The capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sarajevo, is perhaps one of the most underrated destinations in Europe. With its preserved 15th-century city center that will make you feel like you’ve gone back to a lively medieval market square and its fascinating history of resilience in the face of conquerors and tolerance in the face of newcomers, this is a city brimming with memories (some pleasant, some tragic) and artistic expression. Here are some of the stops you should make to soak up the creative and resourceful spirit of Sarajevo:
1. Baščaršija (Old Town)
Baščaršija is the historic center of Sarajevo, dating back to the 15th century when the city was under the control of the Ottoman Empire. With much of its architecture preserved or restored, visitors can stroll through narrow cobbled streets amid 15th-century stone buildings, feeling like they’ve gone back in time. Stop at a little restaurant for cevapi, play a game of chess at a coffeehouse, or peruse the wares at a local shop.
After suffering a devastating fire in the 19th century, the neighborhood fell into disrepair as the city was then ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire which sought to remove the Islamic features of the city and convert it into a “modern” European city.
At the end of World War II, however, Sarajevo was liberated from Axis occupation and the symbolic importance of Baščaršija, with its mosque, church, and synagogue sitting harmoniously within blocks of each other for centuries, was recognized and the Yugoslavian government began work to restore it to its medieval beauty.
2. Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque
As you’re exploring the Baščaršija, you’ll undoubtedly stumble upon the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque. Built by the Ottomans in the 16th century, it continues to serve as the main mosque for the large Muslim community in Bosnia.
While it was one of the main targets of bombings by the Serbian army as part of their larger genocidal mission to exterminate Bosnian Muslims during the Bosnian War of 1992-1995, the city has since reconstructed the exterior to match its original Ottoman style and the interior was restored as well.
Today, visitors are welcome to explore this important site of Sarajevan history. Though you should arrive in the appropriate attire: both men and women should have knees and shoulders covered while women should additionally have a head covering.
3. The Jewish Museum
Housed in a 16th-century synagogue known as the “Old Synagogue,” this museum tells the fascinating stories of the Bosnian Jews, who first arrived in the 1400s, escaping persecution elsewhere in Europe. In Bosnia, unlike the rest of the continent, they were welcomed.
Opened in 1966, the museum inside the synagogue explores 600 years of Bosnian Jewish history including the achievements and contributions the Jewish community has made to Bosnian science, art, and social activism. While the exhibition space is small and the pieces displayed a little eclectic, it’s an interesting collection and the rustic stone walls feel like they have a thousand stories to tell.
4. The Old Orthodox Church
Like the mosque and the synagogue, this Orthodox Church was built in the 15th century, though some historians now think that it may have been built on the foundations of a church dating back to the 5th century. While it looks a little austere and uninviting from the street, the interior is lit with candelabras and all the fineries you’d expect of a church from this time period.
What makes this visit most worthwhile—if you have a macabre fascination with 200-year-old legends involving corpses, that is—is the altar on the upper floor of the church where you’ll find a small coffin.
According to the legend, this coffin holds the body of a child who was strangled by his stepmother some 200 years or so ago. A priest from this church at the time heard about the grizzly crime and retrieved the boy’s body from the river, where the stepmother had dumped him, to give him a proper burial on church grounds. When workers were digging to build on the grounds, the body was exhumed and Church officials said that the child was almost perfectly preserved.
The mummification was declared a miracle and the child placed on this altar (inside his coffin) where you can now visit. For anyone who’s currently trying to get pregnant, local tradition suggests that if you walk around the altar three times and then crawl beneath it, you’ll be blessed with fertility.
5. Dine at the Spite House
For anyone who loves a good story of petty vengeance, lunch or dinner at the Spite House is a must. Though it’s now a restaurant serving traditional Bosnian cuisine, it was once home to a true legend of spite.
During the 19th century, when Austro-Hungarian city planners were busy trying to transform Baščaršija into a model of European modernity, they were buying up houses and demolishing them to make room for an extravagant new city hall. Progress on the construction was halted in 1892, when the officials got to the home of one Benderija, an elderly Bosnian man with no interest in selling.
Austro-Hungarian officials offered to pay market value. Benderija refused. Officials increased their offer. Benderija refused. The Minister of Finance personally spoke to Benderija to see what it would take to get the stubborn old man to sell. Benderija refused.
Finally, in 1895, after the project had been delayed three years, Benderija named his price: an entire sack of gold (a far more exorbitant price than the building was worth). He would only accept the sack of gold, though, on the condition that the authorities carefully moved his home, brick by brick, across the bridge and rebuilt his house on the other side of the river.
The officials agreed and Benderija (because he is a legend) reportedly sat in the middle of the bridge every single day, smoking cigarettes while he watched these Austro-Hungarian occupiers carry each brick to the other side of the river.
6. Stand at the Corner Where Franz Ferdinand Was Shot
If you remember your high school history class, World War I was famously ignited by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir-apparent to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That assassination took place on the corner of Obala Kulina Bana and Zelenih Beretki in Sarajevo.
Today, there is a plaque on the site and a small museum about the history of Sarajevo during Austro-Hungarian rule. It’s more of a quick photo-op than a destination—and you’ll walk right by it if you’re headed from the Old Town over to grab lunch at the Spite House. So, take a minute to remember the old archduke on your way. The museum can be skipped unless you’re especially interested in the Austro-Hungarian period of Bosnian history.
7. The History Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina
Not to be confused with the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is right next door (and also worth a stop for those interested in natural history and archaeology), the History Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina is housed in a striking modernist building that, by all rights, looks like it shouldn’t be physically capable of standing. A large cement block, now pocked with bullet holes and gunpowder from the war, sits atop a narrow glass frame now shadowed by lush shrubs and greenery.
Here’s what it looked like before the ravages of war and time:
Before you dismiss this one saying, “I’m not spending my vacation in a stuffy, boring history museum,” hear me out. Those dry tale of riches, nobility, and history as told by the victor is not what you’ll find here. The museum was founded in 1945, just after the end of World War II, with the mission to preserve and tell the story of antifascism.
As such, the collection features a mix of war relics, revolutionary art, and haunting photography that tell a story of human perseverance in spite of overwhelming odds. It is one of the only museums I have been to that centers on the stories of the everyday people of history, rather than the rulers and generals.
The “Sarajevo Under Siege” collection, for example, focuses on the daily life of Sarajevans who endured 1,425 days of siege between the years of 1992 and 1995, throughout which they had no electricity, water, heating, or connection to the outside world (except via the few brave smugglers you’ll learn about in the Tunnel of Hope Museum later).
While heart-wrenching to hear about, the exhibition emphasizes the resourcefulness, creativity, and strength of those who endured this living nightmare. It’s the story of orchestras who kept performing while the bombs fell outside and families who played card games by candlelight while hunkered down in the kitchen—the only room without a window where a stray bullet might fly through.
8. The Tunnel of Hope Museum
If there’s one thing Sarajevo excels at, it’s making museums that even people who hate museums will find fascinating. The Tunnel of Hope Museum is one of those, in part because it’s not so much a museum as the actual tunnel that some 200 determined Sarajevans dug—with ordinary shovels and hands, no less—in order to sneak behind Serbian lines and smuggle supplies to their besieged friends and family as well as help some lucky folks escape the city.
While digging the tunnel, workers faced near-constant bombardment by Serbian artillery and the regular flooding of waist-high groundwater that could only be removed one bucket at a time. Finally completed in 1993, the cramped tunnel was large enough for a small rail cart to pass through, delivering the desperately needed supplies that would save Sarajevans’ lives and help many escape years of constant bombing and sniper attacks.
Today, visitors can browse through the small museum featuring ephemera from the war and then walk through a portion of the tunnel.
9. Try to Spot a Sarajevo Rose
The mortar shells that bombarded the city during the siege left pockmarks everywhere. In a testament to the creativity of Sarajevans, some locals have turned these scars into memorials for those lost to genocide and war by filling the pockmarks with red resin.
A red resin-filled mortar shell mark is known as a “Sarajevo Rose” and there are about 200 scattered through the city on walls, sidewalks, and streets. When you find one, it means that at least three people died on that site during the Siege of Sarajevo.
10. Walk Through the Kovači Cemetery to the Yellow Fortress
The Kovači cemetery, which also goes by the name of Martyr’s Cemetery, is the final resting place for many of the 11,541 Sarajevans who were killed during the siege. To walk through this cemetery and realize that every single one of these graves (and there are a lot) is the result of a single war—a war that ended less than 30 years ago—is nothing short of sobering.
At the top of the hill that this cemetery is built on, there is the Yellow Fortress (or Yellow Bastion). It’s an 18th century structure that used to be one of five fortresses that connected the walls that once guarded this city. Today, it guards over the lives that were lost in the Bosnian War.
When you get to the fortress and lookout, you’ll see the seemingly endless rows of graves you just walked through followed by the old stone buildings of Sarajevo’s historic center, and beyond that, the scattering of modern skyrises fading into the hills that surround the city. It’s an incredible view and one of the best places to reflect on all the history and culture you just absorbed during your visit.