prince is sculptured with his hand allegedly pointing to Constantinople, showing the Turks to leave.
Skadarska Street is the Bohemian district of Belgrade marked by a winding cobble-stone street lined with cafes and live music. First inhabited by gypsies in the 1830 in what was once the ditches of the ramparts, the 400 meter neighborhood grew. In the early 1900’s, Serbian musicians and poets frequented the area and it became the bohemian district i.e. Paris’s Montmartre. Nicknamed Skadarlija, today it is a hot-spots for music, socializing, food and rakija.
Terazije Square is the designated center of the Old Town and all street numbers radiate out from this point. The square received its name for the many water towers that brought water into the city 200 years ago. Today, there is only one fountain.
The square has several impressive buildings including the Hotel Moskva. Funded by the Russian empire, the exterior façade is made of ceramic tiles in the Russian secession style with Greek archetypes. When it opened in 1908, it was called the most expensive and the most beautiful Russian house in the Balkans. Over the past 100 years, it has hosted 36 million visitors including: Albert Einstein, Robert De Niro, Kirk Douglas, Jack Nicholson, Michael Douglas, Alfred Hitchcock, Roman Polanski, Yasser Arafat, Indira Gandhi, Muammar al-Gaddafi, Richard Nixon, Luciano Pavarotti, Ray Charles, and Orson Welles.
Between its completion in 1938 and 2006, the Republic Parliament Building was the seat of the Parliament of Yugoslavia and later the Parliament of Serbia and Montenegro. The building is designed in the neo-baroque style. The Republic Parliament Building is probably best known as the symbol of instability and bad ideology of the Milošević government that led to the October fifth demonstrations in 2000. These protests were broadcast on international television and it was chilling to stand on the street by myself and think back to the crowds in those images demanding reform.
Milošević came to prominence in 1987 when Tito’s multi-ethnic Yugoslav federation started to crumble. He took over the Serbian Communist Party and fanned nationalist passions as a means of consolidating his power. Over the next 13 years, four Yugoslav republics broke away in wars that left hundreds of thousands dead, many more homeless and provoked military intervention by the West with the NATO bombings. Milošević’s downfall began with his ill-fated gamble to call a presidential election. The electoral commission said that Kostunica had beaten Milošević. But Milošević claimed that Kostunica had not achieved an absolute majority and called for a second round, provoking an international outcry and a series of mass protests.
In 2001, Milošević was detained by Serbian police and later transferred to The Hague to be prosecuted by the International Council International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Milošević died in his cell on 11 March 2006, a few months before the conclusion of his four-year trial.
The Parliament stands today not only as a House of Assembly, but also as a monument of culture since the most famous architects, designers and artist of their time took part in design of Parliament including the sculptures of “Play of Black Horses” that stands in front of the Parliament entrance. During the October 5th riots in 2000, 91 pieces of art work were looted from the National Assembly house – 35 have been found and returned to date, 56 still remain missing. The building was also damaged in the process.
Former Royal Courts (known as Old and New) lie opposite to Republic Parliament. The Old Court was built in style of academism between 1882 and 1884 and used by Obrenović ruling dynasty. In the time of construction, it was supposed to be larger than any other Serbian ruling residence. Even today, Old Court is considered one of the finest and most beautiful examples of academism in Serbia. Unfortunately, Old Court was the place of one of a horrible assassination in Serbian history. In May 1903, conspirators savagely killed King Aleksandar and his wife Draga and threw them from the balcony on the second floor to the street. Today, Old court houses the Assembly of the City of Belgrade and the cabinet of the mayor.
New Court was built between 1911 an 1912 by order of ruling family Karadjordjević and it was the official residence of King Aleksandar Karadjordjević. In 1948, it became official “house” of Assembly of Serbia. Currently, the president of Serbia uses New Court as his official office.
The “House of Flowers” was built in 1975 as a winter garden for Josip Broz Tito, the leader of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, with areas for work and rest and a view of Belgrade. Today, it is the mausoleum for Tito who died in 1980 and his wife, Jovanka, who died in 2013. Since 1982, more than 17 million people have visited the mausoleum.
The name House of Flowers comes from the fact that many flowers surrounded the tomb until it was closed to the public after the breakup of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Today there are only white rocks where the flowers used to be. The office is a time warp of 60’s & 70’s style furniture used by Tito.
The most interesting part is the wall of ceremonial batons from the Relay of Youth. The Relay of Youth was a symbolic relay race held in Yugoslavia every year. The relay, representing all the states in Yugoslavia, carried a baton with a birthday pledge to Tito from all the young people of Yugoslavia. The race started in Tito’s birth town Kumrovec, Croatia and went through all major towns and cities of the country. It ended in Belgrade on May 25, Tito’s official birthday and Day of Youth, a national holiday. Over 1 million people would take part in carrying the baton each year. The relay first took place in 1945 and was formalized as a national holiday in 1957. It went on after Tito’s death in 1980 and was last held in 1988. Hand carved batons were also given to Tito by political and business groups and the collection is more than 22,000 batons.
In 1999, NATO bombed government targets in Serbia for 78 days in response to the wars of the breakup of Yugoslavia. The bombing lasted for 78 days and during that time infrastructure, industrial objects, schools, medical facilities, media houses, monuments of culture, churches and monasteries were heavily damaged. Although Belgrade didn’t suffer as much as Novi Sad, Niš and Aleksinac where cluster bombs were dropped on a market place and residential area, Belgrade still has the most striking ruins.
The best-known ruins are the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Yugoslav Ministry of Defence, both in KnezaMiloša Street.
Built in 1963, The Ministry of Defence was designed for the building to resemble a canyon with Nemanjina street which passes through the building to resemble the Sutjeska river. The Sutjeska river canyon is where one of the most significant battles of the WWII in Yugoslavia was fought. The building is Belgrade’s most famous ruin and it’s a bit jarring to see this over 15 years later in the same state. The site is being cleared out for building a luxurious hotel by the Trump organization. For more on the NATO bombing sites, click here.
- National Bank of Serbia Visitor Center: The exhibition tells the history of Serbia’s currency, the period of hyperinflation and economic collapse. There is also a copy of every bank note and coin Serbia has ever had. You can have your face printed on a fake bank note for free! Awesome souvenir. Free attraction, but you must show an ID.
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