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Why go now?
Linked for the first time by low-cost flights from the UK this summer, Belgrade is full of surprises – from the number of al fresco cafés and restaurants with outdoor terraces, to the high-energy nightlife provided by boat-based clubs that line the banks of the rivers Sava and Danube.
There's more traditional, liquid fun to be had at the annual beer festival, 18-22 August ( belgradebeerfest.com ).
Wizz Air (0906 959 0002; wizzair.com ) flies four times a week from Luton, while the Serbian national carrier Jat Airways (020-7629 2007; jatlondon.com ) and British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com ) compete from Heathrow. Belgrade's Nikola Tesla airport is 20km west of the city centre. Bus 72 bus runs twice an hour from the airport to Zeleni Venac (1), close to the city centre, for a fare of 100 dinars (£0.80). The taxi fare works out considerably cheaper if you get the tourist information centre in the arrivals area to call one for you: reckon on 2,500 dinars (£20) to the city centre.
Get your bearings
Belgrade's Old Town sits on a plateau, which is bounded on two sides by the rivers Sava and Danube. At their dramatic confluence is Kalemegdan Park, constructed around the Belgrade Fortress (2). South of here, in an area about one kilometre square, is where you find most of the historic sights. The key street, running up to the park is the pedestrianised Knez Mihaila. Slightly east of this is the main square, Trg Republike (3) whose equestrian statue of Prince Mihailo Obrenovic is the favourite meeting place of Belgraders.
While the Old Town is easy enough to explore on foot, the long boulevards that extend into the city beyond are worth negotiating by bus, trolleybus or tram. Tickets cost 45 dinars (£0.40); buy in advance from one of the ubiquitous silver kiosks.
The main tourist office (4), with a wealth of useful brochures, is in the Terazije pedestrian underpass (00 381 11 2635 622; tob.co.rs ); it opens 9am-4pm at weekends, 9am-8pm during the week. Another tourist office (5) is located at 6 Knez Mihailova (closed Sundays), with a third at the main railway station (6).
Belgrade is adding some modern, privately-run hotels to its older, state-owned stock. Just opened, and in a prime position at 27 Knez Mihailova, is the Belgrade Art Hotel (7). Promotional offers until 13 September include doubles with breakfast for €114 (00 38 11 3312 000; belgradearthotel.com ).
Cheaper hotels are to be found near the station, while in a lively part of the newer city at 2 Njegoseva, the Hotel Park (8) offers its rather faded charms for €68 for doubles with breakfast (00 381 11 3640383; hotelparkbeograd.rs ). Nearby, the Manga Hostel (9) at 7 Resavska (00 38 111 3243 877; mangahostel.com ) is a welcome addition to the city's budget accommodation, with dorm beds starting at €15.
Take a Hike
Start at the Hotel Moskva (10) in Terazije, admiring the green decorative flourishes of its secessionist-style facade and avoiding temptation of its excellent patisserie, before making your way along Knez Mihailova. After 400m turn left down Vuka Karadzica, then strike off downhill in the direction of the river Sava to the oldest street in Belgade: cobbled Kosancicev venac (11). Ponder the space which was once the National Library, destroyed in a Luftwaffe air-raid in 1941 and one of many such sights in this much bombed and bombarded city. Turn right and go back uphill past the Orthodox cathedral (12) and head down Kralja Petra, before turning right towards Studentski Trg where you'll see on your left a turbe (13) – a burial chamber that's a reminder of the city's Turkish past. A left turn into Francuska followed by a right will take you into Skadarska (14) – the most photographed street in Belgrade, cobbled and lined with restaurants. At the top, turn right and make your way to airy Trg Republike (3), near your starting point.
Lunch on the run
You will rarely be far from a fast-food outlet dispensing pizzas, the ubiquitous bureks or the tasty and filling pljeskavica – Serbia's challenge to the hamburger. A convenient and reliable takeaway is the bakery Toma (15) at 8 Kolarceva, a doughnut's throw from the Trg Republike. Enjoy its sandwiches (sendvici), as well as pizzas and bureks, for around 125-175 dinars (£1-£1.50).
The treasures of Serbia's National Museum are unavailable as it is closed for refurbishment. Instead, visit the Ethnographic Museum (16) at 13 Studentski Trg (00 381 11 3281 888; etnografskimuzej.rs ) for an insight into the customs and lifestyle of rural Serbia. It opens 10am-5pm from Tuesday to Saturday, 9am-2pm on Sunday (when admission is free), closed Mondays. Normal admission is 150 dinars (£1.25).
The Ethnographic Museum has an excellent shop selling traditional crafts.
Dedicated shoppers need not stray far from Knez Mihaila with its mixture of designer clothes boutiques and shops selling souvenirs, such as Belgrade Window (17) at number six (00 381 11 2621 469; kcb.org.rs ).
The Bulevar Kralja Aleksandra (18) is worth exploring if you're interested in shoes and leather goods, while Balkanska (19) has older shops with retro charm, including, at number 45, a traditional maker of hats and caps.
Strahinjica Bana (20), on the eastern edge of the Old Town, is the street where you go to see, be seen and enjoy a drink. It is awash with terrace bars and sporting English names such as Room and Soho. Its ironic nickname is "Silicon Valley" due to the unnaturally enhanced charms of some of the female clientele. Drinks of choice are beer – local brews such as Jelen cost around 100 dinars (£0.80) for a half-litre glass – or the national drink of rakija, spirit distilled from fruit, which comes in a variety of flavours and is drunk as an aperitif, a digestif or a chaser.
Dining with the locals
Around the corner from Strahinjica Bana is Skadarska street. Once the heart of Bohemian Belgrade, it is lined with restaurants with odd names serving national Serbian dishes to the accompaniment of folk musicians. At the Tri Sesira (21) at 29 Skadarska (00 381 11 324 7501; the name means “Three Hats”) a meal including a generous plateful of grilled meat such as pitalavica will cost around 2,000 dinars (£16).
Across town at 6 Krajla Petra is Belgrade’s oldest tavern, the intriguingly named ?, known as the question-mark tavern (22). It opens 7am-midnight daily (00 381 11 635 421). Sit at low wooden tables and enjoy dishes such as Vodenicarska muckalica, a beef and vegetable stew inside a hollowed-out loaf, for 750 dinars (£6).
Sunday morning: go to church
The colossal dome of the Orthodox Temple of St Sava (23) is visible across the city from its location near Slavija Trg. To appreciate the neo-byzantine facade to the full, walk up to it from Bulevar Oslobodjenja. St Sava vies with Barcelona's Sagrada Familia for the title of the world's best unfinished church. Building began in 1935 but has been interrupted and delayed by war and politics. Inside, the icons and candles of the functioning side chapel contrast oddly with the heaps of scaffolding poles and builders' buckets.
Take a ride
For a more modern perspective on Serbia, take trolleybus 40 or 41 to the Bulevar Mira and visit the Tito Memorial Complex (24). Apart from a museum devoted to the leader who held Yugoslavia together for four decades until his death, and his mausoleum in the "House of Flowers", there's an intriguing collection of gifts that Tito received during his presidency.
It opens 10am-4pm daily except Monday, admission 200 dinars (£1.50).
Out to brunch
You can hardly miss the gaudy decoration and plush furnishings of the Ruski Car (25), a terrace café at 29 Obilicev venac (00 381 11 263 5873), at the corner with Knez Mihailova. This city institution, whose name means "Russian Tsar", is ideal for a long and leisurely brunch: choose the "vitamin" (continental) breakfast or the "protein" version for 300 dinars (£2.50). Open daily, 7am-2am.
A walk in the park
Kalemegdan is the city-centre park. Its paths, shaded by chestnut trees and cooled by breezes from the neighbouring rivers, are ideal places to the escape the summer heat. Belgrade Fortress (2) has been at the sharp end of some long-running imperial struggles: the Ottoman Turks left the city as recently as 1867.
Successive waves of destruction and rebuilding have left fortifications from different periods, including the well-preserved, medieval Despot's Gate and some glimpses of the white stone that gave Beograd its name: "White City". Not a colour you'd associate with the current conglomeration.
Take a view
In the northwest corner of the park, under the soaring monument "Messenger of Victory" (26), gaze down on the dramatic meeting of the rivers Sava and Danube. On the opposite bank of the Sava are the concrete and glass buildings of New Belgrade, while to the north the Pannonian plain rolls away to the horizon – underlining the strategic importance of the city's location.
The icing on the cake
In summer, Belgraders take full advantage of the city's watery location. In New Belgrade, a row of floating restaurants line the banks of the Danube, starting at the Hotel Jugoslavija (27). The Sava's right bank is the place to head for if you fancy a night clubbing on the water. Popular raft/boat venues along Savski kej (28) include Sound, Exile and Freestyler.