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5 Reasons to Visit Sarajevo

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TPG Contributor Lane Nieset explores Sarajevo’s up-and-coming local wine scene and booming beer halls on par with those in Prague — as well as the movers and shakers who are chasing their dreams to kickstart their own communities in town.

A flourishing merchant city in the 16th century, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s capital city of Sarajevo was one of the largest and wealthiest in the Ottoman Empire. Fast-forward a few centuries and the city surrounded by the towering Dinaric Alps has morphed into a capital where Eastern and Western cultures meet, a mini mix of Istanbul and Vienna thanks to its years under both Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian rule. This Balkan capital still has plenty of history to offer, but it’s also breathing new life into its old-school institutions. Here’s why you should plan a trip to Sarajevo.

1. The Ottoman Old Town

Sarajevo is nicknamed “European Jerusalem” since the Old Town is stacked with cathedrals, mosques and synagogues. Image courtesy of the author.

Sarajevo’s name comes from a Turkish phrase roughly translating to “the fields around the palace.” The palace no longer stands next to the Miljacka River, pictured above, but you can still visit the spot where the city began back in the 15th century.

Get a sense of of Sarajevo’s beginnings in the Baščaršija, or Old Town, that started as a market square with a series of mosques. Bazaars and cafés now stand in courtyards like Morića Han, where caravans once parked when they paraded through town.

Fast food in the Baščaršija still sticks to tradition, with aščinicas, buregdžiničas and ćevapdžinicas offering street food style fare like Ćevapčići, beef sausages served alongside flatbread, onions and yogurt.

Take a seat and sample one of the teas at Čajdžinica Džirlo in Old Town. Image courtesy of the author.

At Čajdžinica Džirlo tea house, pictured above, you can indulge in another Bosnian ritual, a lengthy tea break. Head upstairs and take a seat in the attic-inspired space — the shabby-chic faded wallpaper and scruffy stools are part of the charm. Sip on some salep,  a warm drink crafted from orchids and topped with spices.

2. Home Cooking with a Twist

Žara iz Duvara adds a healthy spin to Bosnian home-style cuisine, featuring fresh ingredients scooped up daily from the nearby market. Image courtesy of Žara iz Duvara.
Žara iz Duvara adds a healthy spin to Bosnian home-style cuisine, featuring fresh ingredients from the nearby market. Image courtesy of Bezdan Photography, Žara iz Duvara.

The night I stumbled into Žara iz Duvara, a new chef was taking the reigns for the first time since Sabina Osmanovic opened her restaurant just a few years ago. Everyone in the room clapped along to classics being belted out next to the bar by a live band, and Sabina shifted roles from chef de cuisine to bartender to server, stopping for small talk at each table along the way.

Before bringing a chef on board to divvy up tasks, Sabina worked alongside her mother mastering family recipes and playing with ingredients like nettles — the inspiration for her restaurant’s name even translates to “nettle from a wall.” Now the spot has built up a reputation for serving some of the best homestyle cuisine in town, pulling ingredients from the market just around the corner to whip up roasts and soups, offering up the ultimate in Bosnian comfort food.

Across the street, the 18-seat, ship-shaped Karuzo serves up a meatless menu of Mediterranean-inspired dishes. Owner Saša Obućina plays the role of captain to his land-locked boat, running up from below deck to check on guests and chat about the philosophy behind his dishes, part of his vision to pioneer a health movement in a city that favors heartier fare. Try the vegetarian version of cevapcici and don’t leave without sampling the homemade walnut or cherry brandy.

 3. Wines that Don’t Travel Well

Di Vina specializes in Balkan wines like this Pinot Noir from Macedonia. Image courtesy of Di Vina.
DiVina specializes in Balkan wines like this Pinot Noir from Macedonia. Image courtesy of DiVina.

One of the region’s best-kept secrets may be its wine, since you won’t find it crossing over Balkan borders. For a crash course in Balkan wine, stop for a tasting at DiVina, a boutique stocked with 200 labels from more than 50 wineries.

Bosnian wines take priority here, but you’ll also find varieties from Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia — as well as local meats and cheeses — so you can leave all stocked up on local specialties for the perfect wine pairing once you get home.

4. Balkan Beer Halls That Rival Those in Prague

The movie theatre-meets-dance hall Kino Bosna is the place to go for beer and live music.
The movie theater-meets-dance hall Kino Bosna is the place to go for beer and live music. Image courtesy of Kino Bosna’s Facebook page.

In Sarajevo, you don’t need to worry about it being five o’clock somewhere to start drinking. The city is home to the Sarajevo Brewery, the only European brewery to have been in full production during both the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

You can sample Sarajevsko pale lager next door at Pivnica HS or at spots around town like Kino Bosna, a former cinema that’s now a watering hole with live bands playing Balkan tunes around tables.

 5. All the Year-Round Outdoor Activities

A scenic mountain trail near Sarajevo, Bosnia. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
A scenic mountain trail near Sarajevo, Bosnia. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Sarajevo sits in a valley surrounded by five mountains, four of which were dubbed the Olympic Mountains after the 1984 winter games, making the city a prime launching point for hiking and cycling trips.

The new Via Dinarica trail that connects eight Balkan countries winds its way through Bosnia and Herzegovina, with a stretch through Sutjeska, the country’s oldest national park, also home to one of the continent’s last primeval forests.

Part of the Balkans’ appeal is the back-to-basics idea that touches everything from the cuisine to the countryside, with hikes like Green Visions’ 11-day trek passing through some of the more unexplored parts of Bosnia’s peaks, letting hikers stay overnight in mountainside huts.

Where to Stay

Gorgeous views of Sarajevo from a terrace at The Doctor’s House hostel. Image courtesy of The Doctor’s House.

Cash in your Marriott Rewards points at the Category 4 Courtyard Sarajevo, located along the Miljacka river within walking distance of the Old Town. Rates start at about $94 or 20,000 Marriott Rewards points per night in June.

For a boutique option, Hotel Central is one of the city’s most luxurious spots, with 15 spacious rooms spread across seven floors, as well as a full-service spa with a sauna and steam room. Rates start at about 113 euros (~$129) per night in June.

Straddling the line of the Bjelave and Mejtaš neighborhood, The Doctor’s House hostel sits up in the hills above the city with terraces that offer up some of the best views in town. The hostel was born out of a love story, with American owner Cat Norman falling for both a man and a country, in turn creating a community that caters to more than just backpackers. The two-year-old hostel is filled with handmade furniture and local art (even the quilts were knitted by Cat’s mom), and the “honor bar” is stocked with local brews, giving guests a chance to sample what’s on tap in Sarajevo. Dorm beds start at 10 euros (~$11) per night while private rooms start at about 30 euros (~$34) per night year-round.

Getting There

There are a number of connecting flights into Sarajevo International Airport (SJJ) on Turkish Airlines via Istanbul (IST), Croatia Airlines via Zagreb (ZAG), Austrian Airlines via Vienna (VIE) and Lufthansa via Munich (MUC). You can also catch a flight to SJJ via Norwegian Air from Oslo (OSL) and Stockholm (ARN). Travelers can also reach Sarajevo by bus from Dubrovnik on a six-hour trip on Bus Croatia that passes through Mostar. Fares start at 152 HRK (~$23) each way.

Have you visited Sarajevo? What are some of your favorite parts about the city?

Featured image of Sarajevo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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