When I was in Belgrade last September, I knew there was something special about the city. Was it the most beautiful city in Europe? Not quite. But, it wasn’t Belgrade’s outer beauty that won my heart. It was the countless cafes in every neighborhood, the Kalenić green market, the endless options of organic and healthy shops, and the culture.
Days before arriving in Belgrade I booked an apartment through Airbnb. I was torn between two neighborhoods that I spent the majority of my time in last year when I visited for two weeks: Dorcol and Vračar. Dorcol is closer to the city center, which meant being closer to the nightlife and to Republic Square (the main square). It’s also a charming neighborhood with quaint bars and restaurants on cobble-stone streets. Whereas Vračar is busier and is the most densely populated area of the city. Vračar houses the largest open-air market in Belgrade and has countless bars and restaurants. Oh, can't forget about one of the largest churches in the world, the Church of Saint Sava is also located in Vračar. In the end, I chose Vračar because I found a seemingly perfect apartment near the Nikola Tesla Museum. You honestly can’t go wrong in Vračar (I’ll get into this more below).
I arrived on August 26th, and, at the time the COVID restrictions were limited. Bars and restaurants offered indoor seating until 9pm and outdoor seating until 11pm. Other than having to wear a mask when entering shops restrictions didn’t really exist. Even the nightclubs were open. During my last week in Belgrade in August they even extended the hours to 1am. As of November 9th, 2020 it’s back to 11pm.
After having an incredible month in Belgrade, I spent September soaking in the final days of sunshine on the seaside in Croatia, and then returned to Belgrade at the beginning of October. My journey from Split, Croatia back to Belgrade was definitely an interesting one. First, let me preface this by saying that when I flew from LAX to Belgrade in August I didn’t need a COVID test as an American. Nonetheless a PCR test. After spending a month in Croatia, I arrived at the Split airport excited to get back to the bustling city. As I was about to board my hour-long flight, I was told that I was restricted to fly since I didn’t have results from a PCR test. I was completely flabbergasted! Coming from one of the most infected COVID countries (USA) I didn’t need test results, BUT, going from Croatia to Serbia (neighboring countries), I did? Well... Fortunately, my Airbnb hosts were heading home to Zagreb, Croatia’s capital (thanks Nikola and Ivy!). I figured that if I really needed to get tested before leaving, the capital city would be my best bet. I won’t bore you with all of the details, but I will tell you that I decided to risk it and not get tested (tests in Croatia for foreigners were about $160 and required an appointment which seemed like a defeating process). I ended up finding a ride with BlaBla Car (carpooling company) from Zagreb to Belgrade which was about a 4-hour journey. When I got to the border by car, the border controller luckily didn’t ask for the COVID test at all - honestly, I don’t know what I would’ve done if he had. Maybe hitchhiked back to Zagreb?
Fortunately, the next week, my fantastic credit card company (Chase) contacted Serbia Airways for me to let them know that nowhere on their site did it say that I needed a COVID test in order to fly - Yay! The airline ended up refunding me for the ticket after that. Honestly, the whole process was a bit of a headache, but on the bright side I got to spend a night exploring Zagreb... Which is such a beautiful city!
People, including or should I say mostly Serbians, often ask why I choose to live here. Although I still haven’t gotten my 30-second pitch down, here are some of the aspects I’ve grown to love about living in Belgrade:
The appreciation of experiences
Serbians can enjoy a coffee or lunch for hours! Nothing is rushed, and every coffee out is treated as a new experience. I recently went to breakfast with two Serbian friends on a Splav on the Danube River (highly recommend checking out the Splavs). Once we had finished eating, we continued to sit there for another hour and a half. There was absolutely no rushing, which honestly was really nice! A typical, “let’s grab coffee” lasts for two hours.
In the middle of the day, cafes are inundated with people sitting back for an hour or two and it often leaves me questioning when people work. And although most of these cafes serve great food, it's rare to see people eating at them. Serbians typically just sip an espresso and a water.
On a side note, when you reserve a table at a bar it’s yours for the entire night! No need to worry about the next reservation.
Belgrade is a small NYC
There are countless options. Whether it’s the most amazing fresh pasta at Le Nonne Pasta Fresca, delicious and fresh Labonese takeout from Byblos Express, the absolute best Serbian cakes made right in the shop by the cutest old ladies at Štrudlica, or cocktails from Bitters Bar... Each time I am out exploring I am amazed by all of the options and can’t help but indulge.
Serbians are welcoming and kind
Wherever I go, I always feel so welcomed and warm. Whether it’s the guys at the cafe just below my apartment or the sweet women I buy flowers from at the Kalenić market, or the waiters at Pampour wine bar, everyone is always welcoming me by name and with the biggest smile.
Serbians are frank
Serbian honesty is like no other. Could be harsh but I’m learning to appreciate it. Finally, my skin is thickening!
The staring culture
While in some countries when you look at someone for too long it means you’re looking for trouble, in Belgrade it's ~typically~ a harmless habit. It's actually abnormal if you walk into a bar or a restaurant and people from nearly every table don't at least glance at you... Although you'll usually get checked out from head to toe, and I don’t think it’s done in a judging way. It definitely takes a little bit of time to get used to.
I’ve asked a few of my Serbian friends about this, and they’ve said it’s because the majority of Serbians in Belgrade come from small towns or villages, so they’re just curious where others are from. By gazing, they apparently try to figure it out? They also reminded me of the fact that I don’t necessarily look Serbian (most of the women are at least 4 inches taller than me, ha!), which may pique their curiosity more.
If you’re deciding to visit Belgrade during COVID I would encourage it. I am so glad to be here. It’s one of the few cities in Europe with limited restrictions for better or for worse. If you have any questions about the current situation please don’t hesitate to reach out!