First class welcome to Sarajevo
We spent about 36 hours in Sarajevo, one of our shortest stays in any city on our trip to-date although, it was likely the most rewarding. This post is a little longer than the others, but it was hard not to share our experience.
First impressions and good eats
Having grown up in North America and visiting a country that only 20 years ago was in the middle of one of the most significant wars of our time, we couldn’t help but be a little on edge. We sat in the first row of the bus from Mostar to Sarajevo and therefore had a great view of the beautiful Bosnian countryside for the entire four-hour drive. As we drove down Zamaja od Bosna (a.k.a, Sniper Alley), the main roadway heading into the center of Sarajevo from the west, it was trying to rain so the clouds were dark and there was a sort of foggy haze in the air that kind of matched our mood.
Our host hadn’t arrived to meet us when we reached our apartment, so we found a tiny sushi restaurant next door and asked if we could use their wi-fi to contact our host. Not only did we get free wi-fi, we also got a great introduction to Bosnian hospitality, including a list of things to do and places to visit. We tried the sushi and realized shortly after that it’s the best you can get in the city. Sushi San is a must when in Sarajevo, especially if you’re looking for a break from the Burek and other heavy Bosnian dishes. We ate a lot in Bosnia as you will see.
After checking into our apartment, we headed to Franz and Sophie for tea. Again, the best place for tea in the city (Tripadvisor first, then confirmed by us). The owner and his staff were super friendly and helpful, giving us directions and recommendations. They even thought Jess was Bosnian! We actually went back the following day and they remembered us, the tea we had the night before and our travel itinerary!
With a recommendation in hand from Franz & Sophie, we headed to Karuzo for supper. It opened at 6 PM and we walked in at 5:55 with no reservation. Apparently it’s a popular spot and Sasha, the owner, made room for us and patiently answered each of our one million questions about the menu. The restaurant is vegetarian/fish/vegan friendly with gluten-free options. The owner plays host, server and chef, and we’re pretty sure everything we ordered was prepared from scratch, even the ice cream. It is definitely worth a visit!
After only four hours in Sarajevo and three restaurant experiences, we were blown away by the Bosnian hospitality.
Dženita was another great restaurant that we visited on our last evening in Sarajevo. Jess tried the ‘Bosnian Pot’ and I had the traditional Ćevapčići and of course the local brew, Sarajevsko pivo.
The ‘Complete War Tour’ with Ervin (Toorico Tours)
As we only had a short stay in Sarajevo, we wanted to learn and see as much as we possibly could. We succeeded in doing this with the help of our awesome tour guide Ervin, who essentially acted as our host! Ervin is nothing short of a walking dictionary with a wealth of knowledge of not just Sarajevo but BiH and the Balkans as a whole. Our day started when Ervin picked us up at our apartment at 10 AM, which was on the outskirts of Baščaršija, the cultural hub of Sarajevo. Fortunately for us, it was just Jess and I on the tour so we had Ervin at our disposal. After fueling up the Renault wagon we headed to the first stop, the Yellow Fortress, where we could get a great view of Sarajevo (it was spectacular despite the grey, foggy day). From there you could see the hilly terrain, rebuilt apartment buildings and the mix of Muslim, Orthodox and Catholic cemeteries.
The Old Jewish Cemetery, the second largest in Europe, was up next. The cemetery is important because it was used as a vantage point by Bosnian Serb snipers due to its expansive view of the city from its perch on Mount Trebevic. The cemetery lies directly above Vrbanja Bridge (now often referred to as Suada and Olga Bridge after the first two victims of the siege in Sarajevo). Evidence of the war can be seen throughout the cemetery.
From there we drove through the city and headed towards the international airport where we visited the Sarajevo Tunnel that was built under the runway. The runway blocked the only escape route from the city which was completely cut off by Serbian forces. On the other side was territory that was held by the United Nations. The tunnel was constructed in 1993 amidst the war and took just over four months to build and was first used to supply food and artillery to the city. To give an idea of the tunnel’s significance, around 4,000 people passed through the tunnel every day. That’s a lot of traffic considering tunnel was about five feet high and three feet wide. Today only 26 meters still remain out of the original one km length.
From the tunnel museum we headed for Mount Igman, along the way passing two live land mine fields.
It’s hard to believe that in an eight year span, Sarajevo went from hosting the worlds largest celebration of nations with the Olympics of 1984, to being the site of one of the most significant wars in recent history. We visited Malo Polje which was home to the ski jumping events during the ’84 winter games. The Olympic podium still sits at the base of the hill, providing a photo opportunity for tourists.
Mount Igmam also boasted one if the most luxurious hotels in Sarajevo which played host to both politicians and celebrities. Sadly, Hotel Ingman went up in flames during the war and today it is just an eerie reminder of the events that took place from ’92 – ’95 (photo below).
It’s one thing to visit these sites on your own, but we had the luxury of having Ervin explain everything about the war, of course not until he confirmed that we were alright with him sharing details. He was extremely open and candid as he explained what it was like to live through those events. He also gave us the opportunity to ask any questions we wanted, no matter how ridiculous they were.
We were getting the bus out of Sarajevo the next morning and Ervin was kind enough to call the bus station to find our bus time. Then, knowing that the next day was the first day of Eid and that it would be difficult to find a taxi, he insisted that he come pick us up and drop us at the bus station.
The approximately six hour tour with Ervin cost €30 each but the experience he provided was worth so much more. Ervin’s tours are #1 on Tripadvisor and for good reason!
We both believe that first impressions are crucial and in this case it was the warm reception we received from each and every person we interacted with in Sarajevo. It was by far the friendliest city we’ve been to in Europe. Cities like London, Paris, and Berlin get repeat visitors all the time whereas most Eastern European cities only get one chance from western tourists. In this case, Sarajevo delivered. Wholeheartedly.
jess + trickett
Toorico Tours: In addition to the “Complete War Tour”, Ervin offers several other tours and experiences, including a free walking tour (based on tips) and a traditional dinner with a Bosnian family. Had we had more time, we would have taken advantage of all of these! Ervin’s slogan is “Do you know Ervin? If you don’t, you were not in Sarajevo”. We couldn’t agree more!