I love destinations that seamlessly blend a mixture of different cultures and traditions, and the Balkan city of Sarajevo does exactly that. The capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina is a wonderful holiday destination, situated in between rolling hills, with dramatic mountains visible just beyond, and filled with extraordinary examples of Ottoman architecture.
Sarajevo was once part of the Ottoman Empire and it has preserved the mosques, homes and markets from its past. They sit beside the wide streets and architecture constructed subsequently at the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Strolling the central Ferhadija walkway, a visitor feels he has passed from Istanbul into Vienna – all in a few hundred meters.
Unfortunately, Sarajevo today is most closely associated with the war that devastated the city between 1992 and 1995. The siege of the city was carried out from the picturesque hills that surround the Bosnian capital and was thought to result in 10000 deaths.
Memories of this dark period of Sarajevo’s history remain, with shelled out buildings still awaiting renovation and numerous façades still displaying holes from bullets and shrapnel damage.
Still, Sarajevo has been busy rebuilding itself and this fascinating city is worthy destination on your Balkan vacation. Here are my recommended highlights:
Stari Grad (Old Town): Start your visit at Sebilj, the Moorish-type fountain, in Baščaršija Square, often commonly referred to as ‘Pigeon Square’.
The heart of Baščaršija is the old town market area just off of this square; it was constructed by the Ottomans in the 15th century, beginning in the 1440s, and was the heart of the Ottoman city.
Each of the streets in this area was named for the type of craftsmen to be found here. Now the distinctions are blurred, but you can still find unique copper craftsmen in Sarajevo’s old town, sending a wide range of wares, including the wonderful sets for Bosnian coffee.
Baščaršija is also filled with mosques and the wonderful Ottoman-style gravestones in the surrounding cemeteries and around the hills surrounding Sarajevo. You will recognize them by their distinctive ‘turban’-shaped forms. The most important mosque is the Gazi Husrev Begova Mosque, said to be the finest example of Ottoman architecture in the Balkans.
This Ottoman area also includes the wonderful covered marketplace, the Brusa Bezisatan, which was once the main trade center for silk. It was heavily damaged during the war, but has recently been refurbished and reopened.
The Depić House Museum is also worth a visit. A Serbian tradesman’s house form Ottoman times, the home embraces the architectural styles of the Ottoman Empire and the Hapsburg Empire, skillfully melding the two.
Austro-Hungarian architecture: The Ottoman architecture ends abruptly on the Ferhadija walkway and a visitor can be forgiven for thinking he’s stumbled into Vienna. For the Congress of Berlin redrew the maps of the Balkans and Ottoman control of Bosnia was supplanted by the Hapsburg Empire. Building projects were undertaken and the results can be seen today, with Viennese style architecture flush against earlier Ottoman-era buildings — East very literally meeting West.
The Princip Bridge: For students of history, Sarajevo is famous as the place which sparked the First World War. For it is here that, on 28 June 1914, that Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, thereby leading to World War I. The Ottoman bridge across the Miljacka River from which Franz Ferdinand was shot and killed is officially called the Latinska Ćuprija, but it is unofficially called by the name of Ferdinand’s assassin, the Princip Bridge. A small museum across from the bridge (the actual spot from which the fatal shots were fired) houses a small but worthwhile exhibition of the events of that day, including the gun used by Gavrilo Princip.
Sarajevska Pivara: This brewery is well worth a stop during your wanderings – either for lunch or dinner, or for a beer during a well-deserved break. In addition to being the place where Sarajevosko Pivo, Bosnia’s most famous beer, is brewed, this brewery was built in the 19th century over a natural freshwater spring.
During the siege of Sarajevo, when water supplies from outside the city were cut off, this brewery spring became a lifeline for thousands of Sarajevo residents.
The food is excellent and reasonably priced, well worth a stop during your stay (Open 11:00 – 01:00). Be sure to try the spicy sausages and save space for the delicious, calorie-laden baklava. It is located in Bistrik, the Catholic neighborhood from the time of Austro-Hungarian rule and these streets and hills are also worth exploring.
There are many more highlights of a Sarajevo visit. I’ll continue my tips next week for ideas of what to see during your next visit to this fascinating Balkan capital.