Sarajevo has been a big player in world history for a small capital of a small country. Discovering Sarajevo was an absolute joy, although also pretty heartbreaking at times. Here are some top things to do.
Free walking tour
We took a free walking tour with Insider Tours on our first day in town. It gave an overview of the town’s history, the major sights, and a lot of laughs. The guide had a big smile, knew his city very well and told many a story.
A particularly eye-opening story was about his childhood during the war. When he had to study by weak firelight in the dark, which left his face blackened with soot. He often went to bed with little food, his stomach grumbled in the night.
His parents worked in the war effort, so his grandmother often babysat. When the war began, he didn’t understand why his parents wouldn’t let him leave the house. Like any child, he wanted to go outside and play. He cheekily slipped some sleeping pills to grandma, and took his soccer ball into the streets. A mortar came his way, and he nearly lost a leg. Then he understood why he couldn’t go outside anymore.
The street corner that changed the world
I first heard about Sarajevo in Year 8 when we were learning the causes of WW1: The triple As – Assassination, Arms race… and I forgot the other one.
Ferdinand’s procession dramatically drove through the streets, narrowly avoiding bombs that exploded on the cars behind him. They changed the course of the procession, but the Serbian terrorist, Princip, happened to be at the perfect location to shoot Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sofia. This sparked the Great War that took millions of lives.
The streetcorner seems very casual for such a big event. It’s a busy part of town, with cars, trams and traffic lights. You could walk straight by it and completely miss the sign, not knowing you’ve stumbled upon a place where history changed course forever.
A quick love story
You might not know that Franz Ferdinand loved a forbidden woman. Her name was Sofia, and her good family background wan’t quite high enough in the social order for Franz. He didn’t care, and he married her anyway. This had serious implications for their relationship and social standing. The authorities banned his children from inheriting his position (thus ending their dynasty), and they barred Sofia from accompanying him to particular official events… oh the things we do for love.
This building was the centre of public life in Sarajevo as the town hall and library. It symbolised the city. Perhaps that’s why the Serbs destroyed it in the war. By burning down the heart of the city, they sought to break the spirit of the people. But the people rebuilt.
It’s a really impressive building, apparently inspired by North African architecture with a European touch. It’s definitely worth a peek inside. It also had an exhibition downstairs about the history of the town, which was super interesting.
Inat kuća (House of spite)
While it may not look like much, there’s a story behind this seemingly insignificant house just across from the town hall. When the Austro-Hungarians decided to build the town hall, they offered large sums of money to those houses already existing on the land on which they wished to build, so that they could relocate.
However, an old man called Benderija, refused to accept the money and relinquish his house at any price they offered. Instead, he demanded that they move his beloved house, brick by brick, across the river and out of the way, and give him a whole lotta money. The Austro-Hungarians had no choice but to accept this offer. His stubbornness has made the house famous, so be sure to check it out.
Walking along Saraci and Ferhadija streets is the closest you can come to time travel. Begin at the Sebilj in Pigeon Square, and wander past the institutions built by Ottoman philanthropist Gazi Husrev-bey, including the mosque, (free) public toilets, Bezistan covered bazar and caravan station. If you look up, you’ll see the unique Lunar Clock looking over the city. Head to the coppersmith’s street if you want to pick up some souvenirs, or just chat with the friendly shop keepers. You’re now living in the Ottoman Empire.
Before long, you’ll come to the ‘Sarajevo: meeting of cultures‘ sign in the footpath, and enter the Austro-Hungarian empire. The Ottoman village ends and the tall Viennese apartment buildings begin. Although most are filled with international brands nowadays, you can picture what it would’ve been like in in the old days. You’ll pass the New Temple Synagogue if you peek down the alleyway on your right, and then the unmissable Sacred Heart Cathedral. After a few minutes of walking, say goodbye to the decorative European facades, and you’ll arrive in the Soviet Union. Imposing, dark, utilitarian buildings tower over you. But the commercial chain stores will quickly remind you that you’re in the inescapable 21st century.
Visit the tunnel that saved Sarajevo
The house that was once the entrance to the 800 metre tunnel near the airport is now a museum. We toured with Insider as taking public transport out there is a complicated and time consuming affair. Our guide gave us lots of interesting information about what life was like during the war.
At the museum, watch the video about the tunnel with film from the war and see some rooms set up as they would’ve been during war times. Then go down into the tunnel for a (very) short strip. It was disappointing because it’s so pristinely set up for tourists. You don’t really see what it would’ve been like in the war.
Bijela Tabija (Yellow Fortress)
Walk ten minutes from Pigeon Square up to this 16th century fortress and view the city from above.
To reach the fortress, walk past the Ottoman graveyard and up the hill through a graveyard from the war, which will break your heart over the destruction that occurred here all over again.
It’s a good idea to head up around sunset, you’ll catch the city in all its glory at golden hour. During the month of Ramadan, go up at sunset to watch the canon blast marking the end of fasting for the day, and join the locals in breaking the fast by taking Ramadan pide for Iftar.
Another popular viewpoint in Sarajevo is this skyscraper in the new part of town. I didn’t actually make it there during my trip, but I’ve read good things about it. You can take the elevator up to the 35th floor, grab a coffee at the cafe and enjoy the view. If you’re taking a train, it’s not far from the station.
Sarajevo’s are very proud of the fact that they hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics, and you can still find memorabilia from it in the souvenir shops. Despite this pride, the sites of the Olympics have since been abandoned, and taken over by nature and graffiti artists. The best place to see this is at the Bobsled track, just outside of town.
Day trip to Travnik
A long but worthwhile day trip is to the town of Travnik, which is about 1 hour and 45 minutes away on the bus. It’s perhaps the best preserved Ottoman-style town in the country, with beautiful old houses and heaps of mosques (17 in total). It has an impressive hilltop fortress that’s well-worth visiting. Also don’t miss the Sulejmanija Mosque, which is elevated by stone pillars and has a supermarket underneath, which makes it pretty unique!
Eat and Drink
The Bosnians are passionate about their coffee, and a great place to try it is at the cafe by the New Temple Synagogue, with a sweet piece of Turkish Delight.
Sip the local schnapps at Gold Fishy (Zlatna Ribica)
One of the coolest bars I’ve set foot into, this place is a must-visit during your visit to Sarajevo. It’s full of quirky antiques and nicknacks, and the eccentric waiters in their black hats will be more than glad to bring you a glass (or five) of local fruity schnapps. Flavours include cherry, apricot, honey, and many more.
Don’t forget to drop a coin into the pot by the magical Gold Fish’s tank and make a wish!
The Markale Market
If you’re looking for some fresh fruit and veggies, or just wanting to get a feel for local Sarajevan life, this busy place is worth a look. It was also the site of a shocking civilian massacre during the war, but it’s encouraging to see that it is still full of life today despite the tragedy that took place there.
Burek is a Turkish breakfast pastry filled with cheese or meat or vegetables. Thanks to the Ottomans, you’ll find that it’s also very popular in Bosnia. We tried it at a traditional place called Sac, and it was so good!
Where I stayed: Travellers Home Hostel – It wasn’t bad. The kitchen was good and everything was clean and quite spacious.
What I’m reading: The Cellist of Sarajevo – Highly recommend this emotional book on what it’s like living during war time.
Have you been to Sarajevo? Did you love it as much as we did?