Nestled in a picturesque valley between the Dinaric Alps crossed by the Mikjacka River, Sarajevo may look more like a quiet mountain town than a European capital.
If the natural setting suggests an idyll, Sarajevo’s recent history has the dark hues of a tragedy: the current capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina was one of the most martyred cities of the war in the former Yugoslavia and became the emblem of the population’s suffering during those dramatic years. Little more than 20 years have passed, but the wounds have left deep furrows in the walls, streets and souls of the people, which are easy to notice when walking around the city. Why visit, then?
To learn and to understand, but also to have an intense and satisfying travel experience. Sarajevo is a peculiar city that finds in the peaceful coexistence of several cultures its main reason for fascination: different ethnic groups and religions today, as before the war, live together without separation, creating a truly unique and highly suggestive mix of religions, architecture, voices and sounds. New buildings are continuously under construction, albeit without an orderly plan: encouraging signs of recovery and optimism.
Those who are willing to leave aside the top destinations of European tourism and approach lesser-known destinations should head straight for Sarajevo. Here, more than anywhere else, it will be easy for you to come into contact with the local population and you will be surprised by their unobtrusive but warm and sincere welcome, their dignity combined with a great desire to have fun and their unbeatable black humour.
The climate leaves a little to be desired (Sarajevo is a very cold city in winter and a torrid one in summer, almost always cloudy), but you make up for it with very cheap hotel and restaurant prices, a busy calendar of events throughout the year and many things to see.
Sarajevo has enough things to see to keep you busy for more than a weekend.
If you want a trip with deep meaning, you can focus on the museums, monuments and corners of the city linked to the 1990s war. If you prefer hope to memory, you can create a city itinerary to discover Sarajevo’s most beautiful churches, synagogues and mosques, testimony to the peaceful coexistence of peoples. But no one forbids you from spending your holiday in the Bosnian capital simply wandering around the lively Bašcaršija district.
Whatever type of holiday you want to take, here are the must-see attractions in Sarajevo.
Bašcaršija is the historical centre of Sarajevo: a quaint cluster of houses, shops, religious buildings and historical monuments. It is nice to wander around the narrow streets of the centre and then throw yourself into Ferhadija, the main pedestrian street, try a Turkish coffee in one of its many cafés and watch the people go by.
The Latin Bridge is Sarajevo’s oldest bridge and one of the city’s symbols: destroyed and rebuilt several times throughout its history, it is a kind of monument to Sarajevo’s ability to resist and be reborn after every hardship.
This three-arched Ottoman bridge of stone and plaster, which for centuries allowed citizens to cross from one bank of the Miljacka river to the other, became in 1914 the scene of an event that changed the course of world history. It was here that the Bosnian Serb student Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire: this episode was the spark that set off the First World War.
Today the Latin Bridge is a peaceful place from which to observe the bustle of people in Sarajevo’s old town.
The Gallery 11/07/95 has stamped in its name the date of one of the most painful events in the history of contemporary Europe: the Srebrenica massacre, which is remembered here as a symbol of the suffering of innocent people and of indifference.
In July 1995, in a town then declared a UN protected area, Serbian militias killed 8372 Bosnian civilians with the sole intent of destroying an ethnic group, then threw them into mass graves: a true genocide, condemned in 2007 by the International Court of Justice.
This museum-gallery recounts the devastating effects of these tragic events on the survivors with historical documents, artistic works and multimedia content (images, maps, audio and video recordings). Temporary exhibitions are also organised on the war in the former Yugoslavia, other present and past wars, and general topics related to human rights and brotherhood.
The cultural centre of Sarajevo’s Islamic community is the beautiful Gazi Husrev-beg mosque, the largest in the city, richly decorated with intricate Islamic motifs and topped with domes of various sizes.
Built in 1532, it was badly damaged during the war but was considered so important to the cultural life of the city that reconstruction work began in 1996.
The mosque is open to non-Muslim visitors, but clothing appropriate for a sacred building is required.
An architectural wonder of Sarajevo is the Orthodox Cathedral of the Nativity of Jesus, a Baroque church with Serbian-Byzantine elements easily recognisable by its five large domes. Built in 1868, it is one of the largest Orthodox churches in the Balkans.
The most important building of the Catholic faith in Sarajevo is the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, an imposing neo-Gothic style church with twin towers as high as 43.2 metres. It was started in 1884 and completed five years later; the design is by Josip Vancaš.
The interior has some Romanesque elements and is decorated with valuable paintings and frescoes; stop to admire the stained glass windows, especially those in the apse and side aisle in Austrian style.
To complete an ideal itinerary of Sarajevo’s four religions, you must visit the New Temple. Built before World War II, it is the city’s most beautiful synagogue, adorned with coloured marble and an imposing dome.
One of Sarajevo’s most beautiful civic buildings is the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina (called Vjećnica by the locals), a magnificent riverside palace that has been declared a national monument.
Built at the end of the 19th century, its elegance and rich decoration makes it resemble an Austrian palace and it is certainly the most representative building of the period of Austro-Hungarian rule in Bosnia; however, the beautiful two-coloured façade decorated with Moorish elements resembles an Andalusian palace more than a Viennese court.
The palace was used as a town hall until 1949, later as a library; it burnt down in 1992 and was only reopened in May 2014. It was badly damaged during the war, but the renovation work respected the original in every detail.
Today it is an active cultural centre and venue for numerous events; it also houses a photo gallery and spaces for permanent exhibitions. Come in and have a look: you can admire magnificent arcades, windows, staircases, inlaid glass and other fine decorations.
A museum and a tunnel: the former tells of the horrors of war, the latter served during those dramatic years to bring the wounded to safety and deliver food and other necessities to the population.
Today, a small section of the Tunel Spasa, also known as the Sarajevo Tunnel, can be visited: only 25 of the 800 metres excavated, a few but enough to understand the importance of this underground route, the anguish of those who passed through it risking their lives to help other people and the strong feeling of hope that animated the people of Sarajevo.
The tunnel is about 1.60 metres high and one metre wide; the section that cannot be visited is largely collapsed. Before its construction, the only way for humanitarian aid to reach the population was to cross the airport runway, a very risky area where many people lost their lives.
The entrance to Tunel Spasa is through a house that is now a museum, with period documents and video projections; also on display is a scale model of the entire tunnel. The house itself is very simple and on the façade you can still see the shots of the Serbian artillery.
Despite the beautiful name, the red colour of the Sarajevo roses does not allude to love and passion but unfortunately to the blood spilled during the siege of the city.
They are the holes left on the city’s pavements by the mortars of Serbian soldiers: after the war they were painted red so as not to forget. They can be found almost everywhere, but unfortunately in many places the paint is fading and the red roses are in danger of going unnoticed.
Another place where the wounds of war are still visible and tangible is Ulica Zmaja od Bosne Street, nicknamed Snipers’ Avenue due to the presence of numerous Serb snipers stationed nearby during the siege of the city.
It is a street that connects the industrial part of the city to the airport, outside the walking routes of the old town, and should only be visited if you have a particular interest in such matters.
If you do, stop for a moment and imagine the anguish felt by the citizens who had to cross this wide avenue knowing that they risked being killed by a sniper. It is estimated that 225 people died and more than a thousand were wounded.
If, after visiting the museums and monuments of the war, you want to pay homage to those who lost their lives during the conflict, you can go to the Kovači Martyrs’ Cemetery, where Bosnians who defended themselves against the Serb aggressors and Alija Izetbegović, the first president of free Bosnia, are buried.
It is a cascade of white gravestones on the slopes of a hill: seen from afar, they look like a single white stain amidst the green vegetation and red roofs of the houses. The cemetery is unfenced and therefore can be visited 24 hours a day, but the best time is at sunset, when the silence and touching atmosphere of this place is most appreciated.
The hill opposite, called the Yellow Fortress, is an excellent vantage point from which to view the city of Sarajevo from above.
The scene of bloody attacks during the war, the covered market of Pijaca Markale in the centre of Sarajevo is now a lively meeting and trading place, just like famous markets in other European capitals.
You can buy fresh fruit and vegetables and taste burek, a savoury cake of Turkish origin popular in the Balkans, and try your hand at street photography.
The city of Sarajevo has its own strong coffee culture on par with Vienna and other Central and Eastern European capitals, but instead of visiting an elegant café that makes you dream of 19th century splendour, why not try something a little more curious?
Café Tito is a communist-themed café dedicated to the last president of the former Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito, a controversial figure who, however, many Bosnians still remember in a positive light (perhaps because the war broke out after his death).
You can sip coffee while browsing through the photos of Tito hanging on the walls or published in period newspapers scattered among the tables.
In the following map you can see the location of the main places of interest mentioned in this article
Although it is still a little-visited tourist destination compared to other European capitals, Sarajevo has a truly remarkable number of hotels and flats for tourists; quality standards are good and prices are very cheap.
Young people and travellers aiming for maximum savings can count on a wide choice of hostels, cheap guesthouses and simple but clean flats. The 3-star hotels provide more comfort and are often housed in modern, very functional buildings, but since the prices of hotels in Sarajevo are so low, why not treat yourself to a 4- or 5-star?
The best area to sleep in Sarajevo is the historic district of Baščaršija, the most charming, convenient to all the main tourist attractions and full of places to eat and drink in the evenings. If you book in other areas pay attention to the distance from the centre: remember that Sarajevo is squeezed between mountains and if you move away you may then have difficulty getting around.
The city of Sarajevo has an international airport but flights are not always cheap. The easiest way to get to this city – and probably the cheapest – is to travel to Croatia by plane or ferry and from there continue by car. If you are travelling with a rented car when booking, specify that you intend to cross the border: you will probably have to pay a little extra, but in case of an accident you are covered by insurance.
The city is located in a narrow basin between mountains, so the roads are winding in many places. Calculate about a four-hour drive from Dubrovnik or Split.
Another possibility is to fly to a European city connected to Sarajevo by direct low-cost flights and reach your final destination by another flight.
Reaching Sarajevo from Croatia by public transport is possible, but the journey is very long (allow 6-8 hours depending on the city of departure). You can take a direct bus from Dubrovnik, Split and Zagreb.
What's the weather at Sarajevo? Below are the temperatures and the weather forecast at Sarajevo for the next few days.
Sarajevo is located almost in the centre of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country whose shape vaguely resembles a triangle with the tip pointing towards Serbia and northern Croatia. It is about 130 km from Mostar and 250 km from the Croatian cities of Dubrovnik and Split.