Coming in for a landing at Belgrade's Nikola Tesla airport, you can't miss it. It looks like...a glass doughnut. It's so radically different form the buildings around it, you immediately start wondering what it is.
Which is what lead me to discover one of the most interesting air museums I've ever visited, the Belgrade Aviation Museum. It's wonderfully weird, not just for the aircraft on display, but for the building itself.
That's not to say there aren't some interesting aircraft on display too. There's the world's only original Yak-3, two Russian Kamov helicopters, even the canopy and a few pieces of an F-117 that was shot down during the Yugoslav wars in the '90s.
Here's a look inside.
Technically, Serbia is one of the youngest countries in the world, having formed in 2006 after Montenegro passed a referendum for independence. But of course, the history of the area goes back much farther, having been the seat of the capital of Yugoslavia for most of the 20th century. Like its neighbors, the country has struggled since the fall of Yugoslavia in 1992 and the Yugoslav wars in the years after.
Though founded in 1957 to showcase Yugoslav aviation, the government spent tremendous amount of money in the late 80's on a truly incredible building. A glass and steel circle, it's one of the most amazing museum buildings I've ever seen. It's more elaborate than the actual airport only a short distance down the road.
As you approach -- on foot since it's just a few minutes walk from the airport bus stop -- aircraft sit in the lawn out front. Only their symmetrical placements show this isn't some aircraft graveyard.
No, that's on the other side of the building.
Getting closer, you see the planes and helicopters are weather worn and faded. Spots of rust peek out from edges. To the right a decaying airliner and dozens of jet aircraft sit in rows. I found out later this "parking lot" was owned by the Serbian Air Force to store aircraft. The museum isn't even allowed to use it.
Climbing the grand steps to the main entrance, it's hard to ignore the broken tiles. Inside, I was greeted by a jolly curator, who seemed thrilled to have an international visitor to his beloved museum. Inside, it's as if someone designed a set for a movie taking place in the Soviet Union in the mid-'80s. It's a design aesthetic that's hard to miss. Part brutalist, part Soviet/Eastern European style. The main museum is one floor up, and here the aircraft are laid out roughly chronologically. In the center, the remains of a Predator drone and the canopy from a F-117 stealth fighter.
The museum's most impressive feature is also its biggest liability. Like many intricate and interesting buildings, it's expensive to maintain. Apparently the basement, where many museum exhibits are kept when not on display, is leaking. The windows are in rough shape, and are exceptionally expensive to fix or replace, as every single one is different.
The result of it all is a unique experience. It's like stepping into a different world, with this relic of architecture, surrounded by the relics and remains of aircraft, many I'd never seen before and are rare outside Eastern Europe. A weird mix of museum and aircraft graveyard.
It's haunting, to be honest, yet also rather endearing. It's so different. Museum unlike any other.
It seems this museum needs what every museum needs: money. I hope they get it. This place is such a gem, and one of the most interesting tours I've done for CNET. I hope they get whatever they need to keep running for years to come.
They're open every day. Cost is 600 dinar, or about $5.
If the museum isn't enough of a draw, there are plenty of other reasons to visit the region. For what it's worth, I spent over a month in several of the countries that were once part of Yugoslavia, including Slovenia, Croatia ("Game of Thrones!"), Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and of course Serbia. I was blown away with how friendly everyone is (especially in Bosnia). Also, the food is great, and the area is rich in so much history. Highly recommended.
In his alternate life as a travel writer, Geoff does tours of cool museums and locations around the world including nuclear submarines, medieval castles, iconic music studios and more. You can follow his exploits on Twitter and Instagram, and on his travel blog BaldNomad. He also wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel. Got a tour-worthy spot you think he should check out? Let him know!