I have to add to this post prior to publicly publishing that Dan and I went to Iceland in February 2020 – pre-pandemic. Things were normal and COVID was just a slight thought in the back of our minds causing us to carry extra hand sanitizer. While things have certainly changed since February 2020, Iceland remains a great destination and it looks like they are some what opening up in 2021 (fingers crossed)! Happy future planning (February 2022?).
Dan and my last international trip pre-Coronavirus was an escape to Reykjavik, the largest city in Iceland, over Valentine’s Day weekend. Yes, another cold-climate country in the Winter (read about my prior cold-climate February trips here and here)… We enjoy visiting cities in their off-season, as you can usually find deeply discounted flights, particularly from the NYC area (hopefully that’s not a pre-corona memory of the past) and these destinations are less crowded in off-season, yet almost everything we want to do, see, and eat is open for business. And, honestly, its often colder in New York than the winter destination we visit, which was the case last February in Iceland. Further, Iceland is a super easy, five and a half hour flight from NYC and a long weekend (Wednesday night – Monday evening in our case) is a good amount of time to see the highlights. However, had I known that this would be our last trip pre-Coronavirus, I would have definitely stayed longer and seen more of Iceland.
Dan and me at Gulfoss Falls. I would note it was not as cold as it looked – it was just super duper windy.
Earlier this year, Dan and I spent a long weekend in Belgrade, Serbia. There are many, many hotels, hostels, and bed and breakfasts in huge Belgrade, but we choose to stay at the Hilton Belgrade because of the perks that come with our Hilton Diamond Status. There were other reasons as well, like location, a sweet spa with a “Caribbean shower,” and recently redone interiors, but our Diamond Status was what lead us to this hotel in the first place. If you’re unfamiliar with Diamond Status, its Hilton’s top status of hotel goers and we achieved it via our Hilton Aspire credit card. You can also achieve it via many night stays (I believe its currently 60 nights) or accumulating a certain spend. Diamond Status comes with a number of perks, including room upgrades, a welcome amenity, free breakfast and, our favorite, access to the Executive Lounge!
Entrance to the Executive Lounge in Belgrade.
An Executive Lounge is basically a private club room for certain patrons of Hilton. The quality of an Executive Lounge varies by property, but, outside of the US, they generally all offer a quite space, your own concierge, and food and drink during certain times of the day.
In the Belgrade Hilton, the Executive Lounge was located on the second floor of the hotel, just about the checkin area and very close to the hotel’s ballrooms (lots of weddings on the weekend here!). This particular lounge was on the small side for a Hilton Executive Lounge, but it was very nice. You reach the Executive Lounge by swiping your room card and then checking in with the employee working the door by providing your room number. Once you check in once, they tend to remember you. Hilton is very good about remembering it Diamond members. Once inside, the Executive Lounge is basically one room decorated in a modern fashion.
The Executive Lounge.
As you can see, the room is set up with low tables and chairs, with a series of televisions playing major news channels in English. Along the wall there is a street view with bar style seating and a kitchen area in the back of the room, where all the food and drink are located. The private lounge restroom is also in the back of the lounge.
The Executive Lounge from another angle.
One or two Hilton staff members work the lounge throughout the day, hence remembering the Diamond members. We found the staff to be helpful, nice, and quite friendly!
Like most Executive Lounges, the Belgrade lounge offered breakfast, non-alcoholic drinks and very light snacks throughout the day, and a happy hour each evening for a couple hours. As is pretty standard at Hilton lounges, breakfast was substantial, but not huge, and offered a selection or hot and cold foods. The variety changed slightly each day.
Breakfast meat and cheeses.
A Serbian bean dish, sausage, and bacon.
Vegetables and a porridge type dish.
Jams and cereals.
Kind of off topic of the Executive Lounge, Diamond members also get free breakfast in the hotel restaurant which, in my opinion, often offers more options and better food. In Belgrade, this was my made-to-order Eggs Benedict breakfast in the restaurant. Those hash browns were 100%!!! The cons, its way more crowded than the Executive Lounge, is not as relaxing, and it usually takes longer.
Super delicious breakfast in the hotel restaurant. Free for Diamond Status holders.
After breakfast ends, most Executive Lounges put out some grab and go snacks, the quality and quantity varying by hotel. Belgrade’s were particularly bad – just these Big Corny bars. At least they were Serbian made. And they were kind of tasty.
In all the Executive Lounges that I have visited, happy hour is the busiest and most popular time in the lounge. Happy hour is usually a 2 hour period, in Belgrade from 18h – 20h, where the lounge puts out essentially a small dinner spread and offers alcoholic beverages. During our stay, the food was quite good, and we actually made a meal out of it one evening! The Belgrade lounge offered a variety of dishes, a selection of which were always Serbian dishes. You can eat as much or as little as you want. This is definitely a good option for a pre-dinner snack or a full dinner if you don’t feel like leaving the hotel!
Cute & delicious cheese and peach plates!
My second portion of a delicious pasta dish!
Overview of the appetizer area.
Awesome fried potatoes.
Another, not as good as the white pasta sauce.
In addition to substantial food at happy hour, the Executive Lounge also puts out free booze! In Belgrade, the Executive Lounge set out some local beers, a couple bottles of Aleksandrovic wine (which we visited on our wine tour!), and flavored rakia, as well as some standard hard liquor! The alcohol was replenished frequently. In addition to alcohol, an espresso machine, as well as sodas, canned juices, and still and sparkling water are always available when the Executive Lounge is open.
The Raika – fig and plum!
Chips, nuts and popcorn with the booze!
In addition to food, the Executive Lounge has free, good wifi, a computer area, and a number of magazines in a variety of languages.
STEAL OUR LOUNGE
Hilton Belgrade: Kralja Milana 35,Belgrade,11000, T: +381-11-7555700. Great hotel, and highly recommended! Access the Executive Lounge with the Hilton Aspire Card.
Dan & I are big wine fans, and we love trying wine in less popular wine destinations. For example, we’ve done wine tours in South Africa, Montenegro, and Mendoza, to name a few. We spent a long weekend in Belgrade, Serbia last fall and upon researching for our trip, learned that Serbia has a wine country! Yes, Serbia has a wine country (actually multiple ones!) that is quite good, complete with its own indigenous grapes! As such, we promptly booked a wine tour.
Sparking wine tasting at Aleksandrović Vineyards!
Our tour, which we did with Private Serbia Tours, took us around the Šumadija wine region in central Serbia to three different wineries. It was actually supposed to have been four wineries, but one was unexpectedly closed due to a sewage issue… Our tour started early in the morning with a pick up at our hotel in Belgrade. We were the only two on the tour, so after the pick up, we drove about an hour outside of Belgrade to visit the first winery. The drive was on a modern highway, and our guide told us that we were only a six hour drive from Thessoloniki. Had I know that, I would have tried to squeeze in some Greece on this trip! Once we got off the highway, the countryside was quite different than Belgrade. Few modern cards; lots of tractors and horse drawn contraptions.
The Serbian countryside.
We reached Despotika Winery, our first stop on this tour, about an hour or so after our pickup! Despotika is a young and hip winery, making grapes with both traditional (i.e. French) grapes and indigenous Serbian grapes. Despotika’s theme is – “We’re still not the oldest, biggest and most famous, but we decided to be the best.” Love it, and also love that Despotika lived up to this theme! In addition to being the best, Despotika is designed to be really cool, and the owners have put a lot of work into this place. Lots of art and cool architecture. This would be a fabulous place for a wedding!
Welcome to Despotika (that’s Despotika in Serbian Cyrillic on the flags).
One of the cool art installations on the property.
Our tour of Despotika began with a walk through the property, which included sightings of grapes being harvested and the extensive wine cellar, and ended with a tasting – and by tasting I mean nearly a full glass – of seven wines. Yes, seven wines. The tasting was a mix between white and reds and well known grapes and local varieties. The entirety of the tour took about 1.5 hours, and Despotika ended up being our favorite stop on the tour! I think Despotika had the coolest grounds and the best wine (true to its slogan!).
Dodir white wine.
Nemir – a rose.
Zmajetivi. This was named after 3 dragons – reminded me a lot of GoT!
Dokaz red wine.
Despotika also has a really interesting wine museum with lots of Serbian wine artifacts that we visited as part of the tour and a decent gift shop. Very interesting. Pro tip – buy Despotika wine at the vineyard. Prices at the vineyard were wayyy better than at the airport.
A really cool glass grape piece from Despotika’s museum. Would love this for my house!
After drinking a lot of good wine at Despotika, our guide drove us to the capital of the Šumadija region, Topola, for a visit to the well-known King’s Winery. The King’s Winery is part Serbian wine museum and part small winery. The King’s Winery started years ago when the Serbian Royal Family grew grapes on the surrounding hills and produced Trijumf (the name is currently in use by winery Aleksandrović) wine. Production stopped due to the conflicts in the area in the late 1900s, but picked back up in the early 2000s. Today, the King’s Winery produces a limited amount of wine each year, which you can purchase on the property.
The King’s Winery.
At the King’s Winery, we did a self-tour of the historic wine cellar, which has wine making equipment from the early 1900s and an amazing wine cellar housing some really old bottles. The visiting was quite interesting, and shed some light on historic Serbian wine production.
Some of those really old bottles in the Kings Winery.
After our self-guided walk-through the cellar, we tried two tiny tastings of the King Winery’s wine. These wines were not nearly as good as Despotika. But I guess good wine is not really the point of the Royal Winery…
Tiny tasting of red at the King’s Winery.
We skipped buying a bottle the King’s Winery. I mean, we we were worried about running into serious luggage weight issues… Since our third stop, which was also our lunch stop, was closed, we ended up having an al fresco lunch in the town of Topola (name that I cannot pronounce in the pic below).
The restaurant where we lunched!
For lunch, I finally tried the national Jelen beer and Dan and I both ordered pasta. The meal was fine, but the al fresco seating was the real winner. The restaurant’s terrace was lovely! If you do eat here, the portions are enormous, definitely large enough to share.
The final winery that we visited on this tour was Aleksandrović Winery. Aleksandrović is one of the most well-branded Serbian wineries and one of the few that exports its wines outside of Serbia. Aleksandrović’s most famous wine is a line called Triump (i.e. Trijumf from the King’s Winery) and its all over Serbia.
Welcome to Aleksandrović!
At Aleksandrović, we watched a short video about the winery, took a tour of the barrel room, and then moved to the back deck for the wine tasting. Unlike Despotika, Aleksandrović requires patrons to purchase tastings by the wine, but its only a few dollars per taste (which is just smaller than a 1/2 glass). I think we tasted five wines for about $15 per person. The wine was good, but not as good as Despotika. The best things about Aleksandrović are its wine selection of wines and the gorgeous tasting setting. Of the three wineries that we visited, this would be the easiest to visit on your own.
One of the reds.
View from Aleksandrović’s tasting room.
STEAL OUR TRIP
Serbian Private Tours: We did the Royal Footprints Wine Tour for 219 Euro for both of us. The price included door to door transportation, all wine tastings, an English guide (also the driver), and a little gift at the end of the tour. For the entire day, I thought this was worth the price. That being said, it is expensive for Serbia.
Despotika Winery: 11423 Vlaski Do, Smederevska Palanka. T: +381 26 302 126 E: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can do tastings on your own. I recommend calling or emailing in advance to set up a tour and tasting. Since its a young, working winery, I am not certain tours are offered daily.
King’s Winery: Zdužbina Kralja Petra I, Oplenac bb, 34310 Topola, Oplenac, Serbia. T: +381 34 6811 280. You can just walk in for a tour and tasting, or to buy wine. Call to confirm hours, but it seems to be open daily in high season.
Aleksandrović Winery: Village of Vinca, Topola – Oplenac, 34310 Republic of Serbia. Individual visits: Dragana Srbljanin, curator, mob: +381 (0)62 262 277. Tamara Colic, curator, mob: +381 (0)62 262 186. Reservations recommended for individuals, mandatory for groups of ten and up. Open Monday – Saturday 8h – 19h, Sunday 10h – 18h. There is not a restaurant on premises.
Knezev Han: The restaurant where we ate lunch. Karadjordjeva 4, Topola Serbia. Right in the center of town. T: +381 34 812111. You probably do not need a reservation. Eat outside if you can.
ON A BUDGET
Serbian wine is inexpensive, particularly for the general quality. If you are on a budget, save money and taste various Serbian wines in Belgrade. You can find Serbian wine in most restaurants in Belgrade.
Dan and I spent a long weekend in Belgrade, Serbia earlier this year after our trip to Montenegro, as our Air Serbia flight connected in Belgrade to NYC and we thought, why not see a bit of Belgrade? Since we had limited time, basically 1 day in Belgrade proper, we decided to make the most of our time by taking a food tour through Belgrade, one of our favorite ways to explore a new city! Spoiler alert, we really like to eat and drink! There are a couple food tour options in Belgrade, but we went with the Food Tour Belgrade company based on a fellow traveler’s recommendation.
The first stop and the start of our tour was at the Question Mark cafe, or simply “?,” a landmark in Belgrade. The Question Mark is the oldest operating cafe, or “kafana,” in Belgrade, and its associated with loads of Serbian history. Decorated in a traditional manner, ? showcases gorgeous furniture in its main room, as well as a large beer garden in the back. We were welcomed with the Jelen beer branded (a popular mass produced beer in Belgrade; its ok) swag all over ?!
We found it – the ?
To start our tour at ?, we tasted traditional Turkish coffee, which is very strong dark coffee prepared in a traditional Turkish (and Serbian) manner and served with a cube of sugar and a Turkish Delight, or a sweet candy. Turkish coffee is really popular in Belgrade, due to it being a part of the Ottoman Empire at one time. The coffee at ? was solid and the presentation was 100%. After we finished the coffee, our guide even showed us how to read our fortune (I won’t spoil the surprise!) More excitingly, we learned that the work Jelen (from the beer brand fame) is one of the most common female names, pronounced “Yellen,” like Helen according to our guide = )
Turkish coffee at ? in Belgrade.
After finish our coffee at ?, we took a short stroll through a popular and upscale area of Belgrade, before reaching our second destination, a “dumpling” shop.
A stroll through Belgrade. Could not resist a picture of the cute blue moto.
In contrast to ?, the second stop on our tour was super modern, and Instagramable, store called Ferdinand Knedle. Ferdinand Knedle only makes knedles, or Serbian dumplings, and they are served in sweet and savory flavors, with plum being the most famous flavor. Despite translating to dumpling, they are not the dumplings that I think of; instead, they are more like fried dough balls filled with a soft filling. Our guide described it as something you would eat after school.
Modern interior of Ferdinand Knedle.
Menu at Ferdinand Knedle.
Lots of knedles at Ferdinand.
At Ferdinand, Dan and I each got to pick our own knedle to try. We decided to split the two, opting for the plum knedle and the 4 cheese knedle. Both were delicious and I would love to return and try allll of the flavors. The knedle was quite filling, and I was super surprised to learn that its only a snack here!
Plum knedle from the outside.
Interior of the plum version.
Inside of the 4 cheese knedle.
After the knedles, we took another stroll, this time down a touristy street, and cut into a restaurant with an unexpected back courtyard. The restaurant felt fancy, with waiters in suits, but it was most certainly casual. First up, our choice of Serbian wine of the traditional liquor, Rakija. I had enough rakija in Montenegro, so I ordered red Serbian wine. Dan went with a flavored rakija. Both were sizeable pours and quite tasty.
Serbian red wine.
Shortly after ordering the wine, we were each brought a plate of traditional Serbian appetizers. Our plates included two types of Serbian cheese, two Serbian dried meats, a slice of tomato, an order of traditional sun-dried tomato spread, and the most delicious bean salad. My favorites were the bean salad and and the tomato spread. I really loved the bean salad! However, my favorite food on the plate was a prosciutto wrapped prune. OMG. Absolutely delicious. This type of plate is a popular appetizer plate in Serbia and you can find something similar at more traditional restaurants throughout the city. Pro tip, split one with your travel partner or order it as a meal.
After this meal, we stopped at one of Serbia’s most popular ice cream shops, Crna Ovca (or, the “Black Sheep”). Seriously, there was a line outside. I ordered white chocolate blueberry and straticella (my choice!), but there were so many flavors that I would have love to have tried, including Pear and Fennel. How cool does that sound?! The ice cream was excellent and a nice cap to our big appetizer.
Ice cream from the Black Sheep.
More ice cream at Crna Ovca!
Our next stop was a quick one, more meats and cheese at a local meat and cheese shop! Good think Serbia does great meats and cheese. Here, were tried 4 dried meats, a sausage, two pieces of Serbian cheese, and breads dipped in Serbian olive oil, more of that tasty tomato paste, and a sweet Serbian jelly. We also tried some fried pork fat, which was absolutely amazing!! By far my favorite dish. I wish I had purchased some to eat later.
Meats at the meat shop – delish!
Fried pork fat, even more delish!
Our meats plate!
Moving along, our next stop was just down the road at homemade Serbian liquor store with a woman very reminiscent of the Amsterdam hostel woman in Eurotrip… In any case, and as you may have gathered, rakija is very popular in the Balkans, including Serbia. We had already tried a bunch on this trip; I hate it, and Dan loves it. Here, we tried an herbal rakija that ended up coming home with us in a bottle too big for our wine bags, some cherry wine, and a few other liquors. Most were too strong for my taste, but the shop was pretty interesting. The owner, a/k/a the Amsterdam hostel owner, was also really sweet and hospitable. Definitely look this shop up if you are into Serbian liquors.
Some of the liquers.
En route leaving the shop, we swung by a little market to pick up some raspberries – one of Serbia’s most famous exports. Who knew?! Aside from buying raspberries, the market was super cute and would make a fun stop for tourists!
Our very final destination was the bohemian district of Skadarlija, which is often compared to Paris’ Montmartre. I didn’t really get that comparison, but really nothing compares to my beloved Paris! Skadarlija is home to cute restaurants, cafes, and shops, many catering to tourists. We walked around Skadarlija for a few minutes and ended at an upscale sit down restaurant for another meal of classic Serbian foods. Yes, truly another complete meal.
Dan and me in Skadarlija.
I cannot recall the name of the restaurant; it is right on the corner next to direction sign in the above picture. I recommend a reservation. For our last meal of the tour, we started with Serbian red wine and Serbian grilled cheese. A perfect combo! Serbian wine is actually quite good and has a long history (which I will write about in another post, stay tuned!) and the cheese was fantastic. Our cheese and wine was paired with a salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, and Balkan cheese (like the ones we had in Montenegro!) called sopska salad, and cabbage salad. The tomato, cucumber, and cheese salad reminded me so much of a classic Greek salad – incredibly tasty!
Grilled cheese salad.
After, we each were served a plate of cevapi – Serbian grilled meat in a tube form – served on traditional Serbian bread in sandwich type format. The cevapi was very, very good, especially on the pita bread. During our meal, our guide answered all of our questions about Serbia – its history, conflicts, growing up in the Balkans (she grew up as a Serb in Bosnia), and modern day Serbia. Our conversation was really interesting, and reading up on Balkan history will definitely make your visit and a conversation such as this much more interesting. Our tour was over after this meal, and Dan and I set off to see Belgrade’s Church of Saint Sava.
The delicious cevapi.
Looking back, this food tour was an excellent way to explore Belgrade; we saw a lot of the city and tasted many foods that we would not have been able to try on our own. For those thinking of visiting Belgrade or the Balkans, Belgrade is quite safe these days, despite its outdated reputation of being a war torn country. There is still conflict in the Balkans, but tourists won’t see that on a visit to Belgrade. Today, Belgrade is hip, charming, and a great value to budget minded travelers. Plus, many people speak English due to growing up on US television shows. Belgrade is definitely worth visiting, and is an easy pair with more popular Balkan destinations, such as Croatia and Montenegro, especially from the East Coast of the US due to Air Serbia’s daily nonstop flight from JFK to Belgrade (which I took, it was a fine flight). Feel free to email or comment with any questions about Belgrade!
Belgrade’s famous Church of Saint Sava.
STEAL OUR TRIP
Food Tour Belgrade: We did the Serbia On Your Plate Tour at 56 euro per person, which included an English Speaking guide and all food and drink mentioned in this article. The food was more than enough for a meal. This company offers a few other tours, but the one we took is billed as their “most popular.”
Dan and I finally vacationed in Montenegro earlier this year! I had been dreaming of going to Montenegro for seriously like 10 years, and I was really excited to execute this trip! In planning, and in my last 10 years of Montenegro dreams, I mainly focused on the Adriatic coast: the Bay of Kotor, Budva, Petrovac, and Sveti Stefan. When actually planning our trip, however, I learned that Montenegro has much more to offer than its gorgeous coastline, including a really good wine industry. Yes, who knew?! The center of Montenegro’s wine industry is the tiny town of Virpazar, so we promptly booked a stay in Virpazar as part of our trip.
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