Belgrade: An architectural feast

The illustrator is inspired by Belgrade's collection of buildings from different eras

Who: Illustrator and architectural associate Lee Xin Li, 28, is the creator of the popular Kueh series featuring illustrations of the colourful bite-size cakes and Sayang Singapura, a book of illustrations depicting daily life in Singapore. His first exhibition is now at The URA Centre's Singapore City Gallery till April 30.

Favourite destination: Belgrade, Serbia

Why: It is not an affluent country, yet the people I met were not only friendly and straightforward, but also their attitude towards life seemed to be the opposite of the typical Singaporean: They were daring and wasted no time pursuing what they like.

Their you-only-live-once attitude towards life - probably the result of their war-torn past - left a deep impression on me.

The city is also filled with colourful, creative spaces and an amazing collection of architecture from different eras, which made me feel like I was walking through an architecture textbook. The vibe of the city inspired me to bring this dynamism to my drawings of Singaporean landscapes.

Favourite hotel

We stayed at Yolostel (Apt. 6, III floor, Uzun Mirkova 6; tel: +381-64- 200-8817; www.yolostel.rs), a colourful four-room hostel housed in an old apartment building, with the kind of ancient lifts one sees in period films. Our corner room was gorgeous, with a balcony offering panoramic views of the surrounding area. A night here starts from €10 (S$15) for a bed in the eight-bed dorm room or €30 a night in the private double room.

Favourite restaurant

Tri Sesira (Skadarska 29; tel: +381- 60-313-0180, trisesira.rs/en/) in Skadarlija, the city's bohemian quarter known as the Montmartre of Belgrade (Montmartre is a famous arts neighbourhood in Paris), has the hallmarks of a tourist restaurant - English menus and a folk band which performs in restaurants - but the 150-year-old establishment still serves some delicious traditional Serbian cuisine.

One of my favourite dishes is the Pohovane Paprike Sa Sirom - breaded and fried peppers stuffed with cheese (380 Serbian dinars or S$4.60).

The combination of juicy tanginess from the roasted peppers, the creamy cheese and crispy crust makes it a memorable dish.

Meat eaters will enjoy Cevapi na kajmaku or grilled minced meat sausage-shaped kebabs on kaymak (690 Serbian dinars).

The minced sausages are fragrant and juicy and you get to try kaymak, a thick kind of clotted cream commonly found in the Balkan region.

Favourite museum

Built in the early 19th century, Princess Ljubica's Residence (Ulica Kneza Sime Markovica 8; tel: +381-011- 263-8264; bit.ly/21V70xa) offers a glimpse of Serbian culture and history.

Through the interior decor and traditional clothes on display, one can see how deeply Serbia was influenced by its position between the Western and Middle Eastern powers of the respective Austrian and Ottoman empires.

Favourite tourist site

The Kalemegdan is a huge park with many historical landmarks. One of my favourites is the Ruzica Church, also known as the Little Rose Church, beside the lookout point where you have great views of the city.

The original church was destroyed in the 16th century by invading Ottoman Turks and the current structure was a gunpowder magazine until it was turned into a church in the 18th century. A special feature of the church is its chandeliers made from bullets.

The lookout point at the Kalemegdan is also where you get a sense of the city's history and geography. At the confluence of the rivers Sava and Danube, Kalemegdan is the site of Belgrade's first human settlements.

You can see locals and tourists crossing paths here and military geeks will be wowed by the arsenal on display at the Belgrade Fortress located in the park.

Favourite neighbourhood

I enjoyed walking along Kneza Mihaila, a main pedestrian and shopping street leading from the Kalemegdan to Hotel Moskva (Terazije 20; tel: +381-113-642-069; www.hotelmoskva.rs/en/), which is the Belgrade equivalent of the Hotel Strand in Yangon or the Raffles Hotel in Singapore.

The main street is an architectural feast with buildings from different eras standing next to one another. The street also has historical significance as a place where massive demonstrations took place during the Slobodan Milosevic regime.

He was president of Serbia from 1989 to 1997 and president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from 1997 to 2000. He was tried for crimes against humanity and died during the trial in 2006.

My architecture tutor, Dr Ruzica Bozovic-Stamenovic from the University of Belgrade who also teaches at National University of Singapore, described how students attempted to protest peacefully against the authorities according to their disciplines - from poetry readings by literature students to art students placing mirrors in front of the riot police.

To end the stroll, take a detour from Hotel Moskva along Nikole Pasica Square to the Tasmajdanski Park for some watermelon juice.

Favourite shopping

Zeleni Venac market, near the heart of the city, is Belgrade's largest and oldest farmers' market. Here, you will find more than 100 stalls selling cheap and fresh seasonal produce, as well as nuts, dried fruits and cured meats, which are great to bring back to Singapore.

Unique eats

I highly recommend going to Moritz Eis (Vuka Karadzica 9; tel: +381-60-554-4455; www.facebook.com/MoritzEis) for some lemon-ginger and Tabasco ice cream (about 170 Serbian dinars a serving).

If you have a sweet tooth, you must try the Moskva snit (480 Serbian dinars), a layered cake of cream, almonds and sour cherries created by the Hotel Moskva in 1974 and is now found throughout the city.

Event to bookmark

The Mikser Festival (festival.mikser.rs/en/) is the region's biggest cultural festival.

Every year in June, international and Balkan artists from across all disciplines, from musicians to visual artists, hold performances, art shows and talks in Savamala, one of Belgrade's oldest neighbourhoods.

Ideal length of stay

At least four days to cover the major sites. The city has many hidden finds that will be found only on a leisurely tour.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 13, 2016, with the headline 'An architectural feast'. Print Edition | Subscribe