The Forgotten City of Sarajevo

I booked my ticket to Sarajevo on a blind whim. I knew about Bosnia’s recent bloody history, and I’d read an article somewhere on how pretty the city was, but other than that, I really had no idea what to expect from this beautifully named place in the center of Southeast Europe. What I found was a conflicted city, where luscious natural beauty and regal charm clashed with the physical reminders of a horrific war.

Here were some of my highlights:

The view flying into Sarajevo is breath taking. Endless green hills and snow-capped peaks surround a valley of red roofed buildings. I was in love before the plane even hit the tarmac of the infamous Butmir airport.

Sarajevo is like a cross between Vienna and Istanbul. Beautiful art nouveu architecture mashes up against elegant mosques and domes. All around the city are street cafes perfect for a rest and a cold Sarajevsko beer. Spanning the Miljacka River is the famous Spanish Bridge, where the archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, sparking World War one.

On one edge of town is the neighborhood of Baščaršija, a Turkish market where the specialty is brass jewelry, plates and coffee sets. I bought a thin bronze bracelet which the craftsman engraved while I watched. Five times a day the hills echo with the Muslim call to prayer reminding you that Bosnia is one of the few Muslim countries in Europe.

It’s a beautiful and peaceful city now, but the past is never far from mind or sight. Although the worst ruins have been repaired or demolished, shattered, gutted buildings still dot the city. There is still shrapnel in the sidewalks. If you walk along the river you will come upon the formerly grand National Library of Bosnia. Serb forces bombed it in 1992, along with the 2 million volumes inside. The government doesn’t have the money to rebuild it or the heart to tear it down, so the building stands as a monument to all that’s been lost.

Even more jarring are the tombstones. They are everywhere. Glance up in any direction at the rolling hills which surround the city and you will see a sea of uniform white pillars. Get closer and you can see they are all dated within the same 5-year period.  The 1984 Olympic stadium is now a massive graveyard. Some of the other hills are still blanketed in unexcavated land mines.

On our last day we took a ride out see the Sarajevo Tunnel. Cut off from the outside world and surrounded by snipers in the hills, the people of Sarajevo banded together to dig a tunnel 800 meters long that stretches underneath the airport and into what was unoccupied territory. For two years this tunnel was the only means of sneaking food, drinking water and medical supplies into the city. Crawling through the short segment of tunnel still open to the public was strange and claustrophobic, but the drive of the city to survive was inspiring.

The most amazing thing about Sarajevo was the people. These are Bosnians who loved this city so much that they could not abandon it even as the bullets flew. They’ve turned that determination towards rebuilding their beautiful city, and towards welcoming outsiders back with open arms. It’s a city I would absolutely encourage anyone to visit. The rest of the country is equally beautiful and inspiring, and I will be talking about that in more detail on Tuesday.

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30 Responses to The Forgotten City of Sarajevo

  1. Abbie November 15, 2009 at 11:54 AM #

    Such a beautiful city and a rich history – I’ll have to make my way out there someday.

  2. Andrew November 15, 2009 at 1:14 PM #

    Wow such great photos in this article. Great job!

    • Steph November 15, 2009 at 1:52 PM #

      thanks! I had a hard time picking which photos to use, Sarajevo is such a pretty city.

  3. Nancy November 15, 2009 at 10:32 PM #

    This is so beautiful Steph. I’ve never really stumbled upon pictures of Sarajevo. Mostar, yes. Sarajevo, no. And these pictures are stunning, not to mention your evocative descriptions.
    .-= Nancy´s last blog ..Analysis of Rock Music: An Oxymoron? =-.

    • Steph November 15, 2009 at 10:38 PM #

      Thanks Nancy! I’m actually posting about Mostar on Tuesday. I didn’t know anything at all about either before I decided to go to Bosnia. Totally underrated part of the world.

      • Emir November 18, 2009 at 8:05 AM #

        Not really underrated… for example Sarajevo got on Lonely Planet’s top 10 list..

        I could agree on “Totally unexplored” 🙂


  4. Shannon OD November 15, 2009 at 10:53 PM #

    I just loved this post – it took me right back to Bosnia. I stopped there on my last travels also on a whim…I didn’t know a lot about what to expect. I was just utterly surprised by how much I loved the city and the entire country – it’s such a gem that few people make it to!
    .-= Shannon OD´s last blog ..A Little Contemplation…Readjusting to a Dose of Reality =-.

  5. neha November 16, 2009 at 2:46 AM #

    beautiful pictures! am hoping to make it to Sarajevo sometime next year.
    .-= neha´s last blog ..I Heart My City =-.

  6. Travelfusion March 30, 2010 at 11:17 AM #

    Wow – fantastic photos! I just blogged a snapshot that I found of Sarajevo that I thought was beautiful, but yours take the cake! Thanks for sharing.

    Kathryn @Travelfusion

    • Steph March 30, 2010 at 11:37 AM #

      thank you! I was actually really frustrated. I kept taking pictures of the orange roofed hills and nothing seemed to quite capture the beauty.

  7. Michael April 20, 2010 at 12:19 AM #

    These pics are amazing. Interesting article too. You’ve convinced me to go to Sarajevo.

    • Steph April 20, 2010 at 9:36 AM #


  8. Mel May 5, 2010 at 5:38 AM #

    Hi Steph,

    Thanks for sharing your experience. Amazing photos. My hubby and I are thinking of exploring the Balkans this fall; namely Bosnia, Serbia, Slovenia and Montenegro. What was your itinerary like? We don’t know where to start. Thanks!

    • Steph May 5, 2010 at 8:12 AM #

      Hi Mel! I flew into Sarajevo then headed south towards Mostar and Montenegro. Took a LONG overnight bus ride up to Belgrade then from there went up to Slovenia for a week before heading down to Croatia. I’ve written a lot of other articles about my trip on the site so be sure to have a look (I’m going to do a round up post of all of them sometime this month). Enjoy! I really, really fell in love with the area.

      • Mel May 19, 2010 at 10:31 PM #

        Thanks a lot Steph. We are still working out our itinerary. Sarajevo, Mostar, Dubrovnik and Zagreb are in but we are still undecided between Montenegro (Kotor Bay) and Slovenia. But I think we’ll give Belgrade a skip.

        Btw, I read your other blogposts, glad to know you’ve been to Malaysia. I’m from KL, so next time you are here again, do gimme a shout 🙂

        • Steph May 20, 2010 at 8:13 AM #

          Ohh tough call. If you are going to Dubrovnik already then I might pick Slovenia, just for diversity. I loved both areas though.

          I actually haven’t been to Malaysia yet- but it’s on the itinerary for next year so I may get in touch!

  9. Lana May 18, 2010 at 9:01 AM #

    Steph 🙂

    Just discovered your blog – love it.

    I know exactly what you mean – I fell in love with Sarajevo and Bosnia & Herzegovina in general. Beautiful country with beautiful people 🙂

    .-= Lana´s last blog ..Going Solo… =-.

    • Steph May 18, 2010 at 9:51 AM #

      Thanks! Glad you found me. I am hoping to return to Bosnia at some point- it was so beautiful.

  10. Mike Klein July 30, 2010 at 5:19 PM #

    Overall, a good piece–I’ve written something similar on my own blog,

    I do take issue with one thing–the idea that the Olympic Stadium has been turned into a cemetery. It’s not true.

    Yes, some of the practice fields have been converted to burial grounds (and not just of the ‘uniform pillar’ variety–but reflecting all of Sarajevo’s historical religious communities), and the seats in the Zetra Olympic Hall were used for wood to make coffins with. But the Olympic Stadium is now the main football ground in BiH, and Zetra has been reborn as a multipurpose sport and concert venue rivalling those in much larger European cities.

    Happy to share my other Bosnia reflections.


    • Steph August 2, 2010 at 3:59 PM #

      Thanks for clarifying that!

  11. Lara January 12, 2011 at 12:26 PM #

    Wow, I just stumbled upon this entry. Excellent writing! I lived in Sarajevo for 7 weeks this past summer and fell absolutely in love with Bosnia. I miss those stunning mountains and the wonderful cafes, but mostly the people. I hope more people realize what a gem Bosnia is!

    • Steph January 17, 2011 at 2:24 AM #

      It’s such a cool place and I’d love to go back!

  12. Heidi January 29, 2011 at 4:56 PM #

    Really enjoyed your photos and writings!

  13. twoOregonians June 28, 2011 at 8:37 PM #

    I’ve always had an interest in Bosnia, though I’ve never been able to visit. (I was born during the 1984 winter Olympics in Sarajevo, and my aunt – whose cousin won a gold medal that year (!!!?) – nickname me “Jevo” – a title that has stuck for life!)

    A few years back, I helped organize the trip for a native Bosnian and director of the American Friends Service Committee, Davorian Brdanovic, to come to Portland, Oregon and share about his work in developing community gardens as part of the post-war reconciliation efforts in Bosnia Herzegovina. The stories were amazing…both the horrors of the war and the way that civilization had been so jarringly altered, and the stories of re-connection that happened as people from all different ethnic backgrounds slowly began to participate in the community garden efforts.

    Out of curiosity, after reading your post, I dug up the old information from his lecture. At the time, there were 2,000 people involved in 15 different sites around the area (including “pensioners, the unemployed, students, children, physically and mentally challenged persons, prisoners, refugees, displaced persons and returnees, and varied ethnic and religious groups”). It’s encouraging to see progress and re-built relationships after the devastation of war…

    Anyway…very enjoyable to see your photos and read of you visit. Thanks, as always! xx

    • Steph June 28, 2011 at 8:52 PM #

      Thank you for sharing! It’s so important to record and remember those stories so that it never happens again.

      • Malka October 7, 2012 at 2:55 AM #

        Hi there Steph, I would like to thank you on your story about Sarajevo, I was born
        and raised in Sarajevo it’s my home town, and yes, it’s most beautiful city in the
        whole wild world. I was there during the war, I was only 19 back then…:(


  14. A.G. November 17, 2011 at 1:34 AM #

    Hey, I am really glad you enjoyed in Sarajevo, beautiful capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. But I just want to remind you about one mistake: Bosnia and Herzegovina is not a Muslim country. Officially it is secular country with 40 % of population declared themselves as Muslims, 31% as Orthodox Christians and 15 % Catholic Christians. The rest don’t belong to any religion or they are the part of some very small religious groups.
    Religion is there important cultural segment but in dailiy life you will meet very secular, let’s say, typical people from Europe.

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