Another long weekend only means one thing: road trip. This time that weekend was Thanksgiving, and given how much we had been – and will be – traveling through the holiday season, we decided to keep it easy. Belgrade is only four to five hours from Sarajevo, and after listening to friends sing its praises for almost a year, we decided the time had come to get our tourism on in Serbia’s capital.
Sarajevo doesn’t have much in the way of southeast Asian cuisine and we were stoked to learn this gem was only a few blocks from our hotel. We downed two steaming bowls of pho and a plate of summer rolls and spent the rest of the evening waddling around the neighborhood, topping off our waterlogged bellies with Serbian beer, wine and cocktails.
We kicked off our first day at the Belgrade fortress. A sprawling complex dating back to 279 BC, and resting on 160 acres overlooking the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, the fortress has been built, destroyed, rebuilt, and expanded for most of its existence. Its rulers have included Celts, Romans, Byzantines, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Serbians, Ottomans, and Yugoslavians (during which Belgrade was Yugoslavia’s capital). Today, the fortress grounds are home to parks, museums, mini-markets, and a zoo, and is the most popular attraction in Belgrade.
We really didn’t have a list of must-see tourist attractions during our time visiting Belgrade, but I was hoping to get a look at St Petka Chapel (it came up repeatedly as a must-see during my research). Since I was 21, when I first wandered up the steps of Paris’ artistic Montmartre district, my favorite church has been the Sacré-Cœur, and for one distinct reason: its stunning mosaics. Well, its comfortable seat at the top has been wholly and unreservedly dethroned.
We weren’t expecting much from the chapel, and approaching it from the fortress didn’t hint it would be much different than the many crkve (churches) we’ve seen around the Balkans. Not until, that is, we walked inside…
Every single inch of the interior was covered with heavenly, ethereal renditions of biblical figures and angelic creatures. Each movement, every transition highlighted the artist’s skill in blending themes, colors and moods. I could have sat there for hours. St Petka Chapel alone made the entire trip to Belgrade worth it.
But there was so much more to see, and we would be back to the fortress later in our trip to tour the Military Museum, so we bundled back up and set out back through the fortress grounds and descended onto Knez Mihailova, the main pedestrian promenade in Belgrade.
We perused bookshops and window-shopped clothing and handbag boutiques. And halfway down the promenade, we popped into Zepter Museum – and art gallery with an interior layout and design that completed even with its most acclaimed artwork.
But outside of the few museums and churches we visited, our trip to Belgrade was really about one thing: consumption. Almost every part of our days were spent deciding where we were going to eat and drink next.
Early afternoons and late evenings were spent in underground cafes, bars and brewpubs, like Gunners, Bitters and Centrala, a bar so cliché-ly revolutionary (the cigarettes, the mustaches, the berets!), it seemed straight out of central casting.
Even our tours of famous neighborhoods like Skadarlija were really only explored for clues on where we might find our next meal.
(We were out of luck with Skadarlija, however. Like much of the Balkans, it appears to have severely reduced working hours during the winter months. Although I’m sure if we were here mid-summer, it would be packity-packed from sunrise ’til sunset).
After grabbing more coffee, I was a bit surprised to round a corner and see a darker version of the famed sebilj in Sarajevo. Build in 1753, Sarajevo’s sebilj, an ornate Ottoman-era public water fountain, was once one of many around the city. But now only the one remains, and it sits in the heart of the Baščaršija neighborhood. So how did this one come to rest at the tip of Belgrade’s hip Skadarlija neighborhood?
It turns out there are replicas of Sarajevo’s sebilj in cities all over the world, from Birmingham, England, to Bursa, Turkey, and this one in Belgrade was a gift from the city of Sarajevo in 1989.
But, sadly, we now only had one more evening of eating and drinking before heading back to Sarajevo. We set out from our hotel and soon found ourselves in Bar Central, sipping on a couple of excellent Old Fashioneds.
And our last meal was of course at Smokvica. This place is so good, we went twice!