Sarajevo on the Rise

A version of this article was published in Travel+Leisure


This article was chosen as the cover story for Travel + Leisure’s 100 Greatest Trips, 3rd ed


Even without war, Sarajevo makes for a dramatic arrival.  The airport is wedged at the base of Igman mountain, approached through a narrow gap in the hills that surround the city.  As our light Embraer jet came in through exceptionally low, dense cloud cover I clutched the seat, bracing for a blind landing.  I caught a flash of pitched tile roofs against lush green, then the sharp point of a minaret rising next to the dome of a mosque, and within seconds we’d touched down.

Sarajevo without war; it is difficult to imagine it.  During the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s the Serbs set up positions in these hills and laid siege to Sarajevo for more than three years, inextricably linking the city in my mind to bodies crumpled by sniper fire and marketplaces obliterated by artillery shells.  But I knew there had been a Sarajevo before that war: an enchanting 600-year old Ottoman city whose very name – from the Turkish word saray, suggesting a resting place – reflected its position on old trade routes at the intersection of East and West.  Even though I had never been there, that earlier Sarajevo mattered to me because the idea of Sarajevo was something I wanted to see survive: like Beirut or Jerusalem or ancient Alexandria, Sarajevo was a cosmopolitan city of multiple faiths that made it resonant far beyond its small size.  In war, Sarajevo was a measure of mankind’s intolerance and shamed us all; now, visiting Sarajevo in peace, I wanted to see what passed for normal times in this city cursed by its own exceptionalism.


I landed to the west of the city but Sarajevo’s history begins in the east, both literally and metaphorically.  Though Bosnia is littered with prehistoric remains and the ancient Romans battled the Illyrians near what is now the airport, Sarajevo itself is an Ottoman city that for its first four centuries lay at the frontier of Islamic empire in Europe.  At Sarajevo’s founding in the 15th century, the Ottomans were an expanding force and perhaps the most dynamic and accomplished empire on earth; then they began the long, slow, tortuous decline that saw their empire picked apart, territory by territory, as the European powers grew in strength.  The Austro-Hungarians were the first to move on Bosnia and Hercegovina – or BiH, as it’s called – and by the late-19th century their conquest was complete. Today, almost everything of historical interest in Sarajevo is found at the eastern end of the Miljacka river in the adjacent districts constructed by these two great empires; beyond them lies the vast, dispiriting sprawl of concrete built under communism.

If Sarajevo has a ground zero it is the Sebilj, a carved wooden Ottoman-style fountain at the top of a sloping triangular plaza that runs down into Bascarsija, the Turkish bazaar.  For some empires, the lasting monuments to their power can be seen in an impressive administrative building or military monument; for the Ottomans, it is in water.  Everywhere they settled the Ottomans built sophisticated water supply systems, with underground channels, public fountains in each neighborhood, and an ablutions court in every mosque.  Sarajevans no longer rely on the Sebilj for their water – though during the darkest days of the siege the Sarajevo Brewery, which is built over a natural spring, served the vital role the Sebilj once did – but it is still the landmark people use as a meeting point before heading off to the stone-paved lanes, small wood-framed shops, and soaring mosques of the old town.

I wandered Bascarsija almost every day I was in Sarajevo, whether I had reason to or not.  I would begin with a coffee at Divan in the Morica Han, a medieval but much rebuilt lodging for traders and travelers, where the oriental carpet store that shares the interior courtyard would hang its lushly woven wares from the columns, surrounding me with color.  It marks a fitting start to a district I find transporting: the swoop-necked coffee pots, pounded copper trays, and embroidered slippers in the shop windows remind me of Cairo, while the broad-domed white mosques look like Istanbul.  I hear Fez in the call to prayer echoing from the surrounding hills and smell Amman in the deliciously sweet spiced walnuts roasting at Butik Badem.  But there are little things that suggest this is still Europe: these are not narrow, congested alleys that meander organically around the buildings, as they do in most medieval quarters in the Middle East; instead, they are wide, straight lanes that intersect at right angles, while the shops withdraw under Spanish tiled roofs with overhanging eaves that offer shelter from the rain.  The mosques, too, which have become the centers of a political and religious revival throughout the Middle East are, in Sarajevo, no more active than a rural French cathedral without tourists – plus, no one seems to mind (or even notice) the old men drinking beer at the cafés abutting the mosque walls or the young couples kissing wildly at the table next to them.

“I am Muslim,” Mustafa tells me, his brilliant blue eyes set off by silver hair, “but even now, those of us who are born and bred in Sarajevo don’t want to live in an Islamic city.  This used to be called the European Jerusalem and it was a better city then.  My friends were Orthodox, Jewish, Catholic.  This is what gives richness to life.  Now…” And his voice trailed off as he looked out at the streets of Bascarsija and a city he found changed by the population shifts of the war in the 1990s.  Sarajevo has long had a Muslim majority but because so many Serb residents left after the war – and so many Muslims (or Bosniaks, as they’re more commonly called) moved in from villages that were attacked – it is now more overwhelmingly Muslim than it has ever been in its history.  But to describe the changes this way is to accept the language of the war, which made the differences between the groups – Serb, Croat, Bosniak – sound bigger than they are: they are all Slavs who speak essentially the same language and lived in the same towns or villages – in Sarajevo, often in the same buildings and married into the same families.  The only difference is religion (Bosnian Serbs, generally, are Orthodox Christians and Croats are Catholic) and the divergent myths and memories and grievances that built up from that.  Virulent propaganda, massacres, and fear of reprisals turned this slight difference into something palpable.  At the same time, however, ethnic hatred was a kind of high canopy under which all sorts of other motivations were at work unnoticed by the outside world: class prejudice, rural fear of the cosmopolitanism of the cities, and competition for a seat at the trough at the moment that a state-run economy was being shifted to private hands.

Still, Mustafa’s refusal to accept the logic of the extremists – which insisted that the Bosniaks from the villages were more his kin than the Serb or Croat neighbor he’d grown up with – struck me as quietly heroic.  It was a sentiment I heard time and time again in Sarajevo and at first I disbelieved it: how could there not be anger towards the Serbs, I wondered, after all that had happened?  But every Sarajevan I met had a story about the Serbs who remained in the city through the war or risked their lives to help them and I realized that they remembered what I forgot: only the extremists believed all the Serbs should be on one side.  As Nadim, a young Bosniak who lived on the frontline during the war, put it, “The Serbs who attacked us, for the most part, were not from Sarajevo.  They were from the villages and they had a different mentality.  My friends who were Serbs, they stayed here with us during the war.  They were Sarajevan first, you could say, and then they were Serb.”


On a warm spring day when the fog that clings to the surrounding hills finally lifts, there is scarcely a table to be had at the long line of cafés that run down from the Cathedral in the Austrian quarter.  The district was designed in a style of classic central European grandeur to showcase Austro-Hungary’s claim to being one of the great powers; and so it might have been, too, had the young Bosnian Gavrilo Princip not shot Archduke Ferdinand at the Latin Bridge, a couple blocks from the Cathedral, triggering WWI and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire.  The pavement in front of the bridge was long marked by two footprints, said to be Princip’s, but after the war in the 1990s he was branded a proto-Serb nationalist and the footprints were dug up – they are currently hidden in the office of the small but intriguing museum on the site.

Even in what is now a mostly Muslim city, the Cathedral is the center of young Sarajevo and only foreigners see anything remarkable about that.  The café chairs, eight or ten across, take over the street as one café runs into the next, differing only in seat color: red at Café Central, orange at Caffè Bar Quadro, green at Klas, blue at Cyborg.  Friends arrive in groups of two or three but since Sarajevo is a small town, without anonymity, they gradually gather new arrivals and soon the division between one table and the next is lost as well.  Espresso fuels conversation, flirtation is the order of the day, and cigarettes the main form of sustenance. There are other parts of town for those interested in a quick coffee; here, the young men linger as the women parade by as if on their way somewhere, then circle back in case they weren’t noticed.  In late afternoon, the passeggiata begins and the entire town, or so it seems, joins the long, sociable procession down the pedestrianized Ferhadija street, licking ice creams cones from Vatra or Egipat and greeting neighbors.

This could be Trieste or Lisbon, except for the black smoke still visible above the windows of the bombed out Hotel Central at the end of the block.  Sarajevo is repairing the war damage at a record pace but for me, unaccustomed to visiting a war zone, the more remarkable thing is how much damage remains: almost every wall exposed to the hills is pockmarked with sniper fire and fan-shaped impact craters scar sidewalks throughout the city.  Over time, I imagine, the eyes adjust so that the empty shell of the fin de siecle Hotel Central becomes mere background and the scaffolding on its façade can be mistaken for normal maintenance.

The damage from the war is not entirely physical, of course: one reason the cafés are full on a weekday is that few Sarajevans in their twenties or thirties can find a job.  Before arriving in Sarajevo, some part of me had feared that the aftermath of the war would produce the total moral and ideological vacuum that characterized, say, Budapest after the collapse of communism, where Mafiosi and prostitutes openly worked the streets, every strange religious cult seemed to be out touting for new members, and you could literally feel that no one knew what to believe in anymore.  War is good for organized crime and Sarajevo, for a time, did have a reputation as a center for human trafficking, but the European Union soldiers who are stationed in BiH under the agreements that ended the war have cracked down on that and Sarajevo’s intimate roots as an overgrown village have begun to reassert themselves.  Today, the city could hardly feel more safe or welcoming and, as one young Sarajevan I met joked, “even our mafia are basically good boys who still live with their parents and have to worry about what they’ll say.”

Despite – or perhaps because of – the derelict state of some of its buildings, the Austrian quarter shows the cool, modern side of Sarajevo.  Near the elegant National Theater is a building that would probably be condemned as a public hazard in any other city; here, the shattered concrete façade hides a hip bar and restaurant called Mash.  Just up the street, behind a lattice of iron bars on the windows, is the almost Californian Karabit café, which offers fresh-squeezed fruit juices and an entire book of tea and coffee varieties; they even have decaf.  And not far from that is a dark, narrow wedge of a bar called Zlatana Ribica, littered with what looks like the fruit of the world’s most successful day at a flea market; in this case, though, it is communist-era Yugoslav clutter and I find that I neglect my loza – a head-clearing local eau de vie – to explore Sarajevo’s other past.

Inevitably, there is now some nostalgia for the era of Josep Broz Tito, the Croat who ruled from WWII until his death in 1980 and very nearly made Yugoslavs out of the region’s many nationalities; had he succeeded, the Serbs might not have waged war.  Tito was a giant figure on the global stage and, after breaking with Stalin, became the Western world’s favorite communist, but at home he is often said to have practiced Stalinism without Stalin; that is, strong rule and a personality cult that paid no tribute to Moscow.  While there are many less charming reminders of the communist period in Sarajevo – for example, most of the massive, soulless apartment blocks in Novo Sarajevo were built during this time – the stash of magazines under the table at Zlatana Ribica offers a softer kind of nostalgia, stripped of everything that made the actual period difficult.  I pick up one, an art magazine called Veseli Svet dated December 10, 1970, and peruse the chaste photos of topless women.  Ideologically, communists regarded pornography as exploitative so the pretense was that these were nude models for painting aficionados but they were, anyway, so shabbily printed on coarse newsprint that it is a wonder any anatomical detail could be made out at all.  In the pages of Veseli Svet, at least, communism seemed an innocent, harmless thing.

Inspired, if that’s the word, I went around the corner to Klub Sloga, in a nondescript building with AKCUS written on it in giant letters.  ‘Sarajevo before the war’ is how Sloga is usually described; Warsaw Pact underground is what it felt like.  A raw, open, industrial space with DJs pumping out aggressive music and an unchanged décor that looks like it was improvised in a metal workshop, Sloga is the very definition of old school.  Incongruously, a bedsheet hung near the DJs on which they projected snowboarding videos.  The crowd was almost disturbingly well behaved – many of the girls sipped soda bottles through straws, lest the boys think ill of them for drinking alcohol – and as the music grew to a fever pitch they appeared to be having the time of their lives.


For the tourist visiting Sarajevo during the siege, the tongue-in-cheek Sarajevo Survival Guide provided a recipe for how to make homemade wine by letting sugar, rice, and yeast rot in a coffee canister for ten days.  More prosaically, it also offered the following advice under the heading ‘Going Out of Town’: “Officially, there is no such thing as ‘going out of town.’”

There was a way, unofficially, but it involved a perilous journey to the western edge of the city, past the legendary ‘sniper alley’ and ravaged Holiday Inn, to the suburb of Dobrinje and the unmarked entrance of a tunnel – 800 meters long, one meter wide, 1.6 meters high, and dug by hand in four months in 1993 – that ran under the airport runway.  The tunnel exited on the far side of the forward Serb positions, in the backyard of the Kolar family house in Butmir where they’ve now opened a small museum.  Unfortunately, the anterooms of the museum are given over to letters from statesmen and celebrities applauding the Kolars’ courage and a few sanitized arrangements of military equipment and tunnel conditions that have all the authenticity of a M*A*S*H set, but the opportunity to walk through the last twenty meters of the tunnel – cramped and harrowingly claustrophobic even for this short distance – gives a taste of how difficult it once was to leave Sarajevo.

It is a good deal easier to leave Sarajevo today.  I drove to Dubrovnik in Croatia and then to Kotor in Serbia and Montenegro, crossing the borders of each of the former warring states with little more difficulty than I would encounter driving to Canada from New York – although the Montenegrins did vote to secede from their union with Serbia a couple weeks after my visit, which would have been an unexpected move if it came from the Canadians.  I then circled back to Mostar, the capital of Herzegovina (which is, roughly, the southern slice of BiH) and a town I knew mainly for the famous Ottoman bridge that was destroyed during the war.  I would have thought the era of marveling at engineering achievements was long past – and a recreation of it would be that much less marvelous – but the bridge has been meticulously reconstructed using the original white stone and medieval techniques and the results are truly breathtaking: a perfect circle intersecting a soft curve that arcs high over the Neretva river.  Each side of the bridge is anchored by a trail of quaint workshops, their irregular stone roofs giving them the look of gingerbread houses.  The soaring river banks are covered in lush vegetation out of which peek the terraces of Mostar’s many restaurants, while far below the blue-green river swirls as it intersects with another branch and forms a wide, liquid plateau.  Water pours from every crevice in Mostar, blanketing the town in a soothing white noise and giving it an air of tranquility that belies its past.

In the 1990s, Mostar was the center of another, largely forgotten war: after an initial Serb attack, the Croats betrayed their Bosniak allies and reduced the mostly Muslim east bank of the town to rubble.  The Croats, too, had a vision of an ethnically cleansed state – to be called Herceg Bosna – and a walk along the Bulevar, the old frontline, shows just how intimate and vicious the fighting was compared to the impersonal, siege-from-the-hills of Sarajevo.  The buildings here are mere skeletons, with small trees now growing through the glass-less windows and every inch of stone riddled with bullets.  A few blocks east, the historic old town has been lovingly rebuilt and the tourists who bus in on day trips from Dubrovnik see the war only in pictures.  But walking west, into what is now mostly a Croat area, the graffiti changes from being about football teams to swastikas and the fascist Croat symbol of the Ustaze, while to the south a towering white cross erected on the hill from which the Croats bombarded the Bosniak areas serves as a reminder that the tensions that led to war have not disappeared entirely.


Returning to Sarajevo for my final night in BiH, I go to dinner at Park Princeva, a restaurant high in the hills with a long outdoor terrace that hangs over the city.  It is a melancholy dinner, full of longing for this place that, in many ways, is so difficult to love.  I watch Sarajevo sparkle in the darkness, looking vulnerable from this sniper’s vantage point.  And it occurs to me that it is possible to be in Sarajevo a very long time without realizing that the Republika Srpska exists.  The RS, as it’s called, is the shadow entity of BiH, given to the Bosnian Serbs as part of the agreement to end the war.  It occupies 49% of the land, most of it rural and of little interest to visitors, and cuts through the grim outskirts of Sarajevo.  There is no border control between the two – I passed through the RS without knowing it on the way back from the Tunnel Museum – only the stubborn sulking of an unhappy marriage: separate bus networks, education systems, and police forces, among other things.  But the RS is as close as the extremist Serbs came to getting their ethnically cleansed state and I stop a waiter to ask where it is, exactly.

“Over there,” he says, waving vaguely away.  Then he reconsiders, and takes me to the railing of the terrace.  “Right there,” he says with more precision, indicating the hills in the northeast, “and along this road, if you go about six kilometers east.”  I say it looks the same.  “It is the same,” he answers emphatically.  “It is one country.  We are one people.”  Then he pauses, shrugs his shoulders, and sighs, “But they want war.”

Earlier in the day, on a visit to Sarajevo’s old synagogue, it occurred to me that if Bosniak, Serb, and Croat are the city’s three nationalities and, as Nadim would say, ‘Sarajevan’ is the fourth, then Jewish should have been the fifth.  Sephardic Jews migrated to Sarajevo after the expulsion from Spain in 1492 and thrived in the city until WWII, when an earlier and even more vicious spasm of anti-cosmopolitan fervor took hold in Europe.  Now, the Jews of Sarajevo are almost all gone.

It is possible, I realize, for an entire community to be eliminated.  It can happen, has happened.  The war in the 1990s could have gone differently: the extremists could have won and the city spread out beneath me at dinner would be populated entirely by Serbs.  It is a good thing, for Sarajevo, that this did not happen.  But if the city is no longer quite a European Jerusalem, it is a good thing, for all of us, that there are still so many people who believe it was a better city when that was true.


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