Sometimes called the “Jerusalem of Europe”, the city of Sarajevo is famous for its cultural and religious diversity; having long been the home of people from different faiths – Islam, Orthodox, Judaism and Catholicism had traditionally coexisted there for centuries.
This changed when the war started in the early 1990’s. The city of Sarajevo was under siege by Serbian forces for 1,425 days, with 11,541 men, women and children loosing their lives there. Those trapped inside the city faced constant artillery strikes with an average of 330 shells hitting the city everyday.Combined with harsh winters without electricity, and limited food and water supplies residents faced a terrible struggle to survive. Since the war ended however, Sarajevo has been undergoing major post-war reconstruction, and is the fastest growing city in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
With its east meets west ambience, it may feel like you are wandering the markets of Istanbul, or strolling through Vienna the next street over. This is because Bosnia was influenced by the Ottoman empire which ruled from the late 1400’s, and then Austrian-Hungarians who took control for a short period of time in the late 1800’s.
Though it is the capital city of Bosnia, it maintains it traditional authenticity often lost in tourist logged capital cities, there are so many attractions that can be seen on short trips due to the ease of access. Also take advantage of fantastic exchange rates, as Bosnia is not yet using the Euro and caters to bargain hunters and high end shoppers alike. If you are visiting have a look at my helpful tips post and visit my INSTAGRAM for more photos!
Also check out my guide on where to eat, relax and party in Sarajevo
1.Take a stroll through Sarajevos old town Baščaršija
Though it sounds like a tongue twister mouth full to pronounce, Baščaršija ( pronounced Bash-Char-She-Yah), Sarajevos old Bazaar is the heart and soul of Sarajevo and a meeting point for locals. This has remained largely the same since its use in the 15th century, and has an incredible old world feel.
This old cobbled stone part of the town is lined with narrow streets lined with great shops and cafes. One of the oldest streets in Baščaršija is Kazandžiluk Street which means Coppersmith Street, which is filled with beautiful copper goods such as coffee pots called dzeva. This would be the best place in town to get your traditional Bosnian coffee set, or other hand made goods for the home. They can cost anywhere from 40 marks to 70 marks depending on size, and how many in the set.
The Sebij, located at the center square of Baščaršija, is one of the symbols of Sarajevo. It is also known as the pigeon square by tourists as it is always surrounded by them, and for a small coin donation you can feed them. The Sebilj was built by a Bosnian vizier Mehmed-paša Kukavica in 1753 and after being destroyed in 1891, was rebuilt in 1913.
2. Visit the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque
The Gazi Husrev-bey Mosque was built in Sarajevo in 1532 by a famous Ottoman architect Acem Esir Ali, the project was financed by the governor Gazi Husrev-bey. It was the first mosque in the world to receive electricity (used for electric illumination) in 1898 and is one of the most representative Ottoman buildings in Bosnia.
The mosque also has a public šadrvan, a fountain for ritual washing, an outdoor praying area, an Islamic bookstore and the tomb of Gazi Husrev-bey. As it is a place of worship, visitors are asked to refrain from excessive noise, and ensure modest dress codes are observed; short skirts / low cut tops etc are not suitable.
Like many of the city’s cultural attractions in Sarajevo and across Bosnia & Herzegovina, the mosque was a target by Serbian snipers during the Siege of Sarajevo. It suffered a large amount of damage, but with foreign help, reconstruction started right after the war ended in 1996 to bring it back to its former glory.
3. Visit the Vjecnica
The Vjecnica was constructed in 1892-94 and was built to house the cities local officials, and administrative staff. The City Hall was turned into a National library towards the end of WW2, and remains the biggest and the most representative building from the Austro-Hungarian period in Sarajevo.
Legend has it that the Austrian-Hungarians originally wanted to build the city hall on the northern side of the river Miljacka, however the location belonged to elderly gentleman named Benderija. The city officials faced a dilemma however,as the original occupant of the site did not want them to destroy his house and take away his land. After long negotiations, the man gave in and said he would give up his land if they agreed to give him a bag of golden coins and move his house brick by brick to the other side of the river. In the end the officials had no choice but to do as he had requested, this task was completed in 1895. Since then, Benderija’s house in its new location on the southern side of the river is called “Inat kuća” (the spite house),where it remained as an occupancy until 1997 when the home was turned into a traditional Bosnian restaurant.
Before its destruction On the 25 August 1992 by Serbian forces, the library held 1.5 million volumes and over 155,000 rare books and manuscripts. The majority of the books could not be saved from the flames, at least one person died while trying to save these previous books.
Twenty years after it went down in flames and after 15 years of restoration work, the Vjecnica was re opened to the public last year. Venturing inside its walls is like stepping into a palace out of a Disney book, ensuring the small entry fee is well worth the visit!. Using the original drafts for reconstruction, each wall painting was carved and hand painted to the exact design and colour as the original.
4. Shop in the Bezistan
Pictured above and below is the Gazi Husrev-bey Bezistan that was built in 1555. It is a covered market rectangular in shape with entrances on either side and in the middle, enclosing 109 metre long street where there are small shops that sell handbags, souvenirs, jerseys, jewellery, watches and sunglasses. Bezistans were built in Ottoman Empire and their design is based on the design of the mosques.
As this was built to originally serve as a grocery marker, the building is built below the level of surrounding streets, making the temperature is a bit cooler in here. It is a great getaway when it gets too hot in the sun, and a great hiding place when you get caught in the rain (happened to me a few times).
Taslihan (meaning stone han/inn ), was built in 1543 and was an Inn made of stone, with lead domes covering its roof. Unlike other inns, accommodation here was free and it could hold up to 90 guests. The purpose of hans was to provide accommodation for merchants and their horses, during their time trading goods in Sarajevo. Unique from other hans, the Taslihan also had a row of shops, meaning it was also a place of trade.It is believed the Inn was destroyed by fire in 1879, and fell into obscurity until its foundations were rediscovered over a century later; while construction was being started for upgrades on the adjoining hotel Europe.
5. Visit the corner that started WW1 & the WW2 memorial
I’ve never paid much attention in history class, but one thing I do remember is where WW1 started. Just over 100 years ago, on the 28th of June, 1914, Gavrilo Princip, an 18 year old Bosnian Serb, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife Sofia in Sarajevo.
Right behind me in the above photo is the Latin Bridge (Latinska ćuprija). On the northern end of the bridge was the site of the assassination, where you can find a museum which documents the events of that day. These events 100 years ago, would set into motion a war that resulted in an estimated 16 million deaths worldwide.
The 100th anniversary memorial event was held last year, though i didn’t actually stop to look in the museum, I saw flowers were laid beside where it happened, and they had a replica of the car he was in for people to sit in and take photos.
If you are a modern history buff be sure to check out the museum as well as the Eternal flame (Vječna vatra)- a memorial to the military and civilian victims of the Second World War in Sarajevo.
6. Watch the sunset from the yellow fortress
If you are staying the night in Sarajevo, you MUST head to Zuta Tabija (yellow fortress) and watch the sun set over the town. The pictures don’t do the moment enough justice. You can either climb up the hill, passing the cemetery (young victims of the war), or get a taxi to drive you up. Personally I recommend the hike up, just before the sun sets, its an amazing view.
During the month of Ramadan, this area is packed with locals waiting for the cannon to go off which marks the end of fasting for that day, followed by some fireworks. Whether you’re young love birds, backpacking tourists or a solo traveller experiencing Sarajevo culture, I highly recommend visiting this place at least once. If you cant make it for sunset, during the day is just as amazing,as if offers unrivalled views of the whole city.
Check out my post about Sunset At Zuta Tabija
7. Try Bosnian coffee, food and deserts
Check out my guide on where to eat, relax & Part in Sarajevo
The people of Bosnia & Herzegovina love their coffee and their sweets. Take advantage of the generous exchange rates and try as many cafes/restaurants as you can. On average i sat in 3-5 coffee shops per day. For the coffee addicts among you, the cost of a coffee is less than one Australian dollar! The two below were my favourite cafes, and the ones I visited the most.
Tucked away in a small street just before the Gazi Mosque is a gorgeous cafe called Miris Dunja. When you find a place with a gorgeous traditional/rustic setting, great Bosnian coffee, hot chocolates that taste like pudding, and refreshing drinks like Elderflower & rose cordials, you have a tendency to keep coming back. And when its at such affordable prices, sometimes you could spot me there twice a day!
Baklava, traditional Balkan and Oriental desert, is a rich sweet pastry made of several, layers of filo-pastry filled with chopped nuts. In Bosnia & Herzegovina this sweet desert is often served during Bajram (Eid), and other special events and holidays. You can find Baklava at almost any cafe in Sarajevo, but my favourite was Baklava Shop. This gorgeous little cafe with Ottoman style furnishings, was where i went everyday to get my daily baklava fix. A variety of flavours to choose from including Walnut baklava, Almond Baklava even Nutella baklava, and starting from only 1 KM per piece, it is perfect with a traditional Bosnian coffee. You can even get them in a takeaway box, to enjoy at home with family and friends…or alone! The cafe has traditional oriental Ottoman chairs, that makes you feel like you in Turkey.
8. See the whole city from the Avaz tower
Want to see the whole city from the highest building in Bosnia? Visit the Avaz tower!
The Avaz Twist Tower is a 176 m tall skyscraper with a twisted blue glass facade. The tower offers stunning views of the city, and the mountains surrounding it, all for just a 1 Mark entry fee. There is also is a cafe-bar where you can drink in a hot or cold beverage and have nutella crepes with the view. I do recommend two visits, once during the day to fully see how big Sarajevo is, and once at Sunset falling to dark, to watch the city glimmer lights.
9. Visit the tunnel that saved Sarajevo
Imagine fearing for your life while bombs, bullets and grenades fell down everyday into your city. Imagine having no electricity or power in the cold winters, starving with limited food and water supplies, no humanitarian aid from the world, and no weapons to help defend yourself. I cant. But for many Sarajevo citizens this was life during the war.
The siege of Sarajevo lasted over three years. 3 years, 10 months, 3 weeks and 3 days to be exact. The city was cut off from the rest of the country and the rest of the world. The tunnel was constructed as a way to get to the other side of the airport, a Bosnian-held territory overseen at the time by the UN.
To date the siege of Sarajevo is the longest siege of a city in the modern era, and lasted three times longer than the famous siege of Stalingrad.
Source: Patrick Horton / Getty
The construction was in a private home cellar and began in January 1993 and was finished about six months later. Volunteers dug through on each side of the tunnel, all by manual labour with a shovel. The owner of the house believes that between 2-3 million people passed through the tunnel during the war. Sometimes groups as a large as 1,000 went through in this dark narrow passage, while bombs were going just above.
When the war ended, a museum was built onto the private house. Visitors can walk down a 20 or so meter long small part of the tunnel open to the public. The museum, open every working day from 9am to 4pm, is a great reminder of the perseverance of Sarajevo people during the war. It is one of the most visited sites in Sarajevo and many tour groups include the tunnel museum.
10. Visit the museums
Sadly the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, established in 1888, was closed in 2012 due to lack of funding. It is unfortunate that the NATIONAL museum that holds The Sarajevo Haggadah, an illuminated manuscript and the oldest Sephardic Jewish document in the world issued in Barcelona around 1350, containing the traditional Jewish Haggadah, and other documents/artefacts that included archaeology, art history, ethnology, geography, history and natural history.
But there are several others you can check out.
EDIT: The national museum is open again to the public. HIGHLY RECOMMEND!
Brusa Bezistan at Muzej Sarajevo
This two storey museum shows the story of Sarajevo’s past, from the prehistoric settlements at Butmir through the Illyrian and Roman settlements to mediaeval Bosnia, the Ottoman period, the Austro-Hungarian period and modern times. Click here to view information about ticket prices and opening hours.
Other museums that are part of Muzej Sarajevo are: Sarajevo Museum 1878-1918, The Jewish Museum, Svrzo’s House and The Despić House. While tickets are only 3-4KM for an adult, you can also get a Joint ticket for all five.
Since the museum opened in 1945, it has collected around 300,000 various museum items of great value for history and culture of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and even though it was on the front line at first during the war, the staff managed to keep everything from being destroyed.
You work your way in the museum with historical events in chronological order. First with the Slavs arriving in the Balkan lands to creating the first medieval South Slavic states, and in particular Medieval Bosnian State (Bosnia as a regional unit ruled by a ban, and Bosnia as a Kingdom), Bosnia under Otoman rule (1463-1878.), then the period of Austro-Hungarian rule (1878-1918.), Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1918-1945., Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1945-1990, and then the saddest and most recent period, from 1990’s war til present day, including the trials of the accused genocide leaders.
If you notice these around the town, stop for a minute. The red markings on the ground are known as “Sarajevo roses” and serve as a reminder of what the people of Sarajevo had to endure.The “roses” themselves are created by filling in the damage caused explosions in the city, with the red indicating an actual death caused, or the potential for death caused.
There is a documentary film in the making on Sarajevo Roses told through the eyes and experiences by Dr. Asim Haracic, a Bosnian-American psychiatrist and musician who survived the Siege of Sarajevo and now works to heal the victims of violence in his adopted home of Washington.
Has anyone been to Sarajevo, or is planning to go? I’d love to hear your stories so comment away!