There’s this spot, on the third floor of Belgrade’s newly reopened Museum of Contemporary Art, where the city starts to come into focus. The inaugural exhibition, Sequences: Art of Yugoslavia and Serbia, is designed to tell a story of evo–lution, one reading of how Serbian art got to where it is today, and from where I stand, a kaleidoscope of 20th–century snapshots whirls around me: modern Montenegrin landscapes, Macedonian abstractions, a pop–art Marshal Tito. Marina Abramović, Belgrade’s most famous daughter, is around here somewhere. But there’s more. “This is an open space,” says head curator Dejan Sretenović, looking the part in a black turtleneck and shoulder–length black curls, as he gestures toward the glass walls on either side of the modernist building.
My gaze ricochets. In one direction, I catch fragments of the visually chaotic old city, razed and rebuilt more times than Jerusalem; in the other, the planned municipality of New Belgrade and its brutalist totems. I can just make out Kalemegdan Park and its fortress (a gate between East and West for two millennia), across the river from the city’s famous floating nightclubs. I can see the breadth of the Sava River, and where it curves to meet the Danube. The Serbian capital is a city shaped by its confluence – always in transition, never quite stable. Welcome to the in–between.
Serbia has existed as an independent state for just 12 years, and it’s still finding its footing after three decades of war, bombings, sanctions, visa restrictions and, now, an autocratic ultranationalist president. As the country trundles toward EU membership, the slogan “Born in the SFRJ” (the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which ceased to exist in 1992) haunts walls, T–shirts and Instagram posts. Amid this unsteadiness, this flux, Belgrade roils with kinetic energy, from its evolving food scene to its eclectic art collectives to its innovative, influential nightlife. It’s the city’s creative class that gives it its hum.
I first visited Belgrade in 2012, and that buzz kept my eyes wide open for the five months I was here. I would twist and turn through the grey streets, and the city’s discordant architecture (post–socialist housing blocks, art nouveau exteriors, Serbo–Byzantine churches) meant I never knew what was around the corner; one time, it was a monumental post office straight out of 1984. The young Belgraders I met were engaged and subversive – as keen to show off their hometown as they were to dismantle the system holding it back. (The older ones accused me three times of being a Western spy, which had its own adventurous charm.) On this return visit, a taxi driver asks me if it’s my first time here. I tell him no, but it’s been six years. “It’s changed a lot,” he says. How so? “Well, it’s not better.” But does he like it? “Oh, I love Belgrade. May I smoke?”
“I don’t know how many times this city has been attacked, conquered, liberated – it has a kind of survival instinct,” says Maja Lalić, architect and urban designer. “There’s a desire for life.” When I was planning this trip, I wanted to meet the Belgrade native at Mikser House, the café–bar–concept store–gallery–workspace–etc. she opened with her husband in 2012. It was the face of the new Savamala, a rundown area set to become an art and design hub. Problem is, Mikser House closed last year, and the new new Savamala is anything but the grassroots, bottom–up creative haven it was poised to be. It’s been taken over by nightlife, and a controversial luxury complex called the Belgrade Waterfront Project that has raised the ire of local anti–gentrification activists.
So instead, we meet in lower Dorćol, where creatives are congregating now. I spend a sunny morning loitering on Dobračina Street, stopping at Holesterol for brunch– a buttery brioche stuffed with egg, ham and kajmak, a Serbo–Croatian take on clotted cream – and coffee at Pržionica D59B, a micro–roaster with its own podcast, record label and weekly DJ sets. I browse treats, trinkets and Tesla–themed merch at commun–ity space Dorćol Platz, then sit down amid a very cool crowd of espresso–drinking, sunglass–wearing, newspaper–reading locals to order a beverage, only to discover, alas, that I’m at a children’s activity centre.
I find Lalić in Smokvica, a bright restaurant set inside a 1904 residence by Jelisaveta Načić, Serbia’s first female architect. Over a glass of fresh, fruity Croatian malvazija wine, we chat about what it takes to build something that lasts – and in Belgrade, where venues come and go with the seasons, Mikser House’s five years (and 1.2 million visitors) certainly qualify. “Public policy is losing its compass, so you have to do it completely on your own,” says Lalić with a sigh. Despite the reopening of the Museum of Contemporary Art (delayed for years by construction snags that have a whiff of corruption about them), there is little state support for culture, and when it is granted, it comes with strings and red tape that can throttle even the most well–intentioned. Instead, independent initiatives – like avant–garde gallery U10 and alternative art collective Kvaka 22 – take over abandoned spaces. “The beauty of Belgrade is that it’s very savvy at leading parallel lives,” observes Lalić. “Maybe that’s why it’s so appealing – people can escape into different identities here.”
Since the turbulent 1990s, Belgraders have made it a mission to have a good time after dark. During the Yugoslav Wars, hedonism was a mode of rebellion and survival. In the years that followed, the scene was injected with new money from a nascent capitalist economy, and it swelled, flooding the city and taking to the water, where, in the summer, Belgrade’s riotous raft clubs invade the Sava and Danube rivers by the hundreds.
Klub 20/44 (known locally simply as “the Boat”) is a gathering point for the city’s creatively inclined, who are drawn by its red–velvet quirk and intimacy. “We were so isolated for so long. We just wanted to interact with other places, without borders, through music,” says co–founder Milivoje Božović as he wipes barbecue sauce off his fingers. (We’re at a burger bar called Telma, which, yes, also hosts DJ sets.) The legendary venue, housed on a restored barge, opened in 2009, a year before visa requirements for Serbs were loosened. Instead of waiting for months to get permission to visit Berlin, they started bringing in international DJs and giving local talent a place to develop.
“In the future,” says Božović, “this city will be more white, shinier,” referring to the Belgrade Waterfront Project’s current facade–repainting scheme. “But I’m happy I was here when it was grey, because life isn’t always white and shiny. I think people who stay here have a big addiction to this city.”
The Boat is a good bet any night, but my friend has a dif–ferent idea: “You have to go to Drugstore – just not before 2.” Nightlife starts a little later here. I look at the time, yawning: It’s only 9 p.m. But I figure if I lean into the six–hour time difference, I just might make it.
I start at supper club Ambar, where I investigate the notion of “modern Balkan cuisine.” This is a term I’ve heard more than one Serb deride, unsure of what it means, but from my seat at the bar, it’s delightful. The heavy regional culinary influence – Greek, Austrian, Turkish, Hungarian – is lightened, with traditional dishes like lamb and beef kebabs and stuffed cabbage served alongside tangy apple salsa and fresh, full salads.
From there, I follow the sound of a trumpet up a derelict staircase to Bašta jazz club, thick with heat and chatter and an unexpectedly sultry cover of “Macarena.” I order a melon martini, because that’s who I am here. I navigate gaggles of Serbian amazons at a club that stands where Mikser House once did (R.I.P.), and at a hip hop night, surrounded by high, tight ponytails, glossy faces and a few gold chains, I hair–flip my way through a Beyoncé track as fake American dollar bills rain down. I check my phone, without the slightest hint of a yawn: It’s late enough for a trip to the Drugstore.
I head across town to an as–yet undeveloped neighbourhood on the banks of the Danube, climb a fire escape and make my way inside the former slaughterhouse. There, obliterating her decks from the front of the massive room, is the reason I was told to come here tonight: DJ Sonja Sajzor, a trans woman who grew up in rural Serbia. Boys are making out all over the place, and a bartender tells me that three local drag queens scorched the stage earlier. In a city that’s only recently begun holding Pride parades without incident, this is good news. The venue is filthy and fun, full of life and love, and from the back of the huge triangular space, wider than it is tall, there’s a tunnel–vision effect, like I’m looking through a viewfinder at something just starting to take shape.
I can’t stop thinking about something Nebojša Bogdanovi, the Boat’s music programmer, said between bites of burger back at Telma: “The government absolutely does not recognize the potential of this underground culture.” Belgrade has been on the list of struggling cities touted as the “new Berlin” for nearly two decades, but there are factors – poverty and unemployment, lingering corruption, censorship, lack of cultural infrastructure – preventing it from cresting that hill. And as obstructive as those challenges are, I’m also wary of what might be on the other side. I think about Williamsburg’s unaffordable hotels and the guided tours that trample through Montreal’s Mile End and the commodification of culture; these places simmer a little less now. Artists and creativity thrive in that space in–between. While Serbia still needs to find its footing, flux just might be what Belgrade does best.