One of the most annoying things about traveling on a time crunch is…
The uncertainty about which of two fairly similar cities you should visit if you can’t visit both.
With the Balkans, people experience this stress when deciding between traveling to Zagreb or Belgrade.
I remember the first time I faced this predicament. I traveled to Nicaragua some years ago and was deciding between visiting two colonial cities, Leon and Granada. Leon was allegedly the cooler, less touristy, alternative town; while Granada was more touristy, colorful and in better condition. I was so certain I would like Leon more, but I decided to visit both anyway.
Turns out, I loved the “more touristy” Granada, and had I not visited both, I wouldn’t have know that Leon sounded better on paper, but was not really my style.
Of course, there are many situations where you just can’t go to both, especially with the Balkans. I wasn’t able to go to Zagreb AND Belgrade on my first trip. I went to Belgrade first, which was definitely the Leon. Years later, I made it to Zagreb, which is definitely the Granada. And yet I chose to live in Belgrade, the Leon, instead of Zagreb, the Granada, when I liked Granada more!
The reason I am rambling on about this is because it’s impossible to know from the internet how you will REALLY feel about two destinations. The only way to know is to go to both, even if it takes years, because I love both Zagreb and Belgrade for different reasons.
So reading a blog post like this can only help so much. I suggest you go to both if you can. But I’m writing this post anyway, because, maybe this will actually help someone decide which to visit, so why not. I felt like I had a false anticipation for Leon because it was overly hyped by travelers I came across who also had a bias against Granada as “too touristy.”
I will do my best with this post to sound as neutral as possible. So enough rambling now!
I have a rambling problem clearly. I apologize.
Anyway… wow that was a long intro.
Here are 12 ways Belgrade and Zagreb contrast and compare for those of you who can only visit just one.
Obviously this is Zagreb. Belgrade isn’t this happy happy joy joy.
1 – Aesthetic vibes: Zagreb is pristine and pretty. Belgrade has more of a gritty sultriness to it.
Many Serbian people are shocked that I left pretty little suburbia America for Belgrade and often ask me why would I do something so crazy? But, they don’t know that Belgrade is so much more exciting than any American suburb could ever be. Belgrade is known for its energy and action-packed pace. But visually, it’s an acquired taste.
Zagreb however immediately hits you over the head with charming and whimsical loveliness of Austro-Hungarian style architecture dipped in cotton candy colors. It’s the kind of place that makes you want to dance through the streets.
2 – Zagreb responsibly goes to bed on time. Belgrade stays up past its bed time.
Something that was a surprise to me about Zagreb was the volume of restaurants and bars that closed by 11 p.m. on a Friday night, which is around the time I arrived there. There were only one or two options to eat dinner and a couple of fast food places were open as well.
In Belgrade, this is sacrilege. Most places are open until midnight or 1 am if they are a restaurant or bar. On top of that, the city is littered with cafes, kafanas, restaurants, pubs and nightclubs. This is the energy to the city that you will feel when you arrive. You will immediately want to get out of your bus or car and join the action.
Was this a Sunday or a Saturday night? With Belgrade, I can never remember!
3 – Belgrade is peacefully Eastern Europe, while Zagreb can feel more touristy Central European.
I know a huge draw for people interested in traveling to Eastern Europe is that, in most cities, it will not feel as crowded as those overly-marketed Western Europe cities like Rome, Paris and Barcelona. When I first traveled to the Balkans, I went to Macedonia, Kosovo and Serbia because I knew they would be the least crowded places, and I know many people consider these things in their travels.
If you want a capital city that is authentically Balkans without seeing tour groups every second, DSLR cameras and selfie sticks, then Belgrade is your best bet. It’s kind of ironic as well, as anyone who has been to Belgrade knows that is has the vibrant social culture and nightlife that you will find in cities like Madrid or Berlin. People who have been to every capital city in the Balkans tend to agree that Belgrade has the most lively and happening atmosphere. Despite these things, it’s still very under-touristed (is that even a word?).
Zagreb however, is quite touristy at this point. It’s not as busy as Dubrovnik or Split or even Sarajevo. It hasn’t reached a point where it’s too disturbed to enjoy it (which is how I feel about Split–too crowded!). But it still has a lot more tourists and I am sure it’s going to get busier and busier in the years to come. But hey, tourism is great for the economy, so more power to ya Zagreb!
4 – Zagreb is bike-adjusted. Belgrade is absolutely not.
Something I loved about Zagreb is that it is an accommodating city for bike riders. It has wide open streets and spacious sidewalks. There are some areas that have tram only lanes, which bikers can ride on as well. Zagreb roads leave enough space for the biker and the driver.
In Belgrade, there is only room for the driver most of the time. Bike riders often have to ride on the sidewalk to take extra precaution. But most of the sidewalks in Belgrade are narrow and have many moments where there’s not even significant space for pedestrians, yet alone bike riders. It can sometimes feel claustrophobic.
So if biking around is something you look forward to doing on your trip, Belgrade will be a bit tricky in that regard. You will see some bikers in Belgrade, but they are seasoned bikers who are very familiar with the roads. For someone brand new to the city, it is best to take a guided bike tour. You can also stick to biking in Novi Beograd (New Belgrade) which has bike lanes, but it lacks the historic charm you get in stari grad (old town).
Most Belgrade streets look like this: narrow and absolutely no space for bikers!
5 – Zagreb has a modicum of minorities. Belgrade has…. Serbians.
The first thing I noticed about Zagreb is that it has more minorities, not a lot, but it has more. Now, I am sure many of the black people or Asians I saw were tourists, but I met a few black people that actually lived there. One woman told me she even has a small African kitchen that serves traditional West African food, which was amazing to learn. She told me there are many West Africans who moved to Zagreb like her. I would see at least 7-10 black people per day and plenty of Asian tourists as well. In Belgrade, I will go months without seeing a black person. There are black students in Belgrade and a few expats, but it seems that there are fewer minorities actually settling there for a new life, which is not the case with Zagreb.
6 – Zagreb has more flirty old men. Belgrade has very well behaved old men.
This is for my lady travelers out there. Watch Out! Men in Zagreb kind of remind me of men in Italy or even Latin American countries where they can be a bit lecherous.
You might experience some cat calling, long staring, kissy faces, eye-undressing and downright stupid questions. I can honestly say that I experienced more inappropriate behavior in a weekend in Zagreb than I did in the entire eight months I have lived in Belgrade.
I think it’s just a cultural difference. Maybe men in Zagreb live off that Mediterranean vibe and get a high on experiencing a constant influx of pretty young thing tourists. I know Zagreb isn’t on the Adriatic sea. But maybe it’s the excitement of the people flying into Zagreb and passing through. Maybe it is osmosis due to the city’s proximity to its seaside cousins, although I would say the men who live and work on the seaside are much better behaved. I mean, who knows really.
7 – Belgrade has some international restaurants. Zagreb has many international restaurants.
I’m not a big fan of Indian food, and I don’t care so much for Greek food even. But if eating some sort of international cuisine is your thing, then know that Zagreb has a plethora of restaurants waiting for you. But don’t get me wrong, Belgrade too has plenty of international restaurants. They have Greek, Japanese and Middle Eastern restaurants. But I think those are obvious types of international restaurants, whereas Zagreb has more exotic restaurants to choose from.
8 – Belgrade has more olive-skinned, dark-haired people. Zagreb has more people with fair skin and lighter hair. They both have super tall people.
I think this is important to note if you are looking for a holiday romance, a casual Tinder date or even a potential partner, and you have a type. Everyone who has been to the Balkans knows that the women and the men are some of the most stunning people in the world. So if you do indeed have a type, now you know where you are more likely to find your type.
See how your girl looks out for you.
9 – Zagreb has more bus/tram etiquette. Belgrade pretty much has none.
You know how it is kind to give up your seat on a bus or tram if an old person comes on the bus? Well, Belgrade is not so strict about that. Let those old folks stand.
I give older people in Belgrade a lot of credit. They are tough as nails and never really ask younger people to give up seats. In Zagreb, not giving up your seat for an older person is considered so rude, and you might even get a tongue-lashing if you don’t move. And I think that is the way it should be everywhere.
It is also required to give up your seat for children in Zagreb, as well as Belgrade. I just think in Zagreb, you will see more people quick to volunteer, whereas in Belgrade, the person with the child might ask someone first before the person volunteers.
10 – Zagreb has a wider variety of fast food. Belgrade has mostly Balkan fast food.
Something I loved about Zagreb was the fast food. It was so Western that I forgot I was still in the Balkans at times. Many places had fried shrimp with tartar sauce and onion rings. I don’t remember the last time I had tartar sauce in Belgrade. I forgot tartar sauce existed. Belgrade’s fast food sticks to Balkan staples like čevapi, kobasica and pljeskavica. Every fast food place in Belgrade also has pomme frittes, a.k.a. french fries, and you can find many falafel places as well–which I LOVE. In USA, falafel could only be found at one or two Greek or Turkish restaurants. So thank you Belgrade for having falafel practically everywhere. But, Zagreb has all of those options, as well as many more Western-style fast food choices.
11 – Belgrade has a fortress. Zagreb does not.
I mean, do I even need to elaborate on this? Shame on you Zagreb. Just shame! Okay, so technically, Zagreb does have a fortress, but it is only accessible by car or bus. Belgrade’s fortress however is easy to walk to from downtown, which tends to be the case for many of these Balkan cities. I don’t think Belgrade’s fortress Kalemegdan is by any means the most impressive fortress in the Balkans. But it’s still a fortress, and if Zagreb or Belgrade is your first stop in the Balkans, it is Belgrade where you can lose your fortress virginity.
12 – Belgrade fashion is hot, sexy and trendy. Zagreb fashion is cute, sophisticated and classic.
A fun part of travel is observing the style of a city. I think that is common when traveling to Paris, New York or Milan—the fashion capitals of the world. But truly, all major cities have style. Balkan cities are no different.
Belgrade is a sexy city. The women, the nightclubs and the parties are sexy. Belgrade has a higher concentration of cosmetic enhancements and super high heels as well. There is even a famous street called Strahinjica Bana that is nickname “Silicon Valley” as an homage to all the enhanced ladies who frequent the restaurants and bars there (although I don’t think it has that reputation so much anymore).
Zagreb however is more modest and dare I say slightly more high fashion. In Zagreb, I saw so many women in tailored blazers, pant suits, and pencil dresses. It made me want to go shopping and up my game. But I’m more of a Belgrade girl.
Someone once said that there is a difference between being fashionable and having style. I would say Belgrade is fashionable, but Zagreb has style.
And there you have it. Those are all the things I can think of for now. I will try to think of more. But keep in mind that a blog post is not really going to tell you which you should visit. Go with your gut and listen to what your personality and your travel spirit desire. But most importantly, if you can, visit both!
Please share this post with anyone you know that is deciding between which of these two cities to visit! And if it is you and you have any more questions about Zagreb and Belgrade, ask me in the comments below. Or feel free to message me on Facebook or Instagram.