Bosnia was a happy surprise on our RTW trip. Most Americans only remember Bosnia from the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. I’ll admit that I had no idea what to expect. Sarajevo was such a great place, that it quickly rose to the top of my favorite cities. Its mix of Islam, Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Judaism make it a very enchanting place. You’ll hear church bells ringing in harmony with the call to prayer as you walk up and down the streets of Old Town.
Man has been living in or around Sarajevo since the Neolithic Period– around 9000 BC. However, the area as it is known today was founded by the Ottomans in 1461. The first Ottoman governor wasted no time in making the settlement a major hub building a mosque, marketplace, public bath, hostel, and governor’s castle (“Saray”) which gave the city its name. The city grew very quickly and became known for its mosques and marketplace. By 1660, the population of Sarajevo was estimated to be over 80,000 and was second only to Istanbul in importance and population.
The city was almost completely destroyed in 1697 during a raid in the Great Turkish War by the Hapsburg Monarchy. The city never fully recovered and was taken over by the Austria-Hungarian Empire about 200 years later in 1878. The Austria-Hungarian leaders industrialized the city and installed tramways. Many modern architects also flooded the city.
In 1914, Sarajevo saw the inciting incident of the first World War. Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, were assassinated while crossing the Latin Bridge. The city was lucky to escape damage during the war.
Sarajevo became part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia after WWI. It was captured on April 15, 1941 during a German bombing campaign during WWII. A man named Valter Perić led Sarajevo’s resistance. He was killed while leading the final liberation of the city on the 6th of April 1945 and became famous for his actions, even having a movie made about him called “Valter brani Sarajevo” (“Walter defends Sarajevo“). I think Daniel Craig should play him in a re-make!
Following the liberation, Sarajevo became the capital of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina within the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The Soviets developed the city’s industry and built residential blocks. The population steadily grew and Sarajevo was once again a major city in the Balkans, even hosting the Olympics in 1984.
The complex three-way Bosnian War (1992-1995) between the Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks turned neighbors against each other. Bosnians suffered the worst of the casualties (66%) and the U.S. declared that the ethnic cleansing, mass rape, and psychological oppression committed by the Serbs constituted genocide.
The four-year siege of Sarajevo took a heavy toll on the city. The Serbs surrounded the city on the mountainsides and bombarded it with artillery, mortars, tanks, anti-aircraft guns, heavy machine-guns, multiple rocket launchers, rocket-launched aircraft bombs, and sniper rifles. Mass killings of civilians, mostly by mortar attacks, made headline news in the U.S. On June 1, 1993, 15 people died and 80 were injured in an attack on a football game. Almost 10,000 people were killed or missing and 50,000 were wounded by the end of the siege.
When the war ended in 1995, reconstruction began immediately. In many of the surrounding cities, like Mostar, extensive war damage can still be plainly seen. All that is left in Sarajevo are a few ruins and some buildings with shell and bullet markings.
Undoubtedly, the place for tourists to hang out during the day is Old Town. This little area is one of the most charming of European cities we’ve visited. You’ll walk the cobblestone streets and have a view of cute little shops made of wood with orange tile roofs. The streets are lined with cafes, restaurants, and shops. The biggest selling item in Sarajevo is a hand-made copper Bosnia coffee set. The best place to buy one is on a little side street right outside of Pigeon Square. You will see a narrow street lined with copper items. Inside each building will be the craftsman working on a new project. You should also see the iconic Sebilj (public wooden fountain) in the center of the square.
This historic bridge played a role in the beginning of WWI. It was here, in 1914, that Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. It’s worth walking by and reading the plaque. On the opposite side of the river is a nice, small park, this is also where the Tunnel Tour begins.
There are several museums dealing with the history of Sarajevo and its role in the Yugoslov War as well as promoting Bosnian art and culture. Here are a few recommendations:
- Bosnian Historical Museum
- The Sarajevo Tunnel Musum (about 2.50€)
- Sarajevo City Museum (website not in English)
- Svrzo house – 18th century Ottoman house (about 1.50€) (website not in English)
These museums deal mostly with WWII and the Bosnian war. You can even see a portion of the tunnel that helped save the city. Nearly 20 million tons of food entered the city, and 1 million people passed in and out, including the president of Bosnia in his wheel chair.
Tours and Talking to Locals
There are several tours offered that let you hear a first-hand point of view of the Bosnian War. Most of them are very affordably priced and offer some great insight into Sarajevo’s History. Two that we’ve heard great things about are listed below.
- Tunnel Tour (12€) – This tour meets in the park near the Latin Bridge Mon-Sat at 11:00 and 2:00, visit the tourist information office for a more exact location. You’ll be be guided through the historical events of the city and taken to the Tunnel Museum. The price includes transportation (in a private van, not public transport), guided tour, and entrance to the Tunnel Museum.
- Haris Tour (15-18€) – Haris Hostel owner provides several tours that can be booked over the phone or on-line. If you are staying in the hostel you get a slightly cheaper price. The tour includes some history, a visit to the Tunnel, as well as the Olympic museum where you’ll see the bombed remains of the bobsled course.
TIP: It is a little hard to get to the tunnel museum on your own. Taking the tour will save you money and time as well as give you more info from a guide!
You can also learn a lot by speaking with locals. Bosniaks are very friendly people and most are very willing to tell you where they were during the war. Some may not volunteer much information, but you just might run into someone who will tell you quite a lot. Say hello to the locals, and if they seem friendly and chatty, venture to ask about the war. Don’t begin your conversation this way, but work your way up to it.
This article by Rick Steves about his travels in Bosnia has some great insight about the people and religious tension surrounding the war.
The call to prayer can be heard ringing out during the day all through the city. On Fridays, try to walk past one of the Mosques to see citizens praying. Two of the most prominent are the Emperor´s Mosque and Bey’s Mosque.
A great tradition in Bosnia is to drink coffee in the afternoon. Bosnian Coffee is prepared by by boiling finely powdered roast coffee beans in a small copper pot, called a dzezva. The beans themselves aren’t necessarily of Bosnian origin, it is the method that makes it Bosnian (as well as Turkish). It will usually be served on a copper platter in a dzezva. Before pouring the coffee into your little ceramic cup, skim the film and grounds from the top with your spoon. You can pour your coffee over lumps of sugar or dip your sugar into the coffee and alternate nibbling the sugar and sipping the coffee. It will mostly likely also be served with a little square of Turkish Delight.
Ćevapi and Burek are the two most prevalent foods in cafes and cheap restaurants. Cevapi is a meat dish passed down from the Ottoman Empire. Pieces of ground meat (beef or lamb) are packed into little sausage shapes, then grilled. The meat is served on or with flatbread, a side of onions, and sometimes sour cream, cottage cheese, or a special Bosnian cheese. It can be quite good, but be careful. Clark ate some undercooked Ćevapi and paid for it dearly all night long. Cevabdzinica Zeljo is the place to go for Ćevapi in Sarajevo. You won’t have any trouble finding one. They are scattered around everywhere.
Burek is a baked, flaky pastry filled with cheese, meat, or spinach. It comes in rolled, round, flat, or layered pastries. We tried the rolled variety and were not impressed. However, some people we spoke with really enjoyed the Burek that they tried. It depends on the quality of filling and freshness.
View from the Hills
I highly recommend walking up one of the hills to get a better view of the city. When you are standing in Pigeon Square by the Sebilj, walk North. You will see the Haris tourism office to your left. Continue straight between the Cemetery at Alifakovac (which is worth a stroll through) and keep walking and walking and walking. You’ll pass through an old Gate and fortress wall, keep walking. Turn to the right after about 15 minutes, there will be a Restaurant to your left, keep walking. You’ll see some ruins and possibly a tour bus. Here you’ll get the best view of the city. Local bus 55 also goes fairly far up the hill if you aren’t up for the walk. It is a little hard to describe, but locals will be more than willing to help you along. Just ask them where to go for the view.
TIP: Be careful not to veer from the paved roads in the hills, there are still mines scattered about left over from the war. Don’t go in any areas where you see yellow tape.
Where to Stay
We were lucky enough to try out a few hostels and guesthouses during our stay in Sarajevo. Two hostels that I recommend are Hostel City Center and Residence Rooms Hostel. Both are located on the same street near a few bars and cafes and very close to the Old Town center. City Center has a very young and urban feel, while Residence Rooms is family run and a little more homey. Haris Youth Hostel is also supposed to be very good, but you’ll make 15 minute hike up a fairly steep hill to get to and from the center.
There are a lot of Roma in Bosnian cities. We encountered them in Mostar as well as Sarajevo. What is most disturbing is how many children are begging. This is not typical of European cities, so be prepared for it. Some of the children are even so bold as to walk up to the table and drink the left over coffee in your cup (this happened to Clark) and pick at the crumbs. Advice we received from the hostels is to avoid giving money or anything sweet to the children. If you want to help, you can give them something of more nutritional value, like fruit or something baked. Be careful doing this however, if they see you again or if other Roma saw you do this, they will approach you as well.
There will also be teenagers and adults trying to sell little trinkets. They will either come up and try to hand it to you, then ask for money, or they will place it on your cafe table and expect payment. We’ve found that a confident “no” makes them go away instantly. Some people use the strategy of ignoring them, but they will be persistent and stand there until you answer them.
Day 1: Old Town
- Start the day off with a pastry and Turkish Tea or Bosnian Coffee
- Spend the afternoon walking through the cobblestone streets and shopping at the markets in Old town
- Get some Cevapi for lunch. Don’t forget the traditional yogurt drink!
- Take a walk over to the Latin Bridge and take in a museum in the afternoon
Day 2: The Tunnel & The View
- Sleep in and grab a quick Burek for breakfast
- Head to the 11:00 Tunnel Tour (it lasts about 2 hours)
- Have a nicer lunch at a restaurant in Old Town (don’t forget the coffee)
- Walk up the hill and see the Cemetery at Alifakovac
- About 1 hour before sunset start walking up the hill again and enjoy the view! (make sure you give yourself enough time in case you get lost.)
Day 3: Museums, Tours
- Relax the third day and venture into the more modern part of the city
- See some of the memorials and enjoy the bustling atmosphere
- Visit another museum, or take in another city tour