Sarajevo is the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and apart from the siege, the assassination, and the Winter Olympics, I didn’t know much about the city. For my generation, the name Sarajevo is probably as synonymous with conflict as Saigon is for a Boomer.
I visited Sarajevo without researching what to see so I could keep an element of surprise. If I had to name a landmark of the city I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. Sarajevo is still not a big tourist destination, even in Europe where most low-cost airlines have flights to practically every airport. After spending some time wandering around Sarajevo I couldn’t help but think that this will become a city break hotspot in the future. In fact, I was wondering why it wasn’t already, so I looked up the airport details. The likes of easyJet and Ryanair aren’t here yet, but it turns out that Wizz Air established a Sarajevo base with nine routes this year, including London Luton.
[New Sarajevo base for Wizz Air.]
Like most of my blog posts, I like to give an on-the-ground view of what the city looks like, rather than listing the “top 10 things to do”. And I also had every intention of not mentioning the war.
Being based in Vietnam for so long I see how often the war is mentioned in news stories. I see Vietnam Twitter collectively groan whenever an international news agency or major travel site begins a Vietnam article with “It was x years since the Vietnam War.”
At the time of this post, it’s been over 46 years since the end of the war in Vietnam. It’s also been over 76 years since the end of WWII. That’s long enough to not need to invoke its wartime history.
Having said that, It’s been nearly 26 years since the end of the Bosnian War. This was one of the wars during the breakup of Yugoslavia that filled the Nineties news cycle while the world looked on.
I thought that was long enough to move on, but as I was to find out, the city is still recovering. At this point, there seems to be no way to not mention the war. And this is also the Balkans, where old grudges still simmer, so we may not be out of the woods yet regarding trouble in this region. I’m just a wayward traveller though, so these topics are beyond what I can cover in a short post about travel.
I arrived at the main railway station of Sarajevo via a train from Mostar. I always like walking from the station to the city centre to get a feel for the place. Stepping outside the station, I was immediately impressed with the Avaz Twist Tower. I later found out that is the tallest building in the Western Balkans.
Opposite the station is the enormous US Embassy compound. This is larger than what would be reasonable for a country with just over 3 million people. Modern US Embassies are built like they are ready for a siege, and the sheer size of the complex suggests that the country has had a troubled history.
Opposite the US Embassy is the History Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The front of the building shows images of the siege years.
The embassy is on a wide road that runs through the city. This road felt vaguely familiar to me, though it might be that it looks like many roads of post-war Eastern Europe. While I didn’t know its official name (Zmaja od Bosne Road), in the war this was the road known as Sniper Alley.
On this road is Hotel Holiday, formerly known as the Holiday Inn. This hotel was a prominent landmark in the war. Like the Caravelle Hotel in Saigon, the Holiday Inn became the base for journalists covering the war. Even though it has been rebranded and restored, it has still kept its distinctive colour palette.
Another famous landmark is the former Executive Council Building. This building made world news in 1992 when it was shelled during the Seige of Sarajevo. It’s now known as the Greece–Bosnia and Herzegovina Friendship Building,
So much for my plan to not mention the war. I had arrived early and I had a few hours to kill before checking in, so I got my first taste of modern Sarajevo at the Sarajevo City Center.
I had a coffee and checked my emails, and I was impressed with the busy cafe scene here. I liked the buzz of so many people sitting around drinking coffee (and smoking, Oh My God the smoking). If this was all that Sarajevo was I would have been content to be wandering around a new city with these East Berlin vibes.
With no pre-research, I truly didn’t know what to expect next. After having a coffee at the modern shopping mall, my travel expectations were about to be blown.
From this point on the city gets older and feels more like an old European capital city, with big apartments and grand public buildings.
Sarajevo has a population of about 340,000 people, so it’s not big enough for any kind of metro. It does have one of the oldest tramlines in Europe. The building in this photo includes the Eternal flame, which is a memorial to the military and civilian victims of World War II.
It’s debatable how long it should be before the Bosnian War isn’t mentioned in Sarajevo stories, yet here I am mentioning WWII. So what about The Great War? It would be weird to come here and not mention that the catalyst of WWI was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg.
The assassination site is near the Latin Bridge, and from this view, you can see how grand the city must have been 100 years ago.
The building next to the assassination site is a museum dedicated to that momentous event in 20th-century history.
I didn’t go to that museum, or any of the modern war and genocide museums while I was there. I was feeling bummed-out enough from the pandemic, and the genocide is still recent history.
The city was already telling the stories of its history through its architecture, and there are memorials of some kind around the city.
The population of Sarajevo is almost evenly split between Muslim and Christian, with the most impressive churches being built in the area built during the Austro-Hungarian era.
Within the old city area is BBI Centar. This modern shopping mall replaced a former Yugoslavian state-owned department store that was damaged in the war.
BBI Centar is the headquarters of Al Jazeera Balkans, and the mall is owned by a company founded by a group of Middle Eastern banks.
I noticed advertising around the city by companies from the Middle East in the field of real estate and construction. About half the population is Muslim, so Sarajevo is a natural location for these companies to operate.
This brings me to my next point. There are some well-worn travel cliches that travel writers use that should be avoided as much as possible. One of those cliches is “where east meets west“. I think you can use this if you are visiting the international date line in Greenwich, and Istanbul seems another reasonable place where Europe meets Asia. I’m going to give myself and other travel writers a cliche pass by saying that you can also use it in Sarajevo. There is literally a line in the city centre that demarcates where east meets west.
Photos are encouraged here, and there is a website dedicated to this meeting of cultures.
On the west side of this divide is the Sarajevo of the Austro-Hungarian Empire with its Habsburg architecture, and on the east is the old town of Ottoman-era Sarajevo.
I was not expecting this abrupt change of urban landscape with this old Turkish Bazaar.
Also on the east side of town is the City Hall that was built in the Austro-Hungarian period. It was destroyed in the war, along with almost two million books, and was restored in 2014.
Moving away from the old area of Sarajevo, I also wanted to see Novo Sarajevo (New Sarajevo). This area starts near the train station, and it is characterised by big socialist housing blocks.
There is more space for big towers here, such as the under-construction Sarajevo Tower.
One thing I did know about the city was the concrete brutalist architecture. This more reflects the type of Instagram accounts I follow than being knowledge of the general population. My target for this walk was to see the Radio and Television of Bosnia and Herzegovina building.
Sarajevo is in a valley that is stretched out along a river. Most of the city follows the flat area along the river. The tram only goes along the flat area, so there are electric trolleybuses in the hilly parts of the city.
I went back downhill to follow the river back to the city centre.
I love a good tree-lined walking path.
There are great cafes everywhere, but they are not really digital nomad hangouts. I enjoyed visiting Espresso Lab for roastery coffee.
The big international chains aren’t here yet, apart from Caribou of Minnesota with two random branches in the outer suburbs.
In addition to not being fully connected by air, Bosnia and Herzegovina is currently without any international railway connections since the Zagreb to Sarajevo service has been suspended. There are plans to reconnect them in the future as a part of a wider Western Balkans railway modernisation plan.
Bus travel is the main way to get around the Balkans, so from Sarajevo, I got the bus to Podgorica in Montenegro.