Monuments, museums, & microbreweries: The best of Sofia & Belgrade

Miss our adventures in Croatia, MontenegroAlbania, Macedonia (Parts 1 and 2), or Kosovo? Click on the links to catch up on our 16-day, 9 country Balkan road trip!

El and I are craft beer fans, and we try to seek out micro-breweries in every place we visit.  When we were living in Spain between 2011-2013, the craft beer scene hadn’t really struck Europe, and we were stuck with Cruzcampo aka “Hope you don’t have plans the next day b/c you won’t be leaving the bathroom” beer.  In Euro Adventures Round 2, it was a totally different story; not only were there dozens of craft breweries in London, you could find craft beers from all over Europe in any corner store.  Even the questionable looking bodega down the street from our flat had a great rotating selection.

Most of the craft beer we tried, BrewDog excluded, didn’t live up to our snobby American expectations.  Don’t get me wrong, there were some decent brews in the mix, but we really couldn’t find an American style IPA that rang close to what Half Acre or Revolution have to offer.  Until Slovenia.  Greg at Pop’s Place introduced us to the glorious world of Balkan craft beer, and we realized that the future of craft beer in Europe was east, in the Balkans.

Country #8: Sofia, Bulgaria

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria

Thanks to my insane rewards points from Hotels.com, we got this super massive room at the Grand Hotel Sofia for $17.  It was a little dated, but it was right in the city center, and did I mention that it was only $17?  Gotta love that exchange rate.  There’s not a ton of sightseeing throughout the city, so our visit to St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and the Monument to the Soviet Army didn’t take us long.  Sofia is a really clean city, and everything looks really new.  Their language is written in the Cyrillic alphabet, but there are plenty of western chains (Dunkin’ Donuts?) in the city’s downtown.  Much like Macedonia, Sofia’s decorated with plenty of incredible statues and pop-up craft markets.  What really appealed to me were the craft jewelry shops that seemed to be located on every corner, and the friendliness of the Bulgarian people was apparent every place we walked.

The Monument to the Soviet Army is now the site of frequent political vandalism

The Monument to the Soviet Army is now the site of frequent political vandalism

The rest of our day we spent checking out the best craft beer spots in Sofia.  Our first stop was Birabar, an English style pub that was stocked with some good Bulgarian crafts.  The bartender was great and talked to us about Bulgaria’s craft beer scene.  Apparently there are only about seven breweries in the entire country; despite it being at the beginning of their craft beer boom, they definitely know what they’re doing.  The crafts that the bartender recommended tasted like American style IPA’s, and we were becoming more and more convinced of Bulgaria’s potential to be a craft beer powerhouse.  The bartender was awesome and even gave Elliot a beer glass w/Cyrillic writing on it.  Our next stop was a bottle shop to check out the glassware.  El’s beer glass collection seems to have picked up steam, and we usually come home with a glass from every place we visit.  He picked up another Bulgarian brewery glass, and we went to our next craft beer bar: Halbite.  The atmosphere is great, and their beer garden must be hopping (no pun intended) in the summer.  The beer we had was just ‘meh’, but their snacks were enough to fuel us for the next stop.  We had some great burgers at Skaptobara, which had a great menu and some great people watching.  After dinner, we took a stroll down a La Rambla-esque ped mall downtown and people watched from the outdoor seats of a small bottle shop/bar.  A great end to our first night in Sofia.

Country #9: Belgrade, Serbia

The next morning, our swanky hotel had a massive buffet, and the fresh bread and banitzka (basically börek) seemed to bring us back to life.  It was a good thing we ate a big breakfast because it was an hour wait at the border just to get out of Bulgaria.  I had to use the bathroom so badly, so I walked to the duty free shop that advertised bathrooms.  At the entrance was an unfriendly looking dude who demanded a euro for entry.  When I pantomimed that I didn’t have one, he said something in Bulgarian and pointed to a surveillance camera overhead.  I dug deep in my purse and found 40 Euro cents and a 1 pound coin.  I offered both, and with a great display of reluctance and annoyance he let me pass.  The bathroom was just a bunch of holes in the ground, and I thought about demanding my 40 cents back.  At least there was a spicket to hose off my feet when I was done…

We wove through the throngs of gypsies trying to wash our windshield, and got through Serbian passport control pretty quickly.  I was silently crapping my pants thinking they wouldn’t let us in because we had a Kosovo stamp, but they didn’t even look at our docs as they waved us through.  Our drive to Belgrade was much like the rest of our Balkans trip: green and mountainous, although it flattened out the closer we got to the city.  Unlike most of the other Balkan countries, however, there were actual highways.  We drove through Niš, the birthplace of Constantine the Great, before we were stopped dead in our tracks by the Belgrade traffic.  Belgrade is a massive city and slightly difficult to navigate, and it took us multiple turn arounds and a phone call to the reception to find the hotel.

Serbian street art

Serbian street art

Our hotel room itself was nice, but there was a ton of construction going on in the stairwells, and everything was torn up. Aside from the fact that a light was flickering, there was garbage on the steps, a full ashtray was next to a window, and there were two piles of vomit in different locations, it was great.  Our first stop was the Black Turtle Pub; although it claimed to be open, there was no one inside and one of the bartenders was passed out asleep at the bar.  Shockingly, we didn’t stay long and tried the next craft beer bar I’d researched: Samo Pivo.  The reviews all advised not to be scared away by the graffiti-covered sketchy staircase leading to the bar.  They didn’t, however, warn about the old woman at the top of the stairs, washing her feet in a bucket.  Serbia was off to an interesting start.

Samo Pivo is a huge rooftop bar, and almost every table was crammed with people laughing and making out.  You read that right; there were at least two couples that were just making out the entire time we were there.  I tried the Pablo IPA, a house brew, and was not disappointed.  Later at Prohibicija, we tried some more fantastic Serbian craft beers: El had Hoptopod, and I had an aptly named American Idiot.  The place was dead, so we made our way back to the city center and had some great burgers at Burger House, an outdoor spot in the pedestrian area.

Well, now that's not very nice

Well, now that’s not very nice

The next morning, we got up early to check out the massive Belgrade Citadel that overlooks the river.  There’s a random dinosaur park inside the walls, and the citadel is a great spot to explore in Belgrade.  The Victor Statue is cool enough to warrant a visit, but the views of the city and river below make it a must stop.  After Serbian Mickey D’s for lunch, we made our way to the Historical Museum of Serbia.  The streets to get there, however, were closed for a military parade and ceremony taking place near the museum.  We couldn’t figure out what the occasion was, but the multiple Serbian flyovers were pretty awesome.  We walked through Old Town to pass the time and watched the Manchester City vs. Liverpool game until the streets reopened at two.

The Historical Museum of Serbia was two parts: WWI and an exhibition featuring the work of Serbian artist, Olja Ivanjicki.  The WWI section had some cool artifacts, but the story told was SO revisionist that it disappointed us.  The Ivanjicki exhibition was pretty incredible though, and the art styles were really varied.  After the museum, we strolled the streets decorated with impressive art and checked out Krafter Bar.  There we met one of the owners of Dogma Brewery, the folks who brew Hoptopod.  We chatted with him for awhile, and he was awesome talking to us about the rise of the craft beer scene in Serbia.  After a second Hoptopod, I was trying to convince Elliot that we HAD to invest in Serbian craft beer.  That’s another thing about the craft beers there: they’re super strong and hit you fast.

The next morning, our tour of the Balkans came to an end as we flew out of the Belgrade Airport.  Overall stats for the trip:

  • 16 days
  • 12 border crossings
  • 9 countries
  • 2,745 km driven in 45 hours
  • 2 islands
  • 5 ferries
  • 1 near death experience in a Macedonian National Park
  • 0 days of rain
  • Hundreds of laughs and memories with my best bud

Now that’s what I call an epic road trip.

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