Up until this past August, Sarajevo was a city that sat in my mind as a scary place. Aside from the obvious places that ring scary in the mind of most people, Sarajevo was in the company of Copenhagen; a place that I still need to get my tuchous to. That sounds absurd, right? Well, why? You ask? Because of a couple books I read when I was a wee lass – Zlata’s Diary and Number the Stars. Both stories take place during wartime in the two cities, and well, my 5th grade brain maintained those images 20 years later. The power of a child’s mind!
I still remember laying on Lambchops’ couch asking if Sarajevo is safe to go to; and now when I look back I think that was such a stupid question. Honest, but stupid. For one, that war ended 20 years ago, and the city has truly risen above the siege they were under for 4 years between 1992 and 1996. It is one of the most beautiful, welcoming, and peaceful cities I’ve visited. And well, now I’m here to put Sarajevo on the map, as it so quickly burrowed its way into my heart.
I was in Sarajevo for 4 days, and honestly I could have stayed longer enjoying Baklava and Bosnian coffee on the daily. Since I didn’t stay longer, and I’d like to relive my glorious memories, I’m going to share some of the highlights that made the city so unique and memorable for me, so maybe you too can plan your own getaway to the Eastern European Unknown.
For starters, the first activity I did after arriving was attend a walking tour. I’m a big advocate of these since I like to learn about the city and then dive in on my own with some background. This wasn’t like just any other walking tour I’ve been on in other cities. It was super captivating to me as it was led by a guy named Neno of Sarajevo Walking Tours. Neno was around my age, so he was 8 or 9 when the war broke out, and he lived in a shelter inside a building for the 4 years Sarajevo was under siege. Listening to his own accounts of what happened and how life was during that time was so fascinating, and made the tour that much more enriching. Not to mention, he was so cute and I had a mini crush on him (and got a little excited when I kept running into him throughout the rest of the day). But seriously, go on his tour if you find yourself there. So much knowledge and a little piece of eye-candy. Win win!
Sights Not To Be Missed: The Sarajevo Roses around the city to commemorate the lives lost in blast zones, Pijaca Markale market where the biggest bombing of the siege took place, the Latin Bridge where the events leading up to WWI were set in motion with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the Vijecnica old City Hall building, boasting exquisite Austro-Hungarian architecture, the Eternal flame dedicated to the victims of WWII, the memorials to the slaughtered children of the siege and Srebrenica Massacre, and then drop your coins into the tomb of the Seven Brothers which holds a wealth of superstitions and luck to the people of Sarajevo.
The Tunnel of Hope (Tunel Spasa) was Sarajevo’s lifeline to its own Bosnian territory while the Serbians held them under siege. It took 4 months of around the clock work in 1993 for it to be built, beginning from both sides and meeting in the middle, and remained protected during its duration as it was strategically built under the city’s airport being protected by the United Nations. The home where one end of the tunnel began has since been turned into a museum dedicated to the struggle and salvation that the people of Sarajevo fought through, and houses a portion of the tunnel used to flee their death camp of a city to the span of mountains not under Serbian control. For the duration of the war, approximately 400,000 lives were saved and countless supplies were brought into the city. Visitors are welcome to visit the home, view the shrapnel battered walls, and walk through the remaining 25m of the 1km tunnel.
Tip: You can definitely reach the tunnel on your own via tram and bus combination, however I would suggest booking a guide through your hotel/hostel/travel agency in town who can take you out there, as it’s a bit of a trek outside the main city. My guide wasn’t the best, but I found him to be quite interesting as a person, as his family fled Sarajevo just before the siege, he grew up in Dubai, moved to Mexico, and then back to Sarajevo. His take on being Bosnian was very multifaceted and he lacked connection with his city, country, people, and language, having been absent during those years. He also looked like sista’s boyfriend, so I liked the guy quite a bit.
The Jewish Cemetery of Sarajevo was fascinating, and also happens to be the second oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe just behind Prague. I went here on my extended private tour after visiting the Tunnel of Hope with a gaggle of wonderful Polish ladies. The cemetery has tombstones primarily of Spanish Jews who were expelled from Spain in the late 1400s early 1500s and resettled in Sarajevo. They look like they’re made of slabs of rock, or the original iMac computer, with the details painted on them and it’s a bit unreal to go here and walk through. They’re in a complete disarrayed mish-mosh of no order. I love visiting cemeteries, so visually it was quite surreal to see tombs so old and so worn from time and shrapnel. It was really beautiful in a creepy way. You also have a great view of the city below and a clear view of the Holiday Inn hotel where journalists stayed during the war.
Fun Fact: Snipers during the war used to perch out here to stake their claims on ‘Sniper Alley’ from above.
Some other Jewy places that I visited worthy of note were the Ashkenazi Synagogue which is the only one in Bosnia, as only about 600-900 Jews remain, and the Jewish Museum, which is housed in the oldest synagogue in Bosnia & Herzegovina, dating back to 1581. I also checked out an exhibit about the Srebrenica Massacre that happened in the town of Srebrenica in July of 1995. Approximately 9,000 Muslim Bosnian men and boys were murdered in territory that was said to be protected by the United Nations, but the siege proved otherwise – hence coining the term ‘United Nothing’. This exhibit was incredibly moving and I can’t even believe that people are capable of such horrible atrocious crimes against humanity.
Sights Not To Be Missed: I also suggest visiting Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque located in the center of the Old Town. It was my first time stepping into a mosque, and you must have your legs covered and throw a shmata on your head before entering. It’s also really interesting to watch all the men and women gather on the hour to pray. Of course you’ll also want to get a view of this stunning city from high above, and the place to go is the Yellow Fortress, nestled high on the mountaintop. From here you can see the hundreds of white spiked cemeteries littering the city and everything that was once on lockdown from the eyes who were locking it down. It’s especially beautiful at sunset.
Eating ranks top of my list (this list is obviously in no particular order) when visiting some place new. To me it’s the perfect way to get in touch with a country, city, village, group of people. I always make a list of foods I’ve got to eat while in a new place, and Sarajevo was no different. While most food in Bosnia probably caused me a lot of premature heart cloggage, it was so damn delicious – especially, ESPECIALLY the baklava.
One of my daily rituals while in this quaint city was an afternoon pick-me-up on the Turkish ottoman’s of The Baklava Shop in the Old Town. I’d order a few pistascio, nutella, or whatever other flavor I was feeling, and a Bosnian coffee (which is literally the same as Greek, Turkish, and Serbian coffee). It comes served on a copper tray with a small coffee cup, kettle called a džezva, glass of cold water, and 2 sugar cubes. This combination made for the best afternoon recharge sesh while doing one of my favorite things – people watching.
If you’re a fan of flaky savory pastries, then you must get yourself some Burek. A popular dish in those countries under former Ottoman rule, these Burek are filo dough pastries stuffed with anything from spinach, to potato, to meat, slathered with or without some sort of sour cream sauce, and consumed breakfast, lunch, or dinner. I was a fan of grabbing a small one for the road each morning, and guilty of even indulging later in the day, like I did here with the sweetest Polish girls I met in my hostel. They were (literally) to die for, and this spot was poppin’. Oh, and this plate cost like 50 cents.
Other Foods Not To Be Missed: I’m a freak for stuffed cabbage, grape leaves, and the ever-present Shopska salad that is everywhere throughout the Balkans. If you too are a fan of stuffed vegetables be sure to try Japrak (stuffed grape leaves), Sarma (stuffed cabbage) or Punjene paprike (stuffed pepper). You’ll also find the cheapest way to eat in these parts is to order a fat plate of Cevapcicci – or small greasy sausages – that are so delish, but for me definitely too much and sent me into a hardcore meat detox for the next 2 months.
I haven’t been to Istanbul, but from what I’ve heard and imagined, Old Town Sarajevo is a little Istanbul. At its heart is Baščaršija, the bazaar that is a labyrinth of shop after shop on little streets that always reveal something new. I went to the bazaar nearly everyday and always stumbled on something new, whether it was an alley of copper and silver coffee wares, vintage treasures, traditional trinkets, or a trove of hookah cafes.
If you know me at all, you also know I’m a huge flea marketer. I seek them out nearly everywhere I go, and have found some of my greatest finds from local people selling old trinkets from the past. I stumbled upon a fantastic vintage shop sort of near my hostel just off a main road, and it was like a treasure chest exploded. There were old photos and postcards from WWII, old passports, war memorabillia, and tons and tons of ornamental trinkets. I happened to pick up an amazing old džezva with a little cut on the lip, which makes me love it even more. There’s definitely a story there!
COULDA WOULDA SHOULDA
One thing I unfortunately missed which I’m super unhappy about is the abandoned bobsleigh track from the 1984 Winter Olympics. It sits high in the Trebević mountains and photos of it look SO amazing and right up my alley. I guess I’ll have to go back! I knew there was a reason I missed it!
One thing I’ve learned about myself when it comes to really falling in love with a place is that I am absolutely enthralled and drawn to cities once torn by war and have this grave history that you’re always walking through. Places where you can still see the traces of their past and know that there’s a story there. I’ve never visited a place like Sarajevo, where shrapnel scars litter the city, buildings still show the signs of war, but most importantly, how they have turned those scars into a way to remember, honor those who lost their lives, and I guess keep as a reminder so that history doesn’t repeat itself.
Have you visited or lived in Sarajevo? Were there any other sites that you saw that struck a chord with you? What were your thoughts about the city? If you haven’t been, have I convinced you to go? I hope so!