Bosnia’s capital is an exhilarating mix of two of Europe’s biggest empires: Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian. A stroll through the old town starts with stately 19th-century western European architecture at one end before moving seamlessly to Turkish-style stalls squeezed into cobbled lanes. Four hundred years of Ottoman rule have left their mark in the Bascarsija district, where coppersmiths and silversmiths sell their handcrafted wares and the smell of strong Turkish coffee wafts through the air.
The war of 1992-95 virtually destroyed the city, but most of it has been rebuilt with admirable speed. War damage is there if you look for it; in several places, plaques commemorate victims of Serbian grenade attacks. At Latin Bridge is the spot where the main catalyst of the First World War, the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand, took place in June 1914, the centenary of which is being marked next year.
Sarajevo’s predominantly young population makes the city buzz and fills the streets for the evening promenade known as the korzo. The centuries-old religious and cultural melting pot is still in evidence as you walk past mosques, synagogues, and Orthodox Christian and Catholic churches all within a short distance.
A comfortable bed
Hotel Europe (www.hoteleurope.ba; 00 387 33 580 570) offers elegant rooms in the centre of the old town, as well as excellent spa facilities including an indoor pool and gym. Its restaurant looks out over the preserved remains of a 16th-century Turkish caravanserai. Doubles from 260 convertible marks (Dh650) including breakfast.
Nearby Hotel Central (www.hotelcentral.ba; 00 387 33 561 800 ) has similar four-star service as the Europe, as well as an indoor pool and gym. Doubles from 240 convertible marks (Dh600 ) including breakfast.
Hotel Hecco (www.hotel-hecco.net; 00 387 33 273 730), at the western entrance to Ferhadija, is a more basic three-star, but it does have great views from the rooms and breakfast room/bar. Doubles from €90 (Dh440) including breakfast.
Find your feet
Sarajevo stretches for about 15 kilometres along the river Miljacka, surrounded by the “Olympic Mountains” of Jahorina and Bjelasnic, where the 1984 Winter Games were held and where everyone skis as soon as the snows come. But the old town, where most of the sights are, is compact and easily walkable. Cafe-lined, pedestrianised Ferhadjia Street is at the Austrian end, and within 10 minutes you’ve crossed into Ottoman territory by the 16th-century Gazi Husref-bey’s mosque. (There’s also a tourist information point here: www.sarajevo-tourism.com.) It’s a pleasure to get lost within the warren of alleys crammed with cafes, restaurants and Sarajevo’s only fully preserved caravanserai, Morica Han.
Meet the locals
Bascarsija throngs with locals as well as tourists, with Sarajevans puffing on shisha pipes in bars such as Halvat and Male Daire tucked away in Luledzina Street. Strosmayerova Street is one long strip of covered terraced bars, whose giant television screens attracts even more people during sporting events. Sophisticated types head for City Lounge on Zelenih Beretki Street and its converted London Routemaster bus which takes in the overspill.
Book a table
Burek, a filo pastry pie filled with meat, spinach, potato or cheese, is a Sarajevan staple, as are cevapi, meat rissoles that usually come in flatbread known as somun. If you want seriously strong coffee, ask for a bosanska kafa, which is served in lovely miniature copper pots. Try peppers or vine leaves stuffed with spiced mincemeat at Restaurant Pod Lipom (www.podlipom.ba; 00 387 33 400 700 ) in the old town for 8 convertible marks (Dh20). On the south side of the river, head to Inat Kuca (www.inatkuca.ba; 00 387 33 447 867) for a mezze of grilled meats for 20 convertible marks (Dh25).
The 16th-century Gazi Husrefbegov Bezistan shopping arcade in the old town is worth a wander along its atmospheric stalls under stone arches, even if the designer knock-offs might tempt you to part with your cash. Brands such as Mango and Benetton line Ferhadjia Street, and the handmade copper coffee pots in Bascarsija make exquisite souvenirs. With typical Balkan humour, some of the millions of bullets and shells that bombarded the city in the 1990s have been turned into cool pens, lighters and other trinkets.
What to avoid
The airport’s taxi drivers are notorious for their ruthlessness in ripping off tourists by anything up to €60 (Dh300) for a journey that should cost about €10 (Dh50). Ignore the touts and ask the information desk for a phone number of the more reputable firms – and make certain the meter is running before you set off.
Luxurious Ottoman life from the 18th century is beautifully preserved in Svrzo’s House (www.muzejsarajeva.ba; 00 387 33 535 264), a well-to-do Muslim family’s former residence that is now part of the Sarajevo Museum. More recent history is marked in the Tunnel of Hope (00 387 33 628 591) on the western fringe of Sarajevo. Part of the tunnel that was a lifeline during the 1990s siege is now an evocative museum.
A return flight from Abu Dhabi to Sarajevo via Belgrade, with Jat Airways (www.jat.com), which codeshares with Etihad, costs from 388 euros (Dh1,933) return including taxes, and the trip takes nine hours.
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