Nestled among steep valleys and crimson rooftops, you will find Sarajevo, the revived capital of Bosnia & Herzegovina. This underrated Balkan nation is one the world doesn’t know near enough about.
Sarajevo is a newer city by Balkan standards, founded after the Ottoman conquest. They say time heals all wounds, but 25 years later, and its clear that The Bosnian War signaling the breakup of Yugaslovia sure left its mark. Recovering from a turbulent past, Sarajevo remains hopeful for a peaceful future.I was pleasantly surprised by the charm of Sarajevo. The East meets West vibes are reminiscent of times when the Ottoman Empire and Austrian-Hungarian ruled the area. One moment, it feels as if you are wandering the markets of Istanbul, then on to strolling the laneways of Vienna the next. The city’s diverse, yet seamless mix of styles, cultures, and religions is second to none. Learn why this resilient city of Eastern Europe should be on everyone’s bucket list!
Stroll around Old Town
Step out into the heart of Old Town, the cultural hub of the city. A maze of narrow cobblestone streets jut out from the main strip of Ferhadija Street. You will find Ottoman flair in the form of mosques, Turkish baths and the oriental shopping bazaar of Baščaršija. In the past, each street was dedicated to a different craft—metalwork, jewelry, pottery, and more. Today, many of the old artisan shops are converted to souvenir shops and cafes.
Right in the center of Baščaršija square sits an ornate Sebilj, an Ottoman-style wooden fountain which serves as a popular meeting spot for the locals. Watch out for the flocks of pigeons!Bosnia has not yet converted to the Euro, so pick up a few goodies and take advantage of great exchange rates.
Cross the Latin Bridge
Walk over the triple-arched Latin Bridge, crossing the Miljacka River. It was first built around 1541 until a it was damaged by a flood in 1791. It was reconstructed in 1798. The northern end of the bridge was the site of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in 1914, setting the scene for World War I.The building on the street corner overlooking Latin Bridge, next to which Princip was standing when he fired the shots was turned into a museum dedicated to him. Due to controversy, it has been renovated into a museum showcasing the Austrian-Hungarian rule in Sarajevo.
Spot the Sarajevo Roses
During the Siege of Sarajevo from 1992-1995, it is estimated that an average of 300 mortar shells hit the city daily from artillery strikes by enemy forces. On the harrowing day of July 22nd, 1993, 3,777 shells devastated the city. Open wounds still remain on the streets in the form of Sarajevo Roses. Many of the explosive craters left behind by the shelling were filled with red resin, resembling roses. These concrete scars memorialize a spot where at least one person died from an explosion. There were once hundreds scattered around the city, that are slowly disappearing as the city recovers.
Experience the religious diversity
Sarajevo is often called the “Jerusalem of Europe” for it’s cultural and spiritual diversity. You can find a mosque, Catholic church, Orthodox church and synagogue all within the same area. People from various faiths – Islam, Orthodox, Judaism and Catholicism have coexisted here peacefully for centuries.Most of Sarajevo’s mosques are located in and around the old city center. Those of note to visit are the Emperor’s Mosque, the oldest in the city; and the Masjid Gazi Husrev-Begs. The mosques are usually open to both Muslims and non-Muslims, but important to check before visiting.
The Sacred Heart Cathedral, also known as Sarajevo Cathedral is the largest in Bosnia. It is the seat of the Archbishop of Vrhbosna and center of Catholic worship in the city. Crafted in Neo-Gothic Style and located in Old Town district, it was consecrated in 1889.
Get a dose of history at the museums
Sarajevo’s museums are in disarray due to lack of government funding, but well worth a visit to learn about the relatively recent tragic history of Bosnia.Following the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early 1990’s, Bosnia was caught in the crossfire between Serb and Croat forces, who both wanted power of the country. The Siege of Sarajevo started the Bosnian War, resulting in 11,000 people killed and 50,000 wounded.
Combined with harsh winters without electricity, and limited food and water supplies, Bosnians faced a terrible struggle to survive. Many lost their families, homes and everything with it in the war. But their spirit and perseverance to make a better life for themselves and their families can be seen.Historical Museum of Bosnia: Features three rotating exhibition rooms, including a moving display on the life-and-death battle for survival the siege of Sarajevo, showcasing over 400,000 historical artifacts. Adults, 5KM, Children 2KM.
National Museum: Journey through Bosnia’s tumultuous past. The permanent exhibit, Bosnia and Herzegovina in the Middle Ages, features three halls of archaeological artifacts from the Middle Ages There is a natural history collection with both living and non-living worlds and a botanical garden, home to over 3,000 species of plants. Adults, 6KM, Students 3KM, Guided tours, 30KM.
Sarajevo War Tunnel: A museum of the tunnel used during the Siege to access the airport and ferry supplies into the city, the cities connection to the outside world. You can walk only 25 meters of the original 800, which was dug using pickaxes and shovels over the course of 6 months. Museum exhibition materials have no English translation. Adults 10 KM, Students 5KM.
Gallery 11/07/95: A memorial gallery exhibition commemorating the 8,372 victims who lost their lives in Srebrenica in July, 1995. Adults 12 KM (Tour guide included), Children, free.
Visit the Spot Where WWI was triggered
On the 28th of June, 1914, in an event that sparked the outbreak of World War I, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was assassinated along with his wife. The culprit was Princip, an 18-year old Serbian nationalist. He bypassed the death penalty for his horrendous crime unlike his counterparts as he was was so young.
The Austria-Hungary government saw the assassination as a direct attack on the country. They believed that the Serbians helped the Bosnian terrorists in the attack. Russia began to mobilize their army to help protect Serbia. When Serbia rejected the demands, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Thus began WWI.
Indulge in the local cuisine
Try Ćevapi or ćevapčić, the national dish of Bosnia, of small sausages tucked into naan bread and topped with onions and kajmak sour cream. Tufahija (poached apple stuffed with walnuts and cream) Another popular dish is Burek– meat or vegetable filled pastry snakes. Sip on zilavka, a fresh local wine with yourr meal. Finish off with Baklava and drinking Bosnian coffee (similar to Turkish coffee – bitter). Meals are relatively cheap, setting you back just £2-4.
Climb up to Yellow Fortress for amazing views
You won’t want to miss a trek up to Žuta tabija or Yellow Fortress for a gorgeous panorama of the entire city. It is one of five bastions that made up the defensive wall of the old town, Vratnik. Since it is positioned up on Jekovac Cliff, it is also known as Jekovac Fortress. The fortress lost its original function once the Austro-Hungarians took over Sarajevo. Hike 15 minutes father up to reach the top Vratnik citadel, now mostly dismantled but offering a different view of the city.
Wander the city
The Vjecnica was originally built in 1892 to serve as a City Hall. It was later transformed into a National library towards the end of WW2. The building was destroyed in 1992 by Serbian bombing during the Siege of Sarajevo, destroying thousands of irreplaceable works of literature. The building was completely renovated and re-opened in May of 2014. It is the largest and the most representative structure from the Austro-Hungarian era. The Academy of Fine Arts was originally intended to serve as an Evangelical Church. By the end of WWI, most Evangelicals had left Sarajevo, so the church began to lose its original function. It has served as a public higher education institution and a member of the University of Sarajevo since 1972.
Bosnia has a large poor population and nearly half of Sarajevans are unemployed so I encourage you to spend money in this city. But don’t mistake the roma gypsies for homeless. The adult roma dress their children in dirty rags and send them out from a very young age to beg for money to eat. Rather than using the earnings for food, they bring it back to their parents who buy drugs and alcohol. It is very sad to see, indeed.
Afternoon trip to Srebrenica Memorial
On the 11th of July, 1995, Europe witnessed the largest mass murder since World War II. Serbian forces attacked the town of Srebrenica, which was declared to be under the “protection” of the UN. Over 8,000 civilians and prisoners, mostly Bosniak men and boys, were slaughtered in the Srebrenica genocide, as well as the ethnic cleansing of another 25,000–30,000 refugees, in and around the town of Srebrenica. Meanwhile, many of the women were subjected to torture and rape.This brutal attack on the Muslim Bosnians (Bosniaks) was a pure act of ethnic cleansing, a genocide to eliminate the men and rape the women so they would bare Serbian children and erase the Muslim population.The bodies were thrown in mass graves. The horrible acts took just a few days, but the process of finding the bodies and identifying each victim continues to this day with more than 1,000 still listed as missing. Srebenica is a place for somber reflection. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Sarajevo. But I didn’t expect it to move me in the way that it did. For many unaware travelers, Bosnia remains synonymous with war, conflict and strife, making it a fearful place to visit. But the people are warm and welcoming and their positive spirit overshadow the depressing past. If you have preconceived notions of what to expect in Sarajevo, toss them out! I strongly encourage you to visit Sarajevo and see for yourself.
Have you visited a city that you were initially afraid to? How did this change your perspective of the world?