My ten favourite things about Belgrade
Belgrade is beautiful! In the last decade the city has been transformed out of all recognition with a barrage of foreign investment and local government initiatives. Here are this author's favourite things about Belgrade, a city he has known since 1997 and that has been enhanced as though it has received the touch of Midas.
A beautiful walk from the gates of the Kalemegdan by Belgrade Zoo around the promenade adjacent to the Sava-Danube confluence, past the statue of 'the Victor', and along the Belgrade Waterfront, a new promenade adjuting luxury new restaurants and apartments.
A cold beer in Cafe Pastis, one of Belgrade's oldest bars, that sits quietly and quaintly at ulica Strahinjica Bana 52b, Belgrade's most famous street (formerly known as 'Silicon Valley' for the beauty of the women who would drink in its plentiful bars).
A heaving evening amidst the Belgrade Underground: nothing to do with the city's long-abandoned metro system, instead a collection of bars and nightclubs that sprung up as part of the student opposition movement to the despotic Slobodan Milosevic regime (Yugoslavia's last President) in the 1990's and never went away. These institutions are Belgrade's anarchic nightlife at its best.
Raft hopping in Usce, a string of floating bars and nightclubs that heave with drinkers and dancers from 9pm until dawn - but only during the summer months. (They are replaced with other establishments, not on the water, between October and April.)
A shopping tour round Galerija, Belgrade's most lavish mall designed in the style of the Mall of the Emirates in Dubai. It has all the latest luxury brands, cool breezy corridors, ample fine drinking and dining, and tax-free prices. Unknown to the casual visitor, it is a hidden gem.
A stack of deliciously cooked meat or fish amidst one of Belgrade's hidden late night or 24-hour restaurants.
Leaning back with a mysterious but scrumptious cocktail on the terrace of Mama Shelter, a hotel and bar that sits atop a central Belgrade shopping mall called Rajiceva.
The Jozip Broz Tito Mausoleum, also known as the House of Flowers, a memorial on the outskirts of Belgrade to the Communist leader of Yugoslavia from 1945 to 1980. This is the most serene place in the otherwise highly chaotic Belgrade.
An evening walk through the scrappy yet charming streets of Stari Grad, Belgrade's Old Town, possibly hopping from one eccentric bar to another and poking one's nose in curious little shops open late.
The Historical Museum of Serbia, a grand tour of Serbia's complex, fascinating and often bewildering history. From a historical point of view, Serbia must be one of Europe's most interesting countries; this museum is a grand introduction.
Surcin Airport. One of Europe's easiest airports to use; you breeze through like a dream. Even the immigration officials operate with lightning speed and efficiency. Don't forget to visit the National Aviation Museum next door. It's fascinating!
Great Warrior Island. You can walk there on a causeway from Zemun in the summer, and it is beautiful, electricity-free (although people do live there with their own generators) and awash with exotic fauna and flora. All right in the centre of the city.
The beautiful girls and the mostly very friendly people, who remain curious about foreigners because they still don't travel much and they don't get to know foreigners that well. Serbs are conservative people but they do find foreigners and their ways interesting, and Belgrade is mostly a pleasant city to live in as a foreigner - as long as you stay away from the criminals, which the government is dealing with slowly but surely.
The open society, in which every view can be expressed, political or otherwise. Belgraders are liberal and tolerant people, not racist and are welcoming of all people from around the world, notwthstanding their unjustified reputations to the contrary. There are exceptions, as everywhere; but in Belgrade they are rare. If you are the victim of racism, appeal to other Serbs around you who will castigate racists amongst their mix. Or call the Police, and they will act. The Police are helpful towards foreigners.
Serbian private hospitals. Cheap and excellent, Belgrade is rightly a centre for every type of medical tourism.
Macroeconomic stability. The currency is strong, and so are the banks.
Walking in the streets is safe as can be, even as a woman alone, 24 hours a day. Given the problems with late night taxis (see below) this is just as well.
A healthily attended university and a lot of well-educated people it can be a pleasure to talk to and get to know.
Note how many of the city's highlights take place in the evening. Belgrade must be the most 24-hour city in Europe. Nobody ever seems to go to sleep! And neither will you.
As Europe's only neutral country in the Second Cold War, Serbia in general and Belgrade in particular are oozing with potential as a place where people from either side of the new Iron Curtain can meet and do business, as well as an ongoing and growing centre for tourism of the highest and most exciting calibre.
The following is a bottom list, of some of Belgrade's least attractive features. You will work them out for yourself if you spend time in the city, but here they are:
Belgrade taxis after dark. Just horrendous. The problem is that the drivers working for the legitimate taxi companies have gone home, because the elevated evening statutory rates are insufficiently high. The problem could be resolved by a moderate increase in night rates. Then the unlicensed criminals would be forced out of the market.
Belgrade's public transport services. Comprehensive but incomprehensible, even to the locals. Belgrade is the biggest city in Europe without a functioning metro system. This problem could be solved to a degree with adequate maps and timetables at every bus stop. But it doesn't happen.
The cost of international 'phone calls. Horrific; use VOIP services.
Belgrade's ragged paving flags. Destructive of all shoes; consider wearing steel toe caps (we are not joking). If you are not looking what you are doing you can easily fall or break your toes.
The endless graffiti that nobody bothers to clean up. Most of it is ages old; the city could be beautified with just a week of work, involving high-pressure hoses removing the trashy paint from the buildings' walls. There are sufficiently many CCTV cameras to deter recidivism.
Stale bread in the city's array of bakeries of mixed quality. All the good items have generally sold out by 10am. Be aware!
Petty commissions and rip-offs, particularly in bars you are taken to by locals. Serbs tend to rip each other off, and hence they tend to rip off foreigners as well. We try to discourage them, explaining it leaves foreigners with a terrible impression of them and this drives visitor numbers down, but they don't get it. Always remember that Serbs are conservative, clannish and naturally distrusting of anyone outside their home village. This insularity is a problem for the Serbs, as they face the outer world. But it may also explain why they scheme foreigners and distrust them so much. It is a natural extension of how they treat one-another.
The central bus station. Truly a horror. The plans to move it out of town won't make it any better; it'll just move the problem somewhere else. A western bus station architect needs to take control.
Serbian bureaucracy. You're unlikely to meet it unless you live here; even then, the tiny expatriate community (aside from the recent influx of Russians) stays away from all official interactions like the Plague. It's not corrupt so much as totally ineffective. It just doesn't work.
The inter-city and international train services. Good luck with that!
Serbian habits of drink-driving. Thankfully the Police, far more professional in recent years, have been clamping down. But still Serbs think they can pay their way out of such things. It should be made clear that they will go to prison with no exceptions.
Violence, particularly between football team supporters; and a number of thugs in general. But again the Police are clamping down on these things in a much more professional way, so they are unlikely to affect the casual visitor.
Petty theft. If you leave a jacket or personal item somewhere by accident, it will more likely than not be stolen. The prevailing view is regrettably that if you are stupid enough to lose something, then you deserve it, particularly if you are are foreigner all of whom are perceived to be limitlessly wealthy. (Serbs genuinely do not understand the lives foreigners lead.)
This culture needs to change radically if the people of Belgrade are to learn to do business with the outside world, something which at the current time they are dreadfully bad at because there is a lack of culture of honesty and straightforward dealings. But this will change.
All these problems will be solved more robustly with a good dose of EU membership. There is plenty of hope for an ever more perfect Belgrade, and for Serbia more generally.