Before coming to the Balkans we had heard plenty about the famous Mostar Bridge but didn’t know much about Sarajevo. Then, once we started planning our tour of Balkan highlights bthe more we read about it the more interested we were. The city has a scenic location divided by a river with neighborhoods crawling up the undulating surrounding hills which you really notice as you walk the city. After spending four days exploring, we made a list of the top things to do in Sarajevo.
Sarajevo city is the capital in Bosnia. And Herzegovina, of course. The official name is Bosnia and Herzegovina, or BiH, and I only just learned that the “i” simply means “and” in Bosnian. Like all the countries in this area, it used to be part of Yugoslavia but achieved independence in the big restructuring of the early 1990’s, also known as some pretty horrific wars. There are many different ethnicities, the borders are all fairly contentious and, overall, things are very complicated.
The book, The Cellist of Sarajevo, made a lasting impression on me and I would recommend reading it before coming to get a better understanding of a small part of Sarajevo’s tumultuous history. Sarajevo is a place that features as bizarre a recent history as any city you’ll find, and here is a very brief and mostly uneducated summary:
History of Sarajevo
Founded by Ottoman Empire in the 15th century.
1878: annexed into Austro-Hungarian Empire.
1914: Archduke Franz Ferdinand is assassinated, setting off WW I.
1918: Austro-Hungarian Empire collapses – Bosnia joins Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes in new nation named Yugoslavia.
1984: Marja-Liisa Hämäläinen from Finland sweeps all 3 individual cross-country skiing events in the Winter Olympics.
1992: Yugoslavia dissolves; Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) and Croats (mostly Catholic) vote for Bosnian independence but Bosnian Serbs (mostly Orthodox) want it to be part of Republica Srbska and put Sarajevo under siege. It lasted over 3 years and more than 11,000 people died, including 1,500 children. Some of the Bosnian Serbs living in the city also died and some were mass executed by Bosniak radicals. The scars run deep, as estimates show that of children involved in the siege, 39% lost a family member, 51% saw someone die, 48% had their home occupied by outside forces and 89% spent time living in an underground shelter.
1995: The war ends with the Dayton Accords creating a 3-layered government of Muslims, Croats and Serbs (which, unsurprisingly, continues to have difficulty getting much accomplished).
Overview of Sarajevo
arajevo doesn’t compare visually with many of the highlight European cities we’ve seen – several of them on this trip already (Paris, Copenhagen, Venice, etc.). Even Ljubljana offers far more charm and photogenic allure. However, Sarajevo has a captivating appeal, its rough edges hardened by history into a fascinating combination of culture and religion, tragedy and survival, that can be felt in every part of the city. From a sobering number of cemeteries to Olympic ruins covered in graffiti to solemn Ottoman tea shops to bullet-riddled buildings and bridges, Sarajevo is definitely a unique place to explore.
Things to do in Sarajevo
Sarajevo is a very walkable city. We were able to see most of the Sarajevo attractions while walking and took a couple trams as well.
Watch for how the Religions Live Together
While walking the city you will see a whole host of religious attractions, with famous mosques, extravagant cathedrals and inconspicuous synagogues. Sometimes referred to as the “Jerusalem of Europe”, you can routinely find a mosque, Catholic church, Orthodox church and Jewish synagogue all within the same neighborhood. It was the first time we’d been back to a Muslim country in years (since our last trip to Morocco) and the calls to prayer quickly brought back fond memories. Although we were surprised how quiet and unobtrusive these particular calls were, until we realized that instead of being the dominant religion, in Sarajevo, Islam shares space with many other faiths, forcing them all to be a little more circumspect than usual (the church bells were unexpectedly reserved as well). It all added up to one of the most interesting things to see in Sarajevo.
See the Sunset from the Yellow Fortress
One of the best free things to do in Sarajevo is a visit to the Yellow Fortress, a great place to see the sunset, or a view of the city at anytime. It is easy to walk up to the viewing area on the ruins from the old fortifications that protected the Old Town from the main part of town. We found the walk through the small narrow streets to a restaurant for dinner to be very peaceful with only a few locals around. It felt more like walking through a village than a city.
Drink from the Sebilj Fountain
Legend has it that a drink from Sebilj Fountain means you will one day return to Sarajevo and, related or not, it is surrounded by hundreds of shockingly bold pigeons which swarm visitors in expectation of treats.
Wander the Old Town
The Old Town, the Bascarsija, isn’t large but we enjoyed wandering its cobblestoned streets peering in at the old mosques, browsing in shops selling souvenirs and copper items and stopping at one of the many restaurants and cafes for a meal or a Bosnian coffee. The 16th century Gazi Huzrev Beg mosque is on one of the main streets and you can go in the courtyard any time of the day to look around. If you can, try to come at several different times of the day since the narrow streets will have such a different feel. Deserted in the early morning, bustling in the afternoon, and picturesquely lit up in the evening.
Keep an eye out for the Sarajevo Meeting of Cultures sign on the street marking the beginning of the Old Town. Once you find it, take the time to look at the buildings in one direction and the other and compare them. There is a noticeable and interesting difference.
Stand on the Corner by the Latin Bridge
This spot is famous because it is where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was killed in 1914, triggering the first World War. The Latin Bridge was also one of the prettiest of the many bridges that cross the Miljacka river and is one of the oldest bridges in Sarajevo.
Visit One of the Cemeteries
There are many cemeteries, most specifically dating from 1992 to 1995, which somehow manage to be visually impressive and emotionally draining at the same time. The same can be said for the enormous Memorial Wall with the names of all the soldiers who died in the war. We visited the Jewish Cemetery, dates back to 1630 and contains almost 4,000 tombs, the Kovači Cemetery sprawling up a hill with a view over the city, and the Alifakovac Cemetery.
Walk the Sniper Alley
When visiting Sarajevo you should go for a walk through Sniper Alley, a section of the city where people took their life in their hands every day in order to get food and water during the siege. Today it requires some imagination to picture, but that doesn’t make the stories any easier to hear.
Find the Sarajevo Roses
The unsettling Sarajevo Roses are mortar scars left unrepaired and filled with red resin in memoriam to those who died on that spot during the civil war. There are about a 100 scattered throughout the city.
Walk an Abandoned Bobsled Track
This is one of the more unusual things to do in Sarajevo. One morning we took a cable car up to top of Mt. Trebević on the Olympic hill. You can buy a return ticket for BAM 20 or one-way for BAM 15 and children under 7 are free. You get great views over the city and the surrounding hills on the ride. Once at the top there are bathrooms and a small place selling snacks and drinks. There are a variety of trails through the forest but you need to follow the road to the bobsled track from the 1984 Winter Olympics. The track was damaged in the Siege of Sarajevo and since then has been covered with graffiti. You can walk down the track and the provocative graffiti and reclamation of nature make for an intriguing combination. At the end you have the choice to walk back up and take the cable car back down or walk to the left, parallel to the track, until you find a dirt path. Follow this for a couple minutes to the bullet-riddled Bistrik Tower, a scientific observatory in better days, that was used as a military lookout and sniper tower during the war. From here we took the rocky dirt road down until we made it to the city. I would recommend having an offline version of Google maps to help you find your way through the streets back to the main part of town. You could also take a taxi up to avoid the cable car if you don’t like heights.
Watch the Locals Play Chess
It’s not one of the normal Sarajevo tourist attractions but we joined a large group of men in a local square crowded around a giant chess board to watch 2 men engage in a comically large battle of wits. Everyone got really riled up with every move, yelling and pointing like fans at a major sporting event.
See the View from the Avaz Twist Tower
One of the best places to visit in Sarajevo is the Avaz Twist Tower to get a great view over the city from the 35th floor. The tower is out by the bus station and not near the main part of the city but you can take a tram to within easy walking distance or a taxi right to it.
Find the Eternal Flame
On the corner where the modern pedestrian shopping street of Ferhadija and the main throughfare of Maršala Tita meet, there is the Eternal Flame. It is a memorial to the civilians and soldiers who died in Bosnia during the second World War.
Visit a Museum
We don’t go to a lot of museums but Sarajevo has a couple of interesting and sobering choices. The Tunnel Museum is out the edge of the city and is where the Sarajevo tunnel was built during the Siege of Sarajevo to bring in food, weapons and humanitarian aid. In the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity you can learn about the genocide in Bosnia and the War Childhood Museum tells the story of being a child during the Sarajevo Siege through toys and children’s personal items.
Take One of the Free Walking Tours
A highly recommended walking tour in Sarajevo is with Neno and Friends. There are a couple of different times and you meet at the Susan Sontag Square/National Theatre. The tour is free but you are expected to tip at the end. The tours are led by locals who lived through the Bosnian war that tell about their personal experiences while walking to various Sarajevo attractions.
Search Out Monsieur Chat
One of the most unique things to do in Sarajevo is find the yellow cat (also known as Monsieur Chat) graffiti art. The cat’s creator is French-Swiss artist Thoma Vuille and Monsieur Chat is found in cities throughout the world. There are cats in New York, Pristina, Vietnam, Belgrade, South Korea, Morocco and over 60 in Paris. In Sarajevo there are at least 12 cats, including one on a tram.
Sit at a Café and Watch the World Go By
There is a real café culture in Sarajevo and the cafes in the Old Town are always busy. Take a break from wandering and try a traditional Bosnian kafa. It has some similarities to Turkish coffee where the coffee grounds are boiled in a small copper pot. It is then left to settle before pouring the top liquid into a small ceramic cup. The kafa is quite strong and bitter but it comes with a rahat lokum, similar to a Turkish Delight, to sweeten the experience. You can also see the Ottoman and Turkish influences in the large number of sheeshah bars that also make great rest points.
Sarajevo has the simplest tram system imaginable – 5 different lines that all run the exact same route, each one just travelling a little bit farther than the previous one. And they are all fantastically old and awesome to look at. You can get a ticket for the tram at any newsstand along the tram line. They cost BAM 1.60 or you can buy the ticket from the driver and they will cost BAM 1.80. You can get tickets in sets of 2,5 and 10 if you are planning multiple rides.
Where to Stay in Sarajevo
A lower-end choice is the Hotel Vamos Sarajevo. It is close to the river and Old Town, has a continental breakfast and a terrace to relax on.
If you are looking for a midrange option then Hotel Ovo Malo Duše is for you. The location can’t be beat, right in the heart of Bašćaršija area, an excellent breakfast is included, and you get a free walking tour if you stay for at least 3 nights.
A great high-end option is the Hotel President Sarajevo with a spectacular location only 200 metres from the Sebilj Fountain. A key feature is the sun terrace with views of the river and city. Some rooms have a private terrace as well.
Where to Eat in Sarajevo
One of the best things to do in Sarajevo is to try the local specialties as the food is varied and evocative. A couple of restaurants that really stood out are the following:
Cevabdzinica Zeljo 1 – try the classic Bosnian čevapčići, finger-sized sausages made of lightly seasoned minced meat mixture of beef and lamb. They are grilled and served with somun bread, similar to a fluffy pita, chopped onions and a kind of cream cheese. Locals wash their čevapčići down by drinking glasses of yogurt (we stuck with Coke). This place, even though it is in the middle of the tourist part of the Old Town, felt very local. It was always busy and there is often a line but, as it’s not a place to linger over your meal, the turnover is pretty quick so the line moves fast. This is a very inexpensive and quick meal. There are a couple similar restaurants in the same area and all of them are good but this was our favourite.
Nanina Kuhinja – we loved the outdoor seating and people watching while sipping a tea. We tried the bosanski lonac (a type of Bosnian stew) that was particularly good and the Sarajevski sahan (stuffed peppers, zucchini, grape leaves and onions and meat) which was slightly less meat heavy than most of the meals in Bosnia.
We also enjoyed getting burek – a puff pastry stuffed with cheese, potatoes, or meat – at any of the local bakeries. It’s great as a snack at any time of the day. The bakeries also had amazing baklava and you should try some freshly squeezed pomegranate juice from one of the vendors on Ferhadija street.
Getting To and From Sarajevo
Bus from Ljubljana, Slovenia to Sarajevo
Of course, before we could explore Sarajevo, we had to get there first. Our journey into BiH was on a FlixBus night bus from Ljubljana, Slovenia to Sarajevo that left at 1 am. Exactly when you want to be hanging out at a downtown bus stop. Although there were a somewhat shocking number of other buses – and other people – forgoing a reasonable night’s sleep at that point. It seems that Ljubljana must be a midpoint for a lot of the long-distance buses in the region. Ours, for example, originated in Dusseldorf, Germany, meaning it had already been travelling for around 11-12 hours when it reached us, with 11 more hours to go to Sarajevo (which we definitely thought was bad enough). When booking our FlixBus ticket we decided to spend the extra €3 each to reserve seats together and were pretty pleased with ourselves when we boarded a bus full to capacity with dishevelled and groggy passengers spread out to cover every unoccupied space. Luckily, after seeing our tickets the driver took it upon himself to move the lady in the smart pantsuit from our seats, along with the large, hairy, tattooed man sitting next to her, rather surprisingly cradling a tiny, nervous-looking dog in his lap. So, that was good news, but we still had 11 hours to go. Fun stuff, especially the 4 times we had to get off the bus at border crossings (out of Slovenia, into Croatia, out of Croatia, into Bosnia), although the trip was made a bit easier thanks to the crumbs of some unused sleeping pills we had kicking around and, of course, the natural exhaustion that comes with being on a bus in the middle of the freaking night.
Border between Slovenia and Bosnia and Herzegovina
Intellectually, we had known that Slovenia (and Croatia) would be noticeably more European than the rest of the Balkans, both of them being relatively prosperous members of the EU with well-established tourist infrastructures, and that we would need to adjust our expectations in some of the other places. It was still a bit shocking, however, when we exited the bus at our first rest stop in Bosnia with no local currency (convertible marks), no ability to communicate as neither the bus driver, his assistant or anyone in the restaurant spoke any English, and absolutely no guess as to what anything on the menu said. Let’s get back to “real travel”, they said. “It’ll be fun” they said. “Give it time” they’re saying now…
How to Get to Mostar from Sarajevo
The other big Bosnian attraction is the famous Mostar bridge. We took the bus from Sarajevo to Mostar. A 2-hour journey on a wildly scenic bus trip (not something we get to say often enough) past Lake Jablanica and along the Neretva River. Try to get a seat on the right-hand side. In the Sarajevo bus station there was a BAM 2 (about €1) platform fee per person and the same fee for each bag going on the bottom of the bus. We got the tickets for the bus when we got to the station and the bus wasn’t full. The train ride is apparently even more scenic as it goes along the other side of the lake away from the road and traffic but the departure times weren’t very convenient.
In the end, we were glad we added Sarajevo to our route, as it was a truly fascinating place. Most places in Europe of have long, complex histories, but few have experienced such epic upheaval and turmoil so recently. It is definitely a place that will stick with us.
Our AirBnB in Sarajevo was probably our nicest one yet, close to the old town, with great views of the city (when it wasn’t clouded in and raining) and a sectional couch that just wouldn’t quit.
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