This post may contain affiliate links.
Please read my disclosure.
Hope for Sarajevo
Sarajevo is a city of hope. Walking through the city, you can see the traditional cultural & religious diversity of four religions that have co-existed here for centuries. Sarajevo was never split into ethnic ghettos and Muslims, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Jews lived side-by-side earning it the nickname, the “Jerusalem of Europe”.
In contrast, Sarajevo has been at the center of two war-related historical events. The corner deemed where World War I started with the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, is now a monumented tourist history lesson. The second event is the entire city of Sarajevo itself which withstood the longest siege of a city in the history of modern warfare (1,425 days long) during the 1990’s Bosnian War.
Despite the grimness of the horrors endured, Sarajevo is now a city on the rebound. Another Bosnian city where I received one of the warmest welcomes by its citizens looking to the future.
Top Sites in Sarajevo
Ottoman Old Town
Although settlement in this valley along the Miljacka River surrounded by the Dinaric Alps stretches back to prehistoric times, the modern city of Sarajevo arose as an Ottoman stronghold in the 15th century. The cluster of villages in the area were transformed into a settlement with the Ottoman Empire building of a mosque, a closed marketplace, a public bath, a hostel, and the governor’s citadel (“Saray”). As the settlement continued to grow around the citadel, the city of Sarajevo was officially founded in 1461, the name derived from Turkish saray ovası, meaning the “field around saray”.
By the 16th century, Sarajevo became known for its large marketplace and over 100 mosques. Sarajevo was the biggest and most important Ottoman city in the Balkans after Istanbul. By 1660, the population of Sarajevo was estimated to be over 80,000 (compared to Belgrade at 12,963 inhabitants and Zagreb at 14,000 people).
In 1697, the Great Turkish War began between the Hapsburg Monarchy against the Ottoman Empire. Sarajevo was looted & suffered several fires leaving the city charred and plague-infected. By 1807, it had only some 60,000 residents.
The Baščaršija (Old Town) today has several mosques, the market halls (one dating from 1551), Coppersmiths’ Street (Kazandziluk) where craftsmen still work today, and traditional food including Ćevapi and Burek.
Division from Ottoman to Hapsburg
With the crumbling of the Ottoman Empire, Sarajevo came under Austria-Hungary control in 1878 as part of the Treaty of Berlin. While so many cities have layers of history, in Sarajevo, the line is clear – literally. The Hapsburg buildings arose extending the city. Though the residents of different religions still lived intermingled, the building styles are distinct as the city grew from the Old Town.
From the line in the pavement, you can look one way and have visions of a street scene in Istanbul. Then turn 180 degrees and see a street scene in Vienna. In my pics, you can see the same guy in the green shirt in both pics walking toward me and away from me as I turned and took the pictures.
Austria-Hungary used the city as a testing area for new inventions before installing them in Vienna. In 1885, Sarajevo was the first city in Europe and the second city in the world, following San Francisco, to have a full-time electric tram network running through the city. There is a replica of the trolley that runs on the line today AND the one that I by chance rode upon arrival into the city from the train to my hotel. I was bewildered that this was the size of the tram system until I realized it was a special car. The trolley plays a traditional tune and it was all quite charming despite the packed car full of stinky backpackers who piled on with me.
The Austro-Hungarian period was one of great development for the city, as this Western power built factories and Hapsburg yellow buildings to modernize Sarajevo to the Victorian Age.
Several mosques, Jewish synagogues, Orthodox Churches and the Catholic Cathedral were built in this area. Pope John Paul II visited the Catholic Church in 1997 and the visit is commemorated in a statue outside.
Sarajevo was the only major European city to have a mosque, Catholic church, Orthodox church and synagogue within the same neighborhood including this Orthodox Church with its glimmering gold interior.
The Corner that started World War I
THE POWER OF ONE BULLET
On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, were shot dead in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip, one of a group of six assassins who were members of the Black Hand secret society. The political objective of the assassination was to break off Austria-Hungary’s South Slav provinces so they could be combined into a Yugoslavia.
The assassination led directly to the First World War when Austria-Hungary subsequently issued an ultimatum to the Kingdom of Serbia, which was partially rejected. Austria-Hungary with Germany in its Alliance then declared war on Serbia. Serbia was allied with Russia and France who mobilized their troops. World War I began when more countries entangled in international alliances were mobilized into one of the largest wars in history with more than 70 million military personnel involved.
Allies: United Kingdom, France, Russian Empire, Italy, Japan, United States, Romania
Central Powers: Austria-Hungary, Germany, Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria
By the end of the war, the German Empire, Russian Empire, Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire had ceased to exist. National borders were redrawn, with several independent nations restored or created, and Germany’s colonies were parceled out among the winners. During the Paris Peace conference of 1919, the Big Four (Britain, France, the United States and Italy) imposed their terms in a series of treaties. The League of Nations was formed with the aim of preventing any repetition of such a conflict which failed with weakened states, economic depression, renewed European nationalism, and the German feeling of humiliation contributing to the rise of Nazism. These conditions eventually contributed to World War II.
The political & economic structures of that time were at a tipping point, but Pricip’s bullet was the match. One bullet resulted in:
World War I: over 17 million deaths and 20 million wounded
World War II:Between 50-80 million people were killed, which was about 3% of the 1940 world population at that time.
Today, the corner is well marked and a museum details the strange series of events of the day including 2 failed assassination attempts by the Black Hand 6 before Pricip was successful in killing the Archduke. A replica of the 1911 Gräf & Stift 28/32 PS open sports car with its top folded down sits out front.
The bridge is called the Latin Bridge (Latinska Cuprija) as this was where the Catholics said mass in Latin. After World War I, it was renamed “Principov Most” for the assassin who asserted the Bosnian Serb nationalism against the Hapsburgs. After the 1990s Bosnian Wars, the bridge was reverted back to the Latin Bridge in defiance of the Serb aggression and siege on the city.
Post World War II, Sarajevo became the capital of the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina within the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia under Tito’s regime. The Tito government invested heavily in Sarajevo with industry and block residential housing seen on the outskirts of the Hapsburg quarter. The post-war population of 115,000 grew to 600,000 people by 1991.
The crowning moment of Sarajevo’s time in Socialist Yugoslavia was the 1984 Winter Olympics. They were followed by an immense boom in tourism. My first knowledge of Sarajevo was the 1984 Winter Olympics. As a young girl, I was enthralled with the great Katarina Witt – the ice skating princess and her gold medal win. This televised Olympics of Sarajevo also brought the forefront concepts such as the Cold War and Communism.
Siege of Sarajevo
Tito was the chief architect of the second Yugoslavia, a socialist federation that lasted from 1943 to 1991–92. Tito’s vision of a united Yugoslavia of the 6 Slav nations did bring about economic expansion in the 1950s and 1960s (though at expense to personal liberty) but a decline during the 1970s. After Tito’s death in 1980, tensions between the Yugoslav republics emerged and in 1991 the country of Yugoslavia disintegrated and went into a series of wars and unrest that lasted the rest of the decade and continue to impact most of the former six Yugoslav republics. As you travel throughout the Balkans, you will hear different impressions of Tito and he remains a very controversial figure.
When Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia and achieved United Nations recognition, the Serbian leaders and army whose goal was to create a “greater Serbia”, declared a new Serbian national state Republika Srpska including Bosnia. Over 18,000 Serbs surrounded the city and held it pinned down in the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996 (1,425 days).
13,952 people were killed during the siege, including 5,434 Sarajevan civilians and over 1,500 children under the constant bombardment and sniper shooting at civilians by the Serb forces during the siege. An additional 56,000 people were wounded, including nearly 15,000 children. In 1991 before the siege, Sarajevo and the surrounding areas had a population of 525,980. Today the population is ~300,000.
To learn more about this chapter in Sarajevo’s history, I took a tour with one of the children born just before the siege and essentially grew up in it. He walked our group through the city explaining different landmarks and detailing how life was during this time period. When the siege ended, the concrete scars caused by mortar shell explosions left a mark that was filled with red resin. After the red resin was placed, it left a floral pattern which led to it being dubbed a Sarajevo Rose.
What gives me hope for the city is this young man. Despite growing up in the atrocities of war, he chooses to educate without hatred and continued the message that all these religions have lived side-by-side in Sarajevo for centuries and that was what this city was about.
Sniper Alley & Bridges
If you took the tram from the train to the city center along the Miljacka river, you were riding along sniper alley. During the siege of Sarajevo, the mountains and the tall building gave snipers viewpoints to kill citizens trying to get about the city. Citizens would either run or wait for vehicles and hide behind them to pass. According to data gathered in 1995, the snipers wounded 1,030 people and killed 225 (60 of whom were children).
Today this street remains the main thoroughfare through the city.
One of the bridges is called the Romeo and Juliet bridge. Admira Ismić (a Bosniak girl) and Boško Brkić (a Serb boy) were killed by snipers on 19 May 1993, while trying to cross the Vrbanja bridge to escape the city together. The couple died embraced together on the bridge and could not be retrieved for several days. Photographs of their dead bodies were used by numerous media outlets and brought the human suffering worldwide.
The 2012 Festina Lente (Latin for “Make haste slowly”) pedestrian bridge has an unusual loop in the middle suggesting to slow down and enjoy the view.
Srebenica Exhibition shows the events through photos and videos around the ethnic cleansing of more than 8,000 Muslim Bosniaks in and around the town of Srebenica in Bosnia. The killings were perpetrated by units of the Bosnian Serb Army of Republika Srpska under the command of General Ratko Mladić considered one of worst crime against humanity since WWII. Mass graves are still being found, the bodies identified through DNA and given a proper burial. Hearings still continue in 2015 regarding the events, governments & organizations that did not stop the massacre and the description of the crime as genocide. The emotionally exhausting museum will leave you with an empty feeling similar from after visiting any WWII concentration camp, but there is historical importance to bear witness to insure this never happens again.
Museum of the Revolution contains artifacts from the siege-time in Sarajevo and shows through photos how the Sarajevan survived during this the siege. The sign “Pazi Snajper” translates to Caution Sniper.
Memorial to the Children of Sarajevo
This park has one of the most emotional memorials in this city filled with heartfelt memorials. The green glass sculpture in the center of the fountain represents a sandcastle that will never be finished. Embedded in the concrete edges of the fountain are footprints of the siblings of 1,600 children killed during the siege. To the side of the park are round pillars that have the names of these children engraved on them. Off in the distance of this park are early 17th century Ottoman style gravestones that look white posts.
Today, the city rebounds. Various new modern buildings have been built, including the Avaz Twist Tower, the tallest skyscraper in the Balkans.
These men gathered daily to play their giant chess game and were welcoming to us as we watched them group strategize.
Spending a few days in the city, I was amazed at the mix of religion and people. There were very few Americans here and being a solo tourist, I stood out. However, Sarajevans are some of the warmest people adding to my previous statement about the citizens of Mostar. The people of Bosnia amaze me not only with the resilience but also with their mindset to embrace humanity despite the cruelty experienced.
What I missed
There were three sites that I did not have a chance to visit that were on my list, so a return trip is on the list. These sites are outside the city center.
Tunnel of Love: During the Siege, a 1/2 mile tunnel was built under the airport to the one mountain pass under Sarajevan control. This tunnel kept the city supplied.
City View: A popular viewpoint to see the city is called White Bastion (Bijela Tabija) at the site of an old fortress. Best reached by taxi.
Olympic Venues: Several of the 1984 Winter Olympic venues still exist outside the city including the luge run and ski jump. More scenes from the Olympic Venues can be found here
Traveler Notes and Tips
Time: Plan a few days here to not only get a vibe of the city, but also be able to visit the sights outside of town without being rushed.
Transportation Tips: Notes from transportation routes taken in Bosnia available here.
Inspired to visit Sarajevo?
LOVE IT. SHARE IT. PIN IT.
Teri Didjurgis is a full-time traveler for over nine years visiting all 50 US States & 70+ countries. After 15+ years working in corporate America, she took the leap & started her own location independent businesses. She now explores the world looking for luxury escapes, historic destinations and ways to connect with communities on her travels through local traditions & cultural experiences. Welcome to her re-imagined American Dream: an inspired lifestyle with "Blue Sky" possibilities.