Balkans Road Trip Part III: Sarajevo, City of Heartbreak


A Tale of Two Cities

Sarajevo is a tale of two cities: the city before 1992 and the city after.

Before 1992

Pre-1992 Sarajevo is that which is first apparent to visitors. It is the literal embodiment of east-meets-west. Everything east of the town center is a mini Istanbul, reflecting its establishment and first 400 years as an Ottoman Turkish city.  Everything to west of the center is a mini-Vienna, reflecting its 40 (highly productive) years of Austro-Hungarian rule, which brought Europe’s first electric-tram system.  It is the city where Gavrilo Princip, trained by the Black Hand in Serbia, assassinated the Franz Ferdinand, future Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the excuse for the start of World War I.  A city formerly known as “little Jerusalem,” where you were never more than a few hundred feet of an Eastern Orthodox church, a Catholic Church, a mosque, and a synagogue.  It was the gem of the former united Yugoslavia, when it hosted the 1984 XIV Winter Olympic Games.

1992-1995: War

From 1992-1995, Sarajevo was under siege, surrounded by the Serb army. The scars of war are visible everywhere. They are the damaged facades of nearly every building. The ubiquitous Sarajevo Roses around town (red resin filled into mortar scars indicating where people were killed). In the tour guides, who are no older than I am, recounting about growing up in a city under siege. They are the abandoned Olympic venues, former symbols of unity and glory, now surrounded by land mines as a haunting reminder of just how transient the coming together of nations can be.

The Present Day City

Current Bosnia & Herzegovina is complicated beyond my understanding.  It is mandated as two territories post-war – the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and the Republika Srpska (RS).  It has three postal systems, two tax systems, and three governments with three different presidents (one Bosniak, one Serb, one Croat). The official unemployment rate at the time of writing this was 45%.

The New York Times summarized: Sarajevo has a charisma that “is intoxicating, but the hustle and bustle belies a tragic past.”

It is hard not to fall in love with Sarajevo, but it is a city that will break your heart.

The eastern side of Sarajevo is a mini Istanbul
The western side of the city is a mini Vienna
mini Vienna

What to do

  • MUST DO: Free walking tour of the city, with Neno, a Sarajevo-born guide, who presents his personal history alongside that of the city
  • Don’t skip the underground Sarajevo War tunnels (near the airport) from the siege time. 25 meters of the tunnel remain open and there is an informative 12 minute documentary.
  • Go see the abandoned Olympic venues, especially the bobsled track. You cannot get there by public transportation, but it is well-worth renting a car, taxi, or going with a tour (most of the hostels and a few of the tour companies will run them). Do not stray off the roads or walk around: landmines surround the area.
  • Do not miss the extremely moving photography exhibit Gallerija 11-7-95, which I also wrote about here.
  • Eat! The food!! Recommendations below.
The siege tunnels from 1992-1995
The Latin Bridge where Archbishop Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, aka the beginning of WWI
The red resin “Sarajevo rose” over the mortar shell scar
The abandoned bobsled track from the 1984 Olympic Winter Games
The abandoned bobsled track from the 1984 Olympic Winter Games

Where to eat

  • Bakeries selling Bureks, the phyllo pastries filled with cheese, spinach, potato, or meat, are on every corner. We highly recommend Buregdzinica Bosna, in the old town. It came touted as the best in the city (we won’t argue with that!).
  • Bosnian coffee at Divan – also in the city, and a great place for people-watching
  • Cevapici, the mini-sausage version of Turkish Kebabs, served with pita and onions.  The city is divided on its favorite Cevapdzinica according to sports team allegiance; Zeljo and Ferhatovic vie for the #1 spot. Both were delicious.

Where to stay

  •  Once again, we opted for AirBNB.  We loved the price at $35/night apartment (6 minutes from old-town ). The only thing we loved more is the adorable host parents who adopted us during our time there. (The Airbnb apartment is next door to the main house; their daughter owns and rents it out.)

For more Balkans Road Trip information

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