I traveled around Bosnia for two weeks in 2016, visiting Trebinje, Mostar, and Sarajevo. Each place left me floored with the natural beauty of the landscape, but as I began to write about Bosnia, I couldn’t shake my mind from what I had learned about the history from the locals, museums, and walking tours. My posts about Mostar were emotional; about Sarajevo, they were focused on the decay of modern day urban ruins.
But that’s a very one-sided view of Bosnia, and one that many Bosnians are trying to overcome. Understandably: the war was over 20 years ago, and Bosnia is in the middle of a well-deserved tourism boom. I was delighted when Robert of Leave Your Daily Hell reached out to me to ask if he could write a guest post on Bosnia, focusing on the beauty of this misunderstood Balkan country — and here’s his post below.
When you hear the word “Bosnia,” it’s easy for your mind to go to dark places, from the Srebrenica massacre, to the decades the country spent behind the Iron Curtain, to most of the young country’s entries in the Eurovision song contest—it’s no surprise why it’s never won. Today, however, is all about Bosnia’s beauty.
There’s a lot of it, more than you can probably imagine. So whether you’re into mystical waterfalls careening through fairytale forests, charming historical towns, fragrant foods, or perfect panoramas, Bosnia possesses bountiful beauty. Here’s where to find it.
The term “tourist trap” is usually used as a pejorative, but not in the city of Mostar—you’ll actually want to stay trapped here! Indeed, Mostar is more accurately a tourist paradise, whether you look down onto the Neretva River from the minaret of one of its mosques, traipse along its ancient paths and over its old bridge, or take in Bosnian hospitality at a local guest house.
Mostar’s current state is even more delightful when you consider that it was badly bombed during the Balkan War—truly, a phoenix risen from the ashes.
The bad news about Kravice, a magnificent waterfall about two hours from Mostar in the verdant mountains of southern Bosnia, is that it’s almost impossible to get there without a car. The good news is that if you partake in the aforementioned Bosnian hospitality, your guest house owner will help you find an affordable, reliable one—and quickly to boot! A day trip to Kravice is particularly refreshing during Bosnia’s impossibly hot summer.
Old Town Sarajevo
Mostar usually gets all the attention when it comes to Bosnia’s beauty contest, but Sarajevo’s Stari Grad (Old Town) is nothing to sneeze at. This picturesque district is full of mosques, shops, cobbled streets and delicious eateries like Pod Lipom, where you can try a “Sarajevo Sampler” full of Bosnia’s best local food (vegans beware!), before walking over to the infamous Latin Bridge where Franz Ferdinand was shot.
Zuta Tabija – Yellow Fortress
Sarajevo is a huge city, but it’s difficult to realize that within the confines of the Old Town. To get a true sense of its scope, you need to walk or take a taxi to Zuta Tabija, the so-called “Yellow Fortress” that overlooks the city. This is a particularly enjoyable experience at sunset, when orange and yellow light reflects off mosque towers and Avaz Twist Tower (the tallest building in the country) alike, illuminating the mix of new and old that underscores Sarajevo’s beauty.
The Eternal Flame
It’s difficult not to mention tragedy when writing about Bosnia, even when talking about beauty—so many sad chapters in the country’s history have beautiful conclusions. To be sure, there are few more emotional sights than the Eternal Flame that burns in the center of Sarajevo, ironically just steps from the best Srebrenica museum outside of Srebrenica itself. It’s a reminder that irrespective of political or humanitarians challenges, the Bosnian spirit will endure forever.
And really, is there anything more beautiful than that?
Robert Schrader is a writer, photographer, and creator of Leave Your Daily Hell, one of the world’s most popular independent travel blogs. When he’s not on the road, he lives in Bangkok, where he’s currently attempting to master the Thai language and not get fat—street food and self-control aren’t good bedfellows! Read his blog or follow him on Instagram to keep up with his travels, which will take him to Iran at the end of this month.
I know it is the ultimate privilege to be able to say this, but travel can be stressful. And that’s why you need to incorporate days to slow the eff down when you’re living a life of frequent traveling. Lucky me, I was able to do this slowdown in the cute, quaint little city of Trebinje, Bosnia – a town of 30,000 people with virtually no foreign tourism, for now.
Yet for such a small town, Trebinje truly has the best of Bosnia, all in one tiny package. While there aren’t that many things to do in Trebinje, it’s the perfect place to embrace the good life and live a little slower – if only for a time.
I spent 4 days in Trebinje and found it perfect for my laid-back travel style; however, if you’re just hoping for a quick visit, I’d say you can happily see most of the highlights in two. I wouldn’t try to give it just a day, though — the city is worth way more than just a blitz-style stopover.
Things to Do in Beautiful Trebinje, Bosnia
Peacefully stroll along the Trebisnjica river
The river that goes through Trebinje, the Trebišnjica, is stunningly beautiful. This is the perfect place for a walk even on hot summer days, as the river breeze is nice and cool. As you walk, admire the glassy beauty of the water.
The river is more still than many in the area, making it perfect for photographs. Just look at how perfectly it mirrors the buildings on the other side of the river bank — swoon.
Admire the beautiful mountains
I’ve never seen mountains quite like Bosnia’s. Vaguely Martian in their undulations, they’re somehow both barren and supple. It’s the perfect landscape to fix your eyes on.
While I was fully in relaxation mode in Trebinje and I never got up to much physical activity, there are several hills perfect brisk day hike, just on the outskirts of the city. I’d imagine that the views are stunning!
Marvel at the most peaceful Old Town in the Balkans
Trebinje has what is likely the least busy, least touristy Old Town in all of the Balkans, which is in itself almost enough of a reason to visit this historic town.
The Old Town was built by Ottomans in the 18th century and is remarkably intact. It’s lovely to walk through, not least because virtually no one will harass you. There are a few restaurants and shops, but the prices aren’t nearly as inflated as you’ll find in other old towns — I’m looking at you, Dubrovnik — and it’s actually enjoyable to spend some time there.
Shop at the sleepy market in the main square
This market is open daily in the mornings but is best on Saturdays. You can get everything from the freshest organic produce to local honey to home-cured prosciutto to a variety of handmade cheeses. Sadly, the cheeses are in danger of becoming extinct with impending EU regulations, should Bosnia be admitted to the EU. So go now and eat all the cheese. For science.
Make sure you also buy the homemade ajvar (red pepper spread) and, if you’re daring, rakija (fruit-based “brandy” prepared in two-liter bottles). Don’t be afraid if they’re sold in old, recycled water bottles — that’s how you know you’re getting the real deal.
Hike to the fortresses
If you want even more of the landscapes, make sure you don’t miss the hiking in Trebinje. Trebinje is surrounded by seven hills, each with its own unique calling card, such as the abandoned Austro-Hungarian fortress on Fort Strač.
The hikes are moderate, taking about an hour and a half or so to complete, requiring no special footwear. Be sure to stay on the path as Trebinje and Bosnia in general continues to have issues with stray landmines.
Marvel at one of the most beautiful bridges in Bosnia
The Arslanagić bridge is one of Bosnia’s most beautiful – and this is a country that knows its bridges (have you seen the Old Bridge of Mostar? — stunning). Complete with two large arches and four smaller ones, its unique design is characteristic of its former Ottoman influences.
What’s better, because Trebinje is not that touristy yet, it’s easy to get a photo of the bridge without any people on it virtually any time of day!
Visit the Old Monastery in town
Seeing the Herzegovacka Gracanica monastery gave me a serious sense of deja vu because it’s a replica of the Gracanica monastery in Kosovo, which I had seen when visiting Prishtina. Done in the Serbian Orthodox style, this monastery is definitely worth a visit, as it’s unlike most other religious buildings you’ll see in Bosnia, which will largely be mosques.
But because Trebinje, Bosnia is part of Republika Srpska, a semi-autonomous entity within Bosnia & Herzegovina, it is actually majority Serb – and hence majority Orthodox. Another thing you’ll notice is that all the street signs are in Serbian Cyrillic, which is something you won’t see in Mostar or Sarajevo!
It’s a brief walk from the center of town, probably about 30 minutes depending on your pace, mostly uphill — so bring water if you’re hiking it in the summer, as Trebinje can get hot!
About an hour before sunset, take a walk towards the Old Monastery with a few Sarajevsko beers (or a water bottle of rakija, no judgment, get your Balkan on) and watch the sunset in the beautiful hills that surround Trebinje.
Definitely one of the best places to see the sunset in gorgeous Trebinje!
Go wine tasting
Did you know Herzegovina (the region that Trebinje falls under) is a famous agricultural region, particularly noted for its wine? Nope, me neither, at least until I got there!. There are lots of places just a few kilometers outside of Trebinje where you can do wine tasting at local wineries, though these usually require a small group and an appointment. Wine tasting is very cheap – usually about 10 marks (5 euros) including food! Or, if you’d like to sample some local wines at a restaurant, try Vukoje. It’s upscale by Bosnian standards but you still would be hard pressed to spend more than 10 or 15 euros per person.
If you’re not going wine tasting but you want to seek out some local wines at the grocery store or restaurants; look for zilavka if you want white, and vranac if you want red.
Take a day trip to Dubrovnik
Most people tend to do this in reverse – visiting Trebinje as a day trip from Dubrovnik, mostly because it can be quite expensive to find a place to stay in Dubrovnik.
However, going from Trebinje to Dubrovnik is quite easy – the bus takes a little less than an hour, or you can hitch a ride for a few euros with one of the locals who lives in Trebinje but works in Dubrovnik (this is what I did – my hosts at Hostel Polako hooked me up!)
Dubrovnik is a magical city and it’s definitely worth a visit if you have time during your time in Trebinje. Go on a self-guided Game of Thrones tour, wander around the Old City Walls, eat a fresh seafood risotto at one of the many delicious restaurants in town, watch people swim in the Adriatic, or take a ferry to Mljet or one of the many small islands near Dubrovnik… there are countless ways to spend a day trip to Dubrovnik, in fact you may find yourself needing to spend at least a few nights there!
Bosnia bears its battle scars. The war that ripped through the country in the 1990s is still very much present in its architecture.
In an odd way, these reminders of the war have become a tourist attraction of sorts, from the Sniper Tower in Mostar to the abandoned Olympic bobsled track in Sarajevo and everything in between.
While I don’t wish to paint Bosnia as a place only of sadness and grieving, I think it’s important to understand the history of the country and pay respects to the victims of the recent wars should you choose to visit this wonderful country.
However, that is to say that Bosnia & Herzegovina does make a fantastic destination for dark tourism, but of course, you should visit respectfully and with an open attitude to learning about the history rather than a purely macabre interest.
That said, Bosnia is more than just a war-torn country. It is a place of unrivaled natural beauty and history. It has everything from a tiny patch of coastline to incredible mountains to gorgeous rivers and waterfalls.
But as a history geek slash habitual melancholic, I feel compelled to write up this guide to understanding the modern-day ruins of Bosnia, so you can understand the challenges the country has faced and what it has to recover from.
Especially in light of the vitriol leveled towards refugees worldwide – particularly Muslim refugees – I think it’s important to remember and pay respects to the human costs of hatred, war, and violence. As the poignant graffiti outside the Mostar sniper tower reminds us: “we are all living under the same sky”.
Mostar is a wonderful city worth spending several days in, but it’s quite small – you can easily see the highlights of Mostar in a day.
If you’re into urban exploration, here are two destinations that should be on your list.
The Sniper Tower
The Sniper Tower is a former bank in the center of Mostar. As Yugoslavia broke apart, the wounds of dormant ethnic tensions reopened, causing widespread violence between ethnic groups in what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Serbs and Croats used the bank as a sniper tower to shoot their Muslim neighbors, the Bosniaks, during the war, mostly in 1993-1994
If you’re on the Muslim side of the river (same side as the bus station), you’ll need to cross the Old Bridge and walk through the Old Town. Once you get to the main road (Bulevar) you’ll turn right and follow it for about 10 minutes until you hit the Spanish Square (Spanski Trg).
You’ll be confronted with a menacing looking abandoned triangular building. It’s hard to believe that less than thirty years ago, it was a fully functional bank. There’s graffiti all along the outside, and it’ll look like there’s no way in.
Technically speaking, there isn’t. Walk around the back of the building, where there’s a courtyard and a lot of apartment windows. It’s a little easier to enter here by first scaling one of the smaller cement blocks then pulling yourself up and over the ledge. Be careful when dropping down onto the ground floor, as there is broken glass everywhere.
Being inside the tower is haunting. Glass, trash, and 2-liter plastic bottles of cheap beer are everywhere. It’s clear that people have turned this building into something else entirely.
For some, it’s a home for the down and out; for others, a place to get drunk and scribble on the walls; for others, it’s a bit like rubbernecking a traffic accident.
If you climb to the top (which I recommend doing, as it is a moving experience), please be incredibly careful. There are absolutely no walls anywhere near the stairs – one wrong move and you could be seriously injured or even killed.
This is really not an experience for those who are afraid of heights. I never thought I was until I got there. There’s also a small gap in the middle of the staircase that you could easily fall into and break your leg. Really, don’t be stupid and go here after one too many Sarajevsko beers or rakijas. Keep your wits about you.
Another note: please be respectful of this place. I went with a girl from my hostel and she was giggling, cursing, and taking selfies all over the building, and it made me sick to my stomach.
As we left the tower, kids from some sort of international exchange program were traipsing up their stairs, swathed in flags of their home countries, also loud and giggly. I even saw a German girl in a fucking dirndl and German flag as if it were Oktoberfest. Dude, people died here. If you visit, treat it with respect.
A Walk Down Maršala Tita
If you come into Mostar by bus, you will likely walk down Maršala Tita, the main road on the Bosniak side of the river. As you walk down the street, you’ll see bombed out buildings where life – if not human life – has begun to take root.
Tree branches tumble out of blown-out windows. Signs warn against entering the buildings. I’d listen to these warnings. The Bosnian government is almost certainly not caring for these buildings and there’s no guaranteeing the structural integrity of any of these buildings.
As you’re walking from the bus station towards the Old Town, you’ll likely pass the old mosque and the Muslim graveyard. Note that nearly every single gravestone you’ll see was erected in 1993. Seeing this mass of gravestones with lives lost too young was one of most heartbreaking moments of my entire trip.
The abandoned Olympic bobsled track
Sarajevo hosted the winter games on behalf of Yugoslavia in 1984. Less than 10 years later, the city would be under siege on all sides by Serbian forces. The siege would last 44 months – nearly four years – and claim the lives of tens of thousands.
What happened in Sarajevo was a little different than Mostar. Bosniaks, Croats, and yes, Serbs, were all trapped together – everyone who refused to leave the city they loved and grew up in was stuck. As such, the city feels a little more integrated and cohesive than Mostar, a city where I felt a faint but live wire of tension coursing through.
It’s sad to see this place so truly abandoned. What was once a place of national pride, patriotism, hope, and celebration of human endurance is now just a mostly-forgotten chute of concrete in the middle of the forest. At the same time, I find some sort of comfort to the way the forest is reclaiming this bobsled track. Moss is growing over the cement on the sides of the track, as if saying, in time, nature will cover all the blemishes men have left behind.
To get to the Olympic bobsled, it’s best to take a cab or a tour — unless the weather is nice and you fancy a 2 or 2.5 hour hike. I took a semi-private tour (with one other traveler) of the bobsled and the Tunnel of Hope for 25 euros organized by my hostel.
Tunnel of Hope
During the siege of Sarajevo, thousands of Bosnians dug a tunnel in order to obtain necessary items: food, arms, and of course – this being Eastern Europe – cigarettes. It’s located near the Sarajevo airport, and you’ll need to take a cab or a guided tour in order to reach it. The tunnel connected the besieged city of Sarajevo with Bosnian-held territory on the other side of the airport. Thousands of tons of goods entered the city this way, and it also allowed hundreds of thousands of Bosnians to flee the city. Because the tunnel goes directly under the airport, there’s not much of it that you’re allowed to traverse. However, you can tour a portion of the original tunnel as well as see videos and other information about its construction at the Sarajevo Tunnel Museum.
A macabre art installation of sorts, Sarajevo Roses are the literal scars that the ground bears from mortar shell explosions. Artists painted these wounds blood red to symbolize and memorialize the life lost in that spot. You can see one nearby Susan Sontag Square and another at the Tunnel of Hope museum, and there are many more scattered throughout the city. On average, 330 shells exploded in Sarajevo per day over their nearly 4-year-long siege, leading to these scars all over the city. They are slowly being replaced over time. I suppose part of this is the healing process, but another part of me hopes that they keep them to honor the lives lost by people who were too proud of their beautiful city to leave it and lost their lives defending and living in the place they loved. Remembering is the least we can do.
A few notes to understand:
– Bosnian refers to any citizen of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosniaks are an ethnic group within Bosnia, distinct from Serbs, Croats, and other much smaller minority groups (Romani, Albanian, and Montenegrin) who also live in Bosnia. Bosniaks are traditionally Muslim. Bosniaks were victims of genocide by Serbian forces during the wars of the early 1990s. For far more eloquent and detailed information than I can relay on this blog post, please please please go to the Gallery 11/07/95 in downtown Sarajevo to learn what happened to the victims of Srebrenica and other sites spread throughout Bosnia.
– The country is officially known as Bosnia and Herzegovina but I’ve called it Bosnia for short. Bosnia and Herzegovina are two historical regions that form one federation. There is also a separate semi-autonomous region of Bosnia, called Republika Srpska, which is majority Serb. If that wasn’t confusing enough, there are three presidents and 13 prime ministers, officially making Bosnia the most confusingly-governed nation in the world.
We are walking to the abandoned sniper tower in the center of Mostar when she says it.
“I love how Christians and Muslims live in peace here,” she said. My mouth almost dropped open. Does she even know what happened here?
Later, she takes selfies while leaning on a ledge that guns rested on around the clock as Serbs and Croats picked off Muslim Bosniaks back in 1993.
For me, 1993 is the year when my sister was born. It was the year I became obsessed with the Jungle Book, fancying myself a young female Mowgli, turning over stones looking for grubs. It was the year I tried and promptly failed out of ballet.
But in the Balkans, 1993 was the year that brothers, fathers, and sons all turned to dust. And nowhere is this more clear than in Mostar, war ravaged and pockmarked from shells even decades later.
It was the year that people who had been living together, if not in peace at least in détente, suddenly all turned on one another.
It was the year their neighbors took to the hollowed out shell of Ljubljanska Bank to shoot them, carelessly, as if for sport. Like beer cans set up at a home shooting range.
Sitting in the graveyard of the mosque on the Muslim side of Mostar, I’m surrounded by gravestones, all erected in 1993. By now, I know the numbers of the war; I know that almost 2,000 people – nearly all men and boys – met their end in the Mostar siege in that year; I know that over 8,000 died in Srebrenica; I know that almost 100,000 people died overall in these terrible years; I know that tens of thousands of Bosniak women were kidnapped, tortured, and raped as a means of ethnic cleansing.
But even surrounded by these stark reminders of all the lives lost in 1993, none of these facts feel like anything. At least, it doesn’t until I see an old man with his head buried in his hands. Even not seeing his face, I can tell. Sadness is present in the grip of his fingers on his temples, the curve of his spine, the way his shoulders tremble. Without asking, without having to ask, I realize he must be the father of one of these gravestones.
And I shatter inside. Sometimes the only number that matters is one.
Leaving the sniper tower, I exist in a kind of a daze. How many snipers had laid in wait where I walked? How many lives were taken on this very block?
As I cross the Old Bridge (a misnomer, as it was bombed to pieces in 1993, effectively herding up all the Muslim Bosniaks for easier picking off, and only rebuilt in 2004) I am filled with a sudden, irrational anger with all the tourists around me. I scowl at someone buying a cheap magnet. A tour group parade squeezes through the souvenir shops, looking more at their selfie sticks than their surroundings. I want to shake them by the shoulders, shout at them: don’t you know what happened here? Don’t you care about what the war did to Mostar?
But of course, I am here. Don’t I know what happened? Don’t I care? Am I really any better? Me, this tragedy tourist? By not buying that god awful magnet, by not putting money in the pocket of someone who lived through those terrible times, how am I really any better?
Some of Mostar has scarred over. Some wounds are still open: bombed-out buildings left standing even 23 years later, moreso on the Bosniak side of the river. They look like the smile of someone missing half their teeth.
But to paint a picture of Mostar as nothing more than a war-ravaged shell is unfair to the city and even moreso to its citizens. Bosnians are tough. The Sarajevo Film Festival began in 1993, while Sarajevo was under siege – no food, no running water, no electricity – just backup generators and the willpower not to let the war run their lives. In short, the people of Bosnia are resilient. They have passions, desires, dreams, stories. They are not just victims.
They drink strong Bosnian coffee overlooking Stari Most. They play backgammon and chat with their friends. They laugh over massive quantities of grilled meat. They smile with bemusement at the outsiders who come to visit their city. They share massive 2 liter bottles of beer with their friends on the banks of the river. They gather each year to watch the artful arcs of the cliff diving champions twisting and tucking as they dive off the famous Mostar bridge. They drink rakija and dance into the evenings; like us, they love, laugh, and dream.
Mostar may be a city built on a graveyard, but it is not a ghost.