Now the capital city of an independent Bosnia and Herzegovina,Sarajevo is an old city that has seen its fair share of historic events. It witnessed to the defining moment that sparked the outbreak of the First World War, years of communist rule as part of Yugoslavia, and its own bloody civil war in the early 1990s. It is known as a city tolerant of diversity, and celebrates the peaceful coexistence of Christians, Muslims and Jews. Check out our list of the top things to see and do in Sarajevo.
Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque
Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque | Ⓒ Terekhova/Flickr
Built in 1532, the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque in Sarajevo’s old town is the largest historical mosque in the country, and is the centre of the city’s Islamic community. It is exemplary of the Ottoman architecture for which the city is well-known, and is open for tourists to look around. Outside is a beautiful open courtyard with a fountain for ceremonial washing, and the main entrance is decorated with intricate Islamic designs and patterns. It has a number of domes, which are a typical feature of Ottoman mosques rather than Middle-Eastern architectural designs. Although much of it was damaged during the civil war, in 1996 the reconstruction of the mosque began as a high priority, given its centrality to the culture of the city.
One of the most well-known events that took place in Sarajevo was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the event that sparked the outbreak of the First World War. The assassination took place just by the Latin Bridge, one of the oldest Ottoman bridges in the city that is thought to have been built sometime in the mid-16th century. The bridge itself is small, with three archways and a pointed peak at the centre. At the northern end of the bridge, where the assassination took place, is a plaque marking the event, which is rather understated; during the Yugoslavia era, however, the plaque was almost celebrated the event, due to the Serb elite’s support for the actions of the Bosnian-Serb assassin, Gavrilo Princip.
Part of Sarajevo’s most recent history is the tragic and bloody civil war that took place in the early 1990s. Sarajevo was one of the key battlegrounds between Serb and Bosniak forces, including a siege that lasted almost four years (longer than both the sieges of Leningrad and Stalingrad). The Kovači Memorial Cemetery is specifically for the Bosniaks that were lost during the siege while defending themselves from Serb aggressors, and consequently it is also known as the Martyr’s Cemetery. Also buried in the cemetery is the first president of independent Bosnia, Alija Izetbegović. Nearby is a hill (the ‘yellow fortress’) that overlooks the cemetery, which is a beautiful but also haunting place to watch the sunset over the city.
An integral part to the survival of the Bosniak residents of Sarajevo during the civil war was the Sarajevo Tunnel, which acted as a lifeline to get food, aid, resources, weapons and often people in and out of the city while it was under siege. It was constructed in May 1992 by the Bosnian army, while all routes in and out of the city were blocked of by attacking Serb forces, in order to link up with the UN-controlled area on the other side of the Serbs. Today, the entrance to the tunnel is a museum, and visitors can enter a small part of the tunnel to experience what it was like. The museum is not overdone and still maintains a sense of grittiness, which helps visitors to appreciate the tunnel for what it really was, rather than just making it a tourist attraction. Opening hours: 9.30-3.30 daily Tuneli 1, Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina
Given Sarajevo’s rich history, there are a number of museums each covering different aspects of its past. One of the best is the Jewish Museum, which is housed inside a 16th century synagogue. Although this synagogue is no longer in use as a place of worship, a new synagogue is located just next door. Sarajevo has an unusual history with regard to the Jewish people, since historically it was one of the few cities in Europe to welcome them gladly; the Jews arrived in the late 1400s to escape persecution in other parts of Europe, and went on to prosper as well as contribute greatly to the arts and culture of the region. The museum displays various historical exhibits from the city’s Jewish community, and so is a great introduction to one of the many facets of Sarajevo’s history.
Opening hours: Summer Mon-Fri 10am-8pm; Sat 10am-3pm; Winter Mon-Fri 10am-4pm; Sat 10am-3pm
While visiting Bosnia’s capital, one thing that cannot be missed is a plate of tasty ćevapi. Ćevapi is the national dish of Bosnia, and is essentially grilled minced beef in a sausage shape, inside a pitta or flatbread with onions and sauce. The sausages are usually small, so one portion is made up of several ćevapi. The dish dates from the Ottoman occupation of Bosnia, since it was a cheap and easy dish to make for rebels or outlaws. It is common in standard restaurants and is also a popular street food- perfect for a culinary taste of Bosnia.
Easily one of the most stunning examples of architecture from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Sarajevo is the town hall. Known locally at the Vjećnica, it was built in 1898 but underwent much recent refurbishment as it was a target for the Serbs during the war. During refurbishment each detail was copied from the exact original specification. Inside are intricate carvings and painted patterns, beautiful stained glass, as well as archways, windows and staircases featuring exquisite geometric detailing. The building is open to look around, and includes exhibitions about the war and a photo and art gallery.
Sarajevo’s Old Town is the most historic part of the city, featuring architecture dating from the 15th century. Just as it was in the 15th century, the area is a market and bazaar and today is the cultural centre of the city. Full of narrow cobbled streets, the shops are small and full of character – a mix between Eastern European and Turkish influence. One of its focal points is the main square with its iconic fountain at the centre, if visitors can make it through the hundreds of pigeons to get there. It is home to a great range of traditional restaurants, cafés and coffee houses, so a perfect area to stroll around and explore.
Walking around Sarajevo, it will be hard to miss the bullet holes and effects of shell blasts serving as reminders of the war. The civil war was quite recent, only ending in 1995, and the country is still working towards rebuilding its infrastructure. As a consequence, many buildings in Sarajevo have not been fully repaired, and scars of the war still remain; there are signs of gun shots on building walls and chunks of the street missing due to bomb blasts. ‘Sniper Alley’ was one of the most dangerous streets in the city during the war, since it was lined with snipers and as a wide boulevard there was little opportunity for shelter. The street today functions as a commercial street, but for visitors aware of its significance it has an eerie atmosphere.
One of Sarajevo’s more unusual attractions is the communist themed café, Caffe Tito. Tito’s long dictatorship is actually remembered in a positive light by many Bosnians – in fact, the instability and power vacuum caused by his death was one of the causes of the civil war. Tito managed to create a peaceful coexistence between Yugoslavia’s various communities and ethnicities. The café walls are lined with pictures of the man, and spread around the tables are newspaper reports documenting his life. For an unusual experience of Yugoslavian nostalgia, be sure to take a trip to Caffe Tito.