The capital city of Bosnia and Herzegovina has been the stage of numerous historic events over the last century and on top of that, its cultural and ethnic diversity, to which it owes its nickname ‘Jerusalem of Europe‘, is unmatched on the old continent. Here are some suggestions on how to explore this relatively unknown cultural jewel in the heart of the Balkans.
History and overview:
Sarajevo was founded in 1461 and has been part of several empires and federal states since. The most important foreign rulers have been the Ottomans and the Austro-Hungarian Empire who have strongly influenced the city’s architecture and cultural landscape.
The city became world famous in 1914 when a terrorist attack in the then Austro-Hungarian provincial city of Sarajevo led to Germany attacking Serbia which culminated in the beginning of the First World War.
Bosnia and Herzegovina was part of Yugoslavia for half a century and the implosion of the multi-ethnic superstate led to a brutal civil war in Bosnia lasting from 1992 to 1995. The conflict obliterated substantial parts of the capital and led to fierce battles in the city during a long and heinous siege. The attackers notably used sniper weaponry to attack the streets and the bullet holes are still visible everywhere, one large avenue in Sarajevo has even been nicknamed Sniper Avenue as a reminder of the horrors that marked the early ’90s in Sarajevo’s history. The country is at peace since 1995 and the city has slowly regained its path to growth.
Be aware of the ethnic and religious demographics of Bosnia & Herzegovina: 50% are Bosniak Muslims, 30% are Orthodox Serbs, 15% are Croat Catholics and 5% belong to other minorities. Thanks to this uncanny diversity you will find a large cathedral and a large mosque a few blocks away from each other in the city centre, a fantastic cultural and architectural contrast that is unique to Sarajevo.
The best area to stay is the city centre on or around Tito Street. In this area you will be in walking distace to all the major sights and most of the food and nightlife options.
Hotel Sokak: a nice little mid range hotel right in the heart of the city with all the usual amenities and very reasonable room rates.
City Boutique Hotel: a great luxury boutique hotel in the city centre with stylish rooms and all the facilities required for a short stay. This hotel moreover delights travellers with its rooftop terrace.
Hotel Central: One of the best high-end options in the city centre. A great location coupled to impeccable rooms and a relaxing spa area make this one of the best hotels in the Bosnian capital.
Cultural offer and activities:
Gavrilo Princip Museum: A small museum dedicated to the event that made Sarajevo famous for the wrong reasons. The spot where the museum is located today is the exact spot where Gavrilo Princip stood when he assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne in 1914, henceforth triggering a chain of events that led to the most brutal conflict the world had seen so far, the Great War.
Avaz Twist Tower: The highest skyscraper in Bosnia and Herzegovina has a restaurant and an observation deck on its last floor which offer stunning views over the city and the surrounding mountains.
Bascarija (Bazar): The Bazar in Sarajevo is a reminder that this city has a large Muslim population and that the Ottoman Empire left a strong mark on Bosnia. You will find small shops selling locally crafted goods, Shisha bars, little cafés serving delicious strong Bosnian coffee and restaurants serving various kinds of local meet, notably Cevapcici (sausages made out of a mixture of veal and lamb).
Town Hall & Old Town: The Town Hall building is another marvellous example of the oriental flair that this city has while the Old Town will delight you with is pleasant mix of oriental, Austrian and Yugoslav architecture.
Sebilj Fountain: The fountain close to the Bascarija has a high symbolic significance as it is said that everyone who drinks from it will come back to Sarajevo at least once.
Mount Trebević: The mountain where the 1984 Winter Olympics were held. The viewpoint overlooks the city and thereby offers some of the best views over the Bosnian capital. The mountain also offers great hiking possibilities, the easiest way to get there is to take a taxi as it is located a few kilometres from the city centre.
National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina: (Zmaja od Bosne 3) One of the best cultural institutions in Sarajevo and an instructive place to learn about this region’s highly complicated and disputed past. The residents of Sarajevo and the diaspora actually kept this museum open by contributing financially in times of turmoil.
Wine & Dine:
Bosnia and Herzegovina has one of the best cuisines in the Balkans thanks to its multifaceted history and the diversity of its population and the general mixture of ingredients from different cultural backgrounds. Bosnian cuisine could be defined as a blend of Central European, Balkan and Turkish food which makes it one of the most varied cuisines in all of Europe. Most of the specialities are meat based and lamb is a very common dish. Bosnian cuisine however also offers lots of pastry and bread-based delicacies, a true melting pot.
Kod Bibana: (Hošin brijeg 95) A fantastic restaurant atop the hill that serves all of the local specialites and often has live music. A perfect place to have dinner with a view over the Bosnian capital.
Ćevabdžinica Hodžić: (Bravadžiluk 34) One of the best Cevapcici restaurants in the city. Every Sarajevo restaurant has its own recipe for the local sausages and the ones at Hodzic are definitely among the most tasty.
Luka: (Obala Maka Dizdara Br. 8) An excellent seafood restaurant right in the city centre. In addition to being a local’s favourite, Luka also offers visitors the chance to try out delicious Balkan seafood, notably shrimps and sardines from Croatia.
Sarajevo nightlife is experiencing a renaissance but it is still not a true party haven and certainly not comparable to Belgrade. Many venues are a mix of Shisha bar and nightclub. Here are some suggestions.
Shisha bars in the Bascarija: The bazar has myriads of small shisha bars where locals like to enjoy this originally Turkish waterpipe. If you are not into smoking, these bars also offer lots of local teas and food and give you a glimpse into Sarajevo’s Muslim heart.
Kino Bosna: (Alipašina 19) An old Yugoslav communist cinema that has been turned into an eclectic bar. This trendy spot has become very popular among hip Sarajevo locals and is located a bit further away from the city centre.
City Pub: (Hadžiristića bb) One of the coolest British style pubs in the city with a wide and priceworthy selection of local and international beers and a cool terrace for warm summer evenings.
Sloga Club: (Mehmeda Spahe 20) Probably the best club in the city. This large multi-storey club plays different kinds of music and scores points with its incredible atmosphere and its hip young crowd of mostly locals.
Freaky’s Pub: (Hamdije Kresevljakovica 8) A great pub to watch sports events or to have a nice local or international beer in a cool and laid back setting.
Pink Houdini: (Branilaca Sarajeva 31) This blues and jazz club offers something different to most nightlife spots in Sarajevo and is an excellent option to try the local liquor Rakija (to enjoy with moderation) and to listen to the live bands that frequently perform here.
Final tips & verdict:
Sarajevo is a genuinely underrated European capital with a great amount of cultural and religious sights at its disposal. Some parts of the city have yet to recover from the horrors of the last century but the city centre and the bazar are a joy to behold. We would strongly recommend the city be it just for its cultural diversity and for the fact that it is the largest city in Bosnia but far less touristy than Mostar.
Taxis are cheap and omnipresent, it is however strongly recommendable to negotiate the price in advance and to know basic phrases in Bosnian as English proficiency is quite low in Bosnia & Herzegovina.