Sarajevo is quickly emerging as one of Europe’s hottest budget travel destinations. Surrounded by mountains and hugging the River Miljacka, Sarajevo’s mix-up of Asian and European influences is intoxicating. Hardly anywhere on earth boasts more for modern history nerds — from the shot that sparked World War One to the first Winter Olympics held by a socialist state and the longest siege of a capital city in modern warfare. Combine that with cutting-edge museums, a must-visit brewery and buildings caked in street art, and you’ve got yourself one of Europe’s most exciting new backpacker spots. Oh, and crazily cheap prices — plus the proximity to Split and Dubrovnik, each only four hours’ drive away — don’t hurt either.
Wondering what to do in Sarajevo? From mosques and markets to abandoned Olympic venues, these are the best things to do in Sarajevo.
1. Wind back the clock in Sarajevo’s Old Town
Google ‘Sarajevo’ and the postcard pics that pop up are of Baščaršija, the old Ottoman marketplace. This beautifully preserved bit of Asian architecture houses cafes, shisha joints, eateries and places to pick up a souvenir, including many metal trinkets fashioned out of artillery and shrapnel left behind by the siege. The 15th century bazaar retains the atmosphere it did half a millennium ago, particularly around the pigeon plastered central Sebilj fountain in the middle of Baščaršija square.
Don’t miss the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque, the first mosque on the planet to receive electricity in 1898. Next door is the Old Clock Tower, the only public clock in the world that keeps lunar time, where the same clock keeper has calibrated the astronomical measurements every week since the 1960s. Now that’s dedication.
2. Have dinner at the Spite House
When Austria-Hungary took control of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1878, they wanted to build a new town hall. But they didn’t account for one very stubborn man. Money couldn’t convince Benderija to move out of his home right next to the River Miljacka, until years of negotiation (and a literal bag of gold) convinced him to budge… with one huge condition: the new government had to move his house brick by brick over the other side of the river. The reconstruction was dubbed Inat Kuća — the Spite House — and it’s now one of the city’s favourite restaurants, where you can taste Bosnian classics like cevapi, cevapi and more cevapi.
The city hall they built, by the way, is one of the city’s most stunning structures — Vijećnica is an extravagant tiled, faux Moorish masterpiece damaged during the siege, but restored by 2014. It’s now a museum where you can marvel at the spectacular patterned interior.
- Inat Kuća — 9am-11pm daily
- Vijećnica — 9am-5pm daily
- Inat Kuća — Mains from 12KM (around £5 – one KM equals £0.40, US$0.55 or €0.50)
- Vijećnica — 10 KM (£4)
3. Learn how Sarajevo sparked World War One
Meet Franz Ferdinand — the Austro-Hungarian Archduke, not the Scottish indie band. On a visit to Sarajevo in 1914, a group of Yugoslav nationalists attempted to assassinate him… without much luck. Their first three attempts failed — one wannabe hitman even swallowed his cyanide pill and jumped into the river, only to vomit up the poison in four-inch-deep water before being easily apprehended — leaving 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip to fire the fatal shot, unwittingly triggering World War One in the process. The site of the assassination is unremarkable. Four lines of English text on the Latin Bridge mark the spot Princip did the deed, but the Sarajevo Museum next door tells the tale with more colour, untangling the web of international allegiances that meant this one bullet plunged the planet into conflict.
Opening times: Muzej Sarajeva — 10am-4pm Monday to Friday, 10am-3pm Saturday
Price: 4 KM (£1.70)
4. Scale Sarajevo’s abandoned bobsled track
Yugoslavia became the first socialist state to host the Winter Olympics when Sarajevo threw the Games in 1984, and the city still beams over the achievement. You’ll spot the snowflake logo everywhere, as well as adorable mascot Vučko the wolf, probably Sarajevo’s most famous resident since Gavrilo Princip.
The abandoned Olympic bobsled track snaking down Mount Trebević is the city’s most unique legacy from the Games. This concrete maze was used as a fortress during the siege and was left crumbling on the side of the hill, but is now being reclaimed by two things: forest and graffiti. Every inch of the 1300-metre track is slathered in street art, making it a must for mural lovers. It’s possible to walk up Mount Trebević, just don’t deviate off the path because there’s a risk of land mines. Taxis and the new cable car provide a less sweaty route to the top.
Igman mountain, about an hour’s drive south-west of the city, is another tragic Olympic site. The medal podium at the ski jump complex was used for executions during the ‘90s, and the whole place has been left to rot alongside the ruins of the brutalist Hotel Igman. For enthusiasts of dark tourism, visiting these abandoned Olympic venues are some of the best things to do in Sarajevo.
Opening times: The cable car runs from just south of the river to the summit of Mount Trebević from 9am to 5pm every day
Price: 20 KM return
5. Grab a coffee at Caffe Tito and the canned food monument
One of Sarajevo’s most popular coffee shops is styled after Marshal Tito, the benevolent dictator who glued Yugoslavia together between World War Two and his death in 1980. Caffe Tito is decorated with posters, portraits and newspapers of the big man — an eccentrically socialist setting for your cappuccino — whose absence led to the bloody dissolution of Yugoslavia in the ‘90s, including the Serb siege that bombarded Sarajevo between 1992 and 1996.
As a sarcastic tribute to the international aid the city received during that time, Sarajevans built the ICAR Canned Beef Monument — a massive statue of the unappetising supplies they were sent from abroad. The tins were reportedly leftovers from the Vietnam War decades earlier. This oft-vandalised metre-tall can on a stone plinth is a bizarre sight that’s often caused controversy, but at least they can say it’s unique!
The so-called Sniper Alley, Bosnia’s national history museums and Suada and Olga Bridge — named after a couple, one Bosniak and one Serb, who were callously gunned down trying to cross it in 1993 — are all also nearby.
Opening times: Caffe Tito — open 24 hours daily
6. Visit the brewery that saved Sarajevo during the siege
A more reliable source of sustenance during the conflict came from the Sarajevska Pivara brewery. Their natural springs have been the key to their beer’s crisp taste since 1864, but became much more important when Serbs blockaded the water supply during the siege. People queued up at the brewery to fill up whatever they could with fresh water, but there was still enough to produce some beer — the brewery never stopped brewing throughout the war.
It’s worth popping into the brewery’s museum for a little more history. Your ticket includes tokens to use at the HS Pivnica Restaurant next door, a 400-seat beer hall soaked in history (and brewery-fresh beer). Sarajevo’s other top bars include quirky cocktail joint Zlatna Ribica, Kino Bosna inside an old cinema and Gastro Pub Vučko, a craft beer barn that pays homage to the beloved Olympic mascot.
Muzej Sarajevske Pivare — 10am-5pm Tuesday to Sunday
HS Pivnica Restaurant — 10am-1am Monday to Saturday, 10am-midnight Sunday
Price: 3 KM for museum, 5 KM for museum and brewery, 25 KM museum, brewery and a meal at the HS Pivnica Restaurant.
7. Learn more about the siege
It can feel like heavy going, but the reality is that many of the best things to do in Sarajevo revolve around the siege. That tragedy killed more than 20,000 people, forced countless more to flee, ravaged the city’s landscape and has more influence on what Sarajevo is like today than any other factor.
The War Childhood Museum is a must-visit. The idea spawned from a book by Jasminko Halilović in 2013, which posed one simple question: “What was a war childhood for you?” Three thousand answers are displayed here, with toys, clothes, books and other bits and pieces forming a tender mosaic of what life was like under a hail of shells, revealing kids’ unique capacity to retain their humanity in the face of such barbarity.
Galerija 11/07/95 is even more heart-wrenching. This photographic exhibition details the genocide of more than 8,000 Bosniaks by Serb forces in the town of Srebrenica during the Bosnian War — a supposed UN safe zone two and a half hours’ drive east of Sarajevo. It provides a devastating but important account of the abuse of tens of thousands of women, children and elderly.
End with the Tunnel of Hope, the 800-metre underground passage that kept the besieged city alive by smuggling in food, medicine and weapons. A museum now occupies the house where one of the exits popped out, behind the airport. There’s even a 20-metre stretch you can squeeze through yourself. Either catch the 3, 4 or 6 tram to Ilidža (end of the line) then walk for half an hour, or catch a cab from the city in about 20 minutes.
- War Childhood Museum — 11am-7pm daily
- Galerija 11/07/95 — 10am-6pm daily
- Tunnel of Hope — 9am-5pm daily
- War Childhood Museum – 10KM
- Galerija 11/07/95 – 10KM
- Tunnel of Hope – 10KM
8. Climb to Sarajevo’s best sunset spot
Žuta Tabija — the Yellow Fortress — is an 18th Century bastion that enjoys peerless views down the Sarajevo valley, especially when it glows gold in the dying sunlight. The walk from the Old Town passes Kovači cemetery, a forest of white tombstones commemorating the fallen soldiers of the war. Kovači is typical of the many plots of land — parks and football fields before the siege — that are now covered in graves, where thousands of siege causalities had to be buried in such limited space.
The city’s most visible war wounds are the Sarajevo Roses, the craters of fatal shell blasts that have been filled in with red resin as a reminder of the blood that was spilled. Sarajevo copped about 300 mortar shells a day, and as many as 4000 on July 22, 1993. The hundred or so roses are easy to spot. There’s a big one outside the Sacred Heart Cathedral in the modern centre, but the most tragic are in the Pijaca Markale fruit-and-veg market across the road, where a pair of massacres slaughtered 68 civilians in 1994 and 43 in 1995.
9. Scope out street art
Beautiful murals brighten up much of the shrapnel damage, including Monsieur Chat (that’s Mr Cat, en francais). This yellow cat with an ear-to-ear grin and angel’s wings began with French artist Thoma Vuille in 1997, before flying to Sarajevo in 2005 thanks to a French cultural centre. Mr Chat now appears in about a dozen places around the city, often fittingly surrounded by roses, including a whole alleyway of them off Radićeva near the excellent Buybook bookstore. But the most spectacular sits on a derelict house on the walk up to the abandoned bobsled track, covering an entire wall with the peaks of Mount Trebević as its backdrop.
10. Where to stay in Sarajevo
Want to stay in the thick of it? Hostel City Centre Sarajevo is one of our top-rated options, with an unbeatable central location, a private room that’s a totally separate flat, and a delicious free breakfast with eggs cooked to order. Nearby, Hostel Frenz Ferdinand has an ominous name but cheery golden rooms only one block from the Sacred Heart Cathedral on the bustling pedestrian Ferhadija street.
Further east, closer to the modern malls and shiny skyscrapers that have been built since the siege, are the newly renovated Good Place Hostel and the leafy green Balkan Han Hostel, two more excellent digs.Compare all hostels in Sarajevo
So are you interested in Sarajevo? Are you bouncing about Bosnia? Have you been there already? Let us know below!
About the author:
Tom Smith is an Australian writer living in Manchester. Obsessed with sport and travel, Tom has watched cricket in Cardiff, football in Fortaleza, baseball in the Bay Area, and there’s still plenty more to tick off the bucket list yet. Read more of his work here.