Belgrade is an ideal option for taking in centuries of history and discovering a new cuisine – and exploring all of this is easier than you think!
Lying at the crossroads of two of Europe’s main rivers, the Danube and the Sava, Belgrade has seen history wage war around it for centuries. One of Europe’s oldest cities, it has been inhabited since 6,000 BC. In more recent times, it has been owned by the Romans, Balkans, Slavs, Ottomans, the Austrian Hapsbergs and was rolled into Yugoslavia in 1918 until the civil war in 1999, after which it became the capital of a separate country, Serbia, in 2006. The city’s bloody history has left its mark on everything from the architecture, with Islamic mosques, baroque churches, Austrian style promenades and more, slotting together across the city, to the country’s cuisine.
To get a short introduction to Belgrade’s fascinating past, head out on a guided walking tour that can be arranged through the tourist board (tob.rs) . Old Belgrade is a walker’s city, set mostly on one side of the sprawling river bank, with its ancient fortress standing guard at the mouths of the two rivers. From the lovely park that surrounds it, you can see across to ‘new Belgrade’, where modern blocks of flats have crept up, and Zemun, a tiny, country-style suburb that clings to its Austrian heritage, and old fashioned family-run seafood restaurants sit along the banks of the peaceful Danube Kej. For those that want to delve deeper (literally) into the past, underground tours of the city into World War II tunnels and ancient caves, can also be arranged through the tourist board.
As stereotypes go, Eastern European food tends to get a bit maligned when it comes to people’s perceptions – the words heavy and dour, drab or at best, hearty, come to mind usually. Thankfully Belgrade’s gastronomy scene came as a more-than-pleasant surprise, and there is most definitely a ‘scene’ for foodies. The capital has some captivating restaurants hidden all over the city, the most interesting of them tucked away in former houses in residential districts. Organic, fresh and local are the watchwords of most of the breakout places to eat. Restaurant Djordje (restaurantdjordje.rs) leads the way, with a menu that focuses on Serbian cheeses, local sausages, organic salads and rustic breads while you sit in a conservatory outside a former home, the bar now where the front steps would be.
Close by is Zaplet (zaplet.rs), one of the city’s favourite fine dining options, all brushed concrete, kooky light fittings and a funky outside space. Both of these independents are making great efforts to take the more traditional Serbian dishes and make them lighter, more modern and refined, with great success.
But nowhere takes on the mantel of revolutionising the Serbian menu more than Little Factory of Taste (malafabrikaukusa.com). This gourmet bolthole is set in a renovated cottage in the middle of a garden in the city centre, where long pine tables sit between shelves groaning with locally made crockery, and herbs hanging up give a cosy, family home atmosphere. You’ll need to block an entire evening for this place – their tasting menu is 12 courses long. Traditional kamak (sweet cream cheese) comes as a delicate dollop on a slate plate with a piece of dyed green bread like a sponge, smoked hams wrap dried fruits that melt in your mouth, salads look like art installations and meat stews are deconstructed at your table – it’s an impressive feast, and you are guaranteed to end up loving Serbian food by about course five.
Something for the sweet tooth
Everything Serbians love, they love in big portions, and the same goes for sweet treats. Baklava is traditional as after-dinner sweets, but unlike the delicate morsels that you find in Arabian countries, here they are weighty slabs of pastry, nuts and honey; they even have chocolate versions of this traditional sweet.
If you’re after a larger taste of Belgrade’s past, then the Centre for Cultural Intiatives ‘Kulltura’ has created a ‘Sweet Belgrade’ tour which takes in chocolatiers, traditional baklava sellers, cafes and a slab of the locally infamous Moska Cake, a creamy meringue gateau that is only available from the rather quaint Art Deco Moscow Hotel. The two and a half hour tour balances Belgrade’s fascinating history in between your stops for sweet treats and is utterly addictive (email@example.com).
After all that food you’ll need to stretch those legs and walk off some of the folds of pastry. Luckily Belgrade is a city that stays open late. The city has a nightlife spirit similar to Beirut – it likes to party, and boats (called ‘spivs’) are tied up all along the two rivers to offer late night clubs for just about every musical taste. For those who are looking for a quieter drink to let the food settle, Sava Dock is a new riverside development that’s worth checking out. Here you’ll find former old warehouses converted into a range of bars and restaurants offering cocktails, wines and live music, including my favourite, Cantina de Frida (Karadjordjeva 2-4), which offers Spanish and South American-inspired food and drink, in a nod to Frida Kahlo.
Where to stay
Hotel Zira is a modern four star hotel, around 15 minutes walk from the city centre. It has free Wi-fi, and unusually, free international calls for guests. Room rates start from around €175 (around Dhs839), visit www.zirahotels.com.
How to get there
Belgrade is only a five-hour flight away, and FlyDubai offers four flights a week. Ticket prices start from around Dhs2,200. Visit www.flydubai.com to book.