Sarajevo, a place where east meets west and where centuries of Ottoman influence collide with Austro-Hungarian rule. It is one of the most unique cities in the world. The shadow of the Bosnian war and the resulting three year siege of the city itself, still peeks around the edges. But students of history, those who are fascinated watching the interplay of cultures and even anyone who loves great food and coffee, should add the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina to their must-see list. Here’s 10 fantastic reasons to visit Sarajevo!
10. Hit the Hookah
Sarajevo is often billed as a place where East meets West, and there’s little that feels more deliciously exotic to the Western visitor than a night at a hookah café. Due to Sarajevo’s history as part of the Ottoman Empire and close relations with current eastern countries, there are plenty of places where shisha is smoked. Along with coffee shops, shisha cafes are the most popular spots to gather and socialize. The air in many of the city’s small squares fills with chatter and the sweet smell of flavored smoke, and even those who prefer not to partake in the hookah enjoy the atmosphere. There’s not many better ways to capture the spirit of the city – just be sure not to relax too much, or lazy limbs might drift into the exposed coals of the hookah and that’s never going to be pleasant.
9. Experience the History
Other countries have managed to turn their Olympic venues into functioning stadiums or money-making tourist attractions, but other countries didn’t see a war break out less than ten years after hosting the games. Sarajevo showed her beauty to the world during the 1984 Winter Olympics, but by 1992 the city was under siege. Hotels that housed attendees were being used as bases for artillery strikes and quickly there were much bigger problems to worry about. The majority of the venues stand abandoned today, a reminder of both the highs and lows of Sarajevo’s recent past. Skenderija, where the opening ceremonies were held, is now a shopping center, but more resembles a monument to socialist architecture. More haunting is the bobsled track on nearby Mount Trebević, where the graffitied walls run down to a bombed-out spectator area or the ski jumps on Mount Igman where a derelict medal podium stands below the blocked-off ramps.
8. Spectacular Views
Sarajevo is situated in a bowl ringed by steep mountains, so venturing out of the central core can be a trying experience. Save those calf muscles for other expeditions and take a taxi up to Bijela Tabija, the White Fortress. Rundown even before the war, the citadel’s graffiti-tagged walls are undergoing a slow restoration process, but that doesn’t change the view below. From beside those crumbling walls visitors gaze down not only on the red roofs of Sarajevo but the deep green hills beyond, as well as the more sobering sight of a relatively new and expansive cemetery. Head down the hill on a search for Jajce Baracks, which offers up another impressive view, this time of the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a grand edifice that served as the City Hall during the city’s days under the Austro-Hungarian empire.
7. Go Underground
Lying on the outskirts of Sarajevo, alongside the airport, this museum can be difficult to reach but is certainly worth the effort. During the Siege of Sarajevo from 1992-1996, the Bosnian Army built this short tunnel to allow supplies to be moved from the city to Bosnian-controlled areas on the other side of the airport. While the 20-meter length of tunnel visitors can walk is not a star attraction, the museum provides a good introduction into the city’s experience during the Bosnian War. A short film outlines the construction of the tunnel, while photographs and military equipment in the adjacent house provide a larger picture of the war years.
6. Indulge in the Cuisine
Visit other parts of the Balkan peninsula and soon a theme becomes apparent – restaurants, cafes, and sidewalk stalls offering “Sarajevo-style” cuisine. Two of the city’s dishes are often emulated by those inside the region and recreated by those outside: Burek and ćevapi. The latter dish, most often referred to by its diminutive ćevapčići, consists of skinless sausages, usually made with beef or lamb in Sarajevo and with pork in other areas. While a knife and fork will accompany the dish, make like the locals and tear off a piece of the accompanying flatbread and wrap it around the sausage. If not specified, request kajmak, a soured cream cheese. Then try Burek, a thin pastry wrapped around meat, cheese or vegetables which can also be found throughout the region, but the rolled Bosnian variety is often considered superior. Again, make like the locals and order runny yogurt, which is sipped rather than spooned.
5. Visit Religious Sites
Sarajevo formerly had a reputation for being Europe’s “Jerusalem,” a place where many major religions co-existed. After the end of the Bosnian war, the population of the city proper is largely Muslim, but the landscape continues to reflect that religious diversity. In the middle of the old city lies Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque, an Ottoman structure built in the 16th century. The courtyard has a bubbling fountain, but is a peaceful place to escape the crowds and admire the architecture. Just down the road, where the buildings begin to reflect Austro-Hungarian rulers, is the Sarajevo Cathedral, inspired by Notre Dame. Walk through the park across the way and there’s the Cathedral Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos, the largest Serbian Orthodox church in Bosnia. It’s a five minute walk from there to the only remaining synagogue in the city, Sarajevo Synagogue, on the opposite side of the Miljacka River.
4. Visit a World War I Site
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the events of June 28, 1914 forever altered the course of history. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, Austria declared war on Serbia, Serbia’s allies declared war on Austria, Germany jumped in and World War I kicked off. The infamous event happened on a corner in Sarajevo, when the car carrying the Archduke and his wife stalled near the Latin Bridge. Gavrilo Princip, a member of a local revolutionary movement, fatally shot both passengers. Back in the days of Yugoslavia, Princip was celebrated as a hero who helped bring down the Austro-Hungarian empire, and there used to be a concrete slab with a pair of footprints marking the site. Instead, visitors can gaze at a photo erected in front of the nearby Sarajevo Museum, which houses a permanent exhibition outlining what life was like in the city from 1878 to 1918.
3. Take a Hike
Sarajevo is plenty enchanting on its own, but the beauty of Bosnia most often lies outside its cities. The majority of this mountainous country is densely forested and bisected by rivers so blue it’s almost unbelievable. Fortunately for visitors to Sarajevo, the Skakavac Waterfall is only 12 kilometers outside the city and offers the perfect chance to enjoy all this glorious nature without venturing too far away. This “Grasshopper Waterfall” is a pleasant two hour hike from the village of Nahorevo, just north of the city center. The “grasshopper” name becomes evident on sight, as the water skips and jumps from one of the cliff’s crevice to another as it falls 320 feet down. There’s not a lot of water gushing from the seven springs at the top and flowing over the edge, but these falls have a captivating beauty nonetheless.
2. Relax and Enjoy Bosnian Coffee
Starbucks hasn’t made its way to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and one afternoon spent at one of its coffeehouses makes it easy to see why not. There’s no venti sized vanilla soy lattes being carted around Sarajevo. Instead, coffee is meant a break from the day, a chance to catch up with friends and relax. Here it’s served Turkish style, in a small copper pot accompanied by a tiny cup inside another copper holder. To drink, scoop a bit of the cream that gathers on the top into the cup, then pour in the liquid. Those with a love for sugar should try the traditional method of sweetening the brew: place one of the cubes under the tongue or between the teeth, then sip the coffee. Locals can spin these small pots out for hours, so find a shady café in the old town, relax and enjoy the people-watching.
1. Visit Baščaršija, Sarajevo’s Old Bazaar
Baščaršija roughly means “main market,” and is the term used to refer to Sarajevo’s old town. Constructed by the Ottomans in the 15th century, the bazaar made Sarajevo into one of the main centers of trade in the Balkans and it’s still the place to buy Bosnian treasures – whether that’s a coffee serving set hand-crafted out of copper or the kit of the national soccer team. Speaking of copper, there’s an entire lane, called Kazandžilu or Coppersmith Street, dedicated to the craft, where workers hammer and engrave their goods in dozens of tiny shops. The street is located near Sebilj, a public fountain that’s another important landmark and local meeting spot. Memorize its location – the streets of the old bazaar wander and weave, so it’s easy to get disoriented. Then again, there are so many inviting cafes and intriguing shops that getting lost matters not at all.