There are many cities called Saraj in this world…, but this fortified Bosnian city of Sarajevo is the most advanced, most beautiful and most lively of them all.
-Evlija Čelebi, 17th century Ottoman traveler (more Sarajevo quotes here)
Sarajevo is a fascinating place. On first glance, the city seems dreary and battered with cars everywhere and drab concrete buildings as far as the eye can see, unfortunate byproducts of communism and war. But if you take the time to explore the city and learn more about its rich history, people, food, and culture, you will not be disappointed. Budget-friendly Sarajevo is the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and it's picturesquely nestled in the Dinaric Alps by the clear green Miljacka River. The area was settled in prehistoric times, followed by Ottoman rule in the 15th century, Austro-Hungarian rule in the 19th century, Yugoslavia's communist rule in the 20th century, and finally today's democracy. So, that mix of diverse cultures and government shaped the city into the undeniably eclectic place it is today. From diverse architectural styles to the world-class 1984 Olympics to urban planning notes, there is a lot I will post about Sarajevo, so today I'm going to cover some of the city's highlights. Enjoy!
Vijećnica (City Hall)
Hands down one of the city's most iconic sights, the elegant and richly-decorated Vijećnica was built in the Moorish style during the Austro-Hungarian rule in 1896. The building achieves the perfect balance of east and west, a true "symbol of the meeting of world civilizations," and has come to represent the suffering and rebirth of Sarajevo in relation to the Bosnian War. In August of 1992, Vijećnica served as a library and was set on fire; 90% of the library's collection was destroyed, as well as everything but the building's walls. After the war, the building was meticulously restored to its former glory and reopened in 2014; today, visitors can experience the grand building for less than $3.
Sarajevo Tunnel (Tunel spasa, or Tunnel of Hope)
Southwest of the city and near the airport is this unassuming little house, sitting on top of a tunnel constructed in 1993 during the Siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. The Bosnian Army built the tunnel to connect the city, entirely cut off by Serbian forces, to Bosnian-held, UN-controlled territory. Food, medical supplies, people, and aid traversed the tunnel, as well as contraband arms because citizens had no way to defend themselves thanks to the international arms embargo, forcing them to acquire arms from Colombia. I took a great group tour to the tunnel and the site was packed with other tourist groups, and we all got to scrunch down and walk through part of the tunnel. (Only a section of the original tunnel is open to visitors now, although there are plans to open the entire tunnel which runs to the airport; the tunnel was neglected after the war and filled with earth, but is now being cleared out.)
National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina
This national museum is a true testament to Sarajevo’s perseverance and pride: in operation since 1888, not only has the museum suffered from two wars (WWI in the 1910s and the War of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s), but was temporarily closed in 2012 due to funding issues. The 2012 closure brought passionate protests and the museum’s 65 employees continued to come to work for over a year without a paycheck, heat, or electricity. That being said, I find the history and survival of the museum to be more fascinating than the treasures safeguarded inside. For a mere $3, visitors are welcome to explore the compound’s gardens (featuring part of the UNESCO-listed Stećci Medieval Tombstones Graveyards) and four pavilions containing the departments of archaeology, ethnology, natural history, and a library. Many exhibition areas were closed when I visited, but the staff was very friendly and the buildings in themselves were simply amazing. The ethnology department was mostly closed but had simple yet fabulous Ottoman style wood ceilings; the archaeology exhibit was especially grand, with ancient stones displayed in a large, airy, columned space; library spaces featured row after row of old, charming wooden display cases. The idea for the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina was conceived in the 1850s by the Ottomans, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire brought the idea to fruition in 1888. According to Wikipedia, in 1913, the museum was enlarged by the Czech architect Karel Pařík who designed a structure of four symmetric pavilions with a facade in the Italian Renaissance Revival style.
Old Orthodox Church
Tucked behind a stone wall on the busy Mula Mustafe Bašeskije street is this Serbian Orthodox church. It was built in the 1500s (and rebuilt in 1726) and believed to be one of Sarajevo's oldest houses of worship. I visited the church to experience the "mystical powers" of the child's tomb on the second floor.
According to Wikipedia, the Seige of Sarajevo from 1992 to 1996 was the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. After Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1992, Bosnian Serbs stationed a force of 13,000 in the hills surrounding the city; when they began the siege, Serbia expected the city to fall within days. Well, they f***ed with the wrong city because Sarajevo stood strong and resisted for six years. With this recent history in mind, it's impossible to be in Sarajevo and not see reminders of this dark period: red-filled craters on sidewalks (Sarajevo roses) where people were killed, the ICAR canned beef memorial as a big middle finger to unsavory MRE-style food, a modern glass fountain memorial dedicated to the 521 children of Sarajevo killed, cemeteries everywhere filled with sparkling white headstones from the 1990s. There are memorials all over the city for other notable events, such as an eternal flame memorializing the liberation of Sarajevo from the four-year-long occupation by Nazi Germany and Park Mirze i Davora dedicated to a basketball superstar who died young. So if tragedy tourism ever becomes a genre, Sarajevo has that in the bag.