Belgrade and Zagreb

We have spent the last few days in Belgrade, Serbia and Zagreb, Croatia.  Although they are both the two largest cities in the former Yugoslavia, the contrast could hardly be greater.

Belgrade is a sometimes-dirty city unready for general tourism with only a few interesting sites.  Zagreb is a great, modern city ready to take its place with other major tourism cities in Europe – it often feels like Northern Italy (just with a Slavic language).

At first, we were very unhappy with Belgrade.  The train station is messy and in the bad part of town, it has few services and no ATMs, and the neighborhoods around it are full of crumbling old buildings that look like they have not seen any care since before World War II.

Eventually, we found some better parts of town.  There is a bohemian neighborhood with fun restaurants, and the main pedestrain area has nice stores and places to eat and drink.  Also, the old (ruined) castle is one of the most impressive set of fortifications I have ever seen in Europe.

However, those nice parts were not enough to make up for the fact that the vast majority of the city needs years of care to make Belgrade a standard place to visit.

Our experience in Zagreb was better from the moment we stepped off the train; the train station is clean and useful, with free city maps and English-speaking information services.  Outside the station, we were greeted with a lively (and safe-feeling) square in the updated center of town, and public transportation to the hostel was fast and effective (plus the Ravnice Hostel is great).

Within the city, the buildings have been fixed up (it is unbelievable that there was a war here only ten years ago).  The main market is clean and comprehensive, the churches and museums are top-notch, and the food is good.  There is also a fascinating cemetery a bit out of town with thousands of ornate tombs, everyone from the first president of independent Croatia to the German and Jewish families that were here from the Austrian Empire days. Of course, Zagreb is a bit more expensive than Belgrade is, but it is still cheaper than Western Europe.

Really, Zagreb feels like Western Europe, sometimes like Germany and sometimes like Italy.  Parts of Belgrade feels like the worst parts of Moscow.

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About Lance Finney

Father of two boys, Java developer, Ethical Humanist, and world traveler (when I can sneak it in). Contributor to Grounded Parents.
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18 Responses to Belgrade and Zagreb

  1. Peter says:

    Well I been in bouth cities last year. I liked Belgrade much more. City is very nice and i found people to be veru nice hosts and beautifull girls. Kalemegdan fortress and JKnez Mihajlova street are beutifull and Terazije. Night life on Rivers during summer is great too. I would love to go again when i save some money.

  2. moi says:

    U compare Belgrade to Zagreb?? hahaha come on man! Belgrade rocks..its energy,people..it is ten times bigger city and it is the beauty of Balkan..croats kiss ass to west..look at the history and see why zagreb reminds u of germany?? not really but in ur head perhaps..belgrade is where east and west meets. I have been many times to Belgrade and I love it!! girls are so hott.

  3. ivana says:

    hey dude..hahah there was a war in zagreb..and nothing in belgrade..u obviously DO NOT KNOW any past history and what happend in each cities and countries..and who suffered what! u re so dumb and dont even deserve to come to belgrade..come next time though and i ll make sure we beat the shit out of u so u may like us in near future!

  4. Lance Finney says:

    moi and ivana,

    Obviously, we have different opinions of the cities. In retrospect, I was probably too hard on Belgrade, but you’re not helping my opinion of the city at all by calling me dumb, threatening to beat me up, and having so many typos.

    While there has been war in Zagreb more recently than in Belgrade, one really can’t tell, and it even feels like the opposite is true. And isn’t that more important to tourists?

    Peter’s right that Kalemegdan is a great, impressive fortress, and that Belgrade is very inexpensive. We simply felt that Zagreb is a city that is ready to be on the route of Western tourists, while Belgrade has a lot more work and economic development to do before it will be comfortable for many American travellers to hang out there. Maybe we just hit the wrong neighborhoods in Belgrade and didn’t in Zagreb – I don’t know.

  5. ivana says:

    there was NO war in zagreb recently learn it!! belgrade there was bombing, sanctions and much more..in belgrade it was a war.

  6. ivana says:

    apologize for calling u dumb..i ll get back to u in detalis why belgrade is the way it is and why it is better than western shit americans are exposed to all the time and why u re wrong. later

  7. Lance Finney says:

    You’re right, I misspoke about the wars. Both Zagreb and Belgrade have been bombed in the last 15 years, but Belgrade was bombed more severely and more recently.

  8. ivana says:

    Hey, first of all typos are not big deal. Not all of us are americanos and we type fast, get upset etc..at the end of the day, u know what we meant to say. Second, I just looked at some of the pics u took in “serbia” and bad time of a year to go to eastern europe-if u know what i mean. And u cant really name it ‘serbia pics’ when in reality, there are just few pics of BG. Second of all, to tell u the truth I wouldnt even know where to start from talking about Belgrade and its past history and the way u misjudged it. But briefly..Again, u re wrong about BG and Zagreb bombings but enough about it. So, I guess we should bring all starbucks and 5 star hotels so u feel bit comfy in Belgrade ah? Well, unfortunately Belgrade is not about that. Belgrade is about specific events and interesting people. I traveled everywhere in the World, and u can build buildings and other shopping malls (which soon BG will do the same) but u CANNOT create energy and good city atmosphere. Thats what makes BG so special. If u re a random, typical boring American u most likely wont notice it. And therefore, u should have stayed in Italy and Germany ..However, if u re bit smarter and look to find something more adventurious and unpredictable, u re more than welcome to Serbia and Belgrade.(ur age and where u come from USA depends largely on this) Remember, I am not trying to be mean or rude to u..although Serbs come out as that sometimes..We know that people basicly invite themselves to our homecountry and then judge it all the time..thats fine, but finally I wanted to say it back for all americanos that read this and want to visit-dont go to Serbia if u are going to complain about train station not being clean because we are not cleaning it anytime soon..not even for our own people! If u want a perfect train station, stick with some other state in the USA u would like to visit. And one more thing, u said we have to work harder if we want to attract westerners..thats obviously was never our goal..we are who we are and most europeans knows us well compared to americans. Yes, our buildings are gray and communist look alike but hey we have been busy working on our past history from communism to dictatorship(ended in 2000!!) So, having all these wars (still have one down south), the govt.doesnt have money to feed its people not mentioning to paint the buidling so u guys can take pics. Belgrade is a modern and old city and if u ever wish to come back, u re more than welcome to spend few days with me and i ll prove it to u. But once again what makes BG so great is its people, not the buildings. And yes I wont deny that we need to fix sooo many things there from infrastructure to cleaning more its streets. However, gives us some time and enjoy where u travel no matter if the city is rich or poor. To prove u that we are working on our city, go visit http://www.beobuild.co.yu. ..u ll find some interesting projects..LoV, Ivana..ps.sorry for grammar mistakes..dont have time to check it. PEACE ..and one more thing, we have great hott BG girls that what else a city needs beside it??

  9. ivana says:

    one more thing i see u re from seattle ..i was there few yrs ago with my friends and we didnt like it at all..we thought people were weird, perhaps bit geeky like u and city was so boring..there was nothing but coffee shops and rain..U.of Wash.was pretty though bit depressing. And I am not saying this to get u back but u see how weird it is what we like and how we like it..I would choose BG over Seattle in a sec. u wouldnt ..but thats the beauty in it.

  10. Lance Finney says:

    ivana,

    I understand that not everyone is a native English speaker. I am very conscious of the difficulty in writing correctly in a second language when I write in German and Russian. I was really put off much more by the threat to beat me up and the insults than the typos.

    You’re right that I didn’t see much of Serbia, but I have my pictures organized by country. I’d love to go back someday and see Nis and Novi Sad and other cities, and also go into Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia, and see the Croatian coast. After a trip like that, I’d have a lot more pictures and a much better understanding of your country and your neighbors, I’m sure.

    I’m sorry that I upset you so much with my impressions of the city. I didn’t mean to be criticizing the people (I’ve had several good friends over the years who were Serbian), but my thoughts came from the first impression of the city; coming in tired after a night train from Bratislava and finding a main train station with very few facilities in a neighborhood that is run-down. We ended up walking from the train station to our hotel near Studentski Trg using Karadord, which wasn’t a pleasant way to go – if we had walked up Knez Mihailova we would probably have had a much better first impression.

    Despite the initial bad impression, we did enjoy Kalemegdan, Skadarlija, St. Sava, Zemun, and other areas. The difference in Zagreb was that the first impression was very positive (clean, helpful train station in an attractive part of the center with new trams leading to our hostel (not 5-star hotel)) before enjoying the rest of the city.

    I would recommend Belgrade to my more adventuresome friends, just as I recommend Bulgaria as a great place to travel inexpensively. I know that there’s a lot of interesting history in Belgrade, but the tourist infrastructure just isn’t there for me to recommend it as a place for inexperienced travellers from America to try out. I have no doubt that Belgrade in 10-15 years will have a clean train station with 20 ATMs, freshly painted buildings, and western shops everywhere. Will it be an easier place to travel to? Definitely. Will something have been lost? Very likely.

    I know there’s a lot of hard feelings between Croatia and Serbia, and I was bound to pick a fight when I compared them directly in this blog post. That wasn’t my intent – it’s just how we happened to get internet access.

    BTW, I’m not from Seattle. I’ve been there a few times, but I’ve never lived there.

    Again, I’m sorry that I wrote so negatively based on my first impressions.

  11. ivana says:

    U see we again misunderstood each other! u didnt get my point about belgrade..u again repeat the same story about ur thoughts on Belgrade and how in 10yrs perhaps it ll get better..most likely not that better haha..thats still not the point. and so not 5-star hotel and hostel. Have a good day though. ps.Seattle was just an example. Viva la Belgrade.

  12. roosterfx1 says:

    Exactly.u tell ‘er. I myself am a keen traveller from london with a love of the unpredictable and adventure. And thats exactly what I got in my travels to serbia and montenegro a few years ago. Im am inclined to agree that in visiting serbia you kinda missed the point, and the city is IMMENSELY buitiful with real charecter. Its the quirks that you cited as drawbacks that I found particularly endearing, and the very thing that makes Belgrade so wonderful. You complain about run down buildings but it is the rustic charm of them that makes them even more beautiful, and they bristle with history and stories. I will also point out that many towns and cities in italy and greece can be classified as ‘run down’ with walls missing plaster but as any keen traveller will point out this is what makes them beatiful. As well as this you claim that the kalamegdan fortress is ‘a spectacular example of medieval fortifications’ or whatever, but did you ever delve deeper, maybe looking at its rich history though the ages, I was fortunate enough to have a guide that could give me this information but I found that It really added a whole dimension to the experience. What I found particularly wonderful about belgrade is the lifestyle where everything is easy going, everything is laugh and working over 8 hours is completely unheard of. In other words completely adverse to life in London. It is this warmth towards strangers and the easy go lucky attitude of its people that I think is sorely missing from western cities such as london or newyork, where life is just one big bloody rush. I loved the winding cobbled streets of the old town the sound of gipsies bands coming out of the wonderfully cosy resteraunts of skadarlija street. I loved the wild parties , complete lack of nightlife restrictions and YES the girls ARE really hot. AND BEST OF ALL THERE ARE ONLY 5 MCDONALDS BRANCHES IN THE WHOLE CITY RATHER THAN THE 5 PER SQUARE FOOT THAT I AM ACCUSTOMED TO IN LONDON. It is these things,or in fact, the lack of things that I have come to expect from any major capital city that I find fantastic, and you know what I think people In belgrade don’t give a toss what westerners think. You could diss hundreds of amazing places as run down eg INDIA, AFRICA, SOUTH AMERICA, but it is what they DO offer which counts. Saying how public transport sucks and how people don’t know english is daft, why don’t YOU make the effort rather than everyone else, just because your a tourist doesnt mean everyone should be kissing your ass, and it is this very arrogant attitude which makes the Brits and Americans so disliked around the world. I must admit I too was slightly apprihensive when my Serbian friend invited me to visit considering the recent history and all. I expected to be beaten up considering we flattened thier country in ’99 but hey you know what,I found Serbs to be one of the most friendly, passionate people I have ever met. Hey I don’t know.Mabye your experience was completely different to mine but I found that as soon as people found out I was British everyone was offering me tours , help, one guy even offered me to stay with his family.
    And you wont hear that in any place in britain. I in the end had to deny the offer as I already had a place to go, and you know what the guy looked seriously offended. In this country people enjoy giving hospitality more than recieving it, and for me that is the more important than any ATM machine or tourist site, it is the personal touch.
    As for Zagreb I can’t say as I haven’t been but I intend to visit both Serbia and Croatia this year and I hope my visit will be as inspired as the last. To say there aren’t many attractions is foolish, as the only difference is you have to find them yourself, making the experience all the more personal. The beautiful Orthodox monastaries, To the swooping unspoilt countryside, to the rich pannonian plains of vodovina to the beautiful mounain peaks of Kopaoinik. I must admit that my first impressions of belgrade wernt all that great as all the view from the taxi provided was the horrid ungainly commie blocks of flats of New belgrade. But u know what even these ugly monoliths had a story behind them, as I later found out that New Belgrade was built in 3 years by volunteers to solve the housing problem after WW2.However I quikly changed my mind as I entered the vibrant old town.
    Anyone travelling to belgrade or serbia expecting a derivative holiday experience will be dissapointed but for the keen backpacker its the place to go.

    SERBIA DON’T CHANGE FOR ANYONE , STAY REAL.

    SORRY ABOUT THE TYPEOS BUT QUITE FRANKLY I CAN@T B$E AR£ESED T* correct them.

    SORRY Love but I couldnt resist LOL.

  13. roosterfx1 says:

    P.s I think I have put the point that everyone on this page has been trying to make across very clearly. If you decide to visit again go for a few months and in the summer. Anyone even slightly interested in going should, prepare to have your predudices destroyed and always be open minded. I will also add that I have travelled extensively thouhg the balkans and eastern europe with the exception of croatia which is arguably more central europe and I can definately say that Serbia was the most fun, way better than bulgaria or anyplace similar in the region. Belgrade is also considered the place to be in the balkans with many young people from bordering countries flooding in to experience its rich nightlife and club scene.
    If anyone IS planning a trip be sure to email me for any help.

    yours faithfully

    ROOSTER.

  14. Lance Finney says:

    Rooster,

    I’m glad for you that you had a great time there. I didn’t have as good of an experience as you did. I would love to spend a few months in Serbia and its neighbors, and I’m sure I’d find a lot more to like over time. In this blog I talk about my impressions at the time. Having a bad impression of a city doesn’t mean that the city is bad – it might just mean my circumstances were bad. The first time I went to Prague, I didn’t like it. Since then I’ve returned and have had a much better time.

    I’d like to take back the last sentence from the original blog post (I was looking for a good final clincher and went too far). Otherwise, I stand by what I said. I could have listed Kalemegdan, Skadarlija, St. Sava, and Zemun and talked about only the good things, but I was honest about my impressions. Apparently that has rubbed people the wrong way. I didn’t realize it was so awful not to love every single place I visit.

    Regarding Saying how public transport sucks and how people don’t know english is daft, why don’t YOU make the effort rather than everyone else, just because your a tourist doesnt mean everyone should be kissing your ass, and it is this very arrogant attitude which makes the Brits and Americans so disliked around the world.: You’re way off base. I speak some Russian and German, and my wife is fluent in German. When we travel in Europe, we try to learn as much as we can of the local language and to use German or Russian first, if possible. In Belgrade, I think we used quite a combination of languages. My comment was to contrast the development of the tourism infrastructure in the two cities; there’s a huge difference. For us, it’s better to have a more advanced infrastructure, but it’s not a dealbreaker if it’s not there.

    Also, I’m an old married man. Perhaps the wild night life and the hot women are a draw for you; they aren’t so much for me.

  15. roosterfx1 says:

    forgive me for harping on, but you say ‘It will take some years before belgrade becomes a standard place to visit’. The fact that Belgrade ISN’T a standard place to visit is the beauty of it.

    ’nuff said.

  16. ja says:

    i dont know many serbs who dont speak english or some other european language ..they learn it in schools. if you would stop at least any young person on the street and talk slowly to them, they would be able to answer any question without a problem for sure.

  17. keks says:

    You should visit Novi Sad in Northern Serbia, it’s cleaner than Belgrade. But Belgrade is in a transition phase, right now it’s major streets are being renovated, facades being repainted, and they are building a huge, brand new railway station(Prokop) with European standards. In a couple of years Belgarde will be changed for good.

  18. keks says:

    As, for Zagreb, most people go through Zagreb on their way to the Croatian sea. The Croatian coast is the place where tourists are the most attracted to, just like Greece. But Greece has a more developed coastal tourist industry.

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