Sarajevo was an interesting city – small enough to explore on foot, enough history to keep things interesting, and an old town that felt a little like wandering the markets of Istanbul.
Bosnia and Herzegovina has such a sad recent history, and we felt that the most in Sarajevo. We saw the remnants of the Bosnian war in Mostar (see our post on Mostar here), but with the influx of tourists it was easy to forget about the devastation in the 1990’s. Sarajevo, on the other hand, doesn’t receive the busloads of tour groups on daytrips from Split and Dubrovnik. We also visited in mid-October during a cold, rainy patch of weather. It seemed oddly fitting, as we felt we saw the city for what it was, not a polished version you’d see in tourism brochures.
Sarajevo’s Link to WWI
Many visitors focus on memorials and museums covering the Bosnian war of the mid 1990s, and there are plenty of sights to see. But Sarajevo also has a notorious link to the start of WWI.
Most people trace the start of The Great War to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. On June 28, 1914, he, and his wife Sophie, were gunned down by Gavrilo Princip, a member of a Yugoslavian nationalist revolutionary group. While many relics of the assassination are on display at the Museum of Military History in Vienna, Austria, including the car they were riding in, the uniform the Archduke was wearing when he was shot, and the chair he died on, the event actually took place in Sarajevo, near the famous Latin Bridge.
Bosnian War History
Throughout the city, there are still remnants of the war. Many buildings have been rebuilt, so while there were some destroyed blocks, we didn’t see as many as we did in Mostar. But the facades pock-marked with bullet and shrapnel marks are still present. The infamous “Sniper Alley” is now a busy thoroughfare (although locals will tell you that term was only used by outsiders – locals considered every street in view of the surrounding hills to be “sniper alley”). The Holiday Inn hotel on this stretch (renamed Hotel Holiday post-war), built for the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, was considered ground zero for many reporters covering the Bosnian War.
One of the most interesting museums to visit is the Tunnel Museum, on the far side of the airport from the city centre. During the war, the airport was controlled by the UN, while the city of Sarajevo was effectively surrounded by Serbian forces and separated by the airport from the free Bosnian territory to the south. A tunnel was dug, extending under the runway of the airport, to allow goods, people (and arms) to be transported in and out of the city. Now there is a museum at one end of the tunnel, providing a history of the tunnel and a small section that visitors can walk through.
To get a better appreciation of the war, it is important to visit the surrounding hills, from where Serbian forces shelled the city for over three years. From the hillside, you have an eagle-eye view of the city. Destroyed buildings, used as sniper and artillery bunkers, remain abandoned. Even the Olympic bobsled track was used as cover during the war, and is now an eerie reminder of how quickly the city transitioned from the glory of the Games to the horrors of war.
Several museums are located around the city, recounting the war. We visited the History Museum, across from the infamous Holiday Inn. While the museum was undergoing significant renovations, the displays provided graphic descriptions and examples of what life was like in Sarajevo during the Siege. Entrance only cost 5KM (about €2.50) per person, and it was well worth it.
To get a first-hand account, and for ease in visiting the Tunnel Museum and surrounding areas, we took a 4-hour tour with Sarajevo Funky Tours. Our guide was 23 when the war started, so shared her experiences as a university student when the first shells exploded.
The Old Town of Sarajevo
The old town is a vibrant area along the Miljacka river. As we found in Mostar, it felt a little like Turkey with vendors selling Turkish-style lamps, clothing, rugs, tea sets, and bookmarks. There was no shortage of sweet shops selling Turkish Delight and baklava, colourful cafes offering Turkish tea and coffee (or Bosnian coffee), and kebab stands. Although we don’t tend to shop for souvenirs, it was a great place to explore and warm up with a cup of Turkish tea or coffee. We also found that the quality of the food, even at the simplest fast food restaurants, was fantastic (heads and tails above the food we had in Croatia and Montenegro!) with most items cooked to order and well-seasoned.
We also climbed up to both the White Fortress and Yellow Fortress, above the Old Town. Both were built to defend Sarajevo, but later fell into ruins that weren’t helped any by the Bosnian War. However, both sites give great views over the city. One thing we noticed from this vantage point was the number of large cemeteries throughout the city, which was another stark reminder of the sad history of this cool city.
So would we recommend Sarajevo, and Bosnia in general?
Absolutely. We were both surprised by how much we enjoyed the entire country. Neither of us expected the beautiful mountain scenery, or the Turkish feel to both Mostar and Sarajevo (and we both love Turkey). The food was fantastic, the prices are reasonable, and the people are friendly. We never thought we’d say this, but this is one country we’d both like to come back to.
Practical Information for Visiting Sarajevo
- We stayed at Verde Apartment, and cannot recommend it highly enough. It was the best accommodation we stayed in in weeks, and is a 5-minute walk from the city centre
- We went with Sarajevo Funky Tours for their Siege of Sarajevo tour. While there are several tour companies that run tours to include the Tunnel Museum (which is a huge pain to get to on your own), the Siege of Sarajevo tour lasted 4 hours and included more areas of the city than the alternatives. Sarajevo Funky Tours also offers a number of other tours around Bosnia. The cost of our tour was €20 each plus the cost of admission to the Tunnel Museum (10KM each). Again, it’s a bit more expensive than its competitors, but we felt we got our money’s worth
- We were not disappointed with any meal we ate in Bosnia, generally – the food is WAY better than that in both Croatia and Montenegro
- For fast food (i.e. cevapi, chicken fillets etc.) try one of the locations of Specijal around the Old Town. Mains only cost about 6KM (€3)
- We had a great sit-down meal at Dveri. Inside has a homey atmosphere, the food is excellent, and the prices are good
- We went to several bakeries and sweet shops, and were never disappointed. Don’t miss out on the meat or cheese burek, or a good baklava
- Although we didn’t get a chance to visit, there is a Sarajevo Brewery museum with an attached beer garden/restaurant that we heard good things about