Three things that are better in Bishkek than Belgrade: espresso, cheesecake, and the ease of hailing a taxi.
Nescafé is more popular than filter coffee or espresso – and for good reason. I’ve had a few good coffees here but, as E summed up one cup, “I don’t even know what I’m drinking”. Belgrade, get on the boat! One of the first things we found upon our return to Bishkek – a cappuccino from the Giraffe Coffee stand outside Beta 2. OMG – that first sip of real esspresso. You can eat the same dishes abroad, but somehow the taste is almost never true. Belgrade needs a Giraffee Coffee on every corner.
For a country that has a proliferation of meat and dairy products, the cheesecake is surprisingly devoid of any cheese. Instead it jiggles and appears to consist solely of marshmallow fluff mixed with gelatin, reminiscent of my grandmother’s jello cakes and similarly sided with a mountain of canned coolwhip. Coolwhip also topped almost every single coffee drink I consumed. disdain.
And yes, though you can call a taxi and have it arrive within 3-5 minutes, it is remarkably different to hail one from the street. Some do hang out around popular streets, restaurants, clubs and finishing futbol games – but we still walked all the way back once or twice (or thrice) because we couldn’t find an empty cab. In Bishkek they almost outnumber the private cars.
Belgrade Hotels: An unexpected price
I’m surprised at the room rate of hotels in Belgrade, especially as we’re now off-season. Salaries are relatively low (most recent graduates earn 400 euro a month, and the minimum wage is 1.5 euro an hour), food is comparatively cheap (we once spent $30 on a meal for two – including calamari, steak, salad and wine at a fancy Italian restaurant; most of our meals are $10-20 and we definitely could pay less – I’ve paid $2 for a delicious baguette sandwich) and everything else in the city is relatively inexpensive. But the hotels – maybe it’s because we booked late, but the average rate for a decent room – double bed, nicely appointed villa or three-starish hotel – seems to be about $100 a night, and even at that price it’s quite difficult to find a good room unless you book at least a week in advance.
Jump Inn Hotel – “Delux” room
We first stayed at Jump Inn Hotel, a self-declared four-start boutique hotel by the riverside in Savamala, the up-and-coming art district (and current site of the temporary Syrian refugee camp). It was more of a business hotel for people who need business-hotel amenities and yet want to feel as if they’re staying in a boutique hotel. Interesting über-modern interior design in greys and accenting bright spring colors; fantastic hotel staff, a buffet breakfast that starts at 6:30, and pragmatic rooms. We were told upon arrival that we had been upgraded from the standard city room to the delux suite, but the “delux” suite was pretty much what I would expect in a standard room – not extraordinary in size or sumptuousness. For a four-star hotel, the crisp white sheets and towels leaned to the side of scratchy. But for Belgrade, it’s probably the best hotel at that price. The service is definitely better than any I’ve encountered elsewhere.
We looked at the – highly rated – Hotel Le Petit Piaf on Skardlija, the popular bohemian street. Same price, but industrial white walls and the same grey institutional carpeting that covered the snow-trodden floors of the dormitories where we stayed for ski camp in high school. Not exactly the little Paris.
Inside our $40/night apartment
So I looked and looked and we next stayed in a downtown apartment, about 70 square meters with a great glassed-in balcony, old hardwood floors and enough beds to sleep five. It was 40 euro ($45) a night. No breakfast or daily cleaning service obviously, but it did give me the sense that, like everything else, residential space in this city is not really expensive. However, E didn’t feel so comfortable (and it was *cold* with all those glass windows), so we moved literally down the street to Villa Skadalija where we had a double room with balcony and two-butt sauna in our shower (literally a tiny sauna accessible through our shower) for $99 a night. There are maybe 8 rooms in the hotel and a total of three employees covering all shifts and duties. Cute, centrally located, but for a hundred dollars I’d expect more than cold pastries, lunch meat cuts, and under-boiled hardboiled eggs for breakfast. Staff put on the veneer of helpfulness, but the owner is as friendly as ice and as warm as a sprayed-on Sarasota tan. Our room has absolutely no soundproofing and I’ve had to go into the lobby several times to ask the owner to turn down the morning time ambient jazz or not talk so loud on the phone, as it’s literally impossible to sleep.I can only imagine what prices (and availability) are like in summer, when the majority of tourists pour into the city. There are hotels and hostels all over the city. Hostels are cheap (but apparently can be quite dirty); hotels all seem to be about $100 for something merely decent.
All that said, a few recommendations:
a new artsy hostel and creative space with singles for about $60
a pastel-colored restaurant with hip and trendy takes on old recipes topped by a small and intimate hotel where room rates are about $55/night. I initially booked our last night there (as we planned to travel out of Belgrade), but when I called to see if we could arrive earlier they were already completely booked on every preceding day. Both of these places are new; expect their prices to rise too once they become more established names.
The San Art Floating Hostel
Though 3 km from the old town, you can sleep in an actual floating hotel. A South African girl from our bike tour stayed here and highly recommended it.