Matt Forney
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Thoughts on Visiting Belgrade, Serbia

Last summer, I took a short trip to Belgrade, Serbia in order to get out of Hungary for a bit. Belgrade is the country’s capital, situated further south along the Danube River and an eight-hour train ride from Budapest. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, so here are my observations on the trip…

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1. Serbia is falling apart in every conceivable way.

While Serbia is not as poor as Ukraine, it has a similarly run-down atmosphere, as well as infrastructure that is arguably worse. For example, the reason it takes eight hours to go from Budapest to Belgrade when it’s only three hours by car is because Serbia’s railways are in terrible shape.

When we crossed the border from Hungary, for example, immigration officers boarded our train, took our passports, and told us to get off. After we milled around the crumbling Subotica station for fifteen minutes, a chain-smoking middle-aged lady came out and told us that due to “problems,” they were sticking us on a bus to the next station, Stari Žednik, which was twelve miles (twenty kilometers) away, where we’d board a new train to Belgrade. She then left us to bake in the 104 degree (40 degrees Celsius) heat for another half-hour, when the immigration officers finally reemerged, handing our passports out at random.

We then boarded the bus that would take us to Stari Žednik—a crappy 1970’s-era Soviet monstrosity with no air conditioning—but there were too many people to fit on it comfortably, so about a dozen people had to straphang in the aisle. It took a half-hour to get to the Stari Žednik station, and we were nearly two hours late in getting to Belgrade. At least the train they stuck us on had AC.

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I figured this was just a temporary issue, but nope: when I went back to Budapest a few days later, we had to disembark at Stari Žednik and take a bus to Subotica to change trains. Fortunately, the Serbs ordered multiple buses that time around, so we weren’t crammed ass-to-elbows and sweating on each other. At least the trains in Ukraine, as run-down as they are, arrive and leave on time.

These problems don’t end when you get to Belgrade, either. The city itself is architecturally schizophrenic, with old pre-20th century buildings mottled together with communist-era monstrosities and modern developments. You’ll also run across ruins from the wars in the nineties, monuments to NATO’s bombing that the Serbs haven’t bothered to clean up. While the central areas of Belgrade are fairly nice, once you leave them, the city gets ugly and depressing quickly. The sweltering hot summer weather—a full ten degrees Celsius hotter than Budapest on average—doesn’t help.

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2. Serbs are disturbingly apathetic about everything.

The Serbs are a charming but depressing people. The state of Serbia’s infrastructure and architecture reflects the listlessness of its citizenry. Serbs believe that no matter what they do and how hard they work, they will just get screwed over, a somewhat justifiable view given recent history. For example, during the war in Kosovo, the Serbian military beat the Kosovo Liberation Army—a bunch of Albanian cowards who were only good at burning down villages and raping women—in every battle, only to have Bill Clinton bomb Serbia to smithereens after the Albanians went crying to the U.N.

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The problem is that this mentality creates a nihilistic culture where nobody cares about anything. Belgrade’s atmosphere, even in the summer, is dreary and limp. Public transportation, restaurant service, and everything else is inferior to not just the U.S., but other countries in eastern Europe. Furthermore, due to Serbia’s proximity to the Mediterranean, it has a more clannish, physically-oriented culture akin to Italy or Spain. If you play sports or are into dancing, you’ll like Serbia; for everyone else, you’ll be left wondering what the fuss is about.

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On the upside, the Serbs I met are pretty friendly towards Americans, or at least not overtly hostile, a genuine surprise seeing as we were complicit in Serbia losing its historic heartland, Kosovo, to a bunch of Albanian mobsters. Indeed, while walking around, I saw vendors hocking Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin T-shirts (Serbia is the only eastern European country I’ve visited that is pro-Russia), while outside the Serbian parliament building, there’s a massive English-language installation protesting Bill and Hillary Clinton for protecting “Albanian war criminals.”

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3. Belgrade is ultimately a poor man’s Budapest, including the girls.

At the end of the day, Belgrade is too similar to Budapest for me to really be wowed by it. The two cities have similar climates, cultures, and party scenes. The women are similar-looking—though Serbian women tend to be skinnier and more Italian- or Turkish-looking than Hungarian women—and are equally difficult to approach unless you’re part of the same social circle. What Belgrade does differently from Budapest, it typically does worse, such as architecture and infrastructure.

You can’t even escape from foreigners in Belgrade, because the city has a ton of British and American expats and backpackers. For example, the train I came in on had a ton of grimy British hippies going to a music festival in Novi Sad, while in one restaurant, I had to listen to some fat American chick loudly complaining about President Trump to her Serbian fuckbuddy.

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One standout in Serbia is the food, which is some of the best I’ve had in Europe. Serbian cuisine is spicier than other eastern European cuisines, with such items as cevapi (sausages made from pork and beef) and the “gourmet Serbian burger” being must-try items. There’s also a lot of local culture to take in, from the Nikola Tesla Museum—where I participated in a Tesla coil demonstration—to the Gavrilo Princep statue to the Belgrade Fortress, which overlooks the confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers and is beautiful at night.

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Overall, while I enjoyed my visit to Belgrade, it’s not a city that motivates me to come back. Perhaps it’s just due to the fact that I live in Budapest, but Belgrade came off as a poor imitation of it; if you haven’t been to Hungary, you might find Serbia more impressive. If you enjoy sports, dancing, and fast-paced nightlife, Belgrade is worth a visit for a week or two, but there are better cities in Europe to make your home in.

Read Next: Thoughts on Visiting Lviv, Ukraine