Balkans Road Trip Part III: Sarajevo, City of Heartbreak

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

Pre-1992 Sarajevo is that which is first apparent to visitors; it is the city of east-meets-west, where, from the center of town, the eastern side of the city is a mini Istanbul, reflecting its establishment and first 400 years as an Ottoman Turkish city.  From the west of the center, the city 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 future Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz Ferdinand – the excuse for the start of World War I.  It is the city that was known as little Jerusalem, where from a main square, one was 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.

Sarajevo was under siege from 1992-1995, surrounded by the Serb army, the scars of the war are visible on the facades of buildings, on the Sarajevo Roses around town (red resin filling in mortar scars indicating where people were killed during the war), from the tour guides who are no older than I am who talk about growing up in a city under siege, and by the abandoned Olympic venues – which are now surrounded by land mines and are a haunting reminder of just how transient the coming together of nations can be.

Bosnia & Herzegovina today 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 3 postal systems, 2 tax systems, and 3 governments with 3 presidents (one Bosniak, one Serb, one Croat), which has lead to the 45% official unemployment rate.

Sarajevo, as the New York Times wrote last year, 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 eastern side of Sarajevo is a mini Istanbul

The western side of the city is a mini Vienna

The western side of the city is a mini Vienna

mini Vienna

mini Vienna

What to do

  • Don’t miss a walking tour of the city, we loved the Free Walking Tour with Neno, a Sarajevo-born guide just a few years younger than I am, who presents his personal history alongside that of the city
  • The underground tunnels (near the airport) from the siege time – which has an interesting 12 minute documentary and 25 meters of tunnel still open
  •  the abandoned Olympic venues – impossible to get to by public transportation, but well worth renting a car or going with a tour (most of the hostels and a few of the tour companies will run them) (thanks to T.Cain for this rec!)
  • Gallerija 11-7-95, which I wrote about here
  • The food!! Recommendations below.
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The siege tunnels from 1992-1995

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The Latin Bridge where Archbishop Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, aka the beginning of WWI

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The red resin “Sarajevo rose” over the mortar shell scar

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The abandoned bobsled track from the 1984 Olympic Winter Games

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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, but we highly recommend Buregdzinica Bosna, which is in the old town, and 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 along sports team allegiance, but Zeljo and Ferhatovic are a toss up for #1.

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Where to stay

  •  Once again, we opted for AirBNB.  The $35/night apartment (6 minutes from old-town )was only bested by the adorable host parents who adopted us for our time there (the apartment is owned and rented by their daughter and attached to their home)
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