If there is one place in continental Europe that symbolises the crossroads between East and West, Sarajevo would have to be it. It is here that the Byzantine and Ottoman empires to the east and the empires of Rome, Venice and Vienna to the west brought their culture, traditions and religions. Only a few spots on earth can boast of hosting an Orthodox and a Catholic church, a mosque and a synagogue, all in the same square.
This city, in particular, epitomises the centuries-old struggle against outside forces and the ability to assimilate all of these influences into one of the most diverse indigenous cultures in Europe. Whereas other parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina may still be burdened with ethnic strife, this city’s long-standing tradition of multi-ethnicity enables it to thrive in its diversity. A walk through Sarajevo is a walk through the past.
What to see and do in Sarajevo
Baščaršija, as the old town is called, is the far east corner of Sarajevo and is the part of town that displays its oriental flavour. This was the centre of life during Ottoman rule from the 1440s until the empire collapsed here in 1878. It is famous for the craftsmen of every kind who still hammer away at making authentic handmade goods as their forefathers did centuries ago. Sebilj square is where the main public fountain is located in the old town. It has been refurbished after falling into disrepair during and after the war. The square is always filled with pigeons and for 1KM you can buy a cup of corn, which will be completely covered by the little flying creatures in seconds. The coffee and sweet shops near Sebilj all serve Turkish coffee with rahat lokum (Turkish delight).
Just outside the square is Kazandžiluk, the famous coppersmith trading place on the west side of Baščaršija. Here you’ll find great antiques, hand-beaten copper dishes and oriental décor. It may seem strange to find shell cartridges left over from the war on sale, but Sarajevo was hit with enough artillery and anti-aircraft fire that if you stacked them they’d reach the moon.
Next to Kazandžiluk street is Baščaršijska džamija or the marketplace mosque. Its official name is Havadja Durak’s Mosque (Džamija Havadže Duraka) and it was built in the 1530s. This mosque often has the imam singing the call to prayer from the minaret, the mystical sounds of which resonate throughout the čaršija (old Turkish quarter).
Ferhadija walkway is perhaps the most charming part of town. It stretches from Sebilj in the centre of Baščaršija all the way to the Eternal Flame in the city centre. The lower part of Ferhadija is officially called Sarači, but it is the same walkway that changes name near the Austro-Hungarian part of town. Ferhadija is almost always filled with locals strolling through town, window shopping, chatting or just enjoying the pleasant energy of walking up and down.
Along the Ferhadija is Morića Han. It was known as a caravanserai, meaning ‘castle of the caravans’. The function of the han (inn) was to provide warehouse space, stables and accommodation for traders coming from near and far. It was built by the Gazi Husrevbegova fund and got its name much later from the inn operator Mustafa Morić. In the 1970s it was renovated and restored as a tourist attraction. It now has several restaurants and cafés, an oriental rug shop and office spaces on the first floor where the inn rooms used to be. It’s a lovely place to sit and have a drink in the courtyard and imagine how it used to be.
Old Orthodox church
The old Orthodox church (Stara pravoslavna crkva) is often referred to simply as the old church. It is estimated that the church was built in 1539–40. The Orthodox Church grew considerably in Bosnia from this point on. The church caught fire several times. The turret by the church had a dome until the first half of the 20th century but, following the reconstruction designed by architect Dušan Smiljanić, the turret became the simple form it is today.
The museum (free entrance) has many icons and frescoes from that era, and even earlier relics brought to Sarajevo from other Orthodox lands. The museum was arranged by Jeftan Despić, the sexton of the old church. Be sure there isn’t a service in session before entering.
Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque
Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque is the most significant Islamic building in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is perhaps the finest example of Ottoman Islamic architecture on the Balkan peninsula. The Persian architect, Adžem Esir Ali, was the leading architect of his time within the empire and his mosque design favours the early Istanbul style. The original structure was built in 1530 but was largely destroyed when Eugene of Savoy plundered Sarajevo in 1697. It was fully restored by 1762 but was destroyed again in 1879. The last reconstruction of Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque was in 1886.
Although it was damaged during the last conflict, most of its precious original oriental design survived unscathed. It is important to stay to the side during prayer time as it is the main mosque in the city and is usually filled by local worshippers. No need for shyness, they are used to visitors and simply expect them to be courteous and follow the rules. Directly across the stone walkway is the Gazi Husrev-beg Madrasa (Sarači; free entrance). A madrasa is an Islamic educational institution and this one was founded on 8 January 1537; it is now often the location for Islamic art exhibitions.
Through a small passageway between Ferhadija and Bašeskija streets is the Grand Yard (Velika Avlija), also known as the Jewish quarter. The Jewish Museum is located here. The Sephardic Jews that settled in Sarajevo quickly established themselves as tradesmen within the Ottoman Empire and the first temple to be built was the Stari Hram in 1581, less than a century after the Jews were expelled from Spain. The old synagogue, or Il Kal Grandi, was also destroyed in 1697 and again in 1788.
As the Jewish community increased, there were growing calls to build a larger place of worship and the old temple was expanded in 1821. The upper floors were used by the women and the ground floor by men – the same tradition is practised by Muslims.
Christian and Muslim quarters
Religious harmony has always been the backbone of Sarajevo’s multi-ethnic community. The Catholic cathedral was completed in 1889 when the Austrians had gained full control of the city. It is the seat of the Vrh-Bosna archbishop and is dedicated to the Most Holy Heart of Jesus. The cathedral was designed by the architect Noble Josip Vancaš in neo-Gothic style, with some elements of Romanesque. It is very similar to Notre Dame Cathedral in Dijon. The Pope led mass here during his visit in 1997. Don’t be surprised to find Sarajevo’s youth gathering on the steps of the cathedral; it has always been a popular (and central) place to hang out or wait for a friend. The cathedral is also open to visitors free of charge when there is no mass taking place.
Behind the cathedral near the music school is the Bosniak Institute, dedicated to the history of the Bosnian Muslims, or Bosniaks. It’s an interesting place to see old documents and read about famous Muslim writers and historians, and it offers a fascinating insight into the national identity of the Bosnian Muslims. Down the street is the new Walter Defends Sarajevo Museum. Opened by Sarajevo Film Centre in 2019, this tiny museum filled with wax figures, stage reconstructions and Walter Defends Sarajevo playing on repeat 8–12 hours per day pays homage to what was one of the most popular films produced in Yugoslavia that many have come to consider a symbol of Sarajevo.
National Library/City Hall
This is the most significant architectural monument in Sarajevo and in 2014, 22 years after it was destroyed, its reconstruction was finally completed, and it is worth visiting. The entrance fee allows full access to the building and all the time you want to admire the pseudo-Moorish and other architectural styles. There is a permanent exhibition in the basement, and there are sometimes other special exhibitions or concerts.
Gallery 11/07/95 is not only one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s most professionally curated galleries, but one that will humble you for its moving and thoughtful content. With a multitude of media, the gallery depicts the horrifying events that led up to the 11 July 1995 genocide in Srebrenica and, just as important, its aftermath. With its vivid photos from award-winning photographer Tarik Samarah, videos, interviews with survivors and the wall of death (that names each of the more than 8,000 victims), this is an experience you shouldn’t pass up.
Sarajevo is a fun and vibrant city. This gallery is not meant to be a downer to anyone’s good time, but a solemn reminder of the depths of human suffering that occurred in this country not long ago.
Getting to Sarajevo
Sarajevo International Airport is located at the base of Igman Mountain. The airport itself is modest and pleasant, as are the surrounding mountains. For information on flight services, see our travel and visas page.
From morning till night buses from abroad and local destinations arrive at and depart from Sarajevo. The Central bus station is the country’s largest. There are some buses travelling to Sarajevo from northwest Europe, but most direct lines come from Germany and Austria. Centrotrans runs regular buses from many European destinations to Sarajevo. See sarajevo-tourism.com for timetables, prices and tickets.
Travelling to Sarajevo by car becomes a different experience when you cross the border from Croatia. If you are used to the massive motorways of Europe you’ll find that Bosnia and Herzegovina has only a few four-lane roads, and a highway which is still only partially built. Most roads are one lane, and although this will certainly slow you down, it won’t stop you from reaching Sarajevo eventually.
If you are crossing the border at Metković/Doljani in southern Dalmatia, it will take another 3 hours plus to reach Sarajevo. From the northern frontiers, the quickest route to and from Sarajevo is from Slavonski Brod and Bosanski Brod. From the Split area the best roads for crossing are Kamensko to Livno then Bugojno–Travnik–Sarajevo.