When it comes to Sarajevo, I am like a human shaped boomerang. I fly away, I circle the world but I will always keep coming back to this city. It was in 2004 that I visited this city for the first time. I was shocked by the scars of the recent war that had only ended 9 years before but also intrigued by its beauty and diversity. There was something different, something I had not seen before. To be fair, back then the atmosphere could be grim. You could see bullet holes in almost every building, big holes in the ground from grenades and it felt like the sun did not shine as bright as in other places.
But I also saw that war can destroy a lot but not everything. Life was going on and an interesting culture was preserved. I fell in love with a lot of things. The way they drink their coffee and the fact that everyone goes into town to drink it together. The old Ottoman part with its cozy little alleys and the modern Austro-Hungarian part which gives the city two faces. The typical dishes I had never seen before and their natural and honest ingredients. It was there that I discovered a tomato does have flavor. Through the years I got to know this city better and better and I realized it is a wonderful gem in Eastern Europe. I have seen the city grow, slowly recovering from the war and it is opening like a flower now.
When I told people nine years ago that I was going to visit Sarajevo they looked at me strange and asked: Is that not the place where there is war? I told them there WAS a war. Nowadays I am glad to see that the image is changing. More and more tourists are attracted to the city and this is reflected through the city. Hostels are opening their doors and many of the locals have learned to speak English. Also a lot of the bullet holes are gone and buildings are restored to their former beauty. The city is coming to life again and is claiming its well deserved place with a lot of authenticity. The grim atmosphere is gone these days and it feels like the sun is shining bright again.
Now, the fact that I have visited a city quite some times is actually very unusual for me. Normally I go by the motto “Been there, done that”. There are so many things to see in the world so better concentrate on new things. The second time is never like the first time anyways so why bother. In this case it does not work that way. There are things that just keep me coming back to Sarajevo and it seems that I cannot get enough of them. Recently I was in Sarajevo again and I thought about it. What are these things I like so much? I came up with the following.
The Old Town (Baščaršija)
The old town of Sarajevo is by far my favorite part of the city and the most characteristic. It is build by the Ottomans in the 15th century and has a lot of authentic charm. The buildings are low, made of old stones, wood and orange roof tiles. They are actually nothing special individually but together they give this part of the city an old Middle-East bazaar vibe. It consists of a market square where everyone gathers, small streets, alleys and hidden patio’s where people drink coffee and eat. The minarets of old mosques rise above the low buildings together with an old clock tower and the roofed bazaars emphasize the Turkish signature.
But it is actually not what the eyes meet what gives the old town the most atmosphere, it is the smells. Imagine you are walking through the small streets, people are sitting outside on small chairs in front of cozy little restaurants. You hear the murmuring of people talking. It is already getting darker and the air is a bit misty because of the smoke from preparing the food. You smell grilled meat and freshly baked bread. You walk on and the smell changes into sweet flavors of ice cream and cakes. A little further you smell fresh coffee and suddenly the air is mixed with the smell of exotic tobacco. You look next to you and you see some people smoking the shisha while you hear the water bubbling with the breaths they take. It feels like you have stepped back in time for a moment and with every sense you have you feel the city is alive. This is what I love so much about this place and makes it one of my favorite.
The first thing I always want to do when I arrive in Sarajevo is eat a somun. Why? Because it is the best bread in the world. Really, even when I think of it now, water is coming into my mouth. I have tasted many kinds of bread in my life but none is so delicious as somun. It is actually a real simple flat bread but is has this nice smoky flavor because it is prepared in a wood oven. For a photo assignment I had to visit one of the bakeries and it was really fun to see how they make somun. Everything is handmade and the process is super fast. People eat it with different things like grilled meat, sausages or kajmak (a creamy dairy product).
I think it is safe to say that pita is Bosnia’s national dish. Pita is everywhere and there are so many small restaurants in Sarajevo which are specialized in only pita. Of course this is for a reason, it is delicious! There are different kinds of pita. You can choose potato, cheese, meat, pumpkin or spinach and it is rolled in thin crispy fillo dough and cooked in traditional ovens. There is even one with apple as a dessert. I always try to figure out what my favorite is but I never come to a conclusion, they are all nice. You can eat it for lunch, dinner or just as a snack and it goes really well with a glass of fresh yoghurt.
People who do not agree that pita is the national dish of Bosnia would probably say that it is chevapchichi. Like pita, you can find it everywhere in Sarajevo and it is responsible for the great grilled meat smell in the streets. It is actually a very simple dish. It is grilled minced meat shaped like little sausages with a piece of somun and some chopped sweet onion. The taste is quite addictive and it also goes really well with a glass of yoghurt.
Maybe you already noticed but Bosnians are quite a big fan of dough. It is always served with a meal. Because they eat it so much, there are bakeries all over the city and in Bosnia they are called pekara. Personally, I love the bakeries. They sell oddly shaped breads, pretzels, small salted bread called kifle, bread filled with a sausage and somun. It is a good and cheap way to fill your stomach, especially after a night of partying because some are open 24/7. My favorite bakery, my weak spot is a bakery in the old town close to the clock tower. It is in a small alley and the whole ambience feels like a thousand-and-one-night fairytale. It is a hole in the wall and the alley is paved with pebble stones. While you wait under the stars you smell fresh bread and you will often get the bread warm from the oven. Yummie!
Just like in Italy, coffee is a big thing in Bosnia. Locals often go into town to drink it together and to talk. It is like a social liquid. Nowadays, the modern restaurants prepare the coffee with big fancy coffee machines but that is not what I prefer. I like to drink it in the old traditional way, I like a real Bosanska Kafa! The taste is not significantly better but it looks so romantic. It just adds to the coffee experience. I could try to describe it but a picture works better in this case.
They do not use a filter so the coffee is directly mixed with the water. The coffee sinks to the bottom so you have to keep in mind that you do not want to pour everything in your cup because it will be a unpleasant surprise.
In Sarajevo there are markets everyday and I always love to wander around and see what they sell. It is mostly seasonal fruit and vegetables fresh from the countryside. When I was there recently, it was strawberry and cherry season. You could buy a kilo for 1,5 euro and the taste was amazing. Rich in flavor and with the taste of nature. There is also another market which is worth a visit and it is called Trnica. It is inside a big building on the main street in the city center and they sell eggs, meat, smoked meat and all kinds of dairy products. The quality of the products here is very good.
What distinguishes Sarajevo from most other cities is its diversity. Old and new are living together as well as in architecture as in traditions. You can split the city literally into two parts. On one side of a crossroad you will find the old part and on the other one the new. You can drink a traditional coffee in a small bar but also a cocktail in a modern club. Sarajevo is also called the Jerusalem of Europe. All kind religions are living side by side. Mosques, churches and synagogues are decorating the city what indicates a high level of tolerance. Sarajevo is a capitol city but the atmosphere feels like a town at the same time. Drive for 10 minutes and you will find yourself in the beautiful nature of the mountains or stay in town and experience the bustling heart of the city. I never get bored.
Sarajevo is situated in a valley stretched along the river Miljacka and is surrounded by mountains. Because of this, it is possible to have excellent views over the city from all different sides. The most famous viewing points are the Yellow Tower (Zuta Tabija) and the White Bastion (Bijela Tabija). They are easy to reach by foot from the Old Town and they give wonderful views over the city. Although the white one is the higher one I would say the yellow is the best one. You can sit down on the wall and overlook the city and especially at dusk it is magical when small lights are twinkling in the city and the muezzins start to sing their prayers. It is also a nice place to meet fellow travelers and have a beer together for example.
If you have a car, it is worth to visit the mountain on the other side of the city called Trebević . There used to be a cableway from the Old Town to this mountain but it is unfortunately destroyed in the last war. Luckily there are plans to build a new one because it is a wonderful green area with amazing views.
You would not think of it but the area around Sarajevo is excellent for winter sports. The mountains are not as high as in Switzerland or France for example but they are high enough and it is fun to ski or snowboard between the pine trees. In 1984, the Olympic winter sports were even hosted by Sarajevo. You can still see the signs like parts of the bobsled course on Trebević mountain or the ski jumps on Igman mountain. Winter sports are also very affordable around Sarajevo and you can rent bungalows if you prefer to sleep on the mountain.
I think I have pretty much explained now why I love the city so much and what the things are that keep me coming back. Weird because this is actually the first time I am explaining it so elaborate to someone else.
How about you? Have you ever been to Sarajevo? Did you like it and what did you like the most?
Tip: If you decide to visit Sarajevo I can really recommend the online city guide ‘The Girl With The Blueprint’. In this guide you can find the best places to eat, the coolest places to have a drink and much more. I am the photographer of the guide.