We came expecting a generic capital city, but Sarajevo surprised us at every turn. All our plans to take a day trip out of the city evaporated when we realized just how much there was to do there. If you’re considering a stop in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s capital, these are some of the things you should do in Sarajevo.
Take a walking tour
One of the most tourist friendly things I’ve ever seen is the Guide2Sarajevo mobile app, which is your gateway to discovering everything in the city. Several themed walking tours take you to specific spots in Sarajevo where important events in local and world history have taken place, like the Latin Bridge near where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, sparking World War I, and the location of the civilian massacres that took place between 1992 and 1995. The tours have an audio component, giving you some detailed documentary-style background.
The tours give you some valuable insight to the things you’ll see around town, like the Sarajevo roses, which are indentations in concrete made by explosions during the war that have been filled in with red paint as a memorial to the victims. Not all parts of the tour are equally grim; you’ll also learn about different religious structures and the important contributions of figures like Gazi Husrev-Bey, ruler of Bosnian lands during the Ottoman Empire. Some of the most beautiful buildings in the city including the Gazi Husrev-Bey Mosque and the Bezistan indoor bazaar were attributed to the beloved Ottoman ruler.
If you prefer your tours more interactive, you can take a free city walking tour with a local guide. These tip-based tours cover everything from the Ottoman history of Sarajevo to the Austro-Hungarian rule and the creation and dissolution of Yugoslavia, leading to the bloody war between 1992 and 1995. Tours depart from the National Theatre at a pre-determined hour depending on the time of year.
Visit Vijećnica (City Hall) and the House of Spite
One of the most beautiful buildings in Sarajevo is the City Hall building, which was constructed during the Austro-Hungarian occupation and reconstructed after the war left the building badly damaged. Both the bright exterior and the colorful and ornate interior symbolize the meeting of world civilizations, which Sarajevo encapsulates so well. Aside from beautiful marble pillars and a stained glass ceiling, you’ll be able to visit the Sarajevo city council chamber inside the building.
Just across the river from City Hall is a building with the best story I heard in Sarajevo, which I will share with you here. When Bosnia and Herzegovina came under Austro-Hungarian control, officials made plans to build the city hall building. There was only one problem. One stubborn Bosnian man refused to have his home destroyed to make way for the massive government building on the River Miljacka. After lengthy negotiations, the old Bosnian man agreed to sell his house for a sack of gold and one hilarious condition: the authorities would have to move his home brick by brick to the other side of the river. They agreed, and that’s how his house earned the name the House of Spite (Inat Kuca). The home has become something of a symbol of Bosnian stubbornness, emblazoned with the words “I was on that side, but out of spite, I moved here” at the entrance. The house is now a traditional Bosnian restaurant, which was delicious (the secret ingredient is spite).
Go up the Sarajevo Cable Car to the abandoned Olympic bobsled track
To the southeast of Sarajevo is the mountain Trebević, which was one of the locations near the city that held the1984 Olympics. We were warned about the air quality not being so great in Sarajevo, but the proximity of the mountain full of trees cerntainly helps. It’s easily accessible by the Sarajevo Cable Car, and the area up on the mountain gives you some sweeping views of the city as well as access to the abandoned bobsled track.
The tracks are covered in graffiti and are sometimes used by skateboarders and cyclists during the summer months, but during the winter, the track was covered in snow and ice, making for a fun (and slightly treacherous) hike up. My recommendation if you visit in winter is to wear gloves to hold on to the sides and walk slowly. Don’t worry, it’s not dangerous. A bobsled track is a giant slightly sloped slide, after all. When you’re done exploring, you can take the cable car right back down to city center. Some people take the opportunity to hike down to Sarajevo, which could take 1 to 2 hours.
Tour the Tunnel of Hope Museum
Though Sarajevo has several history museums, one of the most impactful to visit is the Tunel Spasa, also known as the Sarajevo Tunnel or the Tunnel of Hope. During the siege of Sarajevo in the early 1990s, Bosnians built the wooden tunnel in order to link the city, which was surrounded on all sides by Serbian forces, to the UN-controlled part of the country. The tunnel was equipped with tracks, allowing the movement of carts in and out of the city without detection. Through this tunnel, food, war supplies, and humanitarian aid was allowed to come into the city, and people were allowed to get out. The house at the tunnel’s entrance is now a museum, which allows visitors to learn about the war, and see part of the important tunnel.
Since it’s so difficult to get to (in a neighborhood near the airport), many visitors opt to visit with a guide from the center of Sarajevo. Companies like Funky Tours offer half-day tours focusing on the siege of Sarajevo that include the tunnel and the Olympic mountain for its role in the siege. (Spoiler alert: the famed bobsled track was used as a Serb firing position up in the mountain).
Visit the Old Bazaar (Baščaršija)
Sarajevo’s Baščaršija neighborhood is the oldest in the city, dating back to the Ottoman Empire. At its center, you’ll find an ornate wooden fountain (Sebilj) at Pigeon Square and meandering alleys full of shops, cafes, and crafts. With its undeniable eastern flair, this area makes Sarajevo interesting and colorful. Here you’ll find locals selling their wares on coppersmith street (Kazandžiluk) and silver and goldsmith street (Kuyundzhiluk), where shop owners are hammering out new goods as you browse. On the other side of the Meeting of Cultures marker on Ferhadija Street, you can find modern eateries and international cuisine, but Baščaršija is the place to go for traditional Bosnian coffee and baklava or for local flavored brandy, rakija. While much of the area has started catering to tourists, selling souvenirs and imitations of copper goods, there are some legitimate craftspeople scattered around. We found an honest and informative coppersmith at Kazandziluk 3 to buy a tea set from.
Just 15 minutes’ walk from Pigeon Square, you can visit another great viewpoint over the city, the Yellow Bastion. The fortress was used to defend the city from Austro-Hungarian troops. It’s been rebuilt several times due to war damage and is now a great place to watch the sun set on Sarajevo. Though the walk is short, it is steep. You can get some energy before you head up to the bastion at the popular café, Ministry of Ćejf, or the tea house next door, Čajdžinica Džirlo.
Enjoy the nightlife
Sarajevo’s Western-style side is bustling with hip restaurants and cool bars and nightclubs. The only downside is that you can expect smoking indoors at almost all of them. There are some notable places I’d recommend like Zlatna Ribica, which looks like a copper flea market and serves up rakija, beer, and mixed drinks. Muvekita Street is a narrow street that connects two major pedestrian streets in the city. It has an entire row of pubs to choose from that is reminiscent of the theatre district in London. You’ll find Tesla Pub, Cheers, and Murphy’s full of people and smoke, even in the wintertime. The street is even busier in the summer when the bars put out tables and chairs. Since so many hotels and hostels are located around this area, it’s a major nightlife hub with great drinks.
Get the GPS-guided version of this and other Sarajevo guides on GPSmyCity here.