Bosnia & Herzegovina

36 Hours in Sarajevo

The cosmopolitan capital city is reclaiming its identity from the war in the early ‘90s, and is polishing up a beautiful tourism trade.

Sarajevo is the capital and largest city in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Hugged by its hills, the metropolitan area is home to about 643,000 people. The Dinaric Alps surround the city, and has the Miljacka River running through it. Often called the ‘heart-shaped land,’ Bosnia lies in the heart of Southeastern Europe, and the Balkans.

Many people still associate Sarajevo with the war in the early ‘90s, but it’s a modern city, and hosts the premier and largest film festival in Southeast Europe—The Sarajevo Film Festival. It’s also the leading political, social, and cultural center of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and is the only major European city to have a mosque, Catholic Church, Orthodox Church, and Synagogue within the same neighbourhood (Baščaršija). Because of its long and rich history of cultural diversity, one of its nicknames is ‘The Jerusalem of the Balkans.’

Summer when The Sarajevo Film Festival happens is the best time to visit the city, because the weather is warm and everyone is outdoors relaxing in the many restaurants and cafés that line the streets.

Last May I spent a month living there while working for an NGO. I had a lot of time to explore the city while shooting stories around it. Here is my guide to Sarajevo—where I’d take my friends if they were visiting the city for the first time and only had 36 hours. There’s a balance of enjoying the city, learning about history, enjoying food, and spending time in nature.

Friday

1)   4 P.M. WELCOME TO SARAJEVO AIRPORT! TAXI TRIVIA

Welcome to the city! As you’ll likely be landing at the Sarajevo Airport, the first thing you’ll want to do is grab a taxi into town. If you can, try to always ask for the meter, and not a ‘rate card,’ because the taxis will try to charge you more if they think you’re a tourist. Sarajevo Taxi pretty much has a monopoly on the airport, so you might just have to accept the higher rate. The ‘ripped off’ rate is about 30 KM (~$25 CAD) for a 10 minute ride into the city, so it’s not horrible and might be worth accepting if you just want to get to your hotel, but it should only cost you about 13 KM (~$10 CAD) with a meter. It’s much easier to get cabs to use the meter if you catch them in the city and not at the airport.

For your first night in town, drop off your things wherever you’re staying. I recommend The Doctor’s House Hostel, run by the lovely Cat, where you can easily pick up some groceries down the road. I love doing groceries in other countries. I recommend unloading your bags and then heading to the grocery store to investigate and get some foodstuffs for breakfast the next morning.

2)  7 P.M. SUNSET AT THE YELLOW BASTION

It’s time for your panoramic introduction to the city. Grab some beers (Sarajevsko, if you can) and snacks from the nearest corner store and start walking up to the Yellow Bastion. This lookout spot is about a 25 minute walk from the Doctor’s House Hostel, winding through the city suburbs. Some of the corner stores you’ll pass are Muslim and won’t carry beer, but others will—just poke your head into a bunch of the convenience stores and grocery stores until you find one that sells beer.

Once you get to the Yellow Bastion, grab a picnic table, or sit along the dirt edge, break open your snacks, maybe lay a picnic blanket if you’re feeling fancy, and enjoy your first sunset view of the city.

3)   9 P.M. TRADITIONAL BOSNIAN MEAL AND THE MANY FLAVOURS OF RAKIJA

After sunset, head into town for some authentic Bosnian dinner and rakija. Rakija is a fruit brandy usually made from sour plums, but found in many flavours. I think I recall having a nettle one, an apple one, and many more I don’t remember. Family restaurant Žara iz duvara is a traditional Bosnian Family Diner a short walk from The Doctor’s House Hostel, so you can easily head there from the Yellow Bastion, and then stumble back up the (infamous) hill to your bed afterward.

The Doctor’s House Hostel also sold souvenir bottles of Rakija when I stayed there, which makes a great souvenir if you can still stand to look at them the next morning.

If you’re not tired yet, try a little bar hopping in town. I like Balkan Express, and Galerija Boris Smoje, but there are plenty to choose from. Kino Bosna is the place to go if you want to dance. Some have a lot of pre-war memorabilia, and many are filled with kitsch. It’s an interesting aesthetic experiment/experience just walking through some of them.

In general, Bosnia is not an LGBTQ-friendly place, and if you’re not a hetero-presenting couple, you may find it hard to enjoy public intimacy without being harassed. Sadly, homophobic aggression is not considered a hate crime in Bosnia. There are a number of safer bar spaces in Sarajevo though, one I really liked was Kriterion, which is also a movie theatre/art house and always has a roster of cool documentaries playing.

Sibilj in Baščaršija at night is also quite nice.

Saturday

4)   9 A.M. HELLO HOSTEL MATES!

Rise and shine! Shake off that rakija headache, make some breakfast, get showered and ready for your day. I always like to take the first day in my hostel kitchen to meet my hostel mates, talk to them, and learn where they come from and why they’re there. It’s also a great time to see if you have any similar plans, to see if you can make some travel buddies! I met an English teacher from Spain who went on to volunteer at the refugee camps in Greece, and an American scientist doing some solo travel. You always meet interesting people. Talk to them! You can always add each other on Facebook too, you never know when you might cross paths again in the future.

5)   10:00 A.M. GET TO KNOW THE SIGHTS OF SARAJEVO

The first thing I want you to do today is Neno and Friends’ Walking Tour. Kat at The Doctor’s House Hostel will recommend it too. It is amazingly FREE (although I suggest you bring some money to give at the end, since it’s such an amazing service).

Neno’s tour departs daily at 10:30 (April to October) from the National Theater at Susan Sontag Square, runs about 2.5 hours, and I’m convinced there is NO BETTER WAY to get an overview of this city.

Neno covers about 500 years of history, from Ottoman to Austro-Hungarian times, Yugoslavia, the Bosnian War, to modern-day. You’ll see the National Theater, Serbian Orthodox Cathedral, Ashkenazi Synagogue, Emperor Mosque, Latin Bridge (where Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was shot, triggering WWI), Alifakovac Ottoman Cemetery, City Hall, the Sarajevo Beer Factory (although you won’t go inside, but I’ll cover you later in this guide), the Franciscan Church, as well as hear lots of personal stories from your guide. Neno and all the other tour guides grew up in Sarajevo during the war (the siege of Sarajevo is the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare—1,425 days) and can tell you first hand what it was like living through history.

You’ll also stop by Trg Oslobodjenja (Liberation Square), where you’ll find a giant chess board, surrounded (inevitably) but a bunch of old men playing chess. One of my favourite public places in the city. This is also the spot of weekend flea markets and food vendors.

The tour concludes in Baščaršija, Sarajevo’s old Ottoman bazaar market and the historical cultural centre of the city. Tourists and locals alike hang out in Baščaršija, drinking coffee, playing backgammon, shopping, and praying. There are many mosques in Sarajevo, and Baščaršija is home to one of the oldest—The Gazi Husrev-bey Mosque.

The Gazi Husrev-bey Mosque was built in the 16th century and is the largest historical mosque in Bosnia and Herzegovina and of the best examples of Ottoman structure in the Balkans. It is open to the public, but keep in mind it’s an active mosque and you’ll see many locals (and visitors) doing their daily prayers there, so please be respectful. Keep an ear out too throughout the day. Right before dawn, at noon, afternoon, sunset, and night you’ll hear the prayers of the city echo through the hills.

6)   1 P.M. LUNCH IN SARAJEVO’S OLD TOWN CULTURAL MARKET

After Neno’s walking tour lands you in Baščaršija around lunch time, I guarantee you’re going to be hungry. Neno can give you food recommendations, or you can just walk around the market. There are lots of places to eat.

For traditional Bosnian favourites, try cevapi—grilled minced meat (almost like kofte kebab), with diced onions, sour cream, salt and pita bread. Another food to try is burek—a fluffy, coiled pastry filled with spinach, meat, cheese, or vegetables. Often served with ayran—a cold, fresh yoghurt beverage to drink with your food, or pour over it.

Spinach and feta burek—almost like filo pastry wth spinach and feta. So delicious.

Bosnian coffee. Zoom zoom!

After dinner, go get yourself some Bosnian coffee. Drinking coffee is practically a national pastime here. Bosnian coffee is strong—I wrote about it here and here. While sitting on one of the cushioned, outdoor chairs in the market, sipping your coffee, I recommend you try to find a place that serves tufahija—a quintessential Bosnian dessert consisting of walnuts, poached apples, and whipped cream doused in a simple syrup. Best served cold. Ohhh, so delightful.

As you’ll undoubtedly have noticed by now, Baščaršija is THE place to do souvenir shopping in the city. I recommend you skip it for now because you have a lot more to cover today, but don’t worry, I bring us back here tomorrow morning.

7)   2 P.M. GETTING CONTEXT AT GALERIJA 11/07/95

Next I want to bring us to Galerija 11/07/95, also commonly called the Srebrenica exhibition. This solemn but essential museum is a short walk from Baščaršija, and explains the genocide that happened in July 1995 near the end of the Bosnian War in the town of Srebrenica.

The Srebrenica Genocide is the only publicly acknowledged act of genocide that happened during the Bosnian War. In fact, just a few days ago (July 11), was the 22nd anniversary. Learning about it is a crucial if you’re going to try to understand this country (and some of the undercurrents that run through it). To hear the exhibition in English, you can pick up a listening device at the door.

Also, a rough pronunciation guide of Srebrenica for English speakers is ‘sre-bre-knee-za’.

After the exhibit, head back outside to get some sunlight. Galerija 11/07/95 is in the same plaza as the Sacred Heart Cathedral, the Catholic church in Sarajevo that’s another popular meeting point.

If you’re traveling from abroad, I’ve found this is the best place in town to withdraw money, as there are four banks in the vicinity, including Sberbank, Bosna Bank International (BBI), and Raiffeisen Bank.

You can’t get Bosnian KM (convertible marks) outside of Bosnia (except for in some rare Balkan exchange offices) because they’re a protected currency, so you’ll have to wait until you get to the country to withdraw cash. I recommend you use cash as much as possible. A lot of places are cash only and will expect you to have near-exact change. I had a lot of places refuse to break bills, even if they were 20 KM (~$13 CAD). If you’re at a bank teller, be sure to ask for the smallest denominations possible.

[lightgrey_box]Pro Tip: You also won’t be able to exchange Bosnian KM outside the Balkans, so be sure to either spend it or change it back into your currency of choice before you leave![/lightgrey_box]

8)  3:30 P.M. ABANDONED OLYMPIC BOBSLED TRACKS

At this point it’s mid-afternoon. Depending on your pace, you might want to just kick back and relax, or you can head into the hills to get some adventures on the Abandoned Olympic Bobsled Track. You can easily taxi there from the city. In fact, you can even hike up to the tracks, but it takes about an hour or so. Remember the Yellow Bastion from your first night? If you turn away from the city and face east, that upper treeline is about where the bobsled track is.

This is also the foothills of Mt. Trebević. If you still have time, I recommend hiking up, hiking back, grabbing your luggage from your hotel, and taking a taxi up to….

9)  7:30 P.M. RELAX IN NATURE

Pino Nature Hotel! Pino is a beautiful lodge in the upper hills surrounding Sarajevo, near the bobsled track, in the Trebević mountains. This elegant four star hotel is about 300 KM (~$223 CAD)per night in the summer season for a basic room and offers a lot of ways to relax indoors and outdoors. Grab a big dinner here, a massage, and reflect on your day full of adventures. Be sure to get a good night’s sleep, because tomorrow morning, we’re waking up to see the sunrise. Yup. The sunrise.

Sunday

10)  4 A.M. SUNRISE OVER SARAJEVO IN THE TREBEVIĆ MOUNTAINS

This will vary depending on what time of year you go, but I recommend getting up a good 1.5 hours before sun rise. In the summer, the sun rises around 5 A.M. in Sarajevo. Bring your camera, and take a hike along the road from Pino until you find a nice outcropping to watch the sun rise from.

If you’re lucky with the weather, you might be treated to a spectacular show, like this:

There were so many stages and layers to this sunset. I almost don’t feel silly using #Blessed here. It’s really one of those moments that makes you realize how amazing nature is. If you have any photo nerds among you (ahem, like me), prepare for some serious freaking out as the beams of light cut across the valley.

[lightgrey_box]Pro Tip: Bring a tripod with you to do some long exposures at a low ISO when it’s still dark out so your photos will be silky smooth. Trust me, you won’t regret bringing it.  [/lightgrey_box]

Once you’re done snapping away, make your way back to Hotel Pino for a post-sunrise celebration breakfast. Trust me, if you get a good sunrise, you’ll feel like celebrating.

If you didn’t get a chance to yesterday, this is also a good time to explore those nearby abandoned bobsled tracks before making your way back to the city.

11)  10 A.M. BACK TO BASCARSIJA FOR SALEP AND SOUVENIRS

See? I told you we’d be back. This time around, poke your head in some shops and do some souvenir shopping. Keep you eye out for Kazandžiluk Street, where you can get some of Sarajevo’s famous coppersmith work. A custom djezva or Bosnian coffee set are popular souvenirs. There are also a lot of great textiles (try to find some made from local wool).

Sarajevo is known for its incredible coppersmiths.

Showing some of the original designs he etches into copper.

While you’re here, make sure to stop by Sebilj, an Ottoman-style wooden fountain built in 1753. Around it, there are always a HERD of pigeons, and often vendors selling pigeon food. I highly recommend feeding the pigeons and having some fun here. These pigeons are infamous.

Just a block up from Sebilj is Čajdžinica Džirlo, my favourite Sarajevo tea house. I absolutely recommend stopping here, taking a break to rest your souvenirs and having a drink of salep. Salep is a sweet, tapioca-like drink made from orchid root flour. These orchid tubers have a nutritious, starchy flour  that’s mixed with rosewater, cinnamon and is just a delight to drink.

Make sure to stir the salep a lot. The thick drink needs a good stir so the orchid flour doesn’t settle at the bottom.

12)  12 P.M. CELEBRATORY BEERS AND LUNCH AT THE SARAJEVO BREWERY

I’d say the amount of things we’ve done so far deserve a bit of celebrating, don’t you? During the siege of Sarajevo, the Sarajevo Beer Factory was the only place people trapped in the city could get clean water. It’s situated above an underground source, and continued operations throughout the war. Today, it’s an irrevocable part of the city and its history.

If you have time, there’s also a cool beer museum you can tour. Or, if you have less time, grab a delicious lunch and a cold, fresh brew at the Restaurant. Sarajevsko beer comes in dark, light, and unfiltered. I’ve tried ‘em all, and all are great.

That’s it, friend! After a few beers, grab your souvenirs, round up your luggage, and hail a metered taxi to head back to the airport. Once you’ve checked in, maybe have one last Bosnian coffee to celebrate a trip well-met. You’ve just survived an action-packed 36 hours in Sarajevo, well done!

With just this little taste of the city, you can probably already tell there’s so much more to explore and do here. For hikers, the hills around the city and the newly created Via Dinarica mega hiking trail, or the day hike to Lukomir, Bosnia’s most remote village, offer lots of beautiful sights. I  tried to do my best with 36 hours, but you might have more suggestions! Have any more recommendations or favourite places to visit in Sarajevo? Share them in the comments below!

Lodging

The Doctor’s House Hostel (Pehlivanuša 67; +387 61 222 914; http://www.thedoctorshousehostel.com/).  Run by the inspiring owner and manager, Cat Norman Tahirović, the Doctor’s House Hostel is a place that builds community. The clean and cozy rooms and porch overlooking the city make you feel like you’re staying at a friend’s house as soon as you arrive in the city. All the Doctor’s House Hostel services connect you with local Bosnians, with a view to fostering positive international friendships and relationships, while having a positive impact on the local lives and economy.

Hotel Pino Nature Hotel (Ravne 1; +387 33 257-800; http://pino-hotel.com/). An award-winning, modern eco and nature lodge situated in the Trebević mountains, this hotel opened at the end of 2015, and will no doubt be a popular spot for its unique nature and convenience to the city. It has 24 rooms and sits at 1,070 metres altitude. Stay here now before the prices go up.

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24 Comments

  • Reply
    Jayne Swanson
    July 16, 2017 at 7:10 am

    Loved reading this and remembering our trip to Sarajevo. We stayed with Cat not long after she opened – and did pretty much all the things you write about. We loved the Neno tour and would highly recommend it and also the tour to the airport museum – seeing the tunnel that was dug during the war – which they kept secret and was the reason the managed to survive the siege that lasted so long. We hope tonreturn one day and would love to stay at the Hotel in the hills. Thanks for sharing your blog. x

    • Reply
      Mel Hattie
      July 16, 2017 at 4:58 pm

      Hi Jayne, that’s awesome. Thanks for sharing your travel story! The tunnel museum is definitely a good one. I know you’ll love Pino if you go back. It’s pretty amazing some of the new businesses that are springing up in Sarajevo. ❤️

  • Reply
    Esther Zaga
    July 19, 2017 at 9:11 pm

    I loved how you describe everything, the coffee looks like turkish coffee which I love!! would like to taste this!

    • Reply
      Mel Hattie
      July 19, 2017 at 9:34 pm

      Haha, it is very similar. The only difference is when you add the coffee grinds. Don’t call it ‘Turkish coffee’ there though. Always ‘Bosnian coffee.’

  • Reply
    Liz
    July 19, 2017 at 9:23 pm

    I once planned to go to Sarajevo but had to cancel it last minute. This post really wants to make me go, it looks great!

    • Reply
      Mel Hattie
      July 19, 2017 at 9:31 pm

      Doooo it! If you ever have the chance to go back again, Sarajevo is amazing (obviously, I’m a bit biased). 😉

  • Reply
    Megan
    July 19, 2017 at 10:04 pm

    Mel, you are a brilliant photographer. I felt like I was in Sarajevo with your beautiful photographs and descriptions! Especially that view from Yellow Bastion. And I can’t believe Neno’s tour is free!!

    • Reply
      Mel Hattie
      July 20, 2017 at 5:16 pm

      Megan! Thank you so much. Glad you felt a connection. 🙂 Neno’s tour is 👌🏼 quality. Super awesome service.

  • Reply
    jin
    July 19, 2017 at 10:29 pm

    This is really all kinds of awesome! I’ve only been to Mostar, but sadly did not have enough time to make it to Sarajevo. (We were cutting it close to going over our Shengen expiry.) The city of Sarajevo looks utterly charming and I regret not visiting. I will def refer to your post when I make it there!

    • Reply
      Mel Hattie
      July 20, 2017 at 5:31 pm

      Hope you make it back! Mostar is beautiful too. We stayed there on a mini roadtrip from Sarajevo – Dubrovnik.

  • Reply
    Moe Sison (Penny Planes)
    July 19, 2017 at 10:48 pm

    It is so embarrassing to admit that I am not familiar Sarajevo, so I really thanked you for this very informative post! I just learned something new and it’s awesome!!

    • Reply
      Mel Hattie
      July 20, 2017 at 5:32 pm

      Aw, that’s awesome Moe! Glad to hear it.

  • Reply
    Kristi Evans
    July 19, 2017 at 10:57 pm

    You’re such a great writer! I had never heard of Sarajevo, but this post made me want to go. Love how the itinerary is broken down in time blocks, and thanks for including the taxi prices from the airport – always such good information to have when landing in a new place!

    • Reply
      Mel Hattie
      July 20, 2017 at 5:21 pm

      Thanks Kristi! I was trying to emulate the 36 Hours guides that New York Times travel does. I think their maps are a bit fancier, but I agree the time blocking is nice! Kind of forces you to evaluate: How much can I ACTUALLY do in 36 hours? Instead of coming up with a crazy list of like 30 things and then not being able to do it all.

  • Reply
    The Wanderlust Dietitian
    July 19, 2017 at 11:08 pm

    We will be headed there for a bit in the next year or so! I am so excited to have come across this post! Cheers and great pictures!

    • Reply
      Mel Hattie
      July 20, 2017 at 5:32 pm

      Perfect!!! Give me a shout if you have any other questions. I can probably help you find the answer, or someone who knows it.

  • Reply
    themormonadventurista
    July 20, 2017 at 2:50 am

    This is the first time I’ve read a post about Sarajevo and I couldn’t be more excited! I agree that the city is beautiful and just full of history and a determination to grow from the ashes of the war. Going to the supermarket is a great way to get to know a little more about a new place. Plus, you never know what you’re going to love to eat there!

    • Reply
      Mel Hattie
      July 20, 2017 at 5:19 pm

      No way! Well, LET ME OFFICIALLY WELCOME YOU TO SARAJEVODOM! A lot of people have mentioned the groceries. I think it’s just so key to getting to know a new place. Glad you love it too!

  • Reply
    Victoria
    July 20, 2017 at 10:42 am

    I have honestly never heard of this place before but your pictures are stunning! I see the tripod worked out well for you. Haha you have made me want to visit this place. Thanks for the details

    • Reply
      Mel Hattie
      July 20, 2017 at 5:19 pm

      Aha, yes. Tripod is 🔑. I hope you get there someday! It’s a great place.

  • Reply
    drivebytowns
    July 20, 2017 at 12:12 pm

    This itinerary sounds just about perfect. I truly enjoy the bits of history and cultural items, particularly the story about the only fresh water source being located under the brewery. I’m also a fan of buying groceries from a local store; it helps you really get a feel for where you are. Thanks for sharing!

    • Reply
      Mel Hattie
      July 20, 2017 at 5:18 pm

      Local grocery stores are THE BEST. Even in other cities in Canada or the US I always find something cool.

  • Reply
    Aida
    August 12, 2017 at 5:03 am

    Dear Mel, I live in Sarajevo. I have read hundreds of tourists stories and posts about my city, but yours is the one to remember! Thank you for providing such incredibly honest and fun overview!

    • Reply
      Mel Hattie
      August 12, 2017 at 6:44 am

      Aida! Thank you so much. That means so much to me, especially coming from a local like yourself. Thanks for taking the time to leave a note, and I hope you have a wonderful day. ☺️

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