Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is nestled in a narrow valley below the Dinaric Alps. The city, which was founded by the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century, is a charming mix of Western convenience and Balkan charm. Visitors come to feel the spirit of Old World Europe along narrow cobblestone streets, in cafes with traditional stove-cooked coffee, and to share a moment with locals over homemade liquors.
What many tourists immediately notice is that Sarajevo is a place of extremes. Barkeeps pour inexpensive drinks as the call to prayer sounds at nearby mosques. Girls in tight miniskirts clutch the hands of friends in headscarves. Those extremes mimic the tides of history.
In 1984 the city hosted the Winter Olympics, when Bosnia and Herzegovina was still part of Yugoslavia. The people of Sarajevo worked to ready the city for the games, proud of their multi-ethnic coexistence. Those were the happy times, a golden age of sorts.
Sarajevo’s Markele market
Photo: Ana Callaghan
The Sarajevo you’ve likely heard of descended into chaos just a few years later. The same hills that hosted the Winter Games became the city’s biggest weakness. During the early and mid 1990s, the city was cut off from the world and trapped in a war that killed more than 100,000 people. The nearly four-year siege of Sarajevo is the longest siege of a capital city in modern history.
In Sarajevo, history—gathered over 500 years—slaps you square in the face. The exterior walls of many buildings are pockmarked with bullet holes and wartime shelling. The architecture of Baš?aršija, the Turkish quarter, with its cobblestone streets and one-story red-roofed shops, transitions into polished Austro-Hungarian structures just a few blocks away.
Sarajevo’s cumulative effect is dangerous for visitors. The city’s multi-dimensional charm is addictive. It gets under your skin. It captivates. Tourists leave only to return again. In the winters they come to ski. In the summers, the city is packed with visitors in town for the Sarajevo Film Festival (August 2015).
The center of town is parallel to the banks of the calm Miljacka River, and you can easily walk to nearly all of the sites. Taxis are cheap (as is the streetcar tram) and the main bus and train station, with service all over the Balkans and beyond, is only about a 15-minute stroll from town.
Get an early start and enjoy the solitude of the quiet streets. Grab a cup of thick Bosnian coffee at a cafe in the Old Town and watch the pigeons flock to the Sebilj fountain in the middle of the square. Then, meet guide Fikret Kahrovic
for a hike-meets-history-tour. If you’re there on a weekend his hiking plans are typically set, so book midweek for a five-hour trek on Mount Trebevi?. You’ll trek through lush forest on the backside of the mountain before walking down the decaying, graffiti-covered Olympic bobsled course and descending back into the city. (The cost is approximately 50 Bosnian Convertible Marks, KM, or $31 USD at 1.61 KM to the dollar).
Bobsled track from the 1984 Winter Games
Photo: Ana Callaghan
Fuel up post-hike with a pizza from Pekara Kovaci Kod Mahira, not far from Baš?aršija. Walk farther up the hill to the Yellow Bastion, part of the old walls that used to protect the city. There’s a flat grassy area at the top where you can enjoy your pie along with sweeping views of the valley. After, you can buy a pint of the local beer, Sarajevsko, just about anywhere, but it is best to get it at the source: Sarajevska Pivara. Wander through the Old Town’s narrow streets, where shopkeepers sell everything from pens fashioned from bullet shells to Bosnian coffee sets to colorful apparel.
Head down a side street in the Old Town for dinner at cozy Barhana. If it’s nice, sit on the open patio the restaurant shares with neighboring eateries. It’s more about the atmosphere here than the food, which consists of sandwiches and wood-oven pizzas. Regardless of what you order, try one of the many flavors of rakija, a local fruit brandy (try the cherry). If you’re looking for something fancier, head uphill by taxi to Biban or Park Princeva for traditional Bosnian food. Both offer front-row seats as the sun sinks behind the hills. The views are better from Biban, but the food at Park Princeva is superior. The Sarajevo Sword, a combination of beef, veal and chicken costs 20 KM. Another good seat for sunset is the rooftop restaurant and cafe (sit outside) atop Hotel Hecco Deluxe, where Ferhadija street meets Maršala Tita.
If you’re in the mood for loud music and dancing, head to Sloga or Pussy Galore. Sloga has a big dance floor and live music (Monday is Latino night) while Pussy Galore is more of a local’s scene and tends to get a bit rowdier (5KM cover charge).
The main drag through Sarajevo, Maršala Tita, draws as many pedestrians as cars. Take a morning stroll past the Eternal Flame, a memorial for the victims of WWII, and continue onto the pedestrian-only street, Ferhadija. It’s lined with open-air cafes and blocks of shopping. Stop and watch the old men play a giant-sized game of chess near the Orthodox Church before heading to Franz and Sophie to linger over a cup of tea. Then its time to market hop. Walk to the outdoor farmer’s market, the Markale Market, and load up on things like pecans and figs or apples and oranges. In the back you’ll find a glass casing that shields damage from a mortar attack in February 1994 that killed 68 people in what would later be called the Markale massacre.
After your snack, take the #3 tram to a stop called Stup, which is about 30 minutes from Bascarcija. Cross the street and weave through the outdoor stalls and browse through the quirky items for sale. You can find anything from headstones, puppies, soccer jerseys and old ski equipment. There’s no shortage of smoky grills cooking up Bosnia’s most popular fast-food dish: ?evapi, grilled meat sausages served in a pita.
On the way back, get off at the tram near the iconic yellow Holiday Inn, cross the street and head down to Vilsonovo, a promenade along the river. Along the way take a quick walk through the Bosnian History Museum or stop for lunch at the quirky Cafe Tito and drink a beer while you bask in the memorabilia from the days when the beloved Josip Tito ruled the country. Walk along the Miljacka’s tree-lined banks back toward the center of town. Before heading back into the Old Town, pass the Latin Bridge, where Gavrilo Princip assassinated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, sparking WWI. If you’re up for it, follow the river for a few miles all the way past town as the road, now free of cars, winds along the cliffs and away from the city bustle. Turn around once you hit Goat Bridge, an old trading route to Istanbul and Macedonia.
For a pre-dinner drink, swing by Zlatna Ribica a kitschy bar with a dark speakeasy atmosphere and order a coffee or pivo (beer). Make sure not to miss the crazy décor in the bathroom. Walk up the hill through Veliki park, a park in memorial for children who perished during the war, directly across from the BBI Centar. Take a right at the top of the park and stop for pizza at Noovi. It has a bougie California feel to it, with outdoor seating and good wine list. After walking up and down the hills all day, circle back toward the Old Town and get ice cream at Egipat for 1KM.
Photo: Ana Callaghan
At Kino Bosna, young locals mix with tourists and expats. Kino means theater in Bosnian, and this bar occupies an old theater, chairs and all. Get there early to grab a coveted seat up on stage (they’re more comfortable). On certain nights a group of spirited, smiling men play sevdalinka, traditional Bosnian music. The rakija is cheap, served in plastic cups, and the clouds of cigarette smoke are thick.
Though there are no direct flights to Sarajevo from the United States, you can get to the city from hubs like Vienna, Munich and Istanbul. If you’re already in the Balkans, take a hopper from Belgrade or Zagreb. The center of town is about four miles from the airport.
If you want to live like the locals, rent an apartment on Air BnB, and aim for one in Baš?aršija or along Ferhadija.
Arguably the nicest place to stay in town, the Hotel Central, is a 15-room boutique hotel in the center of Sarajevo, logically. It has a world-class fitness studio, a homey cafe, a restaurant and rooms from $134.
Anna Callaghan is a freelance writer based in Seattle. She’s written about things like selling her kidney on Facebook (pretty easy), Instagram yoga celebrities, and is an authoritative voice on camping hammocks.