Serbia’s capital is a melting pot for nightlife and culture (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Every city has a distinctive soundscape, curated by ever-changing characters, culture and history – and tonight, Belgrade’s is the violin of a half-toothless musician nicknamed after Italian virtuoso composer Niccolò Paganini.
Entering the shadowy BAM (Balkan Academy of Music) Club, I am hit with a smell of tobacco that transports me back to my childhood.
In Serbia, smoking is still allowed in bars and restaurants. Despite it being a hotly-debated topic, there is no sign that it will be banned soon.
The traditional style of kafana Znak Pitanja (Question Mark) (Picture: Gergana Krasteva)
Always order the house wine if you are unfamiliar with the region’s vines (Picture: Gergana Krasteva)
Eating, drinking and dancing
After meeting at the Foreign Office earlier this year, during a cocktail for Albania’s prime minister, we bonded over out mutual love for the region, rakia and turbo-folk, a genre of pop music, blending Serbian folk sounds with hip hop, electronic and R&B.
It started happily in the 1980s as a movement to modernise traditional sounds. In Bulgaria, it is called chalga, manele in Romania and tallava in Albania.
In Serbia, it was popularised by Yugoslavian singer Lepa Brena and later by Ceca – the second wife of alleged mobster and war criminal Arkan, who was on Interpol’s most wanted list for two decades.
It has an irresistible pull, especially with its homoerotic videos, and though it was mostly listened to by elderly Serbs, it is making an ironic comeback with younger generations.
Belgrade is easy to navigate and many historical landmarks are in the city centre (Picture: Gergana Krasteva)
I recommend an early morning walk in the centre to watch Belgrade wake up (Picture: Gergana Krasteva)
BAM Club is chaotic. Gradually, guests – almost exclusively locals – trickle in as the band, led by Paganini, jams.
There are very few songs I am familiar with, but when the accordion-player starts in on the Italian Partisan song, ‘Ciao Bella’, I am overjoyed and join in.
I try to follow the rhythm, and though everyone around me knows I am a tourist, no one seems to judge my dancing skills.
After a few bottles of Zaječarsko pivo (a local beer), I make my way home, sweaty, hair sticking to my forehead, and cold.
Dancing to turbo-folk to the late hours is an escapade I recommend to all tourists interested in immersing themselves in the local culture.
The Church of Saint Sava, which sits on the Vračar plateau in Belgrade (Picture: Gergana Krasteva)
It is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox church buildings in the world (Picture: Gergana Krasteva)
Attractions and culture
A few days earlier, I had boarded the very first British Airways flight from London Heathrow to Belgrade, after a pause of 13 years.
A long time had passed since I had holidayed in the Serbian capital along with my parents, so I wanted to see what had changed.
There were many spots I wanted to revisit, starting with the National Museum of Belgrade, home to two of the biggest female painters of the early Modernism – Nadežda Petrović and Zora Petrović.
Bife, a speakeasy bar tucked away on the second floor of a building in the city centre (Picture: Gergana Krasteva)
One of my favourite dishes, ajvar (baked and braised red peppers and aubergines) (Picture: Gergana Krasteva)
A collection of 20th century Yugoslav paintings was impressive, telling the tale of what is Serbia’s recent turbulent history of wars, coup d’états, assassinations and revolutions.
Another must-see attraction is the Belgrade Fortress, located in the municipality of Stari Grad (Old City), on the confluence of the picturesque Sava and Danube rivers.
It consists of the old citadel and the sprawling Kalemegdan Park, and it represents the historical core of the capital.
Belgrade has been devastated and rebuilt more than 40 times over its rich history – and the fortress really shows this – so hiring a tour guide is recommended.
Kalemegdan is the largest park and the most important historical monument in Belgrade (Picture: Gergana Krasteva)
It is located on a 125-metre-high cliff, at the junction of the River Sava and the Danube (Picture: Gergana Krasteva)
Though I am not religious, I was in awe of the St Sava Cathedral – and it should be on your list.
Dedicated to a 12th-century prince and saint, it is a monumental project which is still being erected.
With its 27-metre high dome, weighing 4,000 tons, and some 130,000 square feet of gold mosaic decorations, it is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox churches in the world and a top landmark in the country.
Belgrade also has a royal palace surrounded with pergolas and park terraces (Picture: Gergana Krasteva)
A taste of local life
Another important Serbian institution to experience is a kafana, a type of a tavern.
Belgrade may be crowded with new takes on Yugoslav bars like Bife, a hole in the wall with delicious cocktails, or Druid, a place with too many rules – like not taking pictures inside the premises – but with a luxurious feel.
To experience the old Serbian joie de vivre, visit a kafana, or more specifically Znak Pitanja (Question Mark).
Dating back to the 19th century, it is one of the city’s best known establishments, serving hearty dishes like ajvar (baked and braised red peppers and aubergines), sarmi (stuffed cabbage leaves), grilled hard white cheeses and pickles.
Leaning back on tradition, the turn-of-the-century wooden tables are covered in red and white chequered tablecloths.
If you fancy a day trip, visit the Mačkov podrum winery – just an hour’s bus ride from Belgrade (Picture: Gergana Krasteva)
They offer tastings and dinners for groups (Picture: Gergana Krasteva)
Znak Pitanja provides a slice of Balkan culture, and if you have time for just one kafana, make it this one.
For vegetarians or vegans, the options are not abundant, but whatever you order, you will not be disappointed.
For a more modern take on traditional food, Iva New Balkan Cuisine is rightfully considered one of the best.
Opened by chef Vanja Puškar, this bijou in the heart of Belgrade is on Michelin’s recommended restaurants.
Given the favourable exchange rate for the Serbian dinar, it is an opportunity to try reinvented dishes at the highest standard – but at a lower price.
It may be winter, but if you are after a welcoming and warm-at-heart destination, then Belgrade should be on your list.
And if you happen to see my favourite Paganini, please say hello from me.
British Airways flies from London Heathrow to Belgrade three times per week, with return fares available from £104.
I stayed at Boutique Hotel Museum in the centre of the city, but would not recommend it – the rooms were small and for £118 per night, there are plenty of lavish alternatives available.
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I travel back to Belgrade 13 years on from my first trip as a child, to see what it offers as an adult…