Is there a European capital with a more turbulent history than Belgrade? At the frontier of empires and the junction of the great Danube and Sava rivers, this is one of the oldest cities on the continent. As proof of the constant war and upheaval few buildings in Belgrade are older than a couple of hundred years.
But Belgrade is no less compelling for its tumultuous past, blending high culture with a fun-loving spirit. You can sense this lust for life on Skardarlija, the Bohemian street, or the splavovi, party boats that are moored on the Danube and Sava. Belgrade’s fortress dominates the cityscape, while orthodox churches and palaces for the Serbian royalty cropped up after Serbia won independence in the 19th century.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Belgrade:
1. Belgrade Fortress
On a tall ridge where the Danube and Sava rivers meet, Belgrade Fortress used to contain the entire city and has lived through 2,000 years of conflict.
All of that bloodshed seems very distant when you see the young couples arm-in-arm in Kalemegdan Park, watching the sun go down over Zemun.
They’ll find perches on the ramparts and secluded cubby holes among the angular remnants of the anti-artillery bastions and ravelins built by the Ottomans in the early modern ages.
There’s history at every turn in the fortress, from the Roman well to the medieval gate of Despot Stefan Lazarević.
But Pobednik (Victor) is the postcard monument, a statue wielding a sword and falcon atop a Doric column.
This dates to 1928 and commemorates Serbia’s defeat of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empire in WWI.
Car-free and paved with bumpy cobblestones, Skadarlija has been a bohemian haunt since the 1800s and is Belgrade’s answer to Montmartre.
Like its Parisian counterpart, Skadarlija’s glory days were in the early 1900s when famous but cash-strapped Serbian singers, musicians, writers and poets lived, worked and performed here.
That Belle Époque spirit lingers in the iron gaslights, restaurant terraces, foliage, awnings and the trompe l’oeil facade on the opposing wall.
Come for the cafes nightlife, traditional Serbian food like roštilj (grilled meat), and to take in the art displays and street performers as you go.
3. Church of St Sava
The largest Orthodox Church in the Balkan region, and the second largest in the world, St Sava is an ever-present monument in Serbia’s capital.
High on the Vračar plateau, you can see the church’s white granite and marble walls from any approach to Belgrade, while the 50 bells that sound noon ring out across the city.
The temple is built on the site where the Ottoman Grand Vizier Sinan Pasha burned St Sava’s relics after his icon had graced flags during a Serbian uprising in 1594. Construction began in 1935, 340 years after that event, and ended in 1989. The biggest challenge was raising the central dome, all 4,000 tons of which was assembled on the ground and hoisted into place.
4. Ada Ciganlija
This island on the Sava has been reclaimed and turned into a peninsula, and is somewhere for Belgradians to let their hair down and be active.
Even though Ada Ciganlija is in the middle of the city, it has been left to nature, and is still cloaked with mature elm and oak forest.
On the south side the Sava is impounded, forming the Savsko jezero lake.
On any given summer’s day Ada Ciganlija is thronged with people jogging, rowing and kayaking on the lake, playing golf, tennis, basketball or just basking in the greenery.
But it’s the pebble beach that is the main draw, known as “Belgrade’s Seaside” and traced with bars and restaurants.
These provide picnic tables and deckchairs and are open into the night.
5. Knez Mihailova Street
Extending diagonally through Stari Grad from the fortress to Republic Square, Knez Mihailova is a pedestrianised street and somewhere for Belgradians to shop and go out.
On what is one of the most expensive streets in the city per square metre, Knez Mihailova has upmarket boutiques and international high street brands like Sephora, Zara and Gap.
These are joined by scores of restaurant and bars, so if you come almost any time of day or night and you’ll encounter throngs of shoppers, couples or revellers.
And towards the fortress the way is lined with eye-catching rows of stuccoed Neoclassical mansions with quoins and cornices.
6. Gardoš Tower
In the oldest part of Zemun, a monument from the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is lifted over the right bank of the Danube.
The Gardoš Tower is also known as the Millennium Tower as it was built in 1896 to celebrate 1,000 years of Hungarian settlement on the Pannonian Plain.
With an Eclecticist design it was constructed over the ruins of a medieval fortress and was one of several big projects around what was then Hungary to mark that anniversary.
Inside is a small exhibition about the storied history of Zemun and Gardoš, while you can head to the top for a supreme view of the Danube and the confluence.
7. Nikola Tesla Museum
This museum presents the life and work of the great physicist, inventor and electrical engineer and Serbian national hero.
The exhibition is in two main sections: The first is a study of Tesla the man, sourcing personal effects, photographs and correspondence to paint a clearer picture of his life and travels.
The second is an often interactive exhibition of his work, with either originals, 3D renders or fully-functioning reproductions like an induction coil producing discharges at 500,000 volts.
For deeper scientific rigour you can take the English-speaking tour, given by students from Belgrade University’s Engineering Department.
8. St Mark’s Church
This cavernous Neo-Byzantine church is one of the largest in Serbia, and although its outer structure was completed during the 1930s interior works are ongoing.
The sublime iconostasis for instance was only completed in the 1990s: The frame is marble, while the icons inside and the painting of the last supper were composed by Đuro Radulović, an academic painter from Belgrade.
Work on the crypt began in 2007 under the narthex, and tombs of 19th-century clergy and Serbian royalty were transferred here.
These had been in the old St Mark’s, founded directly after Serbian independence and wrecked during the German bombing of Belgrade in 1941.
9. Republic Square
At the southern end of Knez Mihailova is Republic Square, with some of the city’s most important landmarks and a business district where Belgrade is at its most dynamic.
More than 20 trolleybus and bus lines converge at this one place, so it’s the meet-up of choice for many Belgradians.
The Serbian National Theatre and National Museum are here, as is the Prince Mihailo Monument.
Designed by the Italian sculptor Enrico Pazzi, this statue is of Mihailo Obrenović, Prince of Serbia twice in the mid-1800s and a key figure in the Balkans’ independence from the Ottoman Empire.
10. Zemunski Kej
Also known as Kej Oslobođenja (Quay of Liberation), this waterside promenade is the best place in Belgrade to take in the Danube.
Starting just below the Gardoš Tower is a long green area, with plane trees and sumptuous views of Europe’s second-longest river just where it joins with the Sava.
These banks used to be flooded every year but engineering works have raised the embankment, while the pedestrian path has been widened to accommodate leisurely waterside ambles.
There are restaurants every few steps, many on barges and other old vessels (splavovi), while a small fleet of boats are waiting if you’d like a trip on the Danube.
11. Residence of Princess Ljubica
A rare survivor from the first reign of Prince Miloš Obrenović, this palace dates to the beginning of the 1830s and was supposed to be a lavish seat for the Serbian court.
But the continued presence of the Ottomans meant that it was never used for that purpose.
Prince Miloš was only an occasional visitor until he was forced to abdicate in 1839 and the Obrenović family was expelled.
The permanent exhibition is a series of richly-furbished rooms with authentic period items assembled from various homes once owned by Belgrade’s bourgeois and royal families.
You’ll track the transition from the oriental Ottoman style on the lower floor to more western European decoration that was en vogue later in the 19th century.
12. Avala Tower
This communications tower, the tallest structure in the Balkans, is an easy drive from Belgrade.
You could also catch the bus from Voždovac/Banjica or the tourist shuttle, which departs at intervals on weekends from Nikola Pašić Square.
Crowning Mount Avala, it’s another symbol for Belgrade and is a monument with a chequered past.
The tower was completed in 1965 but razed during the NATO bombing of Belgrade in 1999. The four-year reconstruction was finished in 2010 and for a couple of hundred dinar you can catch the elevator to the observation deck 135 metres up and with a panoramic cafe.
13. Belgrade Military Museum
Exploring the Belgrade Fortress you might bump into a cache of modern military hardware along one of the ramparts.
Lined up are deactivated mines, German panzers and torpedoes, while there are also antique cannons on the outer still arming the gun emplacements on the outer wall.
It all belongs to the military museum, which has been in the fortress since 1878. In the galleries is a hoard of weapons going back to the Ancient Greeks and Romans, with helmets and blades more than 2,000 years old.
From medieval times there are gauntlets and other armour, shields, axes, swords forged both in the Balkans and western Europe.
As you move into modern times the museum handles more sensitive subject matter, displaying some NATO equipment from 1999, including a captured Humvee and fragments of purported cluster bombs.
14. Museum of Yugoslav History
Another contentious but informative attraction is the mausoleum of former authoritarian President Josip Broz Tito, and the museum that was set up around it in the 2000s.
This covers the history of the former country of Yugoslavia, which as you’d expect inspires a gamut of emotions and memories, but in Belgrade these are generally positive.
The museum is the equivalent of a Presidential library and exhibits all of the gifts Tito amassed during his rule from 1953 to 1980. There are more than 200,000 artefacts in total, and among the many things worth tracking down are the ceremonial batons used in relays to mark Tito’s birthday every year.
These would then be presented to him in the stadium of the Yugoslav People’s Army.
15. National Theatre
On Republic Square the National Theatre is somewhere to go for a feast of high culture at a very affordable price.
The venue opened in 1869, and has come through war damage and a few architectural updates to remain an esteemed beacon of Serbian culture.
During the day you can go on a backstage tour to discover how the wardrobes and scenery are stored and maintained, and will be treated to an aria by the theatre’s singers in residence.
There’s a varied schedule of drama, opera and ballet at the theatre, always high brow and always unbelievably affordable thanks to state subsidies.
Front stalls are from as little as $7 and boxes aren’t much more.
16. Museum of Aviation
Belgrade’s aviation museum is in a striking geodesic glass building from 1989 next to the city’s airport.
You can catch the 72 bus out there from the station in Zeleni Venac.
The museum has more than 200 aircraft belonging to the Serbian military as well as private collectors and clubs.
These range from biplanes like the Tiger Moth, Yugoslav Zmaj Fizir and Soviet Polikarpov to Second World War Messerschmitt and Spitfire fighters, as well as bombers like the Lockheed Lightning.
There are also more recent artefacts from the NATO bombing campaign in 1999, including the wreckage of a F-117 and a MQ-1 Predator drone.
17. St Michael’s Cathedral
Walking distance from both the fortress and Princess Ljubica’s Residence, Belgrade’s Neoclassical cathedral is from the 1830s and was instrumental in Serbia’s fight for independence.
It is just the latest version of a monument going back to the 1500s and repeatedly torn down during the Ottoman Empire.
Note the liberal use of gold leaf in the icons and murals, painted by Dimitrije Avramović and the iconostasis and choir by Dimitrije Petrović who had been trained in Vienna.
Both men are considered among the foremost Serbian artists of the age.
The cathedral holds the relics of the 14th-century king and saint Stefan Uroš V and the tombs of national heroes like Vuk Karadžić, who reformed the Serbian language in the 1800s.
18. Stari Dvor and Novi Dvor
Any tour of the city needs to include the Old and New Palaces built for the Obrenović and Karađorđević royal families respectively.
The pair face each other across the Andrićev Venac square as part of a grand ensemble on Kralja Milana.
The Old Palace dates to the 1880s and has Beaux-Arts architecture, with interiors imported wholesale from Vienna.
This now houses Belgrade’s city assembly, open to occasional tours.
The New Palace meanwhile also has Revivalist architecture and was completed in 1922 following damage during the First World War.
Its facade is dominated by a two-storey colonnade of Ionic columns and the palace is now the residence for the President of Serbia.
19. House of the National Assembly of Serbia
The seat of Serbia’s National Assembly may well be the finest and most photogenic building in Belgrade.
Previously this home to Yugoslavia’s Parliament, and following that state’s breakup, the Parliament of Serbia and Montenegro.
Given its official purpose, access to this imposing Beaux-Arts building is restricted but you could enquire with Belgrade’s tourist board about a tour as these are organised every now and again.
The rest of the time it’s a landmark for a photo stop, either by day or illuminated at night.
No surprise that this iconic monument is also the scene for Belgrade’s New Year’s Eve celebrations.
20. White Palace
Like the National Assembly this royal palace in the upscale Dedinje neighbourhood south of the city isn’t a monument you can just turn up and visit.
But there are tours in summer, and you need only write to the tourist board before in advance to book your place.
The effort will be rewarded, and you’ll be taken by bus from the city hall to this Neo-Palladian palace from the 1930s.
The interior is enriched with Georgian antique furniture and paintings by the likes of Poussin, Veronese, Canaletto, Brueghel, Titian and many more.
There’s also an extensive library, and wonderful panoramas from the terrace.
The Crown Prince and Princess, Alexander and Katherine may even show up if they’re at home.
21. Rajko Mitić Stadium (Marakana)
Now, this isn’t an option for the faint-hearted or non-football fans.
But if you do follow the beautiful game you may have heard about the Eternal Derby between FK Partizan and Red Star Belgrade.
If you come for the fixture when Red Star host their cross-town rivals at the 55,000-capacity Rajko Mitić Stadium you’ll encounter possibly the most intense atmosphere of any football match in the world.
Buy a ticket for the east or west stand, as the North and South ends are for the hardcore fans.
Come to any other fixture for a more sedate match-day experience at Serbia’s largest football stadium, and the the home of the 1991 Champions League winners.
22. Historical Museum of Serbia
This museum on Nikola Pašić Square stages only temporary exhibitions on themes dealing with Serbia’s past.
One recent exhibitions for instance was dedicated to the 13-century prince and monk St Sava, who essentially founded the Serbian Orthodox church.
Another show recounted Serbian life during the First World War, while others have handled topics as diverse as the First Serbian Uprising at the start of the 19th century, Serbian sculpture, iconography and the trailblazing Serbian-American physicist Mijajlo Pupin.
23. Ružica Church
Against the northeast walls of the Belgrade Fortress sits the oldest church in the city.
The exact origins of the building are unknown, except that its history is a litany of demolitions and rebuilds.
The earliest mention is from the 1400s, but it was duly pulled down after the Ottoman Empire conquered Belgrade in 1521. The current building is from the 19th century (requiring a restoration after WWI) and integrates walls from the fort’s old gunpowder magazine.
The facade is clad with ivy, and the interior has some peculiar chandeliers made from First World War bayonet blades and shell casings.
24. Zeleni Venac
There are a few outdoor markets that you could seek out in Belgrade, but Zeleni Venac, known as Queen of the Markets, is the one to keep in mind.
It is the most central, foubd next to one of Belgrade’s big transport hubs and has been trading since 1847. Price-wise Zeleni Vanac is also the most competitive in the city.
Under a metallic canopy that was restored about ten years ago are scores of fruit and vegetable traders.
Saturdays are when the market thrums with lively conversation and the calls of stall-holders.
There are pekaras (bakeries) along the sides for fresh pastries like krempita, baklava, tulumbe and kadaif.
If you’re planning a night out in Belgrade, be prepared to board a splav.
These are the barges and boats that are permanently moored on the Danube and Sava rivers.
They can be floating restaurants, bars or nightclubs.
And no two splavovi are alike: Some are polished and cultivated, while others are younger and more raucous.
You can dance all night to live rock bands, pop, dance music or Serbian folk.
Or you can opt for something quieter and dine in peace beside the Danube.
In summer there’s a party on the splavovi seven days a week and you’ll see people making their way along the quay hopping from one barge to the next.