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My Kind of Place: Cafe culture now rules Belgrade

Serbia's capital, a five-hour flight away, is relaxed by day but really comes alive at night.
The suburb of Zemun teems with galleries, cafes, riverside restaurants and clubs and architecture reminiscent of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Getty Images
The suburb of Zemun teems with galleries, cafes, riverside restaurants and clubs and architecture reminiscent of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Getty Images
Why Belgrade?

Serbia's capital has been steadily building up a buzz as one of Eastern Europe's liveliest cities. It has certainly had a turbulent history over the past 7,000 years - not forgetting its most recent troubles in the 1990s - but it's always been able to bounce back. While its position at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers made it a target for invaders in the centuries past, nowadays those two waterways draw visitors to the energetic nightlife found in the 200-odd floating restaurants and bars known as splavovi.

Cafe culture rules in the old town, Stari Grad, where tables are wedged into most available spaces in the handsome squares and 19th-century boulevards. A stroll past the shops and cafes of pedestrianised Knez Mihailova will lead you eventually to Belgrade's heart, the stately fortress of Kalemegdan overlooking the two rivers. Here, beautifully landscaped gardens surround ancient Roman ruins, Ottoman forts and Austrian gates, as well as museums, restaurants and a zoo.

Across the Sava is the attractive suburb of Zemun with its distinctively western architecture that befits this former outpost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Cobbled streets, galleries and small cafes fill the centre where the daily food market takes place, and its animated riverside scene makes you feel as if you've landed in a seaside resort.

A comfortable bed

Smart boutique and design hotels have been replacing the less salubrious stalwarts of the communist era. Belgrade's first boutique hotel, the four-star Beograd Art Hotel (www.belgradearthotel.com), has sleek, modern interiors and is in the heart of the city in Knez Mihailova. Doubles start at 16,248 Serbian dinars (Dh634). Recently renovated Le Petit Piaf (petitpiaf.com) is in the historic district of Skadarlija, where 19th-century writers, poets and musicians turned the pretty cobbled streets into a spirited bohemian quarter. Contemporary doubles start at ?84 (Dh380).

Find your feet

Most of Belgrade's popular sights are within the confines of the old town. Modern buses and quite a few old-fashioned trams trundle through the city in a well-organised network that takes in Novi Beograd (New Belgrade) and Zemun. The main tourist office in Republic Square (00 381 11 3281 859; www.tob.rs) has information on bus tours of the city, including open-top tours run by BS Tours (www.bstours.rs) and Lasta (www.lasta-turizam.com).

Meet the locals

Serbs take their coffee seriously and thrive on fiendishly strong Turkish coffee known as kuvana kafa. The cafes in the adjoining Republic and Students' squares, as well as neighbouring Knez Mihailova, are filled with Belgraders getting their caffeine fix. As many locals work from 8am until 4pm, the streets throng with people much earlier in the day than in other parts of Europe.

There's a distinctly international feel (with a few Slavic twists) among the hyper-trendy bars and restaurants of Strahinjica Bana. That's not surprising as you take in the French feel of Bistro Pastis, the London vibe of Soho Bar or relax with a hookah pipe in the eastern-style interior of Kandahar.

Book a table

Serbian cuisine is the collision of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, which means there's a lot of meat on the menus. Non-meat eaters can try the excellent fresh fish and seafood served in the splavovi along the Danube and Sava. The Danube-side terrace at Zabar (Kej oslobodenja , 00 381 11 3191 226) on the way to Zemun serves wonderful grilled octopus for 1,900 Serbian dinars (Dh74). Skadarlija offers an entertaining night out as Serbian folk musicians wander from restaurant to restaurant (not as annoying as it might sound). Dva Jelena at Skadarska 32 (00 381 11 3234 885) has delicious plates of cevapcici (grilled meat rissoles) for 620 Serbian dinars (Dh24) and palate-cleansing cucumber salads for about 220 Serbian dinars (Dh8.53).

Shopper's paradise

Stari Grad's Terazije, technically a square but more like a boulevard, is home to luxury boutiques including Burberry, MaxMara and Emporio Armani. If you want to check out local designers, turn into Nusiceva street where the Belgrade Design District has about 30 shops set in atmospheric passages. International brands such as Replay, Miss Sixty and Zara line the length of Knez Mihailova, which also has mini arcades such as Millennium tucked into side streets. Head across the Sava to Novi Beograd for large shopping malls at the Sava Centar and Usce Shopping Center.

What to avoid

Ignore the taxi touts outside Belgrade's Nikola Tesla airport as you're not likely to get an honest fare from them. Instead, make use of the official taxi stand at the baggage carousel where clearly defined fares into the city centre start at 1,500 Serbian dinars (Dh58).

Don't miss

Ada Ciganlija is Belgrade's recreational playground, a large island in the Sava river where most of the population goes when the summer temperatures soar. It's big enough to hold seven kilometres of Blue Flag beaches, fishing lakes, a marina, facilities for water sports including canoeing and water skiing, nature trails, a golf course, tennis and volleyball courts, a bungee jump, dozens of restaurants and cafes and even a tiny zoo. Although the beach season is roughly from June to September, the island is open all year round. Indeed, winter is the time to have a go at the artificial ski slope.

Go there

Flydubai (www.flydubai.com) flies to Belgrade, a five-hour trip, from Dh2,133 return, including taxes.

Updated: September 7, 2012 04:00 AM