Walking through Ferhadjia Street, the main pedestrian walkway from the old Ottoman Baščaršija quarter of Sarajevo to the rest of the city there’s an inlaid marker in the pavement with the text ‘Sarajevo Meeting of Cultures’.
Standing on this marker taking a picture to the east you will see a predominantly Islamic Ottoman Sarajevo dating back to the foundation of the city in the 15th century. Taking the picture to the west the scene will be more western, Austro-Hungarian architecture defining the streetscape.
Crossroads between cultures
Sarajevo has over the centuries been a city on a crossroads between cultures, most of the time people of different origins and beliefs living next to each other in perfect harmony, but sometimes becoming deadly enemies. This happened during the early 1990’s Bosnian War and the Siege of Sarajevo, when a neighbor or friend could become you executioner.
It’s an ink-black page in the city’s checkered history, that also includes the killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria Hungary, by 18-year old Gavrilo Princip that ignited the start or WWI. Although there’s not much to see, the assassination spot near the Latin Bridge can still be visited.
It’s worth to visit Sarajevo
But Sarajevo today is a peaceful city and has been largely rebuilt since the siege of the city ended a little over twenty years ago. It’s a city worth to visit for a few days and to savor the taste of different cultures in one city, Sarajevo still being a city where cultures meet.
We spent two full days in Sarajevo during a three month road trip across the Balkans as the first part of a one year world trip. These are the things we think should be on your to do list when you visit Sarajevo.
Sarajevo Total Siege Tour
Since it’s just over twenty years ago that the war in Bosnia ended, the Siege of Sarajevo featured so prominently in the newspapers and the scars of this conflict are still visible in the city, it is hard not to be reminded about the conflict when you visit Sarajevo. There are several tours that stop at many key sites in the Sarajevo Siege – all include the Tunnel of Hope Museum (sometimes you have to pay separately to enter), the rest of the itineraries vary – and explain about the war in Bosnia.
We opted for the Sarajevo Total Siege Tour by Sarajevo Funky Tours. The very affordable four hour tour was one of the most comprehensive we found, the guide was fantastic, groups are limited to eight people and we were driven around in a comfortable Mercedes minivan. More about our experiences with this tour can be found in our report about week 3 of our year of travel.
Tunnel of Hope Museum
If you don’t have time for a Sarajevo Siege Tour, then at least try to make it to the Tunnel of Hope Museum. The 800 meter long tunnel was dug during the second year of the siege underneath the airport controlled by Serbian troops and UN forces. Connecting besieged Sarajevo with free Mount Igman it became the lifeline of Sarajevo after its completion in June 1993. Very impressive and informative. You can walk a short segment of the tunnel.
1984 Olympic Bobsleigh and Luge Track
In 1984 Sarajevo was proud to host the Olympic Winter Games. Not much has been left of those Olympic days. There’s an Olympic Museum (we didn’t visit) and you can walk down the crumbling and graffiti sprayed concrete of the Bobsleigh and Luge Track high up on Mount Trebević. It was included in our Sarajavo Total Siege Tour and we found it a great stop. We visited on a very nice Sunday and noticed that hiking on this mountain is a popular activity for locals during the weekend.
Old Jewish Cemetery
Also on the slopes of Trebević mountain and included in our Sarajevo Total Siege Tour, but much lower on the mountain, is the Old Jewish Cemetery. Because it strategically overlooks the city center artillery was placed here during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The main reason to visit this cemetery, however, is to see the ancient unusual block-like tombstones of the Sephardic Jews that have been buried here since their arrival in Sarajevo in in 16th century.
War Childhood Museum
We didn’t get to visit this museum ourselves at it was closed on Mondays when we stood in front of it, but we heard from others that this recently opened museum is very worthwhile. It tells the story of the Bosnian war through the eyes of children, the founders of the museum having lived through the conflict themselves as a child. Sorry we missed it.
To visit Sarajevo without wandering through the warren of marble-flagged pedestrian streets of the old Ottoman Baščaršija quarter is like not having been in the city at all. You might think that you’re in Istanbul. It’s full of tourist shops, restaurants, a somewhat disappointing Bazaar (the Bezistan), the 16th century Gazi-Husrevbey Mosque and the Sebilj, a Neo-Ottoman stone-and-wood fountain on Baščaršija’s central ‘pigeon’ square.
Eat, drink and smoke the waterpipe
Baščaršija is also the place to eat, drink (Sarajevo and Bosnia-Herzegovina support a very liberal approach to Islam, even during Ramadan) or smoke a waterpipe. It’s the place to try a typical Bosnian dish like ćevapi (or ćevapčići), grilled minced meat sausages in bread. We had it at Željo, one of the recommended places, but had better at the youth hostel in Jajce.
Sarajevo has a few old Ottoman houses that can be visited. The Svrzo House in the Vratnik neighborhood just north of the old city center shows the life of a wealthy Muslim family during the 18th and 19th centuries. We found this very informative with clear signs giving explanation about the function of the different rooms. It even had a toilet, which was unusual in those days.
Also in Vratnik a steep climb leads you up to the Yellow Bastion (also called Yellow Fortress). There’s not much to see at this former citadel bastion itself, but there’s a simple summer café with a great panoramic view of Sarajevo from east to west. On the way up you pass the Kovači Cemetery, where Bosnian soldiers of the 1990’s conflict are buried. The endless rows of white burial stones are a sobering reminder of the war.
Walk east to west
After you’ve finished exploring Baščaršija walk west to see the architecture change from Ottoman to Austro-Hungarian, with churches being added to the cityscape next to mosques. We walked all the way to the Marijin Dvor district, about 2-2,5 kilometers away, where you’ll find some notable buildings including the former parliament and the yellow Holiday Inn Sarajevo where foreign journalists stayed during the 1984 Winter Olympics and throughout the siege of Sarajevo.
Along the way we passed some spots that were earlier pointed out to us during the Sarajevo Total Siege Tour, like the Markale market where many people died during a mortar attack and the Sarajevo Children Memorial.
Going back you can take tram line 3 that runs east to west (and vice versa) through the city.
The most representative building of the Austro-Hungarian period is Sarajevo’s City Hall from 1896. It burned down during the Sarajevo Siege, but has been beautifully restored to its Neo-Moorish self. It’s worth to buy the ticket to have a look inside. When we visited there was an exhibition about Sarajevo’s troubled recent history.
Avaz Twist Tower
While in the Marijin Dvor district head over to the Avaz Twist Tower, an eye-catching 176 meter high skyscraper, for one last look over the city. The tallest building in all of former Yugoslavia was completed in 2008 and is the headquarters of a Bosnian newspaper. But it’s possible to take the elevator to the top for some sweeping 360 degree views of the city for a mere 1 Bosnian Mark (50 eurocent).
If you like this, you might also like our post about the reasons to visit Bosnia-Herzegovina.
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