x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

The Balkans' party central

A weekend guide to Belgrade They say New York is the city that never sleeps, but it has some serious competition in the Balkans.

Locals come to relax atop Kalemegdan Citadel, which overlooks the Sava and the Danube rivers and the city's gritty industrial backdrop.
Locals come to relax atop Kalemegdan Citadel, which overlooks the Sava and the Danube rivers and the city's gritty industrial backdrop.

They say New York is the city that never sleeps, but it has some serious competition in the Balkans. Behind the mask of slightly dilapidated concrete buildings and trolley buses you'll find Belgrade, a fun, exciting city with a superb club scene, interesting museums dedicated to its dramatic and, at many times, unfortunate history, and a relaxed, chilled-out cafe culture. It's a place to go out and party the night away in style, or to get lost around the backstreets, seeing what new cafes or shops are waiting to be discovered. Whether you're sitting outside eating some burek on the main square, or inside dancing the night away at a floating club on the Danube, you find a population dedicated to the art of enjoying themselves. A safe city turning over a new leaf after past troubles, a trip to Belgrade makes for a surprisingly fun and enjoyable weekend break from the summer heat.

Take a walk around the old town when you arrive, getting lost in the winding streets that lead up to the park surrounding the Kalemegdan Citadel, a fort built in the most strategic location in all of Serbia, overlooking the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers, previously the border between the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. Enter there through the Stambol Gate and you will find yourself in the Military Museum (US$0.30, Dh1), which includes exhibits from the Nato bombings that happened just 10 years ago.

Head down to Ada Ciganlija, the biggest island on the river Sava, which is Belgrade's outdoor sports centre, where you can play basketball, beach volleyball, tennis, football and a variety of other activities. There's also a beach where you can swim and even waterski, or just sit in one of the numerous cafes and watch other people doing all the hard work. Head along the towpaths of the Sava and Danube rivers on a bike tour, and have a rest at one of the numerous cafes along the river. You can hire bikes from opposite Hotel Jugoslavija for US$3 (Dh11). Or hire a catamaran (www.klubkej.com) to take you up and down the rivers to see Belgrade from below for $6 (Dhs22).

Head to the Nikola Tesla Museum (www.tesla-museum.org) to find out about the man who "invented the 20th century" - a renowned Serbian-American scientist whose inventions that helped shape the course of modern living, include alternating current and electric motors. Entrance is only $1 (Dh4). In late August, the Belgrade Boat Carnival takes place on the Sava and Danube rivers and September 15 to 30 sees BITEF, the Belgrade International Theatre Festival. Belgrade comes alive in the evening, with cafes and bars spilling out onto the streets outside. The rivers host floating clubs, self-contained nightspots that have been moored along the banks of the river, where most of Belgrade's youth goes to dance the night away, regardless of what day of the week it is.

Budget Book ahead at Three Black Catz, a quirky hostel just off the main square right in the middle of town, and one of the first to open in Belgrade. You'll meet people straight away in the main common room, and it has free drinks and Wi-Fi. Dorm rooms start from $15 (Dh55) per night, including taxes. Three Black Catz, Cika Ljubina 7/49, (00 381 11 2629826).

Mid-range Large, spacious and comfortable rooms and a central location puts Hotel Balkan to the top of the list for those with a bit more of a budget. Double rooms start from $156 (Dh573) per night, including taxes. Hotel Balkan, Prizrenska 2, (www.balkanhotel.net; 00 381 11 268 7466). Luxury For one of the most modern hotels in Belgrade with a superb location, stay at the beautiful Hotel Townhouse 27. Rooms cost from $270 (Dh1,000) per night, including taxes and breakfast. Hotel Townhouse 27, Mar?ala Birjuzova 56 (www.townhouse27.com; 00 381 11 202 2900).

Breakfast Breakfast in Belgrade tends to be based around recuperating from the night before by having a coffee and a cigarette outside in one of the numerous cafes in the old town area. If you're hungry head to one of the bakeries nearby and get yourself a tasty meat pie known as burek with some yoghurt for $1.50 (Dh6), which you eat standing up at one of the tables outside.

Lunch The name doesn't give much away, but "?" is the oldest tavern in Belgrade, on Kralja Petra. Its name results from an argument with the Cathedral opposite, that objected to the name "Cathedral Cafe". In protest, the owner put up a question mark, where it has remained ever since. It's one of the few mid-19th century buildings that still remains in Belgrade. Expect to spend at least $15 (Dh 55) per person.

Head to the top of the fort to find Kalemegdan Citadel Restaurant, a pretty cafe that overlooks the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. Sit there and imagine the history of this old border of two of Europe's largest empires. A meal costs around $30 (Dh110) per person. Dinner Go to the area of Skadarlija, an old area for Belgrade's artistic community. Expect to be serenaded (if that's the word) by a Roma fiddle player as you eat food on a terrace by the cobbled street. If you prefer being part of the cool crowd, head downhill to Silcone Valley, a short walk from the main square. Named after the female clientele who are fond of plastic surgery, you sit on terraces that are built out on the cobbled street and enjoy the somewhat odd scene. Try Sta Je Tu Je on the same street for dinner, from $15 (Dh55) per person. If you like fish, it's worth the trip to the banks of the Sava to find Stenka where they specialise in all types of river fish.

A return flight on JAT Airways (www.jat.com) from Abu Dhabi to Belgrade costs from $675 (Dh2,465) including taxes.

Read The Man Who Invented the Twentieth Century: Nikola Tesla - Forgotten Genius of Electricity by Robert Lomas.