Belgrade is #13 on The 2014 GOOD City Index.
Over the centuries, Belgrade has rebuilt itself from the ground up no less than 40 times after near destruction in some 115 different wars. But a more lasting Belgrade is finally emerging. This year, homophobic policies of the past finally softened, leading to the first peaceful gay pride parade since 2010—albeit one with a hefty police presence. In a show of Belgrade’s increasingly global stature, public intellectual Alain de Botton opened a branch of his popular School of Life institute, which boasts a progressive curriculum focused on emotional intelligence. And, while the political instability of the past two decades means Belgrade has yet to reach the tourism status of its former Yugoslavian neighbor Croatia, a 3-billion euro renewal of the Savamala waterfront area aims to change that. Belgrade’s days as nothing more than a post-communist relic are decidedly over.
Hub for progress
The European Center for Culture and Debate (“KC Grad” to locals) may sound like a highbrow establishment, but it’s actually the unofficial meeting place for Belgrade’s creative types, set inside an 1880s warehouse. With its local DJs, resident cats, and laid-back atmosphere, KC Grad serves as the focal point for the unique creative scene emerging in the Savamala area, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. There’s a gallery space which hosts exhibitions, an art library, an outside terrace, and a boutique stocking Serbian designers and local goods—making it the perfect place to hang out and sip rakia with Belgrade’s designers, musicians, and artists.
In a country with a tumultuous ethnic past and a 49-percent youth unemployment rate, one of Belgrade’s most pressing problems remains the disillusionment of its young citizens. The government-funded Belgrade Youth Office is combatting that by using social media to get young people involved with initiatives like fundraising for Serbian disaster relief, local volunteerism, and justice for refugees living in the city. In addition, it serves as an incubator for youth-initiated business and technology projects. As the largest independent representative body of youth in Serbia, the office tries to fill in government gaps, aiming to provide adequate jobs and training for young people in the city.
Known during the socialist Yugoslavian era for being an economically downtrodden criminal hub, the former port neighborhood of Savamala is undergoing an incredible creative revival. Located just across the River Sava from the corporate and modern Novi Beograd, Savamala is now home to bike shops, small bars, a design incubator called Nova Iskra, and a World War I-bombed building turned art installation by the renowned Portuguese collective Boa Mistura. In August, when news of Robin Williams’ death reached the city, an oversized realist portrait of the actor instantly appeared under the Brankov Bridge, quickly becoming one of the internet’s most shared tributes.
Belgrade was forced to band together in May when unprecedented flooding slammed the Balkans region, an event the prime minister called “the worst natural catastrophe that has ever hit Serbia.” Citizens responded in a way that some say outpaced even the government’s response, compiling Google docs of missing people and using Twitter and Facebook to organize evacuations and donation efforts. Young men also pitched in to build sandbag protection barriers along the River Sava. Though there were dozens of deaths and $1.4 billion in damages, the sectarian divisions that have defined Belgrade and the former Yugoslavia’s past were notably absent.
Belgrade’s pedestrian subways—which help people bypass the most trafficked intersections and thoroughfares—serve as micro hubs of activity and commerce, with street performers, kiosks selling warm burek (a flaky, cheesy pastry), and chilled Knjaz Miloš, (Serbia’s ubiquitous mineral water), and small tables full of things like socks and hair clips for sale.
With 65 kilometers of bike trails running along the Danube and Sava rivers, running, cycling and rollerblading are hugely popular activities in the city. Follow the bike path 4 kilometers southwest from Savamala, and you’ll find locals meeting at Ada Ciganlija, an artificial lake sometimes called “Belgrade’s sea.” With up to 300,000 visitors daily in the summer, Ada has been the center of Belgrade’s recreation culture for decades, hosting the 2014 European Rowing Championships.
While Belgrade has been home to both ethnic Serbs and ethnic Albanians for a long time, trouble erupted in October at a Euro 2016 qualifying soccer match when a drone was flown above the pitch, lowering a flag bearing an Albanian insignia. The tension spilled into Belgrade’s streets in the following nights and the aftermath has been messy on both sides. The two sides had not faced each other since the 1960s, and, in response to the tensions, UEFA sanctioned both sides after the match. The event served as a reminder of the ethnic tightrope the city continues to walk.
As youth unemployment remains high in Belgrade—it’s not uncommon to hear millennials musing on whether or not their public sector job will exist next month—work is currently much more important than work/life balance. Nevertheless, a highly cultivated and leisurely cafe culture plays out every day in traditional kafanas, or cafes, and in less traditional hipster joints such as Mikser House, a design shop and DJ hub that hosted an art and design-focused “Sustainable Utopia” festival in June.
Possessing two passports and nomadic tendencies, Rosie Spinks edited the GOOD City Index in 2014, and also managed to visit seven of the top-50 cities (Cape Town, Maputo, Johannesburg, Paris, Belgrade, Los Angeles, and Taipei—in that order). During the month she spent in Belgrade over the summer, she drank lots of Jelen pivo (a local beer), relished the super-fast and free Wi-Fi, went for sunset runs on the Danube River, and was overfed by a local grandmother everyday at lunchtime.