Banja Luka is Bosnia’s second largest city, after the capital Sarajevo. It is the regional capital of the primarily Serb-governed area of the country, and has undergone much reconstruction since the civil war of the 1990s – now it’s one of Bosnia’s most modern and up-and-coming cities.
A key feature of Banja Luka’s natural surroundings is the Vrbas river, a vibrant green river that flows through the heart of the city. The city straddles the banks of the river, which provides a relaxing zone to explore with picturesque natural beauty. The name ‘vrbas’ comes from the local name for ‘willow’, thanks to the number of willow trees that line the river banks and provide shade for peaceful walks alongside it. There is also a number of quiet cafés along the river, perfect for a coffee break away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre. Away from the city, the river also offers opportunities to kayak, canoe, and hike along the river basin.
Built in the 1920s as a palace for the local governor, Banski Dvor is now used as a cultural centre that hosts exhibitions, concerts, lectures and performances, as well as other cultural events. The building itself is sophisticated and grand, with many of the large rooms embracing classic 1920s neo-renaissance style, such as chandeliers and high ceilings. The building is open to explore, even when there are no current cultural events occurring.
This tourist-friendly museum covers the history of the Serb ethnic group in Bosnia as well as the larger Balkan region. Its exhibitions cover a long period of history, starting with archaeological discoveries up to the atrocities committed against Serbs by the regional fascist groups during the Second World War. However, those familiar with Bosnia’s recent history and ethnic conflict will notice that much of the key details surrounding the civil war are ignored, doubtless because the museum aims to cast Serbian history in a generally positive light, and it is important to treat the museum’s criticisms of Croatia with suspicion
Opening hours: 8 a.m.-8 p.m. daily
As one of Bosnia’ most modern and cosmopolitan cities, Banja Luka is an excellent place to indulge in some retail therapy. It is home to number of international brands, as well as regional chains, and the city benefits from a pedestrianised central commercial area. If a break from shopping is needed, the town centre is home to plenty of sophisticated cafés and lunch spots, which add to the city’s fashionable and up-and-coming vibe. Many of the largest retail outlets are found on the street Kralja Petra.
There has been a fortress of some kind on this spot since the Romans first constructed a building here, although there is evidence that suggests neolithic-era people also inhabited and fortified the area. The fortress is close to the centre of Banja Luka, and was an important military fortification as well as a strategic hub during the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman wars. Things to spot within the fortress include a Roman sarcophagus, ancient stone walls, and lovely views of the river from atop the fortifications.
A feature of the Vrbas River are the falls at Krupa, just a short way outside of the city. Found within a peaceful and shady forest area is a selection of small falls, which also feature a quaint wooden mill and a bridge overlooking the river. The perfect spot to escape the city and to be immersed in nature.