A Somewhat Practical Guide to Sarajevo- Travel Diary Part Two

Having waxed lyrical in the previous installment, it’s time for some actual intel for those who want to visit Sarajevo, beginning with the thorny issue of how to get there. Flying is probably the best bet for everyone approaching from outside the former Yugoslavia, as the country’s roads and railways still have some post-war infrastructural issues. There aren’t all that many flights either, with about a dozen each of inbound and outbound flights a day. As Bosnia and Herzegovina no longer has a national carrier, BH Airlines having gone bankrupt in 2015, Lufthansa and Turkish Airlines transfer flights are some of the best options, and there are also direct connections to Zagreb, Belgrade and Vienna.

Wizzair operates direct flights from Budapest twice a week, as per the latest schedule on Sundays and Wednesdays- previously they flew a Friday-Monday sequence which may have been better suited for a city break, but given the relative inaccessibility of Sarajevo, it’s safe to say that even the current solution is spectacularly better than not having any flights. With a bit of luck the return fare may cost you as little as 50 euros if you plan to travel light and don’t mind sitting squished between two strangers, as the seat allocation algorithm shows no mercy, not even to those having booked together. Since I’m a sucker for the window seat, I did cough up the extra cash for that, although at almost 10 euros it’s one of the more expensive Wizz seat fees.

Trains are available only for a limited number of domestic connections (such as the day trip to Mostar), but there are direct buses to most Western European countries, especially those with a strong Bosnian diaspora. Though it’s not often talked about and there is no phyisical boundary such as say a wall, Sarajevo is in fact still a city divided. The majority of the Serbian population lives in Istočno Sarajevo, which  lies on the territory of the Republika Srpska and administratively belongs to it, so connections to cities in Republika Srpska and to Serbia proper are available from the Lukavica and Pale bus stations.

As most of the city’s attractions are to be found close to each other (Sarajevo is in fact not particularly big for a capital, with a population of around 275 000 as per the 2013 census) you won’t really need public transportation if your accommodation is in, or around the centre. This being said, a one hour ticket costs 1.60 convertible marks, while a day ticket costs 5.30. Having reached the topic of the marks- they were introduced as the national currency of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995 after the Dayton agreement, and were pegged to the German mark (hence the name, and the name of the subdivision, pfenigs or fenings), retaining its exchange rate to the euro to the current day, namely 1 euro is 1.95 marks, generally rounded up to 2. While the international abbreviation of the currency is BAM, locally you will almost always see it as KM, therefore we fondly nicknamed it kilometre money. While many places accept euros, they generally do not take coins and give change in convertible marks, and smaller shops and bars/restaurant might not always have card terminals, so the best approach is to have some local cash with you all the time.

Dwelling further into practicalities, Bosnia and Herzegovina sadly does not have an agreement with the EU over roaming coverage, so data plans are quite expensive, and as per our experience most networks have a patchy coverage- for a longer stay, it’s probably wise to buy a local pre-paid card, whereas for a city break you’ll probably be alright wifi-hopping. Accommodation is however available well below the price average of most European cities, and there are plenty of well rated options around the city centre- we can warmly recommend ours, Apartman Skenderija, a well equipped flat with a great view and within walking range of most tourist attractions.

When it comes to what to see in Sarajevo, it makes sense to start in the Baščaršija, the city’s old Turkish bazaar, which dates back to the 15th Century, and managed to escape mostly unharmed in spite of both Austro-Hungarian and Communist plans to ‘modernize’ it. In essence it’s still a zig-zag of narrow streets lined with shops and restaurants, and although there are naturally some stalls selling the usual touristy plastic knick-knacks you can find anywhere, there are still plenty of traditional craftsmen working in their small shops, such as the coppersmiths along Kazandžiluk street, which in fact takes its name from the local word for coppersmith, kazandžija. If, like us, you already have too many džezvas (the traditional Turkish/Balkan copper coffee pot), you may consider buying a Bosnian rug, the making of which differs slightly from the traditional Persian technique, and should you travel with hand luggage only (just as we did) you may sit on it on the plane for space saving, thus practically travelling on a flying carpet.

The Baščaršija’s best known landmark is the Sebilj fountain, an Ottoman style fountain moved to its current location during the Habsburg rule, surrounded by a population of extremely audacious and unbothered pigeons. With all the enmity and the bitterness of the war years the old Sarajevo of many nations, many tongues and many religions may have sometimes been forgotten, but the buildings of the Baščaršija stand as its witnesses: besides the mosques, such as Gazi Husrev-beg’s mosque, there are also Orthodox and Catholic Churches and two synagogues, which today function as Jewish cultural centres. Another attraction of the Baščaršija is the Morića Han, originally built in 1557 and recognized as a caravanserai on account of the number of people and horses it could host- today’s version is the one reconstructed by 1974 after a fire had destroyed most of the building in 1957.

Sarajevo city hall, known as Vijećnica, lies on the edge of the Baščaršija overlooking the Miljacka river, and when it was finished in 1896 it embodied the best and worst of the intricate workings of the Habsburg empire: originally designed by a Czech, its building was halted by the whims of a Hungarian, then re-started by an Austrian who unfortunately passed away, thus work was finished by a Croatian, all of this resulting in an eclectic, pseudo-Moorish style. In 1992, while serving as the National Library of Bosnia, the building was shelled and almost completely destroyed during the city’s siege, with most of its rare book and manuscript collection lost to the fire. Its current iteration is thus a rebuild, heavily financed by the European Union, which aimed to stay as true to the original as possible. The building is open daily from 9 to 5 (though on less busy days this seems to be mostly theoretical, so do not be surprised if you find it closed with no one to tell you why) and the entrance fee is 10 convertible marks, which grant you access to the main spaces and some historical exhibitions. As the exact boundaries of what is a visitor’s area and what is an administrative office are somewhat blurred, you may, as a bonus, accidentally find yourself in the middle of some convoluted bureaucratic proceedings involving heavy smoking (which is permitted and basically encouraged in almost all public spaces in Bosnia) and lots of coffee, but the city officials seem pretty nonplussed by such events and simply politely advise you away.

Across the river lies the Inat Kuća, or Spite House, whose initial owner had a protracted war of wills with the Habsburg authorities when the city hall was built, first refusing to move out of his home and finally consenting but rebuilding his house piece by piece on the other side of the Miljacka purely to spite the city fathers. Today the house is a pleasant restaurant with great views of, naturally, the city hall and a lovely terrace over the river, where you can sit, sip your Sarajevsko pivo and contemplate the joys of being an absolute pain the arse. From the same area you can set out on a leisurely walk up the hill to visit the two remaining fortress parts of the walled city of Vratnik, developed by the Ottomans in the 18th Century after a successful raid by the hyperactive Eugene of Savoy pinpointed Sarajevo’s defensive weaknesses. Today the so-called Yellow and White bastions (Žuta Tabija and Bijela Tabija) are rather unspectacular as far as historical monuments go, but offer splendid views of the city, plus accessing them leads through the picturesque narrow streets which were once inside the walled city.

Sarajevo offers further delights for those who love heights: the Trebević cable car, reopened last year after having been closed due to technical issues in 1989, and then completely destroyed during the war, and the Avaz tower. The cable car’s departure station lies about ten minutes away from the city hall, basically a walk in a straight line along Talirevića street and operates from 10 AM to 9 PM in the summer season- a two way ticket costs 20 convertible marks. The Avaz twist tower overlooks the railway station in the Marijin dvor neighbourhood and, with 176 metres, is currently the tallest skyscraper in the former Yugoslavia. You can take the lift straight to the 36th floor where there is a viewing platform which has a 2 convertible mark entrance fee so make sure you have the correct change, but there is also a bar on the 35th floor and the Sky Garden restaurant on the 31st. (You’ll most likely be intercepted by a receptionist anyways, as per TripAdvisor reviews some of them can be of the grumpy sort, but ours was totally friendly and sent us to the restaurant without a hitch.)

There is of course no leaving Sarajevo without inspecting the place that started WWI, and it’s the most unassuming street corner possible right by the Latin Bridge, with some info material on the royal couple, Gavrilo Princip and how the area looked during the event. I’ve avoided siege related catastrophe tourism on purpose- while I admit that visiting certain locations, if done with the honest will to learn, can be equally illuminating and frightening, the city tours focused solely on gory details miss pretty much everything about what made Sarajevo great in the first place. Nevertheless, if I was to pick one siege related location, it would probably be the Tunnel of Hope– built during the war, it allowed humanitarian aid to reach the city and people to leave, bypassing Serbian held territory. Today its entrance serves as a museum, and visitors can also walk about 20 metres into the tunnel. As it lies pretty far from the centre, it’s probably best reached by cab, the fare should cost around the same as to the airport, so around 20 convertible marks, while the ticket is 10 marks, opening hours are from 9 to 5 during summer season and 9 to 4 during winter season.

When it comes to eating and drinking in Sarajevo, our top pick must be Gastro Pub Vučko, which serves mostly international street food but has a wide range of excellent Bosnian craft beers, from, among others, Pivara Semizburg, Gelender and Džudžan Craft Pivovara (whose symbol is a ferret-džudžan in Bosnian- with its head stuck in a beer glass, instant love).The local ‘commercial’ beer, Sarajevsko, is itself a pleasant lager (the staple product, there are obviously other types in the range). Its brewery also comes with a proud history dating back to Austro-Hungarian times, has not been sold over to any major conglomerate and continued its operations during the siege in spite of being severely damaged, also serving as source of drinking water to the city’s population. Food wise, recommending restaurants in Sarajevo is almost superfluous, as most burek places (buregdžinice) serve excellent burek- this is a great sentence, I know, but calling burek anything in English, especially savory pie with cheese or meat, sounds almost sacrilegious. Even more sacrilegious is the description of the flatbread containing the Sarajevo version of ćevapi (dispensed in places called ćevabdžinice) naan bread, though it may be faintly similar, and your sandwich, to use another incorrect term, will usually come served with kajmak, which is similar to clotted cream. (I am again catering to the whims of an English speaking audience- I myself had no idea what clotted cream was until someone likened it to kajmak.)

Restaurants serving typical local food will be often called national restaurants, and the one which saved us from starvation on a busy Ramadan evening was Aeroplan– it seems less favoured than other establishments in and around Baščaršija, but we had no complaints whatsoever about their ćevapi and it has a pleasant collection of ethnic decor to admire until the food comes. Barhana is a far hipper affair, as in, hipsters eat Italian food in it, which might be a counterintuitive option for a traveler when not in Italy, though the atmosphere is definitely enjoyable. But if you’re in for some genuine local meals that are, shockingly, not ćevapi, you’ll probably be happiest in Nanina Kuhinja. Of the places already mentioned Sky Garden has tasty dishes, though half of the menu is gone by the later afternoon for some mysterious reason, and our own meal came seasoned with a waiter teetering on the thin line between extremely rude and extremely polite. Of Inat Kuća’s food we can sadly not say much, as we got stuck at their offer of beer and brandy (quince, excellent) and we’ll end this piece with both a Top Gear-like bombshell and Grand Tour-like terrible disappointment: the blog’s industrious mobile phone photographer did not really like Bosnian coffee. I apologize to the whole of Bosnia and Herzegovina (and Republika Srpska, if they care) and recommend Espresso Lab, as the only sort of specialty coffee shop in town, and Index on Kazandžiluk street, as a prime example of local coffee house, where the waiter seems to take it very personally that you disturbed his profound union with the forces of nothingness through your order, yet eventually offers it to you as a sign of superiority and forgiveness.

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