Serbia has grabbed more than its fair share of headlines over the course of the 20th century.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination by Serbian nationalists sparked World War I; it was the power centre of post-World War II Yugoslavia; it had a central role in the Balkans War in the early ’90s; and it was bombed for 78 days by Nato in 1999 to force its army out of Kosovo. For the outsider, it’s easy to see the country only through the prism of its roles in these wars.

Whether because of this, or because it lacks the stunning Adriatic coast of its neighbours, Serbia has missed out on the tourism buzz Croatia, Slovenia and Montenegro enjoy.

When asked about their image abroad, my guide, Viduk, gives a simple answer: “The Serbian people know the truth.”

As with most complex situations, he says, this truth isn’t as black and white as many of us were told on our evening news bulletins.

For Serbians in 2007, it’s all about the future, especially the much hoped for – but still some while away – membership of the European Union. And much of this future will lie in Belgrade.

For a city that’s been invaded 114 times, Belgrade is in surprisingly good shape. The city centre is an interesting place to wander around; it’s got a definite case of shabby chic.

The Kalemegdan Citadel, which has stood guard over Belgrade since Roman times, is a symbol of the city’s survival instincts. It’s also a favourite place for Belgrade’s locals to hang out.

What might be lacking in external beauty is made up for on the inside: Belgrade’s restaurants, bars and nightclubs have a storming reputation.

Silicon Valley Street, so-called because of the amount of plastic surgery many of the women have had, is the nightlife hub. There’s a mix of super stylish and more relaxed bars, but even in the trendiest places you can still pick up a cocktail for a skinny £3. There’s also a strip of floating bars on the western bank of the Sava River, just before it joins the Danube. In summer there are 150 or so to choose from.

Some of the best bars in Belgrade aren’t really bars at all. During Slobodan Milosevic’s oppressive regime in the ’90s young people would set up makeshift drinking dens in their apartments or basements to meet and talk freely.

Many still exist, such as the Federal Association of Globe Trotters. Its name is a bit grandiose but the atmosphere couldn’t be more relaxed and friendly than if it were someone’s lounge room. Which it kind of is: nearby residents donated all the furnishings. For an authentic night out it’s hard to beat.

But wherever you go in Belgrade – unlike tourist Meccas such as New York or Paris – you’re pretty much guaranteed an experience that features Serbian culture, language and history.

Meaty Eating
There’s a law in Serbia that states each main course has to have a minimum of 250g of meat.

For the sake of the country’s arteries the law probably needs changing. Main meals contain more meat than many Londoners would eat in a week. Seriously.At the Sokace restaurant in Novi Sad, for about £10 per person you can order a huge tray full of barbecued kebabs, sausages, chops and steaks and a carafe of the vastly under-rated Serbian white wine.

Bizarrely, the wine is served in a ‘boob’, an upside-down vase with a syringe-like device at the bottom for refilling your glass.

At the ? restaurant in central Belgrade (so named because the owner simply painted a ‘?’ above the door after authorities wouldn’t let him use the sign he wanted) you can dine on fantastic traditional dishes. Mains are all less than £4.

Around Belgrade
A regional town in Serbia seems an unlikely place for one of Europe’s coolest music festivals. But each July the Petrovaradin Citadel in Novi Sad, just an hour away from Belgrade, hosts the Exit Festival.

What started in 2000 as a gathering to debate and listen to music during the Milosevic regime, now attracts some of music’s biggest acts.

You can camp on site in the attractive centuries-old citadel, or stay in town. And it’s cheap: a four-day pass costs about £50. For more information see

In the base of the citadel are artists’ studios that visitors are welcome to wander through any time of the year. Local artists can work there rent-free, a move by authorities to help foster local talent.

Novi Sad itself makes an interesting trip from Belgrade. It has a charming old town centre, while the surrounding countryside is home to centuries’ old monasteries – many of which make and sell their own wine.