Given that Belgrade was battered by bombs in the 1990s and bruised by inflation in recent years, you would hardly expect it to be saluted in 2010 as the world's party capital. But its vitality is on display 24 hours a day. It's a city of surprises. There are many stodgy communist-era buildings and dignified early 19th-century ones, but also surprising art nouveau structures worthy of Vienna.
The airport provides a hint to expect the unexpected as it is named after Nikola Tesla, 'the man who invented the 20th century'. He emigrated to the United States and competed with Thomas Edison in pioneering research into electricity. It is worth visiting the Nikola Tesla museum (Krunska 51), which explains his inventions in the field of electricity, wireless and robotics and has a huge collection of documents, photographs and personal effects.
The largest Balkan city, with 1.7 million inhabitants, Belgrade seems a scarred, feisty battler astride the fault line between East and West, reflected in the use of both Cyrillic and Roman alphabets. The future may be indicated by a prevalence of Roman characters in adverts.
A journalist tells me the first rule in Belgrade is 'Thou shall eat at all times'. Bakeries, which open at 5am, serve a variety of tasty bread and pastries. There are also satisfying breakfast venues such as Le Petit Paris in Nemanjina Street which, despite its name, serves Serbian specialities at breakfast, lunch and dinner. The breakfasts include hearty items such as burek, a flaky pastry with fillings of meat, cheese or even pizza toppings.
Influences seen in the food include those of the Ottomans, who occupied Serbia for more than 400 years, and Austrians. The Ottoman influence is evident in very sweet sweets such as honey-drenched baklava, in the use of yoghurt and even in that of pork: traditionally Serbs ate mainly beef but farmers turned to pork production because the Muslim overlords seized cattle but not pigs. Foreign food has a local twist: schnitzel Karadjordjevic, rolled pork stuffed with cream cheese, differs from Viennese schnitzel.
Since it was Singidunum, a bulwark of the Roman empire against the barbarians, the town has been levelled 40 times. Belgrade means 'white city' but it has also been called the 'portal of war': no intact building is older than 250 years. And there are recent ruins from the Nato bombings in 1999, such as the Ministry of Defence building in Kneza Miloza Street, with its cement walls buckled like cardboard, and the state television headquarters on Takovska street where the current affairs office, which nestled between two larger glass-fronted buildings, was flattened on the night of April 1999, killing 16 staff members.
Strahinjica Bana, also called Silicon Valley because of the surgically upholstered young women in its bars, is one of the interesting streets of the compact Old Town, as is nearby Skadarlija, a short, steep cobblestone alley lined with historic bars and restaurants, many of them shielded by flowering vines. Once bohemian, it is now a tourist trap, but competition restrains prices which, anyway, are low in Belgrade. Any meal over Euro20 (HK$222) - not including drinks - ranks as expensive.
Skadarlija is close to the main pedestrian promenade, Knez Mihailova, lined with dignified 19th-century buildings, chic shops, coffee bars and restaurants, but also multilingual bookshops and art galleries.
Knez Mihailova Street leads to the Kalemegdan park and the star-shaped Belgrade Fortress. If you skirt its massive walls, after a kilometre you come to the inexpensive Mila restaurant and pizzeria. The Sava and Danube rivers meet below the hill on which the fort stands. The Ottoman-era fort looks across the river to Zemun. In the fort in 1804, Serbian clan chieftain George Petrovic, known as Karadjordjevic (Black George), began a revolt against the Ottomans that was to lead, eventually, to Serbian independence. Within the fort walls are a military museum, an internal park and magnificent views, particularly at sunset.
Across the Sava river from the fort, best reached by taxi, is Zemun next to New Belgrade, a grid-pattern quarter of glass office blocks, shopping malls and flats. Zemun has a few baroque, Austrian-era churches and a riverfront lined with fish restaurants. One on an old moored ship, the Ahab, serves spicy fish soup for Euro1.50. Bicycles can be hired for the paths along both the Sava and the Danube.
Best royal places
The royal Karadjordjevic family, which spent the second world war in England, returned to Belgrade in 2001. Crown Prince Alexander II and his family live in the spacious royal compound. A fresco of Christ in the cupola of the royal chapel still has a hole in the forehead from a communist soldier's bullet. The palace art collection is small but interesting.
The communist leader Tito occupied another palace in the compound. In the grounds Tito buried together his secretary-lover Davorjanka Paunovic, his horse and dog, but it is not clear who has pride of place. It can be visited between April 1 and October 30, on Saturdays and Sundays. Tito's tomb can be visited on mornings at the House of Flowers in Bulevar Mira Street.
The skyline is dominated by the majestic St Sava Orthodox church, a white marble temple with green copper domes. St Sava, who lived in the 13th century, is considered the founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church. In 1594 the Ottoman rulers unearthed his relics and burned them on this site.
Almost 300 years later a church was planned here, but work was interrupted during the Nazi occupation and the civil war in the 90s. It is now partially in use, making it the world's largest functioning Orthodox church.
The Tsar of Russia, the Opera and Mazestik cafes, are all in a short side street off Knez Mihailova. The Czar of Russia, on the corner of Knez Mihailova, is a big caf? with divans inside and tables in the street. Smaller and with old world d?cor, the Opera, 30 metres down the side street, is frequented by artists and writers. Alongside it is Mazestik, a hotel-restaurant with a coffee bar and many street tables.
Goran Jervic, a Serb who ran the Verve coffee shop in Little Collins street, Melbourne, for 15 years, brought back fusion cooking and established the successful Iguana restaurant on the banks of the Sava (Karadordeva 2-4). Iguana is a black-and-white eatery with a podium where jazz groups perform seven nights a week.
The menu includes spicy soup with prawns and vegetables, tuna carpaccio, grilled salmon with wasabi sauce and warm date pudding. Australian and other wines are served.
Lonely Planet chose Belgrade as the world's No 1 city for partying. The second commandment in Belgrade is 'Thou shalt dance' on the houseboats or rafts (splav) moored on the banks of the Sava and Danube, with names such as Amsterdam and Acapulco (turbo-folk - throbbing amalgams of folk music and electronic beats); Baywatch, Sound and Freestyler for electronic music; and Povetarac and 20/44 for alternative rock. Most do not charge entry and provide a variety of music, sometimes live.
The Moskva hotel was built in the art nouveau style, but there has been a recent renovation. However, art nouveau furniture is retained in some rooms. It is on Terazije square in the Old Town. The more expensive Hyatt and Continental hotels are further out on the New Belgrade side of the Sava.
The four-star Moskva has 120 rooms; those facing the square are subject to traffic noise, those on the other side look down on a quiet park and the house of the late Nobel Prize-winning novelist Ivo Andric, who dined daily at the hotel. It has good restaurants, a coffee shop, barber and a ground-floor bar with live music and outside tables.
Past guests include Orson Welles, Rebecca West, Luciano Pavarotti, Indira Gandhi, Robert De Niro, Alfred Hitchcock and Ray Charles. Wi-fi is available throughout and rooms cost Euro75 a night for a single and Euro280 for a suite (breakfast included).