“Novac potrošen u kafani je novac uložen u sećanja.” (Money spent in kafana is money invested in memories.)
Sure, this famous quote is debatable. Still, kafana is a central part of Serbian culture and tradition. Besides, you can’t learn the Serbian language without learning about Serbian culture and habits.
For that reason, we’ll explain what Serbian kafana is, why Serbs (and non-Serbs) love it, and what to expect if you decide to visit one yourself. Dive right in!
What is Kafana?
Before we explain why kafana is central to Serbian culture and nightlife, you should know what kafana is.
Kafana is a traditional Balkan tavern or inn where people gather to enjoy local cuisine, drinks, and live music. It’s a casual and relaxed place for socializing and experiencing local culture.
Although many places serve food and alcohol and host live music, kafana differs from your typical cafe or nightclub. The most striking difference is the atmosphere. Namely, most kafanas are cozy and unpretentious. More traditional ones might even seem shabby.
However, the modest interior, the wooden tables, checkered tablecloths, and ethnic decor make kafanas what they are – the oasis of comfort amid the hustle and bustle of everyday life. All in all, it’s a place to spend hours of your life and heaps of hard-earned cash with zero regrets.
What to Expect in Serbian Kafana
Except for the relaxed atmosphere, three things make kafana what it is: music, food, and alcohol.
If you go to a genuine Serbian kafana, don’t expect trending music or anything you’d hear at a nightclub. Most often, kafana hosts a kind of live music – tamburica.
Tamburica is a small tambourine, but more often, it refers to a music band (tamburaši) with various instruments, such as tambourines, violins, and cellos. Usually, these bands perform traditional Balkan songs, which are often tear-jerkers and perfectly encapsulate Balkan soul. There’s no better way to appreciate Balkan folk music than going to a kafana and singing at the top of your lungs.
All this music and emotion is bound to starve you out. Luckily, at a kafana, you can enjoy a variety of local cuisine. Since these taverns use traditional recipes, it’s a perfect chance to try different dishes.
From ćevapi and pljeskavica to gulaš and pasulj, one thing is sure – you won’t go home hungry. If you’re going out with friends, order predjelo (charcutterie) – a big plate with various foods, such as pršuta (prosciutto), sir (cheese), kajmak, masline (olives), etc. All these go great with pivo (beer).
Speaking of beer, kafana won’t leave you thirsty. Sure, you might have a hangover in the morning, but it’s totally worth it. From local draft beer (Nikšićko, Zaječarsko) to all kinds of rakija (Balkan fruit brandy), try not to get tipsy.
And don’t worry if you hear the sound of glass shattering. That’s just Serbs breaking their glasses in the heat of the moment. You’ll get used to it.
The Oldest Kafana in Belgrade
To experience tradition at its finest, head to Kralja Petra Street in Belgrade. There, you’ll find the oldest existing kafana – Question mark, or “?“. This establishment is almost two centuries old, and although the oldest kafanas existed about five centuries ago, they’re not around anymore. So, if you want a truly authentic experience, kafana “?” is the place.
There, you can enjoy all the local delicacies amid the ethnic interior or in the cozy garden. Plus, some evenings, you can enjoy live music. So, don’t miss it next time you’re in Belgrade.
If you’ve visited Belgrade, you know about Skadarlija. This cobblestone street in the heart of the capital is home to about a dozen kafanas. Tri šešira, Mali vrabac, and Dva jelena are among the most popular. So if you come here in the daytime, you can enjoy domaća kafa (Turkish coffee) in a quiet atmosphere and get some (overpriced) souvenirs from street vendors.
However, if you come by at night, expect lots of delicious food, good music, and crowds. It’s a perfect location if you wish to visit multiple places in one day. But make sure to book a table in advance. After all, Skadarlija is one of the most popular areas for locals and tourists.
Serbian Kafana Useful Phrases
To visit a kafana without hassle, you need to know how to book a table, order food, and ask for a check. Here are the essential phrases and vocab to make your visit more comfortable.
to order a song
to treat somebody
Želim da rezervišem sto za 5 ljudi.
(I want to book a table for five people.)
Mogu li da dobijem meni?
(Can I get the menu?)
Želim da naručim veliko točeno pivo i ćevape.
(I’d like to order a large draft beer and ćevapi.)
Konobar, mogu li da dobijem račun?
(Waiter, can I get the check?)
Plaćate kešom ili karticom?
(Will you pay with cash or credit card?)
Ja častim ovu turu.
(I’m buying this round.)
* Just like in cafes and restaurants, tipping (bakšiš) isn’t mandatory but is a sign of good manners and gratitude, especially considering the excellent service you’ll receive in most kafanas. As for how much to tip, 10-15% is usual.
** Sometimes, the musicians will let you order a song, and they’ll play it at your table. If you do choose a song, you should also tip the musicians. But in this case, you can decide for yourself how much to tip.
*** When Serbs go out, they rarely go Dutch. If you go to a kafana, you’ll be surprised at how often people argue about paying. More precisely, everybody wants to cover the bill to showcase their generosity.
If you really wish to pay, you can use the word častiti (to treat somebody). If you say “Ja častim” (my treat), you should also come up with a reason, such as passing an exam or other good news. That’s the only way people will let you pay.
With Kafana to Fluency
Now that you know the ins and outs of Serbian kafana, it’s time to put your knowledge into practice. Why not visit a kafana, have a rakija or two, and practice your Serbian with tipsy locals? It’s the perfect atmosphere for chatting away. And never mind about mistakes. After all, who thinks about grammar after a few beers?
Speaking of mistakes, our teachers encourage you to make as many as necessary. So why don’t you book an individual Serbian lesson? Give it a go and see for yourself that practice indeed makes perfect.