You shouldn’t visit Bosnia and Herzegovina without a general understanding of its recent history. Now this isn’t to say you need to be an expert. As our taxi driver said, “It’s too complicated to explain in one ride.”
Here’s the elevator pitch version.
After the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the Balkan region became one country known as Yugoslavia. The country was made up of mainly three ethnic groups: Bosniacs, Serbs and Croats. From 1992 to 1995 a brutal civil war ensued and the Muslim Bosniac population bore the brunt of the casualties. Unspeakable war crimes committed by the Serbs amounted to an ethnic cleansing. Eventually, the international community got involved and Bosnia and Herzegovina was accepted as an independent state.
Two decades later, Bosnia is a peaceful, majority Muslim country with a relatively strong economy. We remember the conflict from our childhood and the country had always been on our minds. We were curious to see the remnants of war and also wanted to see how a country could rebound from such a dark time so fast.
What we discovered was more than what we bargained for! We’ll break it down into 4 sections: the people, the culture, the country, the landscape.
As more and more people start to figure out how beautiful the country is, the Bosnians are beginning to get used to tourists. For years, the gulf Arabs have been visiting the country. A lot of our Emirati friends visit during the summer. English is still not widely spoken. But you will find that in touristy areas the language barrier disappears. Younger people have a pretty strong grasp of the English language.
This is an issue when riding in taxis because most of the taxi drivers are older men. In our experience, the drivers became irritated easily when there was trouble with communication. Some even yelled at us. In all our interactions with people, we had to consider the person’s age and potentially what they went through just 20 years earlier.
For the most part, we found young people especially to be very friendly, talkative and helpful. Bosnians love their country and are eager to show you a good time.
When it comes to culture, the first thing we are concerned about is food. We have been known to travel to locations specifically for the food (Singapore, Lebanon). You should know that every Bosnian family has their go-to spot for Cevapi – finger sized kabobs stuffed inside an open pita, topped with chopped raw onions. For breakfast you have to try Ustipsi – fried dough balls and get the cheese and dried meat plate to go with it. Follow it with Bosnian coffee and you’re set to explore the city.
You can’t walk 2 blocks without seeing a Pekara (bakery). These bakeries are amazing! Get there early in the morning for hot, I mean steaming hot baked goods, like cheese filled pastries, chocolate stuffed donuts, burek (filo dough filled with cheese, potato, meat or spinach). The Pekara keeps the country going. You will find people walking to work in the morning and drop by the Pekara and grab their morning breakfast. It’s like how Americans pull up to a Starbucks. By the way, we were delighted not to see a single green coffee joint in the country.
Bosnia is a majority Muslim country. At jumuah the mosque was so packed there were at least 50 men praying outside. Walking around town, it’s hard to tell an individual’s religious affiliation. Most women do not wear hijab. So we didn’t feel comfortable using the Islamic greeting unless we were sure we were dealing with a Muslim.
It seems to be a secular country where people are free to worship or not worship as they see fit. This is familiar and comfortable for Americans. You’ll get no judgment on your choice of clothing or moral standards.
We spent most of our time in the capital city, Sarajevo. It’s the largest city on the country with about half a million inhabitants. The city is noticeably clean. By contrast, Rome was one of the dirtiest cities we’ve visited. The public transportation system was organized and most places are walk-able or a short taxi ride. Reminders of war are all around you. Most buildings still have tank shelling and machine gun damage. There are grave yards everywhere and we couldn’t help but notice how many grave stones told the story of life ending in ’93, ’94 and ’95.
The main attraction in Sarajevo is the Old City where you will find an abundance of shopping, restaurants and the Gazi Husrev-Bey Mosque (completed in 1532). You will find lots of museums in the city. We visited the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and learned more about the 1990s civil war. The museum is very graphic and is not recommended for children.
The only other city we visited was Mostar which is famous for the old bridge. Mostar was packed with tourists for obvious reasons. Mostar is stunningly beautiful! We got there via 3-hour bus ride and were treated to the most beautiful landscape along the way. Our only regret is we didn’t rent a car because there were multiple stops we wanted to make along the way.
Come for everything else, stay for the landscape. Bosnia is gorgeous! Sarajevo is surrounded by lush green mountains. We had the pleasure of visiting a family who owns a weekend home in the hills. If we had our way, we’d still be there right now.
We only saw 20% of the country but it left us starving for more. On our way to Mostar there areas like Celebici and Jablanica that had our jaws dropped. We didn’t quite make it to Blagaj (google it) and some of the other lake destinations that were recommended to us.
We would recommend you skip expensive Santorini, Greece or some of the other high cost, overcrowded destinations and try Bosnia for a cheaper, beautiful relaxing destination.
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