Sarajevo Ultimate Visitor's Guide
If you need a break from Europe’s overcrowded hotspots (how many tourists can squeeze into Dubrovnik's city walls before they burst?), head to Bosnia’s capital Sarajevo. 🇧🇦
Walking through this humble yet cosmopolitan city, you see architecture that spans centuries, as well as bullet holes and bombed out buildings from the 1992-1996 siege, the longest and most devastating in modern times. Sarajevo has more to offer than it’s war-torn history, but that history is relevant and important and has been incorporated into its tourism.
Here’s a list of some of the best things to do in Sarajevo, as well as recommendations from locals on where to shop, eat, and go out at night. But first...
Some background on the siege
Why did snipers gun down Sarajevo for nearly four years? What was the Bosnian War about? Most people outside this region can’t wrap their mind around this tragedy. I’m embarrassed about how little I knew when I started traveling around the Balkans. I wish I had read this article on understanding Yugoslavia before my trip and highly recommend it.
Here’s a rough summary of the Siege of Sarajevo and the Bosnian War (1992-1995). I admit that I became a bit obsessed with trying to figure this out, so if history isn’t your thing, feel free to scroll down for info on what to eat, shop, drink, see in Sarajevo).
After its leader Tito died in 1980, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Macedonia) unraveled and its individual republics started declaring independence. In 1990, Bosnia and Herzegovina (the full name of the country) held its first multi-party elections and formed a coalition government along Bosnia's ethnic lines, at the time 44% Muslim Bosniaks, 31% Orthodox Serbs, and 17% Catholic Croats (in case you’re wondering why this doesn’t add up to 100%, there’s a mix of ‘others,’ including Roma and Jews, though most of them were murdered by the Nazis).
Bosnian Serb nationalists preferred the strength they had as part of Yugoslavia and didn’t want to be a minority in a new country (something similar happened in Croatia). They separated themselves, creating the Republika Srpska, and wanted to join Serbia and Montenegro in their new Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (this new version of Yugoslavia was not recognized by the international community). Their dream was to create a ‘Greater Serbia,’ which would unite land in a majority-Serb areas, and in areas where Serbs became a minority due to World War II genocide.
When Bosnia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1992, the new Army of the Republika Srpska (also known as the Bosnian Serb Army) took up arms and started a civil war. But where did this brand new army get its weapons? The president of next door neighbor Serbia, Slobodan Milošević, controlled the Yugoslav Army (a Serb-dominated and heavily armed force) and they provided the Bosnian Serb forces with all the weapons they needed. Milošević used nationalist rhetoric and fear to champion the idea of a Greater Serbia (and his own glory) in the Balkans. He was later tried as a war criminal and died in prison before a verdict.
For almost four years, the Army of the Republic Srpska (Bosnian Serb Army) blockaded and laid siege to Sarajevo, shelling the valley from the mountains above. The United Nations Protection Force was created in an effort to keep people alive and wasn't allowed to use force, only to give food and humanitarian aid. The U.N.’s weapons embargo prevented the ragtag Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (which had also just been created at the outbreak of th war) from obtaining the weapons they needed to defend themselves. Meanwhile, the the Army of the Republic Srpska remained fully locked and loaded thanks to the Yugoslav Army, as mentioned above (in 1993, a war within the war broke out between the Bosniaks and the Croats, but that is another story).
Under Radovan Karadžić, president of Republika Srpska (later convicted of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity — he did not get a life sentence, btw), the Army of the Republic Srpska murdered, tortured, and raped to push non-Serbs out their area of Bosnia, which is the definition of ethnic cleansing. Sniper and mortar attacks killed plenty of Bosnian Serbs, as well. About 2 million people fled their homes.
By 1995, Bosnian Serb leadership, that is, those leading the Republic Srpska, wanted to end the war by taking over the safe zones supposedly protected by the U.N. in their territory and pushing the Muslims out for good. Under Commander Ratio Mladić (still being tried for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity), they blocked aid from getting into U.N. safe zones, and entered one of them, Srebrenica, where they killed 8,000 Muslim men and boys in less than two weeks.
After the massacre there, a market bombing in Sarajevo, escalating deaths, and Milošević’s continued refusal to work with the U.N., NATO finally acted in 1995, bombing the the Army of the Republic Srpska into retreat. The Siege of Sarajevo was officially declared over in February 1996. By the end of the Bosnian War, 100,000 of people would be dead, including about 14,000 in Sarajevo, nearly half civilians. Census results released last year indicate the country has lost a fifth of its pre-war population of 4.4 million.
Not long after the NATO bombing, the Dayton Peace Accords sealed the deal for peace, but tied Bosnia into a complicated political structure that split the country into two entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska, which I do not understand at all. Bosnia has three presidents, all with their own laws, administrations, and agendas, resulting in a complex legal structure that prevents innovation, reform, and foreign investment.
Understandably, unemployment is high. Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska, is a secessionist calling for independence for an area of Bosnia that critics say was carved out thanks to ethnic cleansing (see this map of ethnic divisions before and after the Dayton Accords). Salaries are really low (€400 a month) compared to the rest of Europe. Before the war, most of Bosnia’s districts were ethnically mixed; now they are homogenous.
This all sounds pretty bleak. And yet, this country, at least its capital, still feels resilient and promising. Sarajevo's three main ethnic groups got along for centuries and the city is still mixed, though the Bosniaks make up the majority. Miraculously, the country’s economy has seen positive growth over the last two decades, and Bosnia has applied to join the European Union.
Best things to do in Sarajevo
Sarajevo is vibrant cultural city with something for everyone. Some ideas:
Take a tour. I explored the Old Town and went on a siege tour with Sarajevo Funky Tours (I know, that name! 🙃) Our tour guide was a George Clooney lookalike and a soldier during the wars, so of course all the girls on our tour fell in love with him. But we kept our heads on straight when he showed us around ❤️ and discussed the history of the siege and the war.
Hang out in the Old Town, Stari Grad, the heart of which is the Baščaršija market area. Sarajevo’s old town dates back to 1462 and in its heyday (hundreds of years ago), this was a major trading center in the Balkans and had hundreds and hundreds of shops. Though a fire halved its size in the 1800s, and industrialization hurt local artisans, these little streets still feel incredibly lively today, with both locals and tourists eating, drinking, and shopping in the bazaar. A lot of people meet at the Sebilj fountain before going out.
Stroll along Ferhadija to see the history of Bosnia through architecture. Buildings go from Islamic to Viennese to Yugoslavian to modern malls. You’ll find loads of shops and restaurants along here.
Walk through the Sarajevo War Tunnel, also known as the Tunnel of Hope. You can walk through part of the tunnel at The Sarajevo Tunnel Museum, located inside the house that served as one of the tunnel's entrances during the siege. Getting here is not the easiest on your own. I’d highly recommend you go with Funky Tours. You’ll also see Sniper Alley, the Jewish Cemetery, and other important historical sites in Sarajevo.
Watch the sunset at the Yellow Fortress. Bring your dinner, or buy a snack at the cafe, before settling in on the hill to watch the golden pink tones take over the sky (see the photo at the top of this blog post). 🌅 At this hour during Ramadan, they fire an old cannon here to signal it’s time to break the fast and everyone eats together. 💥 From this viewpoint, you can see Martyrs Cemetery, which was a park before the siege in the ‘90s.
Visit the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide 1992-1995. Also check out Gallery 11/07/95, a museum/gallery memorial to the victims of the Srebrenica massacre, in which Bosnian Serb soldiers from the Army of the Republic Srpska killed more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys at a U.N. safe haven, and also sexually assaulted many women. For me, one of the most powerful works there was Bill Carter’s 30-min documentary Miss Sarajevo (watch a clip here), who captured everyday people trying to live as normally as possible during the siege. I still think about the scene where young girls are playing in a car, singing and pretending to go on a road trip that was impossible.
Pretend you’re bobsledding at the Sarajevo Olympic Bobsleigh and Luge Track, used during the 1984 winter Olympics. I was told the ‘give peace a chance graffiti’ was done by a Palestinian artist, who sprayed the same graffiti on the Palestinian Wall (though I haven’t been able to find this online).
Talk to the locals. The younger ones are more likely to speak English. I don’t know anything about kids, and find their entertainment choices baffling. I asked a 12-year-old girl here if she watched YouTube and she told me about two of her favorite “programs" that she watches as soon as she gets home from school. I know that American girls are watching the same webisodes. Maybe YouTube will unite us all and save the world.
Go inside City Hall (Vijećnica). Built during the Austro-Hungarian occupation, City Hall opened in 1896 and eventually became the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The building went up in flames during the siege and most of the rare books and manuscripts burned. The hall finally reopened as a national monument in 2014 and now holds events and exhibits.
Check out the Ars Aevi contemporary art collection, temporarily housed in an exhibition depot, is worth around $27 million and exists thanks to donations from artists around the world. The famous architect Renzo Piano designed a permanent museum, which still needs proper funding. 🎨
Where to shop in Sarajevo
You have everything here, from boutiques to international chains. I was surprised at the high percentage of German brands and was told that since the 1960s, people from Bosnia have been going to Germany to work, and Germany also took them in during the Bosnian War. Kids in Bosnia learn German in school (though English is still the first foreign language). Here are some ideas for great gifts, for you or someone else.
Bosnian delight. I asked what the difference was between Turkish delight and Bosnian delight and got this dry response: “We’re in Bosnia.” Well, there is one other difference — these sweets are much cheaper in Sarajevo than Istanbul! Traditionally, you eat a walnut or rose delight with your coffee, but I loved the pistachio the best.
Baby toys, clothes, and handmade gifts. BHCrafts began as a humanitarian effort in 1995 to help Bosnian women who'd lost their homes, husbands, and other family members and needed money to support themselves. This Fair Trade partnership provides skills and jobs and has grown into a successful export-oriented business.
Copper keepsake. I wanted to find a less controversial keepsake in Sarajevo than the artillery shell cartridges turned into brass souvenir pens, so I was really happy to find Nermina Alić’s copperware shop. 🙌 She taught us about savat, the engraving technique she and other coppersmiths use in Sarajevo. As a special treat, we had coffee delivered to us and she told us how to brew it the Bosnian way. 🇧🇦 Top tip: if you go to the cafe Rahatlook, they’ll teach you to make Bosnian coffee if you buy two. ☕️
So fun shopping along Čizmedžiluk Street, which got its name from the shoemakers who worked here for 400 years. The last čizmedžija closed in 1947, but this is still a very lively place and I loved checking out the family-owned businesses.
Where to eat in Sarajevo
With cévapi (sausages) as the national dish, being vegetarian in Sarajevo (or anywhere in the Balkans) isn’t the easiest. But the pastries, dear God, the pastries. 🇧🇦 And also the bread!!
When we arrived at the bohemian teahouse Cajdzinica Dzirlo, I was dying for a cappuccino, but owner Hussein convinced me to order salep, a hot drink made of orchid root, which we drank on the seats outside the large open windows. ☕️ Hussein doesn’t speak a lot of English, but his Italian and German are very good (conveniently the two languages my friend and I speak). Whatever your language, I’m sure he’ll try to have a friendly chat with you. 🌎 You can find the teahouse at Kovači 6, Sarajevo 71000. 🙌 This is my favorite street of shops and it will lead you to the Yellow Fort mentioned above.
If coffee is more your thing, hop next door to the Ministry of Čejf, a new coffee shop that has great reviews and is open until 11 p.m.
Buy some cheese at Sarajevo’s City Market. I bought dimljeni sir, which is kind of like smoked provolone. Then go to a pekara (bakery — and they’re all great) to buy some bread for your sunset picnic. I’m still thinking about this. 🍞 🧀
Who loves a good falafel meal? 🙋You can find one at Falafel in the Old Town. We sat down here and drank some rakia that we brought over from Barhana around the corner. Not sure that's allowed, but we enjoyed our little aperitif.
Since 1999, Karuzo has served mostly vegetarian and vegan meals, but they also offer quite a bit of fish. Chef and owner Saša Obućina trained in vegetarian cooking in England. He believes in cooking seasonally and serving the best local wines in this restaurant, which is non-smoking (probably even more rare than vegetarian cooking in the Balkans).
If you like beer, check out tavern Pivnica HS. If you plan ahead, you can also combine with a visit to the Sarajevo Brewery, which dates back to 1864 and has its own water spring. During the siege, the people depended on this brewery as its only water source, making it a pretty heroic institution if you ask me.
Spinach pie, aka Zeljanica, aka pita, at Buregdzinica Bosna in the Old Town. Ours came out scorching hot, and if you go inside and check out the hot coals heating up the sač (metal pan), you’ll see why.
Step it up a notch at the 4 Rooms of Mrs. Safija (4 sobe gospođe Safije), a fancier yet still very reasonable restaurant with vegetarian options. You can also read a ridiculously long soap opera (that I think involves a suicide pack?) on the website.
Even if you don't have a major sweet tooth, you'll like the pastries at Baklava Ducan. I especially liked the log-like Zhandar baklava, which takes three days to make and is deliciously walnuty and not as sweet as other baklava I’ve eaten. I also liked the sweet kaymak triangles. They'll let you can bring in a coffee from one of the cafes outside to eat with your dessert.
What kind of money do they use in Sarajevo?
The currency in Bosnia is the convertible mark (BAM or KM), and the central bank issues different versions for the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska (different designs (except for the 200 KM note) but same value throughout the country). €1 = 1.95583 KM and the easiest way to get it is to withdraw from an ATM. That’s probably all you want to know, but I’m going on a wee tangent of financial geekery.
During the Bosnian War, Germany’s Deutsch mark was the only currency worth anything (so interesting when you think of the image of Germans burning their worthless cash for heat during the hyperinflation of the 1920s). After the war, per the Dayton Accords, Bosnia replaced its currency with the convertible mark (KM), and anchored it to Germany’s Deutsch mark (DM). So, each KM in circulation had to be backed up with a DM. In 2002, when Germany switched to the euro, €1 equaled 1.95583 DM, and so €1 also equaled 1.95583 KM. Bosnian money is now linked to the euro, but the exchange rate remains fixed, €1 = 1.95583 KM.
What to do in Sarajevo at night
Like Yugoslavia was communism 'light,' so is Islam here when it comes to drinking and socializing. Whether you like to drink, dance, sit around and look at the sky, Sarajevo's got you covered.
In nice weather, take the elevator up City Boutique Hotel and order a drink with a view outside.
Drink rakia in the Old Town. Plum is the most famous, but I loved the blueberry at Barhana, which tastes like a Fla-Vor-Ice. Sooo cheap.
Attend the Sarajevo Film Festival. At the end of the siege, the Obala Art Centar created the Sarajevo Film Festival to “help reconstruct civil society and retain the cosmopolitan spirit of the city.” Now in its 23rd year, it’s a favorite summer event with great after-parties.
Smoke shisha at one of the many hookah lounges in the Old Town. Dibek is a popular one.
Pubs and clubs recommended by locals:
City Pub - Popular bar with live music near Hotel Europe.
Opera - Cafe by day; chill lounge at night, with live music on the weekends.
Club Mash - Same deal. Coffee by day, bar with live music at night. Near the National Theater.
Goldfish (Zlatna Ribica) - Eclectic little bar filled with nik naks and good vibes.
Aquarius - Coffee turns into lunch turns into happy turns into late-night venue with DJs and bands.
Bagdad - Popular cocktail lounge with DJs and dancing.
Hotel Europe. Built in 1882 this Astro-Hungarian building feels very old world in style, though some areas have been modernized. They also have a spa, pool, and a massive outdoor patio that’s great for a drink in summer. $158 a night for a double, cheaper if you’re a solo traveler with a single.
AirBnB. You can rent an entire apartment in the center of town for $25, which, in Europe, is practically free. Hello, freedom. And so far visitors to Sarajevo have been behaving themselves (in other words, it hasn't been overrun by drunk stag dos like in Prague and other cities).
Balkan Han Hostel. I used to think hostels were for kids, but my friend Kapil makes me wonder if I should give them a second chance. He had a blast staying at this hostel, which is centrally located, super friendly, and has its own bar. This is a good option for solo travelers who want to make friends or find people to go out with. Prices vary depending on whether you stay in a dorm or private room, but you could stay here for as little as $12 a night.
Is Sarajevo safe?
Yes, and it should be your next trip! However, climate change is causing flooding in the mountains where there are still land mines. Don’t go hiking without a guide.
Tours of Sarajevo
I can’t stop thinking about Sarajevo and already plan on going back. I hope you love it as much as I do — let me know about your favorite finds!