Uniform rows of identical white headstones fill the green space in the small yards of mosques and churches throughout Sarajevo, each one bearing a date that seems too recent for a European war. Only a few blocks outside the city center, some buildings are still pockmarked with bullet holes.
Reminders of the war that dissolved Yugoslavia are everywhere, but the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina is due for a fresh look as signs of a vibrant future begin to outshine those of the nearly four-year siege that devastated Sarajevo during the early 1990s.
New hotels add a measure of comfort to what has mostly been a backpacker destination, and five airlines announced new services to the city in the last year, including Qatar Airways and the budget carrier Wizz Air.
Now the enigmatic city exudes a modern cool in numerous ways, such as a sculpture garden skate park in the restored Austro-Hungarian quarter and margaritas served in the preserved Ottoman bazaar within earshot of the Muslim call to prayer. Timothy Clancy, an American who came to Bosnia as a volunteer in 1992 and never left, said he’s spent most of his adult life shining a positive light on a place that most travelers think of as a war-torn wasteland.
“One advantage is, people have low or no expectations,” he says. “And Sarajevo drastically exceeds them every time.”
Here are 11 things to do there:
1. See the Ottoman bazaar
The heart of Sarajevo, which was founded by the Ottomans in the 15th century, still lies in the Baščaršija, a tight quarter of one-story market stalls that date to the city’s earliest years. The market runs through a few car-free streets along the Miljacka River, leading up the wooden Sebilj fountain in a square teeming with pigeons.
Throughout the bazaar, exotic aromas of spice markets float among those of sizzling meats, sometimes a whole lamb spit-roasted in full view of passersby. Grizzled men in other stalls use metal tongs to pull searing copper from a fire and then hammer it into intricately designed plates, trays and goblets.
Some vendors veer closer to kitsch, selling cheap souvenirs and pens made from the shell casings of high-caliber rifles. Others stick with classics such as gooey Turkish delights, their gelatinous cubes redolent of fruit flavors and dusted in flour or coconut.
The area also has the majority of the historical sights in town, such as the 16th-century Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque and its lunar clock tower. The Hotel President, which opened in 2015 at the edge of the Baščaršija, makes a good home base within sniffing distance of the action.
2. Savor a cultural pick-me-up
There are dozens of places for an espresso or cappuccino in the old town, but it’s worth searching out Bosnian coffee. Thick, rich and strong as jet fuel, the local version is such a part of the culture that it’s the drink of choice for everyone from courting couples to businessmen closing a deal. Visitors to a Bosnian’s house will have coffee served whether they like or not.
The coffee grounds are boiled with water in a long-handled copper pot on top of the stove, which most people associate with Turkish coffee. But the beans are generally roasted in Bosnia for a brew that’s even more potent.
“It’s 10 times better,” Clancy says. “Turks are great at tea but not so much at coffee.”
In the Baščaršija, the Male Daire hookah bar, which is another activity enjoyed by younger Sarajevans, is a laid-back place to perk up and meet some friends. Or for a great people-watching corner, there’s the sidewalk cafe outside Kaffa.
3. Take in a view from above
Work began in 1729 on five fortifications built onto the old city wall, but the Žuta Tabija, or the Yellow Fortress, is basically all that’s left. It looms above the city from Jekovac Cliff on the eastern end of the old town, offering a fantastic view and a spectacular place to see the sunset. The red roofs and minarets of the old town give way to the neoclassical heft of an Austo-Hungarian expansion during the late 1800s, and eventually to the skyscrapers of the modern city in the distance. All of it is set against a backdrop of thick forested hills that surround Sarajevo.
A basic cafe opened in the fortress last year, with picnic tables that make the operation resemble a beer garden. Except no alcohol is served, and in the middle of the tables, a red velvet rope circles a cannon that’s fired at sunset during the holy month of Ramadan.
Despite a few dry locations, the predominately Muslim city prides itself on its secular attitude, and you’re much less likely to see a woman covering her hair than one click-clacking down the cobblestones in high heels.
4. Go on one of the world’s best hikes
All those hills surrounding Sarajevo lead to the mountains of the Dinaric Alps, which gave the city reason to host the Winter Olympics in 1984. Well-marked hiking trails wind through the woods on all sides of the city, meaning a hiker could walk out its eastern edge, head north and west along a ridge, and end up back on the other side of town that afternoon.
Those trails also lead to the Via Dinarica, a mega-network of paths inspired by the Appalachian Trail that runs through the Western Balkans from Albania to Slovenia. Along the way are traditional mountain villages and opportunities for rafting, hiking and climbing.
The network was named the best new trail of 2014 by Outside magazine and was on National Geographic Traveler’s list of places to go in 2017. ViaDinarica.com is a comprehensive resource.
“You can print a miniguide for each section of the trail,” says Clancy, who helped stitch the trial network together as an ecotourism consultant for the United Nations. “It’ll show you where you the water holes are, can give you turn-by-turn directions. It’s pretty sophisticated.”
5. See where World War I began
The Latin Bridge, which crosses the shallow Miljacka River to connect the old town with the Skenderija neighborhood, is the city’s oldest. But as 16th-century bridges go, the structure itself isn’t what stands out. On one end of this bridge in 1914, the heir to Hapsburg throne was assassinated by an 18-year-old Serbian, sparking World War I and leading to the extinction of two great empires, the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman.
A modest museum at the northern end of the bridge tells the story how Gavrip Princip happened to see Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s motorcade after other would-be assassins failed to kill him. The museum has changed with the evolving perception of Princip, who over the years has been seen as both a nationalist wing nut and a socialist hero. Now the museum focuses on the 40 years Sarajevo was ruled by Austria-Hungary, with particular attention for the end.
6. Dive into the steampunk and skater scene
Toward the west end of town, skateboarders shoot around the ramps at Hastahana Park while families linger on the grassy areas. When the sun starts going down on nice days, it can be a cool scene of young and old mingling together, some hanging out drinking beers while others watch the world go by.
A gigantic sculpture by German artist Helmut Lutz, which was installed in 2005 next to one of the ramps, dominates the park. It’s a steampunk mix of steel horns, fabric bellows and fanciful busts that looks like a yacht-sized musical instrument from Dr. Seuss’ Whoville.
The sculpture was funded by residents of one of Sarajevo’s sister cities, the German town of Freiderichschafen. Each winter, the park also hosts a holiday market.
The neighborhood around the park exhibits the building boom during a massive expansion of the city during Austrian rule. Another Austrian contribution: the street car, which arrived in Sarajevo in 1885 as a test run for Vienna’s public transit.
7. Hike up to the abandoned Olympic bobsled track
When the Olympics came to Sarajevo, the games were hailed as a Cold War success in semi-neutral territory (Yugoslavia was communist but not aligned with the Soviet Union).
The war in the 1990s damaged many of the sporting venues, including the bobsled and luge track on Trebević Mountain south of town. Despite some recent efforts to restore the track for training, it’s basically abandoned and covered in graffiti.
Videos abound on YouTube of people riding bikes or rollerblades down the track, but it also attracts non-daredevils who hike through thick pine forest on well-marked trails and climb onto the track at various spots along the way. The trailhead is a cheap, 10-minute taxi ride outside the city for a rare opportunity to see a bizarre Olympic ruin.
The Pino Nature Hotel, which opened near the top last year with a mid-century-meets-Aspen ski lodge feel, has a spa and a terrace with spectacular views of the mountain. It too, however, is a dry venue, but the restaurant is worth a visit for its hearty, updated Bosnian fare.
8. Drink rakija on a night out
Throughout the Balkans, rakija is a staple served at parties and weddings, with dinner at home, and at most bars as a boost of liquid courage. A clear brandy similar to grappa, it’s distilled from various fruits, often plum, pear or apple but also from more exotic ingredients such as quince or walnuts. Just don’t be fooled by the fruit flavors. This is potent stuff.
Barhana in the Baščaršija serves many varieties as well as mezze, or small snacks, and tablets of cured meat and cheese similar to what you’d find at Spanish tapas bars. All that toasting and tasting leads to some late nights — some bars in Sarajevo don’t close until 6 a.m. — and lots of new friends.
“Sarajevo is the kind of place where you leave your place with five marks in your pocket, and somehow you come home at 6 a.m. with 10 marks and a full pack of cigarettes,” says Cat Norman, who opened the Doctor’s House Hostel about three years ago. “You’ll see their generosity knows no limits.”
Another popular place is Hacienda. What it lacks in Mexican authenticity it makes up for with a lively crowd and surprising margaritas.
9. Get your kicks at an old porn theater
A night at Kino Bosna is a singular experience, Norman says. Before the war, it was a movie theater showing Hollywood movies and eventually porn films, but the owner fled and never came back. One of the employees decided to open it as a bar, bringing in wooden chairs and red-checkered tablecloths and leaving up the old film posters.
The owner has since become a Sarajevo legend. Because she’s essentially squatting in her old boss’ business, she can’t register to pay taxes. “The bar will get closed down for a week here and there, but she always finds a way to reopen it,” Norman says. “It’s what the party people want when you come to the Balkans.”
Monday night is the best of the week, she says. That’s when they have a lively band playing traditional sevdah music for tips.
10. Glimpse at horrors or war from siege to Srebrenica
Although there’s much more to Sarajevo than war, the city has embraced its tortured past. Serbian troops cut the city off from the outside world, and rooftop snipers fired at anyone walking on the streets. The only lifeline for supplies was an 800-meter tunnel that connected the people with smugglers from outside the city. The War Tunnel Museum has preserved a section of it and tells the tale of the family that risked their lives by allowing the entrance to pop up in their cellar.
Another exhibition, the Srebrenica-Galerija 11/07/95, focuses on the worst genocide in Europe since the Holocaust. In one month near the end of the war, Serbian troops slaughtered more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in one town, mostly men but also women and children, and buried the bodies in mass graves.
A photographer chronicled the lives of the survivors, who more than 20 years later still don’t have all the answers about what happened to their family members. The black and white photos show the exhumation of graves, some of which had been moved several times to evade human rights inspectors. And hundreds of mothers supplied portraits of their sons who were killed, including some whose bodies were never identified.
11. Eat like a Bosnian
“In Balkan culture, men live with their mother,” Norman says. “Then they get married, and the wife does the cooking. Then when the wife dies, they go to an ascinica.”
Ascinica means a cafeteria that serves cheap, hearty food, often stews, and everything is served with somun, a type of grilled flatbread similar to pita. One good option is ASDŽ.
Bosnians also claim they have the best version of a Balkan staple called ćevapi (pronounced chuh-VAH-pee). It’s grilled links of minced beef or lamb stuffed into somun with onions and sometimes sour cream, and it’s one of the most satisfying street food meals anywhere. For the most authentic, locals recommend Zeljo or Petica.
Roast lamb is also serious business, particularly at the fine-dining 4 Sobe Gospodje Safije, which translates to the 4 Rooms of Mrs. Safije. Their take, considered one of the best in the country, is cooked for 20 hours and served with a garlic sauce, pistachio pesto and crushed potatoes.
BONUS: History and a hike
The Sarajevo Free Walking Tour provides an excellent way to get bearings as well a dose of history during two-hour strolls through the city. Guides, who work for tips, are friendly, knowledgeable and happy to answer any questions. It’s best to make contact a few days in advance.
At one point, they’ll walk you past the Sebilj fountain, the Baščaršija’s most-photographed landmark. Legend has it that if you drink from the fountain, you’re destined to come back. Chances are, you’ll want to anyway.