For the Intrepid Traveller: Some Essentials of Sarajevo

Read on to find travelling tips and highlights for a great cultural experience. Go backpacking around Europe and drop in on the Balkans to visit Sarajevo, Bosnia's multicultural capital city. Approach Bosnia with a respectful mind and you'll be amazed at the spark that lies beneath its sullen past. Here's an idea on where to stay and what to expect.

Travelling To Bosnia


To some, the thought of travelling to Bosnia (or Bosnia & Herzegovina as it's officially called) will seem a little odd. The public image of Bosnia is still somewhat tainted by the war that took place here in the 1990's. But like Vietnam, Bosnia has some of the right ingredients to transform itself in the minds of travellers from a war into a country – and one that's well worth visiting.

The first thing that might strike you upon arrival in Sarajevo – the capital city of Bosnia – is the fact that large portions of inhabitation remain in the mountains surrounding the city, and indeed that there are mountains at all. Let's not forget that Sarajevo was the city which hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics – it gets cold here.

Although you might well visit for the snow and the opportunities for skiing and snowboarding, Sarajevo has a charm which has flowered from a more ashen landscape; the bloodied fields of conflict, and it is in those tales of war that many a celebrity has sought out Sarajevo as a cultural highlight of Europe.

Staying In Sarajevo

Sarajevo Winter

One of the absolute best places to stay in Sarajevo is Haris Youth Hostel. A laid back, friendly and informative hostel where you're likely to make friends quite easily due to the emphasis on common areas inside its homely interior. But be warned: Haris Youth Hostel is a good ten minute walk up a very steep road! Sarajevo seems to rise up on all sides, so unless you're going to stay in the very epicentre, be prepared to stretch your legs to find it.

Once checked-in, the amiable owner, Haris (himself a former participant of the Bosnian war) will give you all the welcome you need. Pop down to his travel shop at the bottom of the hill and you'll have before you a knowledgeable guide who can point you in the direction of just about anywhere you may already have in mind. There is, however, one thing you must do: the Sarajevo war tour.

The Sarajevo War Tour

Sarajevo Winter War Memorials

In order to understand a nation's people and their current collective psyche, sometimes it is necessary to look into the hardships recently faced; the siege of Sarajevo by the former Yugoslav army was one of the most surprising events of the late 20th century. An Olympic city just a few years prior, Sarajevo became a death pit, with snipers hunting the city folk at every opportunity. For three years Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats and Muslim Bosniaks engaged in armed conflict over the breakup of Yugoslavia.

The war tour will take you around the key strategic areas of Sarajevo during the time of the war. And if you have a driver who served in the armed forces during that time, as we did, the picture painted will be all the more vivid. The driver, Nedim, was actually shot twice by Serb forces, and years later went on to work as an anaesthetist in the very same hospital in which he recovered from those bullet wounds.

Pock mark holes scar the city from mortar shells, grenade explosions and gun fire. Yet, from walking around, it is otherwise difficult to tell that anyone died here at all. The young people of the city are friendly, and although the elders are a little harder to crack, there is a wonderful sense of resiliency in the air; not to mention some of Europe's most delicious cake shops. Cakes are like bread here – it seems they're sold on every corner, and you must try them.

The mixture of Islam, Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Judaism and Christianity is a concoction quite hard to comprehend in such a small space. But it's here, from one road to the next. The architectural styles and places of worship are in juxtaposition together in a mishmash of cultural and religious beliefs. Once celebrated as a city of religious tolerance, that innocence came crumbling down during the years of conflict, and now the bullet-chipped walls and streets they lay within stand as a reminder of how the needle of ideological bigotry tattoos our humanity with very deep marks; deeper still in the eyes of those involved. Despite this, Sarajevo resonates with hopeful intensity.

Social Life

Sarajevo does serve up many positives away from the historic malaise. A respectful remembrance of days gone by is sufficient to then go on to enjoy the euphoria of the night in this attractive city. Clubs in Sarajevo retain a feel of friendliness from the young locals that attend them. Indeed, take a look around and all you'll see are stunning women out to enjoy the social life, most of whom are more than happy to sit and chat a while. Respectfulness plays a key role in knowing how to interact with anybody in Bosnia, so enjoy the attention to your accent and act graciously.

There is one more recommendation that must be seen for anyone visiting the great city of Sarajevo, and it comes in the form of a tiny rustic/boutique style café called Zlatna Ribica (The Goldfish). Walk through its decorative doors and you'll be amazed at how much absolute toot can look so stylish. Menus written on real books, biscuits served in seashells, this place is the epitome of the term ‘unique’. You will find the walls decorated with ornate mirrors and pictures that seem stolen from the past, housed in antique frames. Indoor water features, highly-stylised motifs, trinkets and décor embellish the inner walls of this establishment leaving you transfixed for several hours while sipping a glass of scotch, a cold beer or a Turkish coffee. There is none so quaint and fanciful as Zlatna Ribica – a characterful charm in a desert of bygone dysphoria.

Most of all, you may find Sarajevo's irresistible charm to be the twinkle in its eye, the acknowledgement of a stained past and the hope of better times. It's time to step out of the goldfish bowl.