Sarajevo: The Warm Heart of the Balkans

Almost seven years have passed since my jaunt through the Balkan Peninsula, and with memories slowly fading, I’m now scrambling to jot down every sentiment before it all slips away. Somehow, I’m not entirely convinced that my brain will ever fully purge itself of the journey.

Even as I push forward as a traveller, extending my comfort zone beyond what was once thought possible, I constantly reminisce about my time in the Balkans. And not for typical reasons.

Every place I visited then captivated me in a different way. But no city, before or after, impressed upon me more than Sarajevo, the unassuming capital of Bosnia & Herzegovina.

It wasn’t that Sarajevo was the most beautiful or action-packed destination I’d ever encountered. That would be too easy.

Something about Sarajevo instantly appealed to me, and I could never quite put my finger on it until now: Sarajevo didn’t show me its full hand. The main reason I can’t shake the city is that it never fully revealed itself to me.

Unlike Prague, Istanbul, or Krakow, Sarajevo’s charms don’t immediately slap you in the face. But when approached slowly, they aren’t hard to coax out. Delve deeper into Sarajevo, and I promise you: it won’t take long to fall prey to its magnetism.

Famous for all the wrong reasons, Sarajevo is, for many travellers, hardly a dream destination. But fast forward and ignore all the bad press – Sarajevo has now become a dramatic symbol of a nation and people surging forward from a crippling civil war that tore the fabric of the country to shreds some two decades ago. Besieged from April 1992 to the end of February 1995, Sarajevo has, despite all odds, rebuilt itself into one of Eastern Europe’s liveliest modern capitals with plenty to keep you busy for a few days.

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Haggling in the footsteps of the Ottomans

At its ancient core, Baščaršija, Sarajevo pulses, showcasing its multifaceted character. Built in the 15th century by the Ottomans, the tongue-twisting Baščaršija and its eccentric bazaar still retain their original Turkish flavor—quite literally.

Street in Bascarsija

The shops here sell nearly anything imaginable. Restaurants serve up Bosnian fare, heavily influenced by its former Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman occupiers. All grace the cobblestoned streets emanating from the Sebilj, a fountain seemingly more suited for Istanbul than Central Europe.

Plying the narrow alleyways in Baščaršija, you’ll find wares of every variety: copper pots, Turkish instruments, clothing, cheap souvenirs, and even war relics – if that happens to be your thing. Arm yourself with a few Bosnian phrases: Baščaršija is one of the best places west of Istanbul to test out your haggling skills.

Shops in Bascarsija

Besides getting that bağlama you’ve always wanted, bargaining is a great way to engage the locals. They’re not afraid to open up and give insight into their beloved city. Forget relying only on the immensely popular “Sarajevo Survival Guide,” written during the Bosnian War, to draw insight into the city’s recent past. Fiercely proud and resilient, Sarajevans are, themselves, never short on inspirational stories.

Most of the time, you don’t even need to ask. It’s nearly impossible to spend a few days in Sarajevo and not encounter someone with a firsthand tale of the devastating siege. This is one of Sarajevo’s most compelling quirks: visiting the city has a rare ability to change one’s perspective on life. After chatting with a few Sarajevans, complaining about minor inconveniences in your life seems mundane. Sarajevo can be a turning point, not just a mere travel destination.

The “Jerusalem of Europe”

Walking about Baščaršija, it’s easy to see why Sarajevo was once called the Jerusalem of Europe. At an ancient crossroads of east and west, religious tolerance reigns in Sarajevo. Throughout the city, mosques and madrasas blend seamlessly with cathedrals and synagogues.

The old town in and around Baščaršija is a common haunt for the devout. The imposing 16th century Baščaršija Mosque is one of the focal points of the bazaar district. It’s an impressive specimen of Ottoman architecture with its characteristic domes and piercing minarets.

To the west of Sebilj stands one of central Sarajevo’s other most impressive mosques, the Gazi-Husrevbey Mosque. It was built just two years after the Baščaršija Mosque in a similar style. Outside of religious holidays and worship times, both mosques are accessible to visitors.

Gazi Husrev-Beg Mosque

Escaping persecution in Spain, many Sephardic Jews settled on Ottoman territory, including throughout Bosnia. The old Jewish quarter of Sarajevo, north of Ferhadija, was once a bustling place. It was home to about 12,000 Jews who thrived under the Ottomans. Today, little is left of the old quarter and the community it once played host to. The two exceptions are the New Temple Gallery, a compelling museum of Jewish history, and the Old Temple Synagogue.

Old Temple Synagogue

Although Islamic influences are the most palpable in Sarajevo, there are a number of Orthodox and Catholic cathedrals and churches also worth exploring. Check out the old Orthodox Church in Baščaršija, with its museum of Greek, Russian, and Bosnian artifacts. The Byzantine-style Orthodox Cathedral at Trg Oslobođenja is also worth a father. Both these churches are excellent examples of the influence of Orthodox Christianity on Bosnian culture. Try to spot the Catholic Cathedral, just west of the old Jewish quarter. It’s s one of the many visible remainders from the Austro-Hungarians.

Sarajevo by night

For a city of its size, Sarajevo truly lets loose with a raucous bar scene that could rival many larger metropolises. Renowned for late nights – and even later mornings, Sarajevans have no shortage of choices to while the night away. The options range from café-bars and pubs to live music bars and nightclubs.

There’s no particular bar area in Sarajevo per se, but many watering holes are dispersed in and around Maršal Tito Street to the west of the Eternal Flame.


Zlatna Ribica (Kapitol 5) is one of Sarajevo’s most popular and unique bars, located just north of the Eternal Flame. The interior is reminiscent of turn-of-the-century Europe. It showcases theatre posters and art-deco pieces on its walls. Whether you’re swigging rakija or just sipping a strong coffee, Ribica will keep you entertained with its eclectic music selection and its odd smattering of décor.

Further afoot, Sarajevans rock out at Cinemas Sloga (Mehmeda Spahe 20), one of Sarajevo’s premier live music venues. Noticeably reminiscent of the Yugoslav era, Cinemas Sloga hosts live bands and DJs ranging in styles: rock, folk, dance, jazz – and even Latin – are all in the line-up. On Monday nights – one of Sloga’s big nights – spirited Sarajevans, after a strenuous weekend of burning the candle at both ends elsewhere, gear up to do it all again.

Formerly the home of the immensely popular Buddha Bar, Gastro Pub Vučko (Radićeva 10) traded in the former nightclub’s pumpin’ retro 70s and 80s music for more casual sit-down vibes. Dig into its delicious pub food favourites, washing it down with a variety of traditional and craft beer from around the region.

Ryan O'Rourke

Ryan O'Rourke is a Canadian traveller, food & drink aficionado, and the founder & editor of Treksplorer. With over 20 years of extensive travel experience, Ryan has journeyed through over 50 countries, uncovering hidden gems and sharing firsthand, unsponsored insights on what to see & do and where to eat, drink & stay. Backed by his travel experience and in-depth research, Ryan’s travel advice and writing has been featured in publications like the Huffington Post and Matador Network. You can connect with Ryan on Twitter/X at @rtorourke.

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