Come to Belgrade with an open mind; you’re about to take a deep dive into Balkan history from the Serbian perspective. Centuries of war have shaped this capital city and its people. NATO bombs fell on military targets here as recently as 1999. Here are five ways to uncover some of Belgrade’s darkest secrets, while also enjoying the tasty food and lively street scene.
1. Underground Tour: the Roman Well and Tito’s Secret Bunker
Ground zero for your Belgrade visit is the tourism office at the end of the main walking street, Knez Mihailova, where you can sign up for the Underground Tour. Our English-speaking guide, Bojana, led us across the street into the vast park surrounding the Belgrade Fortress. First stop: the Roman Well.
The brick-lined hole you see today is 62 meters deep and surrounded by two spiral staircases. It was built in the 1700s by the Austrians, the last of many unsuccessful attempts to find a source of well water inside the fortifications. “It is neither Roman nor a well,” Bojana explained. Instead, it it had a more sinister purpose as a dungeon; local lore has it that traitors were left to starve at the bottom of the hole, with knives being dropped down to them when they became desperate enough to kill and eat each other. On that cheery note, we returned to the public park above ground.
Stopping outside an inconspicuous door in a small hill, Bojana produced a key and led us into a long tunnel. This is one of the entrances to a secret bunker, built to withstand a nuclear attack during the Cold War in the early 1950s. It was feared that Stalin might launch a nuclear strike to wipe out his communist rival, Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito. Although Tito never needed to use the bunker, Army personnel lived underground in it for years to make sure it was ready, just in case. Feel the Dr. Strangelove vibes as you see the tubes where food could be delivered, the water storage vats and steel cots behind fortified doors.
Above ground again, we trekked to another cave built to store Austrian gunpowder and weapons. Abandoned for decades, it was a squat until taken over by the city and restored as an exhibition hall for the many Roman relics found throughout the city. Part of the space still functions as a popular nightclub. Other parts of the vast underground cave network have been repurposed as bars and wine cellars. We visited one of them for a taste of local white wine, included in the tour price of 15 Euros per person. Sturdy shoes are a must for lots of walking on steps and steep, uneven terrain. Reservations required, although you can visit only the Roman Well on your own.
2. Communism Tour of Tito’s Yugoslavia
To learn more about Tito, plan to take the Communism Tour offered by Belgrade Walking Tours. The tour is free, although there was a 10-euro charge per person for bus fares and museum tickets. Days and times are on the website. We paid our guide, Teodora, when we met her on the edge of Republic Square (Trg Republike).
Teodora was typical of today’s young Serbians born since the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. They have only experienced communism through the stories they’ve heard from their parents. She explained how the communist partisans gained power after World War II, defeating Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Chetnik forces loyal to the Yugoslavian king, who was an 11-year old boy when the war broke out. Serbia, whose fighting-age men were mostly wiped out in World War I, had no real army. So the ruling prince decided to sign a nonaggression pact with Hitler. People rioted in the streets, saying death was better than the Nazis. Hitler gave them their wish by bombing Belgrade to rubble and invading the country for a brutal occupation. The partisan resistance fighters sided with the Allies; Tito later broke away from Stalin as he faced the post-war task of rebuilding what was left of Yugoslavia with little foreign aid.
Tito’s remarkable story is told in the Museum of Yugoslavia, a short bus ride away from the center. Teodora taught us the phrase “samo malo” (a little more space) as our group of 18 crammed into city bus #40 that was already jam-packed with rush-hour commuters. I can understand enough Slavic language to know that the locals weren’t too pleased, but they made a little more space anyway.
No photographs are permitted inside the museum, where Tito’s personal effects are displayed in glass cases. Entire rooms are filled with the batons presented to the leader at the annual sports festivals known as slet, where thousands would fill a stadium to celebrate the end of a relay race. Tito, born on a farm in what is now Croatia to a Slovenian mother, proved to be a skilled diplomat. He not only charmed world leaders and movie stars; he also brought all of Yugoslavia’s feuding ethnic groups together under the communist banner of “brotherhood and unity.” His remains are enshrined in the House of Flowers, the atrium of the home where he spent the last years of his life. You can take pictures there before visiting the gift shop.
A post-script: when Tito died in Ljubljana in 1980, his body was transported around Yugoslavia in his luxurious Blue Train. Today, the engine sits forlornly outside Belgrade’s abandoned train station, its communist symbols left to rust amid trash and weeds. We visited the train after the final stop on the tour: the ruined Serbian Defense Ministry that was hit by NATO bombs during the conflict over Kosovo in 1999. Teodora explained what it was like to live through the bombing of Belgrade, as well as the Serbian perspective in the ongoing conflict over Kosovo’s independence.
Serbia’s refusal to recognize Kosovo has prevented its admission to the European Union. Cross the river to New Belgrade, where the massive buildings built for Tito’s bureaucracy are now used by Serbia’s government ministries.
3. Dark History: Banjica Concentration Camp
Ready for more dark history? Take the #40 bus past the Tito Museum to a stop called “Banjica.” You’ll see a lot of young men and women walking around in combat fatigues because this is equivalent of West Point for Serbian Army officers. In the basement of the military academy, but accessible from the street, is a shrine to the camp set up by the Nazis here. It was a holding pen for accused resistance leaders and even random civilians who were to be killed under the German policy of mass retaliation for the partisans’ attacks. Belgrade’s small Jewish community was among those rounded up. Those healthy enough for slave labor were able to avoid the mass-killing pits. An estimated 70,000 Yugoslavs were killed during the German occupation, according to the caretaker who showed us around. Admission: 200 dinars. We were the only visitors.
During Communist times, Yugoslavian school groups came here to learn about the German occupation, but in recent years new information has emerged about the measures taken by Tito’s regime to quash any post-war opposition. The camp remained in use, along with a gulag-like prison known as Naked Island. The final count of how many anti-communists were killed or imprisoned on Tito’s watch is still being determined.
4. Visit the Royal Compound
Now, back to the 11-year-old king whose entire family was forced into exile by the German occupation during World War II. Although the Chetniks remained loyal, the victory of the Communists effectively put an end to the monarchy in 1945. The royals were stripped of their citizenship in the new Communist Yugoslavia, until it was restored by a Serbian court in 2001. The current crown prince has lived in the royal compound with his family since then. They have no political power and pay their own expenses, but also supervise a number of charity foundations. “The Crown Prince doesn’t even speak much Serbian,” one young citizen told us, when asked if there was any support for restoring the monarchy.
To visit the leafy compound in a Belgrade’s swankiest neighborhood, sign up at the tourism office on Knez Mihailova and be prepared to show your passport. For 600 dinars each, we were given tickets and told to show up at a bus stop across from the National Assembly building the next day. As we boarded the bus, our guide pointed out the original royal palace, now used as Belgrade’s City Hall, and the neighboring New Palace, which is now the office of Serbia’s presidency.
The gated royal compound contains two palaces: the residence of the royal family and the “white palace” used for official ceremonies. It was closed on the day of our visit. Photos are only permitted outside the residence. Inside, you’ll be followed by an official photographer in case you’d like to pose in the royal surroundings. Photos were 200 dinars each. Our guide described the historic furniture and art on the ground floor of the palace and led us into the ornately painted basement where the royals could let their hair down. A “whispering room” allowed the family to turn on a fountain to keep their conversations private from eavesdropping servants. The Orthodox royal chapel was used for storage by the Communists, and you’ll notice that someone managed to shoot a bullet into the forehead of Christ in the dome. It was restored in the 1950s for the visit of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, who needed a place to pray.
A few other buildings provided hunting and other sports facilities for Marshall Tito’s honored guests, but the leader’s favorite room was a private cinema in the basement of the residential palace where he entertained Sophia Loren, Richard Burton and other stars. Tito is said to have watched at least one movie every day.
5. Belgrade Fortress and the Military Museum
Mighty Belgrade Fortress today functions as a vast Central Park. Its moats have been converted into a display of vintage war weapons, tennis courts, a dinosaur park, playgrounds and parking lots. Enjoy the expansive views from the Nebojše Tower and the Statue of the Victor. As you look down over the place where the Dunav and Sava rivers meet, ponder the blessing and the curse of Belgrade’s strategic location. Visit the Military Museum for a dimly lit collection of artifacts from centuries of battles in which, we’re told, the Serbs fought bravely, inflicted many casualties and often found themselves on the losing side anyway.
Terry’s Tips for Enjoying Belgrade
While Serbs are proud of their history, some are pretty upset with the present situation. You’ll find streets occasionally blocked by demonstrations about Kosovo or government corruption. Young people feel they lack opportunities despite being highly educated. They look to eventual membership in the EU so they can freely leave. Everything from hotel rooms to food seems like a bargain to tourists, but expensive to low-paid locals.
Belgrade rewards the visitor with random memorable moments: a cute cat garden, or curious pensioners who offer a visitor the only free seat on a crowded bus. Mingle with locals on the Knez Mihailova and stroll the more touristy Skadarlija quarter. If nightlife is your thing, head for the river barges that have been turned into clubs. Those experiences may balance out the occasional frustrations of Serbia’s still-developing tourist trade. We spent a day trying to take the tour that is advertised on the National Assembly’s website, only to get the runaround to several different agencies and learn that it doesn’t really exist.
Getting There: Minibus A1 will take you from Belgrade’s Tesla Airport to the Slavija Square in the center for only 300 dinars, leaving every 20 minutes on most days and usually packed. There’s an airport taxi stand that will sell you a ticket for a fixed-price fare. Beware of fake taxis that have been known to charge hundreds of euros to unsuspecting tourists. We were told to never hail a taxi on the street; have a local call a legitimate taxi or get the app to do it yourself. Car Go is said to be similar to Uber, but you need to order airport transfers 24 hours in advance.
Getting Around: Belgrade is a city of two million people and no subway. You’ll have trouble negotiating the bus and tram system if you don’t speak enough Serbian to buy a fare card or read enough Cyrillic to decipher the schedules. Customer service in most shops was non-existent or downright surly. However, we found that young people who overheard us speaking English were willing to help.
Eating and Drinking: Meat-lovers will be delighted with Balkan cuisine. Be sure to try the cevapi, minced-meat grilled sausages served in plates of five or ten with tasty kajmak butter. Meat-based hearty stews are also popular. Vegetarians? Sorry, you’re limited to a few bland salad offerings and a bean casserole called prebranec. I love the šopska salad: fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and onions showered with white cheese. But I’ll be honest and admit that hunger can be a real issue for a vegetarian in Belgrade. Vegans? Most Serbs just don’t get it.
I was delighted to find the Radost Fina Kuhinjica, literally a House of Joy for vegetarians. It’s on the ground floor of the apartment building at 3 Pariška near the fortress and the French embassy. There’s no sign out front. Cozy antique furniture, friendly waiter, tasty food, house wine and rakija at a reasonable price. Follow strangersblog on Trip Advisor for more of my Belgrade recommendations.
The excellent local beers are Jelen (Deer) and Lev (Lion), usually available on draft. Serbia makes decent wine, but so does neighboring Montenegro. Definitely try the rakija, a potent fruit liquor that locals drink before dinner, although I like it as an after-dinner drink.
Recommended Reading: I traveled to Serbia with author Andrew Anzur Clement, who was researching part three of his alternate history novel, “Tito’s Lost Children.” It’s an adventure story following a band of snarky teenagers during the real events that led to the breakup of Yugoslavia. Click here to read an interview with the author. Buy the ebook on Amazon and read on any device. Print books available at higher cost. And thanks in advance for helping out this indie author with your reviews! And if Andrew looks familiar you may have seen him talking about his life as a writer in Slovenia on House Hunters International.
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