Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina is one of the most complex and beautiful cities in the Balkans. I’ve been all over the Balkans (literally I have been to every country in the Balkans) and few places offer the combination of history, historical beauty, and modern significance that Sarajevo offers. Sarajevo has perhaps the most traumatic and destructive history of any European city in modern times as it was the epicenter of the Bosnian War of the 1990s.
I spent three full days in Sarajevo soaking in the culture, history, and food after an equally amazing trip to the southern capital of Mostar. I will talk about the food in great detail later but I can safely say that the best Balkan food you can find is in Sarajevo and Bosnia in general. You will not find better cevapi or burek than you will find in Sarajevo.
Just to prove I’m not lying, make sure to read my other posts about the countries in the Balkans!
- Two week Balkans itinerary: Serbia, Croatia and Montenegro
- Montenegro Coast Road Trip
- Albania and Kosovo
- N. Macedonia
- North Greece
History of Sarajevo
Sarajevo as we know it today was founded by the Ottoman Empire during the time they conquered and controlled the Balkans. The city was designed in the traditional Ottoman style with numerous Mosques, a traditional market square, a bazaar, and more.
The people of this area also converted to Islam during the Ottoman empire which gave rise to the Bosnian identity. As the Ottoman empire was collapsing in the late 19th century and nearby Serbia staked its independence, Sarajevo sought to do the same. Eventually, they came under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1878.
During the next few decades, rapid industrialization and architectural changes took place. Many of Sarajevo’s iconic gothic style architecture was designed in these decades and many of these were built directly aside the Ottoman old town offering a beautiful contrast of East and West.
After WW1, Sarajevo became a part of Yugoslavia and saw rapid growth for the next decades with countless Communist style buildings going up in and around the old city. Communist style architecture isn’t much to write home about so I will just keep it there.
Sarajevo was known as the Jerusalem of Europe
Sarajevo was aptly named the Jerusalem of Europe prior to the Bosnian War of the 1990s. Sarajevo during the era of Yugoslavia was known as the true melting pot of Europe with all religions represented. Muslims, Catholic, Orthodox, and Jews all lived in the same city in peace. Even the demographic split between Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox was pretty even.
As you walk through the city, you’ll see the three main religions of the Balkans beautifully represented by imposing churches and mosques. For the Catholic Croatian side of Bosnia, you had the Sacred Heart Cathedral, a large Gothic era cathedral that still stands proud today. For Orthodox, you have the Cathedral Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos which is the second largest Orthodox church in the Balkans. For Islam, you have numerous mosques all over the city including the most famous Gazi Husrev-beg MOsque in the old town.
I’ve been all over Europe and it’s hard, if not impossible to find another city that displays all three religions in such a grandiose fashion. Sadly, after the war, the population of Croats and Serbs decreased significantly as demographics were re-aligned along ethnic lines.
Best time to visit Sarajevo
Sarajevo is a typical European destination which means the best weather is between May and October. The winter months from November to April can be quite cold as it is surrounded by mountains so make sure to dress accordingly. As well, the mountains also ensure the city doesn’t completely bake in the summer heat which is nice.
If you’re visiting other parts of the Balkans like neighboring Serbia, Croatia, or Montenegro, make sure to account for the weather in those areas as well. The peak tourist months of July and August means places like Dubrovnik will be packed fuller than a Disneyland theme park.
Sarajevo is still relatively off the beaten path as far as European destinations go. Tourism has definitely increased in recent years and it has especially become popular with Middle Eastern tourists. However, even while visiting in August, it didn’t feel overwhelming as other European capitals I’ve visited.
How to get around Sarajevo
The city of Sarajevo is built in a valley surrounded by mountains. It closely follows the Miljacka River, meaning its shape is long and spread out. From the town’s city center, the newer residential parts of Sarajevo stretch for many kilometers westward towards the airport. As a tourist, you’ll likely never visit these areas since there isn’t much to see so most of your time will be in the Old Town.
The old town of Sarajevo is small and you can walk from one end to the other in 20 minutes so you don’t need to familiarize yourself with the trains.
Sarajevo Airport to the city center
From the airport, your main options are the bus and a taxi. The Sarajevo city bus costs 5 KM and takes about 45 minutes to reach the city center. Taxis are available outside the airport and are metered. A ride into the old town will be roughly 20 KM. Payment has to be in cash.
There are also many train and bus connections between Sarajevo and its major southern city of Mostar. In addition, Sarajevo to Belgrade is a popular bus route.
Where to stay in Sarajevo
Because of Sarajevo’s size and city layout, you really don’t need to research much about where to stay and where the best neighborhoods are. It is abundantly clear, stay near the old town. If you are confused, just look at a map of Sarajevo and simply stay in and around the yellow shaded area which denotes the old town.
Staying south of the river is also an option but don’t venture too far out as there really isn’t much going on outside of the old town.
Accommodation is very cheap in Sarajevo in comparison to places like neighboring Croatia. You can expect to find Airbnbs for well under $100 a night even in the summer months. The week or two surrounding the Sarajevo Film festival will see elevated prices but even then it is not that much more.
One of the best and most central places to stay is at the Hotel Europe, a five star luxury hotel located right in the heart of the old city between the Ottoman old city and the Austro-Hungarian old city.
What to do and see in Sarajevo
Sarajevo is a small city but packs a surprising amount of things to see. I didn’t even get a chance to do everything but here are some of the top sights to visit in the Bosnian capital.
Have a shisha in the city square
I love a good shisha and being in an Ottoman style old town means you have plenty of options at night. There is a small square just adjacent to the main square where there are plenty of cafes and shisha lounges. At night, you’ll see all the young locals coming here for their nightly shishas.
Make sure to visit Damask for the best shishas at night between 8pm and midnight. Prices are very reasonable and shishas are amazing. There are numerous other spots in the square offering shishas and drinks.
Sarajevo has many things to see but it’s most iconic monument is the Sebilj. This wooden fountain sits in the middle of the Old Town square and it is definitely one of its most photographed landmarks. It was built in 1753 during the Ottoman empire, providing fresh water to its citizens. One of Sarajevo’s most iconic photos is taken of this monument with the mosque and mountains in the background.
This square is also known as Pigeon square as giant swarms of pigeons congregate behind the Sebilj for people to feed. Whoever thought this was a good idea is beyond me. It’s almost as disgusting as the people that kept feeding the seagulls in front of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. If you have a fear of pigeons, you’ll want to avoid this square completely!
Contrast between old town and city center
Sarajevo offers one of the most unique contrasts of any city in Europe. The Old City (Stari Grad) is the area east of the Ferhadija street which showcases Ottoman architecture and the city from hundreds of years ago. Everything west of Ferhadija street is the newer part of town which was built after the 1880s when the city was handed to the Austro Hungarian empire.
There is a plaque on the ground of this street marking the “meeting of cultures” which firmly divides the city between east and west.
Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque
The Gazi Husrev mosque is the largest mosque in all of Bosnia. This beautiful structure holds significant importance in the Islamic community of Bosnia. The inside is beautifully designed and is open to the public. Islam in Bosnia is probably one of the most liberal interpretations in the world. Most people in the country are not super religious and you can see it just by the way people dress and the amount of rakija consumed.
Nearby, there is also a giant watchtower with a clock that does not tell the time that you’re used to but rather is pegged to lunar time and specifically the hour of sunset.
Miljacka Riverfront and Latin Bridge
The Miljacka river runs through the city of Sarajevo and is adorned with numerous small bridges that connect the two halves of the city. The most famous bridge is by far the Latin Bridge.
This bridge was the site where Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by Serbian extremists in 1914. This would of course trigger the events that led to World War I, the largest conflict the world had seen up to that point.
On the northern end of the bridge, you’ll find a mural and plaque that marks the spot of the assassination. You’ll even find two footsteps embossed in the ground that shows exactly where Gavrilo Princip, the assassinator stood while firing the gun.
It’s impossible to avoid the legacy of the war and no one in Sarajevo is trying to. You’ll find bullet holes all over the buildings ranging from apartment buildings, to commercial buildings, to hospitals, and even in the old town. There are scars of the war everywhere you go.
You’ll also find patches all over the city that were previously mortar damage that has now been filled in with red colored resin. These aptly named “Sarajevo Roses” mark spots where lives were taken during the war. You’ll find them all over the city as you walk around which serves as a grim reminder of how harrowing life was 30 years ago but also how far the city has come since.
Sarajevo Genocide Museum
The Sarajevo Genocide Museum is a must visit for travelers visiting the Balkans. It is a small museum dedicated to the plights and suffering endured by millions during the Bosnian war between 1992 and 1995. Sarajevo suffered large casualties and was under siege for three years but the worst atrocities were committed outside of the capital city. While the capital city had some form of defense against invaders, the small villages around Bosnia did not.
The museum has many images, interviews, and even diary entries from people that lost their lives to the massacres committed in the 1990s by the hands of the Serbs. I’m not going to lie, it was very tough to read some of the things at the museum but that is the whole purpose. It reminds me of my visit to the Rwandan genocide museum which shockingly enough, occurred at the same time as the Bosnian War. The parallels between the two genocides is especially extreme as it was essentially two groups of people that for all intents and purposes were the same people but due to ultra nationalist rhetoric, atrocities were committed.
The craziest thing to me about this whole conflict is that young Serbians don’t learn about these genocides in the same light that young Germans learn about World War II. In Germany, there is no denial or any sort of filtering given to WW2. Germans know they did unspeakable things and know 100% they were the bad guys. In Serbia, there are still schools of thought that deny what was done in the 1990s, as if there was another side to the story.
Trebević Cable Car
One of the best things to do in Sarajevo on a clear sunny day is to take the city’s cable car. Built in 1958, this cable car system connected the city center with the mountain Trebevic. Over the years, it’s seen numerous repairs and shut downs before finally reopening to the masses in 2018.
The ride is 8 minutes and takes you 1.2km above sea level to fantastic views of the city and surrounding landscape.
Free Walking Tour of Sarajevo
The free walking tour of Sarajevo is a must do. The tour walks around the old Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian parts of town and is a great way to learn about the city. There are tours that leave daily at 10:30am and 3pm from the Stari Grad.
The tour visits all of the big highlights of Sarajevo including the Ottoman old town, the Latin bridge, the Vijecnica, Caravanserai, and much more.
The Vijećnica is that beautiful Neo-Moorish building in front of the river at the edge of the old town. It was once a city hall before coming a large library after WWII filled with rare books and documents. During the war, it suffered extensive and deliberate damage from the Serbian shelling and countless books were destroyed.
Nowadays, it has mostly been restored to its former glory and you can enter the building for a visit of the old library.
Old Bezistan Covered Market
In the old Ottoman town of Sarajevo, the most famous market is the covered market of Bezistan. This is similar to the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul but just at a fraction of the size. While metalworkers and jewelers operated outdoors, those who made and sold textiles called this indoor market home for centuries. You can walk through the beautiful stone structure and buy any souvenirs that suit your fancy.
Off along the outside of the Bezistan Covered Market, you’ll find the open air ruins of the Tašlihan. I thought these were Roman ruins at first but they were built in the 16th century but only ruins remain in the modern times.
Have a drink at S One Sky Lounge
For the best views of Sarajevo with a drink, make sure to visit the S One Sky Lounge. This trendy lounge offers beautiful views of the old town and is perfect for a quick drink before dinner on a sunny day. Drinks here are expensive in comparison to other bars but it’s expected as you’re also paying for the view!
Collapse of Yugoslavia Day tour
Shortly after the walking tour, I decided to join their afternoon private guided tour covering the fall of Yugoslavia and the war in Bosnia. As you’ll quickly learn, Sarajevo was the epicenter of the fight during the Yugoslavian war of the 1990s and the city was under constant siege for three years. As the city is surrounded by mountains, it was a very easy city to lay siege to as the Serbian military could easily set up shop on the mountains and rain down mortars and bullets from above.
It’s estimated there was 400,000+ bullets that came down on Sarajevo in those three years.
This tour was fantastic. Our guide was a local millennial Bosnian that lived through the war as a child and told stories of their daily struggles and what life was like in those times. The tour also talked about the history of Yugoslavia and why the conflict became what it ultimately was. I had already learned a lot about this conflict from my previous travels through the Balkans but learned even more during this trip.
One of the main causes for the atrocities committed in Bosnia was the arms embargo that was inflicted on all of Yugoslavia which wasn’t lifted when the war started. Serbians controlled the remnants of the Yugoslavian army so they had plenty of weapons but Bosnia had no way of obtaining any weapons from the outside.
The tour drove around Sarajevo to various points of interest showing what life was like during those few years. Sniper Alley was one of these areas that is now a main commercial street. During those three years, sniper alley was an extremely dangerous street that was monitored by Serbian snipers ready to shoot anyone crossing. Civilians would have to sprint across these streets or bike as fast as possible during those times.
Tunnels of Sarajevo
The tunnels of Sarajevo are a must visit for any visitor to the city. Located near to the airport, this impromptu tunnel was created during the war as a way to smuggle goods in and out of the city without the detection of the Serbians. This 800m long and 1.6m high tunnel was a lifeline to the city as literally there was no other way of obtaining basic supplies.
You can actually walk through the tunnel for a few meters retracing the steps of those that had to live through the carnage.
Best Cevapi in Sarajevo
Cevapi, or Cevapcici, is the most popular food of the Balkans. It is at the heart of every Balkan person to eat and love cevapi. I’m not Balkan but I can safely say I’ve eaten my way through all the different cevapi variations in each country. Every country has their version but none compare to the cevapi in Bosnia, and particularly Sarajevo.
This delicious meal of ground beef served in a delicious lepinja bread with onion and kajmak is one of the must try dishes in Sarajevo.
There are countless cevapi restaurants in Sarajevo and every resident has their favorite. Ask one person and you’ll get a completely different answer than someone else. These are fighting words after all.
I sampled numerous cevapi restaurants in Sarajevo and the best cevapi I had was at Cevabdzinica Zeljo. The secret to an amazing cevapi is delicious meat that has the flavor of the charcoal grill, bread that is soft but crispy, and kajmak that is rich but not super buttery.
Zeljo had the best of all of these and it was overall my favorite. The other also very respectable options are Fertahovic, Nune, and Cevabdzinica Specjial. You won’t go wrong at any of these places! Just keep in mind that a good cevapi shop does not serve alcohol because they don’t need the extra income. The menus are quite basic and you’re here just for a few simple things. If you find a restaurant serving cevapi with beer, avoid it as they are not making their own fresh cevapi.
Best Burek in Sarajevo
Burek is a way of life in the Balkans. This delicious pastry stuffed with meat, cheese, potatoes, or spinach is one of the most famous dishes you can have in the region. I’ve had Burek everywhere and I can safely say that Sarajevo has the best burek in the world. It’s even better than the burek I had in Istanbul or the ones I had in Kosovo.
The Bosnian style of Burek is unique in that it is cooked in a sac; which is a traditional round pan that is covered with piles of charcoal. Bosnian burek is also famous in that the outer crust of the burek is remarkably soft yet crunch, and is filled with toppings without falling apart.
A visit to Sarajevo without a visit to one of the many buregdzinicas is not a complete trip. The best burek in Sarajevo are at Buregdzinica Bosna and Buregdzinica Sac. Burek is a popular breakfast dish but is eaten all throughout the day. It is traditionally served with kajmak, the Bosnian version of sour cream.
Drink Bosnian Coffee and Eat Baklava
Bosnian coffee is a must try when visiting Sarajevo. It’s essentially the same thing as Turkish coffee but people drink it here like there’s no tomorrow. You’ll see locals hanging out at the countless cafes in the old town sipping on their coffees for hours. The best place to try this is at Cafe Divan located inside the Caravan Saray – Morica Han. This traditional style cafe was once a caravan house that housed travelers and traders from all over the world.
Nowadays, Cafe Divan is a traditional coffee house that serves tourists and locals alike. The wooden interior and abundance of trees inside the courtyard makes everything feel a few degrees warmer than on the main street.
Eat delicious Balkava at Cafe Jasmin
I’m not a big sweets person but I absolutely love Baklava. This Turkish desert is famous all over the Middle East. Since the Balkans were a part of the Ottoman empire, these countries also have a storied history of producing and consuming Baklava. While traditional Turkish baklava is made with Pistachio, Bosnian baklava is made with walnuts were are most abundantly available in the country.
You’ll find baklava literally on ever street corner but for the best, make sure to visit Cafe Jasmin or Baklava Ducan in the old city. Expect to pay 2-3 KM per piece and I would only recommend to eat 1 piece at a time as they are super rich.
Two Day Itinerary of Sarajevo
Sarajevo is not a big city and you don’t really need more than two days to see the whole city. I spent more time in this city because my partner had roots in this city and I could spend a lifetime eating burek.
Nevertheless, if you have two days in Sarajevo, this is how I would plan the trip.
Day 1 in Sarajevo
9:00am: Get an early start to the day by having breakfast at one of the many burek shops in the city. Burek is a way of life in the Balkans and you’ll find it all over the place but nothing beats the burek of Bosnia (not even being biased here). Go to Buregdzinica Bosna for the best burek you can get. There are multiple types of burek but the most popular are with meat. Get a side of Kajmak with it as well and you’ll be in heaven. Move over French croissants, this is probably one of the most savory and delicious breakfasts you’ll ever have.
10:00am: Walk towards the Sarajevo Sebilj for one of the most iconic views of the city. The city square should be bustling by now so it’s a great time to get a feel of the old city. Walk through the narrow streets and look at the crafts and goods for sale.
10:30 – 12:30: Join the free walking tour which explores a lot of the old town of Sarajevo. This is a great way to get acclimated to the city and get the historical perspective from a local.
12:30 – 13:30: Time for food again. Eat a cevapi at one of the countless cevapi restaurants in town. My favorites are Zeljo and Fertahovic but you can’t go wrong with either option. 10 pieces of cevapi will be enough for a hungry dude.
14:00 – 16:00: Head to the Caravanserai at Morica Han to enjoy an afternoon Bosnian coffee with baklava. Lounge here and explore the old town afterwards to your desire.
18:30: Have a drink at the beautiful S One Sky Bar while soaking in the views of Sarajevo and the nearby mountains.
20:00 – Dinner out on the town followed by a shisha session in the old town
Day 2 in Sarajevo
9:00: No day is compete without burek so just like the day before, visit your favorite burek shop to eat the best burek in the Balkans.
10:30 – 14:00: Go on the guided Fall of Yugoslavia tour. This tour will drive you around the city visiting the most iconic spots dedicated to the war in Sarajevo including the tunnels, sniper alley, and more.
14:00 – 15:00: Time for lunch which is just more cevapi in my books. Don’t really need to get much else besides your daily meat coma.
15:00: Visit the Sarajevo Genocide Museum dedicated to the lives lost and the mass suffering of the Bosnian people during the wars.
16:00: Take the Trebevic cable car to the top of the mountain for stunning views of the city.
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