It's a miracle that my new friend, Iva Savic, wasn't falling asleep at dinner. The night before we met, I was flying to her hometown, Belgrade, Serbia. She had been out dancing with a group of girlfriends until 4 a.m. Then she'd woken up bright and perky to head to work. She hadn't planned on staying out that late, but in typical Belgrade fashion, dinner had turned into barhopping. "We stayed until 2 a.m. and then they shut off the music and we moved on to another bar," she said. If you know where to go in Belgrade, the night never has to end.
I had met Iva through her sister, Alisa Dogramadzieva, who has worked with The Times' Eastern European correspondents. Alisa was in nearby Montenegro, but Iva was eager to show me all her hometown had to offer. And I had been eager to have company and guidance navigating a place where night life is central.
I knew I was in good hands with Iva. Like me, she is in her 40s, but with a teenage daughter and an air of being able to both charm a charging bull and flip it over her head if provoked, though she's only a little more than 5 feet tall. Through her, I got to see the beauty of this capital city, set at the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers. I also learned how deeply the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s and the breakup of that country affected daily life in Belgrade, from the look of certain buildings that were never repaired after the NATO bombings of 1999 to the songs cover bands play at bars. Most of all, she opened my eyes to the true throughline of a trip to Belgrade: hospitality and an ability to sing and dance through the best, and the worst, of times.
Stilettos and restaurant serenades
Picking me up for our first night out together, Iva had one instruction: no stilettos. We would be doing a long walk over cobblestones and across railroad tracks to get to Beton Hala, or The Concrete Hall, a row of fancy restaurants built into refurbished warehouses along the east bank of the Sava River. I had to laugh when I showed up in Birkenstocks, my only dressy travel shoes: every other woman there looked like a model, in a tight miniskirt and, yes, stilettos.
"Belgrade is very known for high heels and beautiful women," Iva said.
It's also known for live music, which is so abundant and varied, emanating from nearly every street corner and terrace, that walking outside can feel like stepping into a parade.
Bands played in nearly every restaurant in the Concrete Hall, each with a terrace facing across the Sava River toward the communist-era architecture of New Belgrade — a business district built in the late 1940s on a stretch of filled-in riverbank.
We got a drink at a place called Hush Hush, where a talented guitar-and-accordion duo played evergreen '50s and '60s music from Eastern Europe. Down the row, at Cantina de Frieda, a cover band was doing a rousing rendition of the 1985 classic "Ja Sam Lazlijiva" from Croatian synth-pop band Denis & Denis. I couldn't get it out of my head for days, despite knowing none of the lyrics or what they meant.
The cobblestoned Skadarlija district — often compared with Paris' Montmartre, and where your hotel will likely suggest that you have dinner — is filled with traditional taverns, called kafanas, where bands of five to six musicians move from table to table, singing folk songs and taking requests. (We ate at Tri Sesira, which had two accordion-led acoustic bands playing simultaneously.) In the winter, when people crowd indoors, it's quite common to dance on your table to show your appreciation, should the music so move you.
Club hopping on the waterfront
No matter where in the city your night begins, chances are it will end up at the Sava waterfront. After the Concrete Hall on the Old Belgrade side, Iva took me to one of her favorite dance spots, Tranzit, which had a great DJ, was totally outdoors and had none of the predatory behavior that had turned me off in my last bar-hopping jaunt in Miami. Iva suggested we reserve a table and I had said no because I didn't want to pay some exorbitant bottle fee. But it turns out that in Belgrade, reserving a table at a club just means you have a guaranteed spot to stand without getting jostled — for free. (At some bars, you can do that VIP bottle service thing, too, if that's your thing.)
Across the water in New Belgrade, the scene is all about clubs on boats, known as splavs. Are you into folk music? Half-naked women dancing on platforms to drum and bass? Paintings of Frank Zappa's face? (They're plastered all over club Zappa Barka.) There's a party boat for everyone. And it was easy to hop from one to another since almost none of the boats charge a cover; if they do, it's around $5. (Just watch out for taxi scams; any legit cab has "TX" as part of its license plate number.)
Far less democratic, though, is the $3.6 billion redevelopment of the Old Belgrade waterfront just past Tranzit. Where a beautiful new park and walking path stand, filled with commissioned art — like a light-up plexiglass sculpture — were once people's homes; residents were violently evicted to make way for construction. That raid prompted the biggest antigovernment protests in Serbia since the uprising that ousted Milosevic in 2000. The funding, from the United Arab Emirates, is controversial, as is the architecture, which will put high-rises adjacent to the oldest parts of one of the oldest cities in Europe.
Meat, meat, meat
"Traditional Serbian food is meat, meat, meat," said Iva. It also seemed to be a lot of cheese, cheese, cheese — phenomenally delicious and destined to clog all your arteries.
At least once, if you're determined to do Belgrade right, you need to start off your day with burek, a savory pastry made with salty cheese, phyllo leaves and enough grease to power a biodiesel engine. "If I have one tip, it's that a bakery next to the market is usually going to be good," said Iva when she took me to Pekara Trpkovic next to the Kalenic Market. (Raspberries are also a good market buy; Serbia is one of the world's biggest exporters.)
To drink, begin with rakija, or plum brandy, and move to Jelen beer. The meat dish every Serbian will ask if you tried is cevapcici: minced meat rolled into a rod shape, grilled and served with flatbread. I was a bigger fan of the two condiments that typically come with it, along with grilled onions: ajvar and kajmak. The former is a spread made from red bell peppers; the latter is made from the fermented cream of boiled milk, and possibly better than butter (something I didn't know was possible).