Like much of the world, Serbians celebrate New Year's Day on 1st January, but they also have a second observance on 14th January. The latter is known as the Old New Year, or Orthodox New Year. It's an informal, traditional holiday that follows the Julian calendar, and falls 13 days after the Gregorian calendar's NYE.
2024 was the year I decided I'd experience two New Years, two weeks apart. Technically, Belgrade became my 25th New Year's celebration spent in a new place. Although NYE part two ended up being fairly anticlimactic, it was still a good excuse to visit a new part of the world.
Belgrade, Serbia's capital, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Europe, existing for over 7,000 years. During that time, the city has quite literally been through the wars - it has been fought over in 115 conflicts and has been destroyed and rebuilt more than 44 times.
It's a resilient, interesting city, refreshingly non-globalized, but aesthetically displeasing. The communist government that came to power after the Second World War didn’t seem to pay much attention to the decorative side of things.
There's not doubt that Belgrade has been around the block and seen a few things. If you want to do the same, below are my recommendations for where to stay, eat, drink and wander.
I stayed at the four-star Townhouse 27, centrally located in the historic district. This boutique hotel has been awarded a Certificate of Excellence, from TripAdvisor, for five consecutive years. It was comfortable and affordable. The staff was lovely and helpful and the free continental breakfast was more than decent.
Hotel Moskva - A landmark in Belgrade, dating back to 1908. It's one of the oldest hotels still operating in Serbia. Albert Einstein, Ray Charles, Robert De Niro, Louis Armstrong, Brad Pitt, Richard Nixon, Jack Nicholson and Alfred Hitchcock are some of their famous guests. Even if you don't book a room, go and enjoy a drink and cake.
Communale is a nice Italian joint within in Beton Hala (a former abandoned warehouse transformed into a tourist landmark, along the Sava River, with many upscale restaurants and bars).
Magellan - This Michelin-recommended, fine-dining establishment is across the Sava River, in New Belgrade. It felt a little like dining on a yacht. The food was plated beautifully, the wine was delicious, the service was impeccable, and we were even given a box of truffles as a parting gift.
Demokratija Cocktails - This cocktail and coffee bar was so cute, good and cheap that I went twice!
Damar Tartufi - Just down the street from Demokratija was this adorable truffle shop, offering truffle tastings for €10. Included in the tasting was a few tapenades, some shaved truffles in oil, cheese, chocolate and even truffle-infused wine.
Iva New Balkan Cuisine - The minimalist dining room, along with a friendly staff made this space feel immediately welcoming. The cuisine was a modern take on traditional Serbian food and was delicious.
Široka Staza - You'll find this cozy seafood restaurant along the Danube River, in Zemun (the view from the restaurant is below). We stumbled upon it by accident. To get there, go to the end of Dunavska Street and descend down the stairs. It'll be on your right. If you see a cat, or eight, milling about, you'll know you're in the right place. Be sure to order the grilled perch.
Temple of Saint Sava - One of the most recognizable symbols in Belgrade. This beacon of faith is not only the largest Serbian Orthodox church, it is the largest Orthodox place of worship in the Balkans and one of the largest in the world. Its total height reaches 82m with the dome being 70m high.
The Square of the Republic - Located in the Stari Grad municipality, this is the site of some of Belgrade's most discernible public buildings, including the National Museum, the National Theatre and the statue of Prince Michael.
Zemun - A cute, bohemian district, located within the Belgrade City area, known for its cafes, late-night bars and the fish restaurants along the riverside promenade. Gardoš hill, topped by an 1896 tower, offered vast Danube and city views. Visiting felt a little like a mini-break from the main metropolis of Belgrade.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:
Currency: Serbia is not part of the EU and therefore does not use the Euro (although prices are often quoted in Euros, and I think Euros are accepted in some places). Its currency, the Dinar, is valued low compared to the Euro, making Belgrade a spendthrift’s dream.
Hospitality: Serbians are famously hospitable. It is a custom that can be traced back to their ancient Slavic belief that a host won’t gain any favor from the gods if they are not hospitable to guests. I found people to be warm and friendly and service was pretty much flawless.
Tipping: Although not obligatory, if you are satisfied with your service then leave a tip of 10-15%, in cash. Tips cannot be added on to credit cards in restaurants.
Smoking: You can still smoke everywhere - even inside restaurants and bars. Blah!
Split Personality: Belgrade is bisected by the Sava River and is a town of two halves: the old and the new. The majority of my visit was spent on the Old Town side.
Famous Serbs: The country has produced some significant athletes and scientific minds. Nikola Jokić, regarded as one of the greatest basketball players and centers of all-time hails from Serbia. Belgrade is the hometown of one of the world’s best tennis players – Novak Djokovic. And Nikola Tesla made great discoveries in the disciplines of electric current and magnetism.