Holidays Travel

Holiday like a king in Europe’s cheapest city break destination – Belgrade

There’s lots to love about this vibrant destination (Alamy/PA)
There’s lots to love about this vibrant destination (Alamy/PA) There’s lots to love about this vibrant destination (Alamy/PA)

The simple wooden table ahead of me is laden with dishes. Plates of cevapi (a type of mincemeat), sizzling grilled peppers and gibanica (a cheese filo pastry pie) form insurmountable food mountains, barely leaving any space for the shots of rakia (a double distilled fruit brandy) and pints of craft beer.

Walls stacked with jars and sauces make Manufaktura feel more like a larder than a restaurant. Tucking into some of Serbia’s favourite dishes in the city centre of Belgrade, I feel like the guest of honour in a private home.

Delicious as the dinner might be, however, the evening’s highlight comes when the bill arrives. Costing a fraction of what I’d pay in London for a meal like this (around £10 per person), it’s a satisfying experience all round. Although geographically part of Europe, Serbia is still outside the Eurozone. Especially welcome during a cost of living crisis, prices remain astonishingly cheap.

On October 31, British Airways resumed direct flights to the country’s capital, Belgrade, for the first time in 13 years. Operating three times a week, with a journey time of less than three hours, the service is perfectly set up for a leisurely city break. Aside from the cheap booze and food, this is why you should go…

It’s a multicultural microcosm with multiple identities

The confluence of rivers Sava and Danube (Alamy/PA)
The confluence of rivers Sava and Danube (Alamy/PA) The confluence of rivers Sava and Danube (Alamy/PA) (Alamy Stock Photo)

Long before BA touched down, this city was in high demand. Due to its strategic position as a crossroads in Central Europe, Belgrade has been at the centre of more than 100 conflicts and has changed its name 15 times. Known as Singidunum by a Celtic tribe in the 3rd century BC, it eventually became part of the Roman Empire. Later, it would fall under the Ottoman Empire and more recently was part of the former Yugoslavia. Even today, it straddles both Central Europe and the Balkans.

One of the world’s oldest civilisations once resided here

The National Museum of Serbia, Republic Square (Alamy/PA)
The National Museum of Serbia, Republic Square (Alamy/PA) The National Museum of Serbia, Republic Square (Alamy/PA) (Alamy Stock Photo)

Inhabited up to 7,000 years ago, the land now known as Serbia has been a source of many archaeological treasures. Digs along the Danube River have unearthed multiple artefacts, including fragments of skulls which have been compared to those found in Ethiopia. Among the pieces on display at the National Museum is an neolithic child’s spoon with teeth marks, ancient tools, and a votive of a chariot led by mallards dating to the 2nd millennium BC.

A piece of Manchester will always rest here

A photo of the Manchester United team on the wall of the Majestic hotel (Sarah Marshall/PA)
A photo of the Manchester United team on the wall of the Majestic hotel (Sarah Marshall/PA) A photo of the Manchester United team on the wall of the Majestic Hotel (Sarah Marshall/PA)

In 1958, Manchester United played Red Star Belgrade in the European Cup. A 3-3 draw was enough to earn them a place in the semi-final, but the event is momentous for more tragic reasons. On the way home, the British team’s plane crashed, killing 23 people, including eight players and three members of the club’s staff. The Busby Babes are commemorated with a plaque on the wall of the Majestic Hotel in the heart of the old town, where they stayed. There’s also a photograph taken a few days before before the accident, featuring Sir Bobby Charlton, who survived.

You can have tea with King Charles’s cousin (if he’s in)

The basement playroom in the Royal palace (Sarah Marshall/PA)
The basement playroom in the Royal palace (Sarah Marshall/PA) The basement playroom in the Royal Palace (Sarah Marshall/PA)

Imagine spending a fortune building not one but two palaces only to be booted out a few years later. That’s what happened to Serbia’s King Alexander 1, who was assassinated before he properly had a chance to enjoy his Royal and White Palace. A decade later, his son fled to London during the Second World War when communists seized his riches.

The next heir was born in Claridge’s in London, where Winston Churchill had soil placed under the bed to temporarily declare it Yugoslavian territory. When he returned in 2001, crown prince Alexander didn’t speak any Serbian but he was given access to his grandfather’s grand palaces. Every Saturday, group tours of the complex are available (1000 RSD; royalfamily.org). Highlights include a library decorated with Italian Renaissance art and an ostentatious orientalist basement pool parlour, with a private cinema with a niche for a piano to accompany silent movies.

They have their own version of the Sagrada Familia

The interior of Saint Sava cathedral (Sarah Marshall/PA)
The interior of Saint Sava cathedral (Sarah Marshall/PA) The interior of Saint Sava cathedral (Sarah Marshall/PA)

Although very different in style to Gaudi’s ostentatious Spanish work, this shimmering masterpiece is equally unfinished – although it’s 97% done. Found in the eastern part of the Svetosavski Trg square, Saint Sava cathedral is located on the spot where its beatified namesake’s remains are believed to have been buried. Capable of holding 10,000 people at a time, it glitters with thousands of mosaics. Be blinded by the interior or arrive on the hour to hear 49 bells chime.



Tennis heroes hail from these parts

The Belgrade fortress (Sarah Marshall/PA)
The Belgrade fortress (Sarah Marshall/PA) The Belgrade fortress (Sarah Marshall/PA)

Monica Seles, Ana Ivanovic and Novak Djokovic all honed their strokes in Serbia. If you fancy picking up a racket, one of the most novel tennis courts can be found in the former moat of the Belgrade Fortress in the city’s Stari Grad district. After game, set and match, wander through the historic building to find ancient graffiti etched on the stone gates.

Packed with red squirrels, the surrounding Kalemegdan Park sits on the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers and has an excellent viewpoint – although many visitors find their gaze travels to a naked male sculpture, amusingly erected on a pillar with a sword pointing at right angles from his waist.

There’s a hip (and cheap) bar scene

Leila record shop and bar (Sarah Marshall/PA)
Leila record shop and bar (Sarah Marshall/PA) Leila record shop and bar (Sarah Marshall/PA)

When a pint costs less than £3, any venue becomes appealing. But amongst the many places to quench your thirst, Belgrade has several outstanding options. Appealing to vinyl junkies, Leila Records (leila.rs) – just off the main Knez Mihailova promenade – sells cocktails, coffees and a curated selection of albums. Spin tunes while sipping a Negroni for under a fiver. At Hyde Park in the elite Dedinje area, an eclectic mosaic of patchwork fabrics woven with trails of ivy create an outdoor interior, with a refreshingly affordable food and drink menu to (mis)match.

How to plan your trip

British Airways (ba.com) flies from London Heathrow to Belgrade three times per week, with return fares available from £104.