The lights are out, the stairs are crumbling, the walls are covered in graffiti, and the lift looks like a set from a slasher film.

But this seemingly abandoned tower (nicknamed “The Bigs”) is, I’m told, a seriously hot nightlife spot. I’m dubious at first.

I head up the stairs with my tour group, convinced we’re about to startle an unsuspecting granny. Instead, there’s a busy bar, a balcony where a bevy of twentysomethings sip on local beer Jelen, and a view over the Danube River that can’t be beat.

Clearly, this isn’t just any other city. This is Belgrade.  A rep from Serbia’s tourism board tells me that many of Belgrade’s bars were hidden by necessity.

One such place is the World Travellers Club, a bohemian basement bar with no identifying signage outside. It’s been around for 13 years, and is decorated with a hodgepodge of donated furnishings.

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It started out as a secret meeting place for dissenters of ex-president Slobodan Milosevic.Milosevic doesn’t get much love from the locals these days, either; he did a horrible PR job on the country, which under his rule during the Balkan wars became practically synonymous with ethnic cleansing.

There are those who, with a hint of bitterness, lament the collapse of Yugoslavia – an event they pin on the former leader.

“We had such a beautiful country. It used to span the mountain lakes in Montenegro and the vineyards in Slovenia.

Now, I can’t help but feel I’ve lost my country a little bit,” reflects my guide, Srdjan Ristic, as we drink our beers.

No doubt Milosevic made a poor heir to Josip Broz Tito, the former president who kept Yugoslavia unified for four decades.

The Tito Memorial Complex makes for a beautiful ode to the man who was venerated both at home and abroad.

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Stacked throughout the place are the many gifts Tito received during his life, both from enamoured Yugoslavs and foreign dignitaries. Some items – like a 14th-century tanto sword – are invaluable.

The complex includes the leader’s mausoleum, known as the House of Flowers, so named for the wealth of blooming flora that engulfs his tomb. 

The city’s history of course pre-dates Tito, spanning 7000 years.

Nothing is a greater testament to this than its oldest building, the Belgrade Fortress.

Its mishmash of architectural styles underscores the country’s legacy of perpetual conflict.

Belgrade has been conquered by the Romans, Huns, Goths, Ottomans and Hungarians, as well as enjoying a few periods of independence.

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If the fortress represents Belgrade’s battles, the Cathedral of Saint Sava is a landmark to peacetime.

Though the exterior of the world’s largest Orthodox church was only completed in 2009, the building was over a century in the making.

The church was first conceived in 1895, but progress was hampered by a series of wars (“every 30 years or so we go to war,” jokes Ristic, “so I guess we’re about due another.”).

Its completion is a great source of pride among locals.

Currently, Belgrade seems very much a metropolis on the up. Cafes, bars and shops line Knez Mihailova Street, a cobbled, pedestrian thoroughfare that is constantly buzzing.

One of my favourite spots is the Rakia Bar. Rakia can best be described as the local brandy, and though plum is the most common, this stuff comes in a range of flavours.

I’m particularly smitten with the apricot, which feels like French-kissing the fruit.

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I down a honey and herb variant with equal enthusiasm. I’m so in love with the drink that I polish off five glasses.

But it’s easy to overdo it in Belgrade.

This is especially true during the warmer months, when the nightlife centres around a host of summer clubs that dot the River Sava. 

One of the most frequented is Freestlyer, a heaving nightclub built on a barge just off the bank. When I enter, the place is sardine-packed.

High above, women gyrate on an elevated scaffolding.

This is a far cry from the secret venues I stumbled across at the start of my trip, but then, this is a newer club, and represents a newer Belgrade.

At peace, and on its way up, the city, it seems, is done hiding.

If the pelvic thrusters on high are anything to go by, Belgrade is well and truly ready to be seen. 

 

Getting there

Fly from London City Airport to Belgrade via Frankfurt from £172 return with Lufthansa

 

Regent Holidays runs three-day breaks from £340pp; Travel The Unknown offers four-day Belgrade city tours from £445pp.  traveltheunknown.comregent-holidays.co.uk

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Places to eat, drink, sleep

Eat

Budget:  Burek, or cheese-filled pastries, are a fast-food mainstay in Serbia.

Grab some of the city’s best at Toma, an excellent Serbian bakery chain.

They cost around £1 each. 

pekaratoma.com 

 

MIdrange: ? (yes, it’s called ?) is the oldest tavern in Belgrade.

It was renamed in 1892, when, after a dispute over the name, the owner stuck a question mark on it.

Today, it’s a charming spot at which to grab traditional Serbian grub.

Think dripping meat grills and fresh salads.

Mains start at £6. (6 Kralja Petra, tel. 00 381 11 635421)

 

Luxury: Several floating eateries line the banks of the Danube, each specialising in seafood. Šaran is one of the most popular, and has a 100- year history.

Fish stews are a hearty specialty.

Mains from approx £11.(Kej Oslobodjenja 53, tel. 00 381 11 618-235)

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Drink

Budget:  World Travellers Club (left), also known as the Federation of Globetrotters, is a homely bohemian enclave.

The soundtrack is mostly jazz, and the vibe is decidedly laid back. Drinks cost from £1.60. 

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Midrange: Hanging lights are fashioned from brass stills, and rakia factoids are scrawled throughout the venue at Rakia Bar, which is classy and relaxed.

Furthermore, a visit here will convince anyone dubious of the value of the local spirit.

Shots cost from £2.  rakiabar.com

 

Luxury: Freestyler is the full hedonist’s package.

Join the scantily clad (and cosmetically altered) women on the dance floor and settle in for the long haul.

Beers from £3.  splavfree.co.rs

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Sleep

Budget:  Manga Hostel is clean, accommodating and affordable.

The friendly staff give great tips for navigating the city. Beware the Turkish coffee; the stuff is the real deal, and strong.

Rooms from £8pn. mangahostel.com

 

Midrange: Centrally located, with views overlooking the Cathedral of Saint Sava, Garni Crystal Hotel’s comfy digs are a great spot from which to navigate the city.

Rooms from £58pn. crystalhotel-belgrade.rs

 

Luxury: Arty types crash at Hotel Townhouse 27, a cute, boutique hotel on the edge of the historic district.

The interiors are tastefully designed by local sculptor Gabriel Glid. Rooms from £150pn. townhouse27.com

 

 

Photos: Tourist Organisation of Belgrade, Thinkstock, Getty