Sarajevo invokes an interesting and immediate response from those who followed international affairs in the 1990s. For others, it just seems exotic – the capital city of Bosnia-Herzegovina, or a city in the former Yugoslavia. For many, it is a chance to learn about a culturally rich city, with plenty of great offerings, beyond war history. A visit to Sarajevo is not complete without the following must-do’s:
1. Tunnel Museum
A great day tour through Sarajevo will generally start with the Tunnel Museum. The Bosnian people dug a tunnel under the airport to provide weapons, food, and supplies to the citizens of Sarajevo, who were under siege. It provided the city a lifeline during the crisis. It’s possible to walk through a section of the tunnel, and listen to detailed explanations of the war.
2. The Olympics and the Bob Sled Track
The former bobsled track from the 1984 Olympics was, unfortunately, used as a Serbian sniper hideaway, in the mountains that surround the city. The snipers could shoot at civilians in the countryside below, through holes in the side of the track. Now, it stands as an unofficial monument to the war, loaded with graffiti. It is possible to walk a section of the track, to view the surrounding forests. It is also possible to view the old Olympic stadium, which was partially destroyed during the war. The International Olympic Committee rebuilt the stadium as a testament to the future hopes of the city of Sarajevo. Currently, football matches are played at the stadium as well as concerts throughout the year.
3. Sniper Alley and the Holiday Inn
Sniper Alley and the nearby Holiday Inn serve as reminders of the destruction of the siege, in which Bosnian civilians attempted to defend their city. Two lovers, one Bosnian and the other Serbian, were killed on the bridge leading from Sniper Alley. The story reminds people of the destruction of war. The infamous yellow Holiday Inn just around the corner was the safest place in town during the siege. It was the home to journalists covering the war and near the United Nations headquarters.
4. Sarajevo Rose
Much of the tourism in Sarajevo revolves around the tumultuous history surrounding the siege of Sarajevo that began in 1992. It was a conflict focused on a land grab, guised in a religious war. Its scars surround the beautiful city. Although most of the Sarajevo Roses have been covered over, a few remain, including one near the Holiday Inn and the current parliament building. Portions of the sidewalk, where bullet and grenade holes were left, were then filled in with red resin, to symbolize the human casualties that resulted during the siege.
5. Traditional Bosnian House
Although much of a tour through Sarajevo revolves around the war, there is much to experience outside of the war history. Svrzina kuca, is a traditional Bosnian house built in the tradition of the Ottoman empire. A walk through the intimate space demonstrates not only the way the family and its servants lived, but also the struggles facing women at the time.
6. Old Quarter
Old Town Sarajevo, or the Bascarsija, is more unique than any other “old town” in Eastern Europe. The old bazaar still holds that feel today, of trade coming from the east, of spices. Even if today the goods are more driven towards the tourists that flock there instead of traders, the Old Town holds charm. Bosnia is a Muslim country and was once controlled by the Turks as part of the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish influence exudes from Bascarsija, which is covered with mosques and cafes serving Bosnian coffee.
7. Bosnian Coffee
Don’t make the mistake of ordering a Turkish coffee. Although there are similarities, the thick brew, served in a metal container, perhaps with a little sweet on the side, is referred to as Bosnian coffee, or domestic coffee. Regardless of its name, it is an art form. Learn to drink as the locals do. Allow the coffee to settle for a minute, and only pour a little at a time into your tiny cup. Never drink down to the bottom – where the harsh grinds lay.
The one primary dispute that still exists between the Bosnians and the Serbians is who makes the best cevap, a dish of spiced ground meat that is pervasive in the Balkans. The best we had was at Ferhatovic Petica, in the Old Town, which serves 400kg of cevap each day. It was perfectly cooked and served with onions, a soft pita bread, and a spicy red pepper sauce.
9. Bosnian Nightlife
A traditional Bosnian drinking hall is the best way to top off a trip through Sarajevo, and Kino Bosna delivers. Be prepared for the smokiness, but once you get over that, settle down for a few beers and some homemade raki in a former theater. Traditional live music plays, and patrons of all ages sing along. It is a true sight to experience.
The similarities between Sarajevo and Istanbul cannot be avoided. One of the benefits of the Turkish influence is in the café culture. Not only can you have a Bosnian coffee at most cafes in the old town, but sheesha (otherwise known as hookah in the States and elsewhere in Europe) pervades. Sit at an outdoor café and enjoy as the locals do – perhaps an apple flavored, caffeine free smoke. Even dedicated anti-smoking enthusiasts can enjoy partaking in a little of the sheesha.
11. The People
Our tour guide from Haris Youth Hostel repeated that he wanted people to visit his country, not just for the wars, but because of the beautiful countryside, the food, and the people. Bosnia drew me in because I am a history buff, with little knowledge of what happened in the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia. Its recent history intrigued me, but I fell in love with the city for its people. Owners of cafes and restaurants are eager to practice their English, to engage with travelers, and encourage them to visit again, soon. Sarajevo is a European gem, and you may find yourself traveling through again, soon . . . .
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