Few cities in the world offer a grander entrance than the city of Sarajevo. After winding our way through deep cut gorges with lazy pale blue rivers, the road climbs up the side of the mountains and give way to the narrow valley where Sarajevo is sprawled about. It’s one of those unexpected jaw dropping moments you get from time to time when traveling from place to place. The view continued almost all the way to the bus station as we looked about at the newly developed settlements building up towards the hill tops and the minarets penetrating the skyline. Castles, ruins, and snow topped mountains (winter) can also be seen from afar. After having my face glued to the window for a solid ten minutes, I simply couldn’t get down into this sprawling mix of cultures fast enough.
Where East meets West
There are few places in the world where Eastern and Western culture have blended so perfectly. The city of Sarajevo, has seen many transformations that have made it the place that it is today.
After various people’s inhabited the area, including the Romans, and after the Middle Ages, the area of Sarajevo was taken over by the Ottoman Empire in the 1450s. This is when the city of Sarajevo of today began to take its shape. While Christians were allowed to practice their religion and maintain their churches, over time, the majority of the population converted to Islam. Today, throughout the city lies an abundance of Ottoman era architecture, while the call to prayer can be heard throughout the day from the hundreds on minarets that dot the city.
In 1878, the city would fall under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Eager to transform the city into a modern European capital, the empire employed architects to transform the city. This is the time period where the city received its plethora of European architecture, tram system, and overall European feel.
As a result, the city is crisscrossed with buildings dating back to these periods, often within the same viewpoint. This creates the unique blend of appealing architecture that is found throughout the old section of the city today.
The newer sections of the city are covered in Brutalist Architecture, a style heavily adopted by Socialist and Communist countries from the 1950s-1970s. The raw designs are simple, and are characteristic of the bare concrete forms the buildings have.
Scars of War
Unfortunately, Bosnian independence came at a heavy price. Some of the heaviest fighting took place in Sarajevo as the Army of Republika Srpska surrounded and sieged the city from 1992 to 1996. Indiscriminate shelling would rain down on the city daily (an average of over 300 per day) while snipers took aim at civilians and the military alike during the siege. War crimes were abundant and the atrocities that the people living in the city had to endure were heartbreaking. By the end of the siege, over 15,000 were killed in addition to 56,000 casualties.
Walking around today, it is not hard to find remnants of the war. Most buildings throughout the city contain pock marks from bullets, some completely riddled with them. Sidewalks yet to be replaced still show mortar impacts, many of them painted red as a type of memorial. While much of the destruction has been repaired or torn down to build anew, a few abandoned buildings remain, completely destroyed by shelling. Sadly the destruction didn’t spare Sarajevo’s architectural gems, as most of what you see today has been heavily restored after the war.
Sarajevo is one of those cities that you want to get yourself some elevation in order to survey the place and its surroundings. There are several viewpoints that allow you to begin appreciating the city.
The most obvious view point is the tallest object in the city, Twist Tower. The easiest landmark to spot in the city has an observation deck at the top of the building. Centrally located, the platform allows you to take in an almost 360 degree view of the city . The only drawback is that you can’t get the iconic tower itself in your pictures.
Just below the viewing platform, these is a cafe, that provides wonderful views of the city at affordable prices. Coffee costs about $1 USD, allowing you to sit back and take in the views.
My favorite spot to take in Sarajevo however was White Fortress, overlooking the city up on the hills that border the east end of the city. The path up is quite steep but worth the effort, particularly for a sunrise or sunset. From here you can see the entire city run along the narrow valley as the mountains from either side don’t provide much space. This is where you truly begin to understand the layout and complexity of this city.
What To See
Sarajevo is home to a plethora of little sights. None of them are flashy, but many of them are deeply rooted in its rich history.
Old Town Area
Most visitors head straight for Old Town on the eastern edge of the city and rightfully so. The old section of the city is home to most of the city’s Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian architecture which is mixed about throughout the area. The unmissable city hall, in its neo-moorish design, brightly welcomes visitors to the area. Much of the city hall was destroyed during the war and was only recently was restored.
A short walk from the town hall brings you into the Ottoman quarter with its cobble stoned lanes, metal works shops, and hookah/coffee shops. Stopping by one of the many cafes to enjoy a Bosnia coffee, while watching the world go buy is the best thing to do around here. Not only is the coffee good, but it often comes with some Turkish Delight and the atmosphere makes you feel like you just stepped into a little piece of Istanbul. Also in the area is the most photographed area of the city; Sebilj fountain, found in the old square along with hundreds of pigeons.
As you move west, the city take on a more European feel, with its Secession styled architecture and large walking avenues. Here you can find many of Sarajevo’s smaller museums including the War Crimes Museum. It’s a tough one to get through as it explains it detail what citizens of the city had to endure during the war. History buffs will not want to miss the spot where Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated outside the Srajevo history museum 1878-1918. The assassination would lead to the start of WWI.
The most western section of town is the newest addition to the city. Mostly consisting of apartment complexes, the area is not eye appealing but shows a lot of the lasting scars of the war. Many of the buildings here are still heavily damaged, while some buildings are just skeletons of their former selves around tram stop Avaz.
Even further, on the other side of the airport, lies the Tunnel museum. During the war, the military dug a tunnel under the UN controlled airport as a means of getting much needed supplies into the city during the siege. The museum details parts of the war and how the tunnel was built and used. A small section of the tunnel is open for the public to walk through. To get here you have to go to the bus station located at tram stop Llidza. From here take bus 32 to its last stop which is about 500 meters from the museum.
A Warm Welcome
The people of Bosnia and Herzegovina are some of the most friendly people you will encounter in your travels. Rounds of Rajkia with complete strangers is not uncommon as people seem to want to be happy, and enjoy time with those they meet.
During our time in the city, we ended up cooking a meal that we shared with our airbnb hosts. We were then offered to stay an extra night for free and our host drove us out into the countryside in order to take us to his favorite museum and villages that had examples of Bosnian architecture. After the museum, the man running the restaurant invited us all to shots of rajkia before heading out. In one town, we stopped at the home of our host’s friend, in which we were gifted with a bottle of local wine. After a full day of sightseeing, our host than took us to his parents’ home where we ate homemade Burek (a meat or vegetable filled pastry) and drank rajkia as we got to know each other better. That day would become one of the highlights and most memorable parts of our journey. The level of hospitality here and in the Balkans has been the highest of anywhere we have traveled to thus far.
Sarajevo: One of Our Favorite Cities
While Sarajevo does not boast any world class sights like many of its European counterparts, it is a city to feel rather than to see. To hear the call of the minarets, the ringing of church bells. To feel the pain in your heart as you begin to understand the war of the 90s. To walk between East and West along the same street, and to enjoy the company of the locals you open up to. This is why you come to Sarajevo, and because of it, this city should be on anyone’s Europe To Do List.