Of all the cities in Europe, we found few more affecting than Sarajevo.
On the surface it’s a lively and inviting city, nestled between verdant green hills with vibrant street life and spirited culture. But look a little deeper and you’ll see the streets still wear the battle scars of the war just two decades past and a people that lived through its turmoil.
Sarajevo is a city with a turbulent past where, overnight, its citizens became prisoners in their own homes and streets, forever trying to avoid the eyes of gunmen in the hills above. Always running, running through the streets. Never able to escape the cracks and bangs of war. The streets never silent.
Though, in those almost four years when the city was under siege, life went on, morphing into some bizarre and horrific version of ‘normal’ that became a reality for those remaining in the city. Children still had to go to school. Food and water still needed to be found. Underground clubs popped up where bands could jam and the youth of the day could dance the night away while the chaos raged above ground.
Today, indentations from explosions on the pavement are filled in with red stone and named ‘Sarajevo roses’ – an eternal reminder of a life lost turned into art. Streetscapes that are yet to be given a makeover are adorned with puncture marks from snipers whose wandering eyes never left these streets.
When people tell their stories of the war it is often with a dry and dark humour and you find yourself laughing along only to realise that actually, their situation was anything but funny. The pronouncement of a dead father or brother is done so bluntly and matter-of-factly because everyone knew someone that died. Someone that was killed.
Today though, in this humming, eclectic city with a very dark past, there is plenty to hold a visitor’s fascination. These are the best things to do in Sarajevo.
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Gallery 11/07/95 details the horrors of the genocide in Srebrenica where over 8,000 Muslim men were slaughtered over two days while trying to flee a designated safe area that was infiltrated by Serbian forces. Their bodies are still being recovered and laid to rest to console the women who continue to search for their missing husbands, sons and fathers.
While this story is the harrowingly morbid focus of the gallery, there is also an excellent collection of videos capturing the underground lives of those living in Sarajevo during the siege – sneaking through basement tunnels to secret nightclubs, running through the streets with drums of water under heavy gunfire and finding new ways of navigating the world away from the prying eyes of the snipers.
A visit to the Srebrenica Galley is one of the more unsettling things to do in Sarajevo, but it’s an experience you definitely won’t forget in a hurry.
A free walking tour is an excellent way to get the lay of the land and tick off some of the key places to visit in Sarajevo.
Our bubbly and knowledgeable guide Merima walked us through the streets of Sarajevo stopping at the Latin Bridge and the street corner that changed the world with Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, the Town Hall, House of Spite and the main mosque, to name a few.
But it was stories of survival that hooked us, fascinated us and kept us in deep contemplation for days afterwards. Timing the bullet fire between neighbourhoods to enable a safe passage to their makeshift school, running through the streets to find water and the awful tinned food left by the UN that became (and still is) a running joke for the entire city.
There are several tour operators in the city but we went with Neno and Friends who have an excellent reputation on TripAdvisor. Tours are 2.5 hours and begin at the National Theatre. Times vary based on season so check the website and register for your tour in advance.
Tours are free but tips are expected.
For a more in-depth look at Sarajevo’s story, there are also a number of dedicated historical tours, such as those focussing on the Jewish community within the city, the Archduke’s assassination, or locations that were important to the resistance effort during the siege. For other historical tours in Sarajevo, search here.
Facing westward across the city, the stone walls of the yellow fortress is the place to come when the sun begins to sink toward the mountains. While a few tourists make it up here, the area is often crowded with locals seeing in the evening.
When we visited during Ramadan, locals queued to stock up on supplies at the two bakeries at the bottom of the hill before lugging it up to the fortress to watch the sun melt away and break the daily fast with the cannon fire.
The bar here serves a limited range of drinks.
If you’re spending a bit of time in Sarajevo, the old town is the place to spend it. This is the main cultural hub of the city and while some areas are a little touristy, the locals love it just as much as us foreigners.
Stroll alongside the river, get lost in the tiny cobbled laneways and settle into a plush velvet chair of the many tea houses for some great people watching and even better eating.
It is here that you’ll find some of the more iconic things to see in Sarajevo, such as Sebilj, the small central square frequented by dozens of pigeons; the Gazi Huzrev-beg Mosque, a sprawling complex that dominates the old town centre; and the Bezistan, an atmospheric covered bazaar which is now a little touristified but worth a stroll through if you’re looking to shop.
The streets of the old town are filled with tiny, nondescript eateries and you’ll notice pretty quickly that two things are very, very common – sweet shops and ćevapčići – so plan on those jeans getting a wee bit tighter while you’re here.
The ćevapčići is a half moon of soft flatbread stuffed with mincemeat sausages and it’s just the type of artery-clogging, delicious street food you’ve been waiting for. Plus, it’s pretty much the most universally loved food here.
If you’ve got any room left, follow it up with the delectably sweet (there’s no such thing as too sweet in Bosnia) Tufahije – a traditional dessert of cooked apple with a filling of walnuts and topped with whipped cream.
If you’ve been following our blog for a while you may already know that we are not big coffee drinkers. While the aroma of a good roast often gets us thinking that perhaps we just haven’t had the right blend to switch on our inner coffee junkie, whenever we yet again give the stuff a try, we always regret not just sticking with a nice Earl Grey instead.
But when drinking coffee is an experience in itself, how could we not give it a go.
Bosnian-style coffee is served in a little copper pot with a bowl of sugar cubes and a sweet treat on the side. The glass may be small but a true Bosnian will nurse a glass for hours over good conversation. Drinking it is a bit of an art so ask a local how it’s done.
If you’ve given the coffee a go and are now craving those tea leaves, keep an eye out for Čajdžinica Džirlo – a hole in the wall teahouse we stumbled upon while exploring the back streets of Sarajevo, up the hill from the old town square.
Its blue walls house jars of loose-leafed tea, dried flowers and a number of well-thumbed books, and the owner welcomes guests like old friends he hasn’t seen for decades.
We felt immediately at home.
Boasting a selection of over 40 different teas, this has to be the best tea house in the city. Laze on the couch in a dimly lit corner or out front in the sunshine perusing the quirky reading material. Watch the sand run through your tea timer to know when your tea is brewed to perfection.
Tunnel Museum. An icon of the Sarajevo siege, this museum culminates in a stretch of tunnel that runs beneath the airport runway and became the city’s remaining link with the outside world while the war raged on. Entry is $6 and for instructions on getting there, see here.
Bobsled Track. Sarajevo’s abandoned bobsled track is a hangover from the 1984 Winter Olympic Games and sits covered in graffiti atop Mount Trebevic south-east of the old town. On foot, the track can be reached in around an hour.
Vrelo Bosne. This sprawling park is a picturesque oasis outside the city and the source of the Bosna River. If you’re seeking a bit of greenery or a respite from the summer heat, Vrelo Bosne provides a perfect retreat.
This thriving city has a number of cosy hostels to suit just about every traveller, with prices starting from as little as $6 for a dorm bed. Those seeking a little more privacy will also find a huge range of locally run guesthouses and hotels. Check rates and availability here.
For a more homey, local experience, Airbnb is another excellent and affordable option. We stayed in a lovely apartment overlooking the old town for less than €15 a night. Check rates and availability here.
New to Airbnb? Sign up here to receive up to $30 off when you make your first booking.