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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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!
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.