I decided to take a detour into neighbouring Bosnia & Herzegovina (hereby referred to just as Bosnia because… laziness) after being in Croatia for a week. Unlike tourist heavy Croatia, Bosnia is still trying to shake off its chequered history. Indeed, for many people this is a country with a history of war. This is the country where World War I started and where, for many, images of a country at war during the 1990s will never fade. What is so incredible about this country is how, just 20 or so years later, it is very much open for business. This is a country I utterly fell in love with and its capital, Sarajevo, is now one of my favourite cities in Europe. Please, please add this fantastic destination to your Balkans itinerary.
Getting to Sarajevo from Split in Croatia involved an easy but fairly long bus journey. Buses depart from Split’s bus station about 4 times a day. I opted to take the early 7am bus to ensure I arrived in Sarajevo in the afternoon (the journey is 6-7 hours long). I bought my ticket from the station the day before (190 kuna) but I could have just rocked up on the day – the bus was only half full. We arrived at the Bosnian border only an hour or so into the journey. At the border, all passengers remain on the bus and your passports/ID cards are collected. It only took about 15 minutes or so and my passport was returned with a lovely new Bosnia stamp inside. After this, it was another 5 hours or so on a beautifully scenic drive. The bus stops at several towns along the way but the bus stations are lacking in ATMs and, given you can only get Bosnian currency within Bosnia, I’d advise bringing some food/drink on the journey as you won’t be able to withdraw or exchange money on the way.
The bus drops you at the bus station next to the railway station in the west of the city. This is about 30-40 minute walk to the Old Town where most of the accommodation is situated. Alternatively, you can get a tram (Line 1 or 3) which is the most common form of public transport here. They’re really great and look as though they were built before World War I. Don’t forget to validate your ticket on board. My hostel, Hostel Lucky, was a great little converted home down a quiet street just next to the cable car. Due to the expense of paying for a sign, there’s no indicator for this hostel save for the huge white car painted on the front of the garage. It’s number 12 on the street anyway and is locatable on Google Maps etc. It’s a great little guesthouse with really friendly staff and it’s very close to most of the main sights in the city.
Certainly, what I found surprising was just how many sights there were here. I stayed for 3 nights and was unsure whether this would be too long but I could have stayed longer. Wandering round the Old Town, a completely different kettle of fish from the polished Croatian ones, is an experience I never grew tired of. A great way to orientate yourself (though I stupidly did it on my last day in the city) is to take one of the many free walking tours. I did mine with Insider which have tours at 9.30am and 4.30pm daily. You just rock up at their office at either of those times. It’s located just off the Latin Bridge opposite the plaque commemorating the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. It was certainly interesting to hear a local Bosnian’s perspective on history, culture and cuisine.
Sarajevo is also really beautiful. I’ve seen people knock its aesthetics and I don’t understand why. The Old Town looks fantastic and, beyond that, the whole city is nestled in a beautiful, lush green valley. To get a taste of that, you can wander up to the Yellow and White Fortresses, both of which you can see sitting high above the Old Town. The Yellow is more popular as it’s not as high, though with its cafe and the presence of guided tours, you don’t feel as away from it all. It’s a bit more of a slog up to the White Fortress but this dilapidated ruin provides a better view and more peace and quiet. I’d advise going to both, the White Fortress is just 15 minutes further uphill from the Yellow.
For an even more breathtaking view, you can head up Trebevic to the south of the city. To get to the very top of the mountain requires a 3-4 hour (relatively easy) hike. Alternatively, most people take the recently reopened Sarajevo Cable Car to Vidikovac from where you get a breathtaking view of the entire city and the valleys beyond it. I decided to hike up to Vidikovac. It only takes about 90 minutes and is an easy hike. The hardest bit is finding the start point. The trail begins from Pogledine but I’m not even going to try and attempt to describe how to reach it because it involves a lot of steep, maze-like roads. Needless to say, maps.me came in very handy. Once I found the trail, it was well-marked with occasional signposts and very regular red/white circles marking the route. The circles must be a Balkans hikers’ trademark as they had the same things in Kosovo. I was definitely glad they were there as keeping on the beaten track is of particular importance in landmine-strewn Bosnia. The trail snakes past the disused Olympic bobsled track, now adorned with graffiti. There’s then a crossroads where you can either continue up to Trebevic or take a left towards Vidikovac and the cable car terminus. For another 2 and a half hours of hiking, I can’t see the view at the top of Trebevic being much better than the absolutely stunning one at Vidikovac. I was lucky enough to go on a clear day and it was really something.
After the more expensive food/drink in Croatia, Sarajevo is a budget traveller’s team. Amongst the must-tries include the delicious and filling cevapi, a big stodgy sort of meat sandwich which is sold throughout the Old Town for around 6-7 BAM. It’s very filling and incredibly yummy. Drinks are cheap too – whilst the Old Town focuses more on coffee, there are a host of bars in the newer area which is literally separated by a dividing East/West boundary. My favourite by far was Zlatna ribica, a tiny bar full of eclectic trinkets, posters and pictures and lighting which gives it a real 1930s feel. A beer in a Sarajevo will typically sell for 3-5 BAM, an absolute bargain.
There’s nothing I love more than being utterly surprised by a destination and Sarajevo did just that. It’s not as polished as Croatia but it’s that raw charm and its optimism and vibrancy after such a turbulent past which makes this city one of Europe’s best. Go before everyone else does.