With their imaginations and travel memories fired by spiky minarets, grilled kebabs and the all-pervasive aroma of ground coffee, many travellers see in SARAJEVO a Slavic mini-İstanbul. The Ottoman notes in the air are most prominent in Baščaršija, the city’s delightful Old Town, which is home to umpteen mosques, bazaars, kebab restaurants and cafés. Further afield, burnt-out buildings evoke the catastrophic war of the mid-1990s, though the fun-loving, easy-going Sarajevans do a great job of painting over the scars of those tumultuous years – it’s hard to walk around without being offered coffee, and it’s hard to be invited for coffee without making friends.
Sarajevo gained importance during Roman times, and after a short slumber was reinvigorated as a trading hub during the Ottoman period, but sadly its recent history is far more pertinent. The international spotlight fell on the city as the host of the 1984 Winter Olympics, but less than a decade later the world’s eyes were retrained on it during a siege that lasted for almost four years – by some estimates, the longest in military history. Bosnian Serb forces made a near-unbroken ring around the city, shelling major buildings and shooting civilians dead on their way to work, while years of litter lay rotting in the streets. When the ceasefire was announced in 1996, around ten thousand people had been killed; on the ground you may notice some of the many Sarajevo Roses – flower-like scars of mortar shell explosions, poignantly filled in with red resin, though now badly fading.
The central district of Baščaršija is Sarajevo’s prettiest and contains most of its sights. Heading west from here, the city’s history unravels like a tapestry – Ottoman-era mosques slowly give way to the churches and elaborate buildings of the Austro-Hungarian period, before communist behemoths herald your arrival into “Sniper Alley” and its shells of war.
Top image: Bascarsija square, Sebilj fountain © Boris Stroujk/Shutterstock
The city now has a fair few hostels, though many are unofficial, so be careful when booking. If you get stuck, dozens of agencies around Baščaršija will be able to set you up with a private room.
The powerful waft of grilled čevapi is a sure sign that you’re about to enter Baščaršija, whose pedestrianized streets are a delight to wander around, filled to the brim with cafés, snack stands and trinket stalls. It’s most logical to approach this district from the east, where you’ll find the once-glorious National Library. In 1992, a single day’s shelling destroyed over three million books, but reconstruction of this pink-and-yellow cream cake of faded beauty is now almost complete. A little way along is the central square, home to Sebilj, a small kiosk-like fountain, and Baščaršija Mosque. Far more beautiful is the Gazi Husrev Beg Mosque just down the way, which is worth a peep inside. Further west, you’ll come across the Bezistan, an Ottoman-era bazaar now sadly filled with all manner of fake goods unsuited to such an elegant structure.
Baščaršija is also home to the six buildings that make up the Museum of Sarajevo – by far the largest is located inside the old Bursa Bezistan bazaar, just off the main square, which features a whole host of historical relics, all beautifully presented.
Sarajevo has a fair few quirky underground bars, which come and go with alarming regularity, so ask around. Locals go out late – most bars only start filling up after midnight and kick on until 1 or 2am at least.
You can’t walk more than 10m in Baščaršija without coming across yet another ćevabdžinica – note that many do not serve alcohol. Burek is similarly easy to hunt down, and many travellers rate it the best in the Balkans.
Along and just off Ferhadija, the main pedestrianized thoroughfare, are several points of interest. Dominating the skyline just west of the Bezistan bazaar is the twin-turreted Catholic cathedral dating from the 1880s, while, just behind here, along Mula Mustafa Baseskije, stands the central market place. It was here, on February 5, 1994, that 68 people were killed following a mortar attack in what became the war’s single most infamous incident; a blood red wall is inscribed with the names of all those who died. Adjacent to the cathedral, the superb Galerija 11/7/95 is dedicated to the memory of the victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.
Baščaršija Nights bascarsijskenoci.ba. Ballet, theatre, music and art exhibitions throughout July.
Jazz Fest jazzfest.ba. Excellent jazz festival, with some stellar names, usually held in November.
MESS mess.ba. International, English-centred festival of theatre in October.
Sarajevo Film Festival sff.ba. In August, this is now one of the most prestigious film festivals in Europe, and largely focused on the region’s own output.
Saravejo Winter sarajevskazima.ba. Artistic festival (music, film, visual and performing arts) each February.
Modest in appearance, the Latin Bridge has some weighty history behind it – this was the scene of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and, by extension, the start of World War I; a plaque on the wall indicates the exact spot where Ferdinand met his fate. Off its northern end, the small, one-room 1878–1918 Museum commemorates the incident, its most significant exhibits being the pistol used by the assassin, Gavrilo Princip, and the subsequent indictment against the perpetrators (there were seven in all). Across the Miljacka River you’ll see the fascinating Papagajka, a decaying yellow-and-green residential block apparently designed with hovercars in mind – this is how the Jetsons may have lived under Communism.
Most useful to travellers is a small area around Mula Mustafa Bašeskije, where you’ll find a couple of appealing markets – indoor and outdoor – and a few secondhand clothing stores. One recommended souvenir purchase is a Bosnian coffee set: while whole teams of Baščaršija stands sell cheap ones, Sprečo, at Kovači 15, offer beautiful hand-made copper-and-tin sets for around €30. Also try tracking down Butik Badem on Abadžiluk, which doles out superb Turkish sweets, dried mulberries, and a lot more besides.
Well worth the fifteen-minute walk west of Baščaršija is the Historical Museum. Don’t be put off by the somewhat brutal exterior and shabby entrance, as the permanent exhibition detailing how Sarajevo functioned during the siege is sobering and superbly presented. The exhibits and photos are frequently harrowing, though the most striking aspect is the remarkable resourcefulness Sarajevans displayed, manifest in some ingeniously improvised implements for cooking, lighting, heating and the like. On the other side of the main road stands the Holiday Inn, a distinctive yellow building that was the city’s only functioning hotel during the siege, and as home to foreign journalists was also one of its safest places.
Of even greater importance during the siege was the tunnel under the airport, part of which is now open as the Tunnel Museum which can be visited on daily tours. During the siege, Sarajevo’s UN-held airport was the only break in the city’s surrounding ring of Serb forces – an 800m-long tunnel dug underneath the runways provided, for most locals, the only way into or out of the city. At the museum, you’ll be played a home-movie-style DVD that describes the tunnel’s creation, and the reasoning behind it, before being led through a small section of the now-collapsed route.