Belgrade may not be the prettiest capital in the world, but it makes up for it with a gritty resilience all of its own. Reminders of past rulers are everywhere – from grandiose Habsburg boulevards to cafes that recall the bygone days of Communist Yugoslavia.
A neighbourhood dating back to the days when the Habsburg Empire ruled the city, Stari Grad is a jumble of café-lined streets peppered with neo-classical and Art Nouveau buildings. Take a wander down the pedestrianised Knez Mihailova Street – one of the city’s grandest thoroughfares.
The Kalemegdan Citadel is an imposing fortress by the banks of the Danube that traces its origins to the time of the Celts. A military museum recounts the history of the Yugoslav army through the ages, with grim relics of the Balkan wars of the 1990s (Kalemegdan; admission £1.20).
Communist dictator Marshal Tito lies buried in the House of Flowers – a mausoleum where nostalgic comrades regularly pay their respects. Close to the tomb is a vast collection of relay batons handed to Tito by children across Yugoslavia (admission £1.60).
A prominent feature on the skyline, the Cathedral of Saint Sava is the largest church in the Balkans – a 20th-century structure built on the site where Turkish invaders supposedly burned the relics of Saint Sava, founder of the Serbian Orthodox church (admission free).
A quieter, more laid-back counterpart to Belgrade on the opposite bank of the Sava river, Zemun was once on the frontier of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today it’s a place of cobbled streets, crumbling fortifications and good fish restaurants. Raise a glass to solidarity at Kafana Pavle Korcˇagin – a frantic café which is packed with Communist memorabilia. Grinning accordionists and tablethumping drinkers set the pace come sundown – so reserve a table (00 38 111 240 1980; C´irila i Metodija 2a; beers £1).
Kafana Dacˇo bills itself as a visit to the Serbian grandmother you never had. Walls are cluttered with china plates, paintings and kitsch curios, while chequered tablecloths and rickety tables measure up to the burek and other comfort food dishes on the menu (Patrisa Lumumbe 49; mains from £5).
Little Bay is one of Serbia’s best dining experiences – a good value restaurant done up like an opera house with red curtains and golden balconies. Opera singers often turn up to serve arias with your aperitifs. Try duck in pastry or catfish with spinach and salsa (00 38 111 328 8995; Dositejeva 9a; lunch mains from £5).
A popular bohemian haunt in Stari Grad, Dva Jelena has been dishing out hearty meals for two centuries. The wood-panelled interiors make for a cosy spot to peruse the meat-centric menu (Skadarska 32; dinner mains from £6).
Kalemegdanska Terasa is a bastion of fine food with stone arches and columns framing the dining room. Swanky dishes include beef steak and goose liver in a truffle sauce (Mali Kalemegdan bb; dinner mains from £6).
Hotel Skala is a good-value stay in the town of Zemun, a five-minute walk from the banks of the Danube river. Sunny rooms are arranged around an atrium-cum-courtyard, and there’s also a cavernous basement restaurant replete with stone arches and a vaulted ceiling (Bežanijska 3; from £45).
Styling itself as a dollop of Parisian finesse imported to Belgrade, Le Petit Piaf features rooms with fashionably muted colours, bearing names such as Sacré Coeur and Notre Dame. Appropriately enough, the downstairs restaurant specialises in French cooking, with a healthy nod to Italian cuisine, too (Skadarska 34; from £65).
Travelling Actor is an upmarket pension in Skadarlija – Belgrade’s bohemian district. True to its name, the gilded rooms are melodramatically over the top, with Rococo chairs and Persian rugs scattered about the place (Gospodar Jevremova 65; from £75).
Hotel Moskva has been an Art Nouveau icon of Belgrade since 1906 – it was opened by the King of Serbia himself. Past guests include the great and the good from Albert Einstein to Alfred Hitchcock. Suitably regal rooms feature parquet flooring, polished surfaces and high ceilings (Balkanska 1; from £95).
The Belgrade Art Hotel is a swanky Italian-designed place to stay on Knez Mihailova. Flash rooms juxtapose patterned fabrics with sultry lighting, while soundproof windows prove invaluable assets on noisy evenings (Knez Mihajlova 27; from £110).
Trams and trolleybuses ply limited routes in Belgrade, but buses serve most of the city. Tickets can be purchased on board, although it’s cheaper to purchase them in advance from newsagents and tobacco kiosks (tickets from 50p).
Belgrade has a busy cultural diary year round. FEST, one of the foremost film festivals in the region, is held from February to March, while the city’s Jazz Festival takes place annually in October.
Wizz Air flies to Belgrade Nikola Tesla airport from Luton (from ￡75), while Jat Airways flies from Heathrow (from ￡165). From the airport, buses run to central Belgrade, which is around 11 miles away (tickets from ￡1), and a taxi should cost no more than ￡10.
The article 'Mini guide to Belgrade, Serbia' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.