Chapter Five: belgrade, serbia
The first place that had me missing my hometown.. and feeling like a complete alien/tourist at the same time. In a good way.
Belgrade reminds me of what American cities were once. The good things that are long gone.
When most people think of moving here, they think of “Centar grad.” In my opinion, the entire city is very livable.. not just in the center, but other areas like Zvezdara, Đerem, (Djerem) and Zemum.
The entire city, if transplanted to the US, would be a highly desireable and likely very very expensive place in a short time. It reminds me of the best of the best of the old neighborhoods of Chicago, and a few of my friends have mentioned that it reminds them of what they love about New York City (perhaps Queens or Brooklyn)
Markets: Excellent. This is the place to go to find natural and organic skin and haircare products and food. Gyms are abundant. People are much more health conscious here than in remote areas in this region. Belgrade and Zagreb are rivals.. in a good way.
Tech: If you need Apple support..there are a few Apple Authorized dealers, but no official Apple Store. (For this you may need to plan a trip to Zagreb) I have no experience with this yet.
Wifi is very good.
There are work spaces for digital nomads, which I still need to check out, but I’m such an old world nut that I prefer to listen to odd 70’s music at cafe Ruina when I work.
Clothing: You may need to hunt, especially if you are above a “certain size,” but you can find unusual jackets, jeans, and leggings for a great price. I have a few plus-sized friends that dress quite well, and actually enjoy shopping.
Honestly. I don’t count on Belgrade when it comes to clothing. (Same goes for Dalmatia) But keep your eyes open for items you can’t find anywhere else, especially if you hate shopping as much as I do.
Services like haircuts: Same. I had one bad experience. Make sure to ask questions, and make sure they are actually interested in following through on promises as opposed to just taking your money and assigning you to a technician who doesn’t give a single shit about the client.
There is good, bad, and ugly here with customer service, as is the case with the entire region. Don’t expect consistency. You also get what you pay for, as with any other service. Be sure to seek recommendations.
Restaurants: I didn’t have much money to spend on restaurants, but one place stood out: A pizza place called 42nd street in Đerem. I had the best Chicago/style pizza I’ve had in ages. (I was born and raised in Chicago) It’s off of the main street, boulevar kralja Aleksandra.
Also check out cafe Ruina. (see in photos above)
Did you know that you can also find burritos in Belgrade? As in a Chipotle knockoff. I wouldn’t exactly say they have captured the essence of Mexican or “fast food healthy Mexican” but if you reframe them as “Balkan burritos” they aren’t bad.
At least there are options like this.. it can be a godsend for digital nomads. Not as in “food from home,” but having access to healthy, affordable, and diverse options for everyday, especially when cooking isn’t practical for various reasons.
Belgrade is a good and inexpensive hub for European and even international travel. If you are on the fence about Belgrade.. this alone may help you decide.
By bus: It’s an easy drive from Zagreb to Belgrade. It is also a very popular route, especially with young people from Zagreb looking to enjoy the famous nightlife in Belgrade.
Keep in mind that the Friday night bus from Zagreb to Belgrade may be crowded. (gužva!)
When traveling by bus to or from Sarajevo, keep in mind that the roads can be a little convoluted, with no direct roads. The main reason for this is the political system in Bosnia.. (I won’t get into it here, it is too complicated, but it has 3 presidents) which means that it would take a miracle for a decision to be made on the route any time soon.
In my opinion, it’s not a big deal. I actually rather enjoy the scenery along the Drina river.
The tram system is fairly good, although honestly, I walked most of the time. There are some bike paths, but the bicycle infrastructure still needs to be developed further.
What it taught me:
I was able to live here as a local, and experienced it on that level. As in having coffee and kolać or sitting on the balcony listening to new friends talk about the anniversary of the NATO bombings.
Yep. I experienced it as somewhat of an “insider” but of course, still as a foreigner. This went beyond the usual discussion of “are the locals friendly” or not. (They are!)
It felt easy here, except I would prefer to avoid the police.
I had a passport loss scare, and had to fill out some paperwork at the police station in my area. Everything you may have heard about how backwards some systems are here.. is true, with the police. I wanted to buy them a new chair to sit in, clean out a locker I saw bulging with old files, avoid probing questions, and get the hell out of that place as quickly as possible. Some of the police officers are very nice, but the one in charge of working with foreigners in the station I went to left a bit to be desired.. it was almost comical. (Keep in mind that Belgrade has more than 1 station)
I won’t get too deep into the story, (It’s kind of amusing) but my passport was returned to me by a woman who worked in a dental office. I bought her chocolates. Looking back, I hope that was an appropriate gift for a dental office!
Of course, all of these things are just random experiences. Living in a big city means that the odds of what you may encounter are both random, but also NOT so random.
These things are not deal-breakers for me. Show me a perfect city ANYWHERE.. right? I’ve learned that I do need some yearly exposure to a big city, and Belgrade is the perfect one for me.
Belgrade also taught me to RELAX and let good things come to me, without trying too hard. Just walking through the city, I’ve discovered a K-pop dance group (pics above), made new friends in a museum, found great live music a hundred meters from my apartment, and fantastic pizza. With pretty much Zero effort.
I spent a LOT of time in my apartment working, and did not get to see as much as I wanted. Although I DO plan on returning.
I still have not even been to St. Sava or Zemun in the summer yet! There are so many festivals and Belgrade. Next time I want to experience as much of it as I can.
Don’t slack on registering here at the local police station. You DO need to have your Bela Karta (white card) at all times. I have been asked for it for crossing the street on a red light.. (even though it as green when I entered) so be prepared.
The police system here is close to what many tourists imagine it to be. Something you don’t want to mess with.
A few of my sources have confirmed that it is easier to cheat and pay the fines than it is to go with the system.. which can be a little weird, especially for an expat or nomad living on a 90 day tourist visa.
For example, it’s very hard to find an apartment which can be leased for less than 6 months.
Because of this, many resort to “visa runs” and cross the border into Hungary or Croatia and come back within a day or two. The fine is said to be less than the cost of going through the residency application process.
Either this, or they break their leases. The system seems to be set up so you almost have to “cheat” somehow in order to live in Belgrade, unless you get lucky or are willing to pay inflated tourist rates.
I did get lucky and didn’t need to cheat, as of the time of this writing.
Drivers seem impatient and aggressive. I’ve witnessed one bad accident near my apartment: An overturned car on a narrow street. I’m still trying to figure out how that was possible. I’ve also seen drivers honking at old women crossing the street because they take longer than 10 seconds to cross. (This is the first time I’ve sworn at a stranger since I’ve been in this region)
Note: Serbians are some of my favorite people. Generous and warm. I’ve only noticed the impatience with those behind the wheel of a car.
Beyond the Visual:
Get off the tram at a random point and just explore. Go to a cafe and hear some great music, both in Serbian and English. You can find music playing on the radio, in cafes, and even in the grocery store that will make your day and reaching for your Shazam app!
BELGRADE HAS THE BEST RADIO STATIONS I’VE EVER HEARD, IN ANY CITY I’VE EVER BEEN IN. HANDS DOWN.
Digital nomads: A radio, just an old school radio, should be just as essential as a modem when living and working in Belgrade. Expect to hear some really good and diverse music in many cafes, except for the ones that tend to play really loud electronica/pop music, which I avoid like the plague anyway.
The city smells like springtime in April, and the dining choices, even on the street, are many. Discover an old candy shop or have lunch (ručak) in places where the locals hang out, and take in the language being spoken around you.
Have a beer next to the tram tracks and listen to the whistles of the old cars as they pass by.
Of all places, the engineering school where the statue of Nikol Tesla is located was a favorite place to visit to relax and feel grounded. I”m not sure why. (see photo #6 above)
St. Mark’s in the springtime is also highly recommended.
“April u Beogradu” by Zdravko Colic
Especially if you are there in April, like I was!
The night market, the museums, and a choral performance in any one of the many churhes. (See video section for a performance I was lucky to catch)
There is a week in May in which all the public museums are FREE! I met a new friend at a museum one night and we walked around the city and found a place to have a drink. That’s Belgrade for you!
My list for this will probably require an epic blog to cover, and quite a bit more time in Belgrade.
It’s the go-to place when I’m craving a cosmopolitan vibe. If you are into night life, Belgrade has this in abundance.
It exists on a large scale, with its famous nightclubs if you feel like getting dressed up for a night out on the town.
Did I mention how lazy I am? I’m just as happy finding a neighborhood bar/cafe a short walk from my apartment with live music ranging from ExYu rock to jazz to Brazilian standards in Serbian.
Digital Nomad Friendliness Rating:
Due to possible housing issues, some of which could be serious (I’ve hear stories I have yet to confirm) I can’t really give it more than a C at this point. It doesn’t matter if there are world-class co-working spaces or tech conferences if finding housing is stressful.
If this issue is resolved, or if you happen to find the perfect solution via a contact, my rating would be an easy A.
I really do love Belgrade. I did not have enough time to really take it all in, and I can’t wait to return.
(Shh.. don’t tell TOO many people about Belgrade.. I hope it stays as cool as it is!)