As promised then, here it goes, some super practical advice on planning a trip to Belgrade.
How to get there. If you are situated on another continent, on the planet Vulcan or in any of the countries adjacent to Serbia, the fail safe bet is teleportation. Alternatively, if you’re from the 19th century, time travel also works. Should these two options prove to be somewhat out of reach, you may wish to fly- provided you’re not on Vulcan or in an adjacent country (see the trick here, there is both too far, and too close for comfort). The rebranded Serbian national carrier, AirSerbia, brandishing a very pretty logo and part of the Etihad group, caters to most European routes, except Budapest, of course. But you can nevertheless make it to Belgrade direct from Colombo, Riyadh or Tehran.
I have to be fair to AirSerbia- they tried, they really did. The Budapest flight was available for a short while, and I was looking forward with giddiness to landing on the airport with the best name in the whole world- namely, Nikola Tesla- but then it turned out that there was very little love for this route and it got cancelled. And there is a very spectacular reason as to why. It’s called the Ivo Andrić, and is not a person- but a train, albeit a train with a penchant for slow flow, just like Ivo’s prose every now and then.
The unspeakable horror grinds its way through the Pannonian plain slowly and carefully, like a very ancient lady with widespread arthritis. It’s also out of breath, of course, and it stops, well, everywhere. If two Hungarians decide to live with their puli on a farm in Southern Hungary, they should have no concerns regarding transportation. MÁV will stop Ivo Andrić for them without any second thought. If they live a bit to the west of the Ivo Andrić’s route, there is another beast making its way towards Zagreb, this time, in the same furious tempo.
Generally, I suspect a devious conspiracy of the Hungarian rail company regarding all of its trains which are not headed to Austria- the whole operation has serious kafkian overtones, a case of strictly unwatched trains rattling in Brownian motion towards somewhat indefinite targets. The night train version of these contraptions also exists, with the added excitement of border guards barking you into painful self-awareness in the dead of night.
In case the above description is hard to palate (though, why would it be, really), you may wish to drive. Serbian police tends to have bad rep, but I find that a bit of an exaggeration- traffic towards Belgrade should be pretty smooth if coming from the north of the country, but most likely a tad bumpier- but definitely scenic- if approaching from the south. Traffic inside Belgrade fits the general Balkan world view-strangely organized mess, with profuse honking and people flailing their arms amidst passionate cursing fits. It’s therefore probably best to park your vehicle in a safe spot and go for alternative means of urban transportation.
How to get around. Most of Belgrade’s attractions are within walking distance of the city centre, so in case you selected your accommodation skilfully, you will probably be able to navigate most of your stay on foot. In case you’re in for exotic trips to Zemun, Ada Ciganlija, Avala or maybe a brutalist tour of New Belgrade, you can purchase a BusPlus card and then charge it as many times as you wish.
This sounds fair and simple, but may be hindered by the fact that both the BusPluswebsite and most of the personnel in the ticket booths is generally limited to Serbian speaking options. Saying BusPlus and wiggling your fingers for the number of rides should however do the trick. Once on the vehicle, all you need to do is touch your card to the reader, and the price of your trip will be deducted from your total credit. Should you be in the horrible situation of boarding without a ticket, they may be purchased from the driver as well- but this is not always possible and will definitely be more expensive. A single ride costs between 90 to 270 dinars, depending on how many zones you cross.
Finding out the schedules is also something which works better done in local language, but in the central areas you’re always bound to find a merciful soul with English knowledge to guide you along- the general overview of traffic reminds me of the already described Greek undertakings of well organized chaos, but in Belgrade I for one am at least familiar with the language and alphabet(s)- though I admit that the last area is a bit on the schizoid side.
Serbian uses both the Cyrillic and the Latin alphabet in a rather haphazard fashion- while official documents are almost exclusively in Cyrillic, everything else will just casually gravitate between the two- to my great merriment I have often found newspapers with articles in both alphabets on the same page. Streets signs do tend towards being in Cyrillic though, so if you’re not fully familiar with it, having a quick reference at hand won’t hurt.
In case you’re growing a bit disheartened here about navigating public transportation in Belgrade, despair not, there is a great online resource in English which allows you to plan ahead and is pretty straightforward to use.
Where to stay. One of the things which strikes you about Belgrade if you search the usual booking engines such as Hostelbookers is the large number of moderately priced options with consistent high ratings- and close to the centre. You can find comfortable private doubles around the 20 euro/night range, though most places have shared bathrooms- as typically they are large converted flats. Should you feel that a private bathroom is the key to your happiness, it’s advisable to book at least a couple of months ahead, as this type of room is rare and quick to sell out, and expect prices to be around the 35-40 euro/night range.
One particularly interesting undertaking is the guesthouse Yugodom, a treasure trove of mid- 20th century Yugoslav design- though booking it has become a bit of a hassle since it’s grown increasingly popular in recent times- if one is a better planner of trips than I am (which is not hard to do) it’s probably well worth a try.
Larger groups might go for apartments, also available on most booking engines, but I’d probably opt for hotels only If I were hideously rich- the mid-range ones might be anything from Communist death traps to acceptable lodgings, but will probably fail to compete with good hostels when it comes to value for money and the friendliness and helpfulness of the staff. Well, maybe one day I’ll risk a stay at the Hotel Moskva just because it’s so ridiculously pretty and has apparently hosted scores of super important individuals, among others Albert Einstein, Robert de Niro and Leonid Brezhnev (you have to give it to them for catering to the fancies of a pretty diverse group of people.)