Sarajevo is the largest city and the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is also a city of long and diverse history. The city of Sarajevo has played a significant role in some of the biggest events in Europe’s history. One of its most famous events is the one that triggered the World War I. Because of its cultural and religious diversity, Sarajevo is sometimes called the “Jerusalem of Europe”. It is considered a “place where East meets West”.
Why visit Sarajevo?
The story of Sarajevo dates way back. Ever since the Stone Age, people have inhabited this area. During the Roman rule, the Sarajevo valley was a part of the province of Dalmatia. At the time, both Romans and Illyrian tribes inhabited the valley. In the 7th century, first Slavic tribes have come to Bosnia and settled in this area. Slavs have converted to Christianity and started building churches. But the city of Sarajevo, as we know it today, was only founded in the 15th century, when the Ottoman rule began.
The Ottoman era lasted for more than 400 years. During that time, the city grew and became one of the most advanced cities in Europe. Sarajevo reached its peak in the 16th century. It was the biggest and most important Ottoman city in the Balkans, second after Istanbul. During the Ottoman era, many Christians that lived in the area converted to Islam. In the meantime, new Christian population appeared in the city, as well as the Orthodox. In the 16th century the Jews came, and thus has Sarajevo become the city of four religions. And it has preserved that identity to this day.
In 1878 the Austro-Hungarian Empire has taken the city of Sarajevo. The short period of Austro-Hungarian rule left a significant mark on the city. It was a period of westernization and architectural expansion. Many important buildings were built, and the tramway was introduced. The city expanded outside its historical borders, for the first time. The city’s development stopped in 1914 when the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand took place in Sarajevo. This event soon led to World War I, which brought the end to the Austria-Hungary. After the WWI, Sarajevo became part of Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
Following the end of World War II, the government changed. Bosnia and Herzegovina became part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Sarajevo became the capital of the Republic of Bosnia, one of the Yugoslav republics. During this period, Sarajevo developed into one of the main Balkan cities. It had a strong industry and a growing population. The peak of city’s growth was the year 1984 when Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympics. During the 1990’s war, Sarajevo was severely damaged. The long siege of Sarajevo ended in 1996. Only then Bosnia and Herzegovina finally became an independent country.
years of Ottoman rule
What to see in Sarajevo
Founded by the Ottomans in the 15th century, Sarajevo had all the characteristics of the Ottoman city. The city was divided into two zones. The central part was called čaršija – a commercial center, a zone where all the economic activities are carried out and where all the craft shops were located. It also included a mosque, sebil (water fountain), hamam (public bath), and other important buildings. The residential neighborhoods were called mahalas and they surrounded čaršija.
The main čaršija was called Baščaršija. Today, Sarajevo’s Baščaršija is the historical and cultural center of the city, located in the heart of the Old Town. Baščaršija lies on the northern bank of the Miljacka river. It’s a square from which narrow streets full of shops spread. Baščaršija is the major tourist attraction of Sarajevo. It houses the iconic Sebilj fountain, which can be seen on nearly every Sarajevo’s postcard. The square itself still has the same form and role it used to have centuries ago. It is also called the “Pigeon Square”, because of all the pigeons that spend their time here.
During the Ottoman rule, the city of Sarajevo has had over 100 mosques. Their number has decreased until this day, but there are several mosques that still attract both believers and tourists from all over the world. The oldest mosque in Sarajevo is the Emperor’s Mosque, built before the city itself was founded. Destroyed in the late 16th century, the mosque was rebuilt and made even bigger and more decorated. Side rooms were added near the end of the Ottoman period, in the 19th century, and thus the mosque has remained until today.
The other significant mosque is located in the heart of the Old Town, near the Baščaršija. It is the Gazi Husrev Beg Mosque, built by Gazi Husrev Beg itself in the 16th century. It is the largest and most representative historical mosque in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in the Balkans. It is a complexed object which included a maktab (Islamic primary school), a madrasa (Islamic secondary school), a bezistan (marketplace), and a hammam (public bath). The mosque has only one minaret, but Gazi Husrev Beg decided to build a clock tower next to it. Sarajevo’s Clock Tower (Sahat kula) is a rare example of a clock that shows lunar time. It means that the clock strikes midnight at the moment of sunset. There is a man who climbs the tower once a week to set the clock’s time manually, so that clock would always indicate the right time for prayer.
The city of four religions
Sarajevo’s Old Town includes various sacred objects. The majority are mosques, but there are also several churches and synagogues. One of the oldest sacred buildings in Sarajevo is the Old Orthodox Church. It was built in the 16th century when the Orthodox community inhabited Sarajevo. Due to the damage it suffered throughout the centuries, the church had to be rebuilt, but it kept its authentic appearance. Today it houses a museum with an enviable collection of icons and other historical items. Not far from the old church stands the Orthodox cathedral built in the 19th century. Today it is the biggest Orthodox Church in Sarajevo.
Just around the corner stands the Sacred Heart Cathedral, the main Catholic church in Sarajevo. The cathedral was built in 1889, during the Austro-Hungarian period. In 1997, after the war had ended, Pope John Paul II visited Sarajevo. Catholics of Sarajevo decided to honor that moment and have put a statue of the Pope in front of the cathedral.
The Jewish community was also present in the city since the Ottoman period. They have built the Old Synagogue in the 16th century and used it as a house of worship until World War II. At the beginning of Austro-Hungarian rule, many Jews arrived at Sarajevo. It was when the Ashkenazi Synagogue was built on the bank of the river Miljacka. During the WWII Jewish community of Sarajevo suffered great losses and hasn’t recovered ever since. Today, the Ashkenazi Synagogue remains the only active temple in the city, while the Old Synagogue serves as a Jewish museum.
Sarajevo Meeting of Cultures
There is a sign on the pavement of Ferhadija Street that says: Sarajevo Meeting of Cultures. The sign is located at the border of the Old Town and symbolizes a meeting point of diverse cultural and historical periods that have shaped the city of Sarajevo. These are, of course, the Ottoman period and the Austro-Hungarian period. Both figurately and geographically, it is a place where East meets West. It is also a popular spot to take a photo since the perspective changes whether you are facing West of East.
At the other end of Ferhadija Street, you will find a memorial to all the victims of World War II. The Eternal Flame Memorial was placed here on the first anniversary of the liberation of Sarajevo, in 1946. There is a text on a wall in blue, white and red – the colors of the former Yugoslavian flag. In front of it, there is an open flame that is always burning. The text on the wall expresses gratitude to the army combined of Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian brigades that defended their city.
The so-called Roses are a specific type of war memorial that can be found in different locations around Sarajevo. The Roses are in fact holes in the sidewalks and roads, made by the grenades during the siege of Sarajevo in the ‘90s. After the war, the holes were filled with red resin to symbolize the blood and the lives lost on each spot. Because of the red color, the marks look like roses and so they got the name.
Latin Bridge is an old Ottoman bridge erected over the river Miljacka in the 16th century. The bridge turned famous in 1914 when it became the site of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie. This event soon led to the World War I. The exact spot of the assassination is still marked on the nearby building with a memorial plaque.
At Mejdan Park
At Mejdan is a park located by the river, right next to the Latin Bridge. The park has changed its appearance and its function several times over the years. In translation, “At Mejdan” means “The Horse Square”. It is the function it had during the Ottoman Era. Before that, it was a place where public punishments were carried out. Later, it was a place where Islamic religious center stood. Today, however, it is a nice green area that houses a mosque, an archeological site, and a music pavilion.
Sarajevo City Hall is the city’s most iconic building. Built in 1896, it is considered to be the most beautiful Austro-Hungarian legacy in Sarajevo. It is a triangular building with a typical striped façade, decorated with Moorish elements. Once a seat of the city’s government, the building was later used as National and University Library. During the 1990’s war, the building, together with a valuable collection of books, was set on fire. The reconstruction started after the war but finished only in 2014, when City Hall opened to the public again. Today, the building houses the national and university libraries, the city council, and a museum.
Academy of Fine Arts
Another beautiful building of the Austro-Hungarian era is the building of the Academy of Fine Arts. Situated on a riverbank, it was first built in 1899. At the time, the building served as an Evangelistic Church. After all, many Evangelicals inhabited Sarajevo during this period. Later, the church who lost its original function was renovated and reopened as Academy of Fine Arts. In 2012, the new modern bridge was built to connect two embarkments of the river Miljacka. The bridge is a design of several Academy’s students and got the name Festina Lente.
Alifakovac is an old Ottoman cemetery built in the 15th century on the southern bank of the Miljacka river, not far from the Baščaršija. It is one of the oldest and most beautiful Muslim cemeteries in the country. Here you can take a stroll in silence and admire the peace of this place. You will also have an opportunity to see centuries-old tombstones written in the Arabic language. There is another Muslim cemetery called Kovači, which is the oldest cemetery in Sarajevo. The Kovači Cemetery lies close to the Yellow Bastion.
To get the best panoramic view of Sarajevo climb to the Yellow Bastion. It is one of the fortresses of Vratnik Walled City. Vratnik is one of the oldest Sarajevo neighborhoods, founded by the Ottomans in the 16th century. In the 18th century, the neighborhood was fortified and thus became known as the Walled City. A major part of the city walls was preserved, as well as city gates and fortresses. Yellow Bastion is a favorite place of many tourists and locals. It offers a wonderful view and an escape from the crowd of the Old Town.
Is Sarajevo safe?
Because of the recent war that has caused severe damage in the city, many people still wonder if Sarajevo is safe to visit. But you have nothing to worry about, Sarajevo is completely safe. The city has recovered from the war, and each year more and more tourists visit it. Only by coming here you will get to know the positive vibe of Sarajevo and its residents. Both of who will win you over with their charm, easy-going lifestyle, and great food.
What to do in Sarajevo
Visit Sarajevo museums
The history of Bosnia and Herzegovina is interesting in every way. Because of the Ottoman influence, it differs from that of the neighboring countries. Visit one of the city’s museums and find out more about Sarajevo and Bosnia.
The Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina covers the country’s entire history, from ancient times to the present day. But there are many more museums that specialize in a specific period of history. If you are interested in Ottoman culture, visit the Brusa Bezistan or Svrzo’s House. Both institutions hold valuable artifacts from the Ottoman period and show what life was like for the people of Sarajevo.
Sarajevo Museum 1878–1918 represents the period of the Austro-Hungarian rule in the city. It gives a special focus on the 1914 assassination. The following period is covered in the City Hall Museum, representing the last century of Sarajevo’s history. The more recent history is represented in several museums and institutions. These are the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide 1992 – 1995, War Childhood Museum, and the Tunnel of Hope. All three cover the events of the 1990’s war and the siege of Sarajevo.
Another interesting place to visit is the Sarajevo Brewery Museum. It is the only European brewery with continuous production since the Ottoman Empire. As such, it offers a different perspective of major events in the city.
Listen to local music – Sevdalinka
Sevdalinka (or Sevdah) is a traditional Bosnian folk song. It represents a unique musical expression that can be compared with that of Portuguese fado music. Sevdalinka is a melancholic song that expresses love and longing. It dates back to the Ottoman era. The songs were created and passed on from generation to generation and are still popular today. If you want to learn more about this specific musical style visit the House of Sevdah. It’s an art museum located in Baščaršija, in a lovely old building.
Taste Bosnian coffee
Walking around Baščaršija, you will notice that there are many cafés located in the city’s center. Bosnian people love to take a good coffee and it is said that theirs is the best coffee in the region. Bosnians have a specific way of making coffee, but what is more intriguing is the way they drink it.
Coffee is always served on a copper tray in džezva (coffee pot) and fildžan (cup). It is also mandatory to serve sugar cubes, a glass of water, and Rahat Lokum (a.k.a. Turkish Delight). First, you take a sugar cube, dip it in coffee, take a bite, and finally take a sip of coffee itself. This way you will get the most of its rich flavor. Next, you can take a bite of Rahat Lokum. But remember to wash away its flavor with water before taking another sip of coffee.
Buy a souvenir
Ever since the Ottoman era Bosnians were skillful craftsmen. The most popular souvenir, that you will also be able to use, is a traditional copper coffee set. Above we have described the right way of drinking coffee so why not buy the proper copperware and try it yourself.
Another popular souvenir is the war memorabilia. Many shops sell pens, jewelry, and other useful items made from recycled bullets. You can also find items like helmets, knives, and badges. If you prefer buying everyday items, we recommend handmade Bosnian slippers or a traditional Bosnian rug.
Sarajevo Film Festival
The Sarajevo Film Festival is the most famous annual event held in Sarajevo. It was first held in 1995, during the siege of Sarajevo. Surprisingly, over 15.000 people from all over the world attended the festival. Over the years it developed into one of the most prominent film festivals in Europe. The festival is held every year in August at several different locations in Sarajevo.
How to get to Sarajevo
How to get to Sarajevo from Mostar
You will need about 2h30 to get from Mostar to Sarajevo by car. The easiest way is to get on M17/E73 and then take A1 at toll station Tarčin. Continue on A1 all the way to Sarajevo, following directions. After taking the exit, continue and follow the directions for the city center.
How to get to Sarajevo from Zagreb
To get to Sarajevo from Zagreb you will need approximately 6 hours. First, take the road E71/A3 to Slavonski Brod. Take the exit Slavonski Brod – Zapad. After passing the toll station, continue on D53 until you reach the border. On this road, you will already see directions for Sarajevo. After passing the border, continue on the state road all the way to Zenica. Next, take A1 and follow the directions all the way to Sarajevo.
How to get to Sarajevo from Split
The ride from Split to Sarajevo takes about 4 hours. First take the state road D1, direction Sinj. Take the exit Zagreb/Rijeka/Dugopolje. On the first roundabout take the first exit and, on the second one, take the second exit for Dugopolje. Next, continue on D62 following directions for Kamensko. After you pass the border at Kamensko, follow the road to Tomislavgrad. Take the turn for Sarajevo and continue on the regional road until you reach the city.
How to get to Sarajevo from Dubrovnik
To reach Sarajevo from Dubrovnik, you’ll need approximately 4h30. After leaving Dubrovnik, take the state road D8 all the way to Opuzen. Next, take the right exit for Sarajevo/Mostar and continue to the border crossing Metković. After passing the border, continue on the M17 following the signs for Mostar. After passing Mostar, continue on E73/M17 direction Sarajevo.
Sarajevo airport is located only 20 minutes by car from the city center. There is also a bus that departures every hour from Baščaršija to the airport (and vice versa). The ticket costs 2,5 euro and includes one piece of luggage.
Where to eat in Sarajevo
Bosnian cuisine is very popular in the entire region. The traditional Bosnian cuisine is a blend of Turkish and Balkan influences. This results in a variety of interesting and tasty meals. Some of the specialties have spread across all the region, such as ćevapi (grilled dish of minced meat). But you will still find the best ones in Bosnia. There are many restaurants located on Baščaršija square that offer cheap but delicious ćevapi. Traditionally, ćevapi come with somun (a specific type of bread) and chopped onions. Another national dish you can try is dolma, a vegetable stuffed with either meat or rice. A similar dish is japrak, minced meat wrapped in leaves.
If you want to grab something on the way, go with burek. It’s a meat-filled pastry, rolled in a spiral, usually served with yogurt. The meat can be replaced with cheese, potato, or cabbage. This might not be typical street food, but it sure pays off to try it. If you prefer sweets, try baklava – sweet pastry filled with chopped nuts, topped with syrup.
There is a restaurant near the Miljacka river called Inat Kuća (“Spite House”) that offers all that and much more! The restaurant is centrally located, right across the City Hall. It only serves traditional Bosnian dishes. And while you eat, you’ll have a chance to listen to authentic Bosnian music – Sevdah. Apart from being a great place to eat, Inat kuća had a big role in Sarajevo’s history! Book a table and find out more about this unique place!
For those that want a real local experience, we recommend visiting Markale Market. It is the main city market, situated in the historical center of Sarajevo. Here you can buy the best local products at a fair price!
What to visit near Sarajevo
The spring of the Bosna river is a natural monument situated only 10km from Sarajevo. It’s a calm area with several lakes and benches to rest on. There is also a restaurant and a playground for children. It’s an ideal location to escape the crowd and noise of the city. Take a walk in the shadow of the trees, feed the swans, and try a local specialty – roasted trout.
If you are short on time but would still like to make a little trip outside the city, we recommend Trebević Mountain. The mountain is connected with the Old Town by a cable car. The ride takes only 10 minutes and offers a lovely panoramic view of Sarajevo. The tourist complex includes a restaurant, housing area, a pond, walking and bike trails.
Jahorina Olympic Center
Jahorina Olympic Center is a favorite winter destination for many residents of Sarajevo. Although Jahorina is primarily a ski center, it also offers all kind of activities that you can try in summer months. There is a panoramic cable car ride, which will allow you a different experience of the mountain. The place is also perfect for a family day trip – there is a tubing area for kids and x-racer (mountain karting).
At only 40 minutes by car from Sarajevo you will encounter the Skakavac waterfall. With its 98 meters of height, this waterfall is one of the tallest and most beautiful ones in the country. Because of the height, water spreads in many smaller waterfalls, making a lot of water dust, which makes it even more beautiful. You can access the waterfall both from the above or from the bottom, depending on which path you take.