We’d read and heard many good things about Sarajevo, and since it was directly on our way from Mostar to Budapest, we decided to give it a long-term stay. Overall, we liked Sarajevo. It has a really cool, vibrant, accepting, international feel. There are over 100 mosques here, in addition to a smattering of churches and synagogues-it’s been called the European Jerusalem. The 1980 winter Olympics were held here, and you can walk the abandoned bobsled track. It has an interesting history as roughly the furthest the Ottomans came north and also the furthest the Austro-Hungarians came south. One of the key sparks that ignited WWI was here at the Latin bridge where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. After WWII, Yugoslavia was communist under Tito, and a decade after he died came the 90’s war – a war whose effects are still evident. Sarajevo has a thriving nightlife, but unfortunately for us non-smokers, smoking is allowed inside all buildings, restaurants, and bars. Pollution is also a big problem. We made friends with our Airbnb host who showed us around town, let us see the city through his eyes, introduced us to some of his relatives, and treated us to a BBQ. All in all, our 6 weeks in Sarajevo were very interesting!
- Sarajevo is a manageable, walkable city with a population of 347K
- Has an old town, and a small river with walkways toward the newer part of the city
- Is multicultural with an accepting & respectful population
- Is safe and not touristic
- Has many bars, good nightlife, good food at reasonable prices, a fun local music & art scene
- Has big festivals: Film, Jazz, Guitar, Art.
- Our friends say that it has fun winter skiing
- A great yoga studio!
- The current weird political situation
- The tragic 90’s war history that has still has present day effects
- The lack of a lot of especially interesting touristic things to see & do in the city
- The tiny streets with tinier sidewalks, moderately aggressive drivers, and limited parking
- We read that there are still land mines remaining in the hills
- Lots of trash (but not as bad as Albania) and pollution
- Smoking indoors is more prevalent than just about everywhere else we’ve been
In our time here we walked all over the city, heard live jazz at a cool bar, ate some good Bosnian food, got to know our very interesting character of a host, Bosko, took a hike to a lovely waterfall, explored the abandoned bobsled track, did a month worth of yoga classes, studied up on Bosnian history, and in general got a feel for the area. We arrived during Ramadan and the mosques were packed daily. Fireworks marked the end of Ramadan each day. I’ll always remember the sounds of Sarajevo: every morning at 4:30 am we heard the Muslim call to prayer (which continues 4 more x per day), interspersed with church bells ringing at 6 am, noon and 6 pm.
The 90’s war & current political situation
Our first introduction to Sarajevo was listening to the audiobook, The Cellist of Sarajevo (reviewed here). The city was under siege for four years and lost 100,000 people in the war – over 1/3 of their population. The book, as well as the 1997 movie, “Welcome to Sarajevo” (with Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomei; directed by Michael Winterbottom), and the war memorial room at Sarajevo Town Hall created a very powerful first impression. Many shelled and bullet-riddled hulks of buildings remain around town and work is still underway to repair and expand damaged tram lines.
The current political system is bizarre: after the war ended the Dayton Peace Agreement divided the country into two parts, governed jointly by three ethnically-organized groups. Each group (the orthodox Bosnian Serbs, the Muslim Bosniaks, and the catholic Croats) has their own parliament and are overseen by a state level government. But lording over everything is a UN appointed, “Office of the High Representative,” who has the power to remove politicians and pass laws that circumvent the country’s institutions. In our first week here there was an organized protest against the High Representative’s alteration of the laws: he removed a law that had allowed any one Vice President to block all legislation from the recently elected government…the new government had been essentially rendered ineffective by one VP who didn’t want it to function. His constituents were protesting the mandated changes.
Our first apartment was a dump that we left after one week. Our second apartment’s host was Bosko, a 62-yr-old, non-practicing, Eastern Orthodox Bosnian Serb. Bosko grew up in Sarajevo for his first 6 years, at which point his parents emigrated to Germany and settled in Berlin to work. He lived in Berlin with his parents for 18 years – at which point he told his parents he was ready to serve in the Serbian army under Tito. He served 18 months in the early ‘80s, six of which were in Belgrade. He liked it – pretty girls & lots of partying! Neither he nor his parents wanted him to reenlist to join the ‘90’s war here in Sarajevo. Over time, Bosko owned and managed 3 different restaurants in Berlin. He married a Croatian woman and has two grown daughters. He touts Sarajevo as a multicultural, inclusive society. He said that Sarajevo is a place where they do not forget what happened in the ‘90’s war, nor who did it. After his mom died, his dad returned to their family home here in Sarajevo in 2011 and died 3 years later, with Bosko by his side. He said, “he was my best friend” with tears in his eyes. Bosko put his restaurant money to work in 2017, renovated the family home, and has lived here ever since. He considers German his original language but he also speaks fluent Bosnian. Bosko thinks that communism was better in some ways than their current system–society was safer, the police were more on your side in any dispute, and the people were more friendly. Everyone had fun. He also said that a lot of his neighbors have kept their guns from the war which makes him uncomfortable. Bosko struck me as being a good person with an interesting history spanning two cultures. We had a lot of fun getting to know him and seeing Sarajevo through his eyes.
Overall I feel mixed about the stay: on the one hand we learned a lot about the 90’s war, gained unique insight into the city, made friends with Bosko, and felt very comfortable living in Sarajevo; on the other, reminders of the war are everywhere, indoor smoking made going out to eat unpleasant, it rained a lot while we were there, and there is a lack of much touristy/cultural things to do. We’re not sure we’ll come back.