When I told an acquaintance I’d be travelling to Bosnia, the instant response was, “Pfft, why? Are you going to look at some bullet holes?”
This served as a reminder that, at least for some, Bosnia and Herzegovina still isn’t top of mind as a travel destination. It’s still largely considered (and remembered as) a place where conflict raged in the 1990s, less a place that travellers might happily explore in the 2020s.
But the reality is that Bosnia is a country that’s gotten back on its feet. It’s beautiful, filled with history and culture, and a base for thrilling adventure sports. And, despite bearing the scars, it’s utterly safe, and the Bosnian people are wonderfully hospitable and down to Earth.
At the start of my trip, I accepted a ride to a monastery from a local in his beat-up car. When a fellow traveller commented that the fuel gauge wasn’t working at all, the local said with a big grin, “Oh, sometimes this work. Sometimes don’t work. Don’t worry. Be happy!” This, I believe, has to be the Bosnian spirit.
A wonderful country to explore, these are 10 of the top things you shouldn’t miss when travelling in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
1. Discover underrated Sarajevo
Sarajevo took me totally by surprise. With a population of around 300,000, this city may be modestly sized, but it’s highly worth spending at least a few days to soak up the atmosphere in Bosnia’s captivating capital. After my visit, I consider Sarajevo one of the most underrated cities in Europe.
Admittedly, there was a time that my mind conjured up very different images of Sarajevo. Growing up in the 90s, I have memories of the news reports from Sarajevo during its horrific siege during the Balkan War. With images of concrete communist-era buildings crumbling under mortar fire seared into my mind, it was unexpected to find Sarajevo to be so warm, vibrant, and fun to explore. Completely renovated and reinvented, Sarajevo is here to welcome you with open arms.
I loved strolling around the old town, which is clearly divided into two architectural styles; one side Austro-Hungarian, the other Ottoman-era. Narrow streets lined with lowrise wooden shophouses now host cute cafes, hookah bars, and cosy restaurants serving traditional Bosnian food (which, by the way, is a delightful cuisine, merging Central European and Turkish influences).
Inside the old town is a small district dedicated solely to coppersmiths. All kinds of metal creations like tea sets and coffee pots are meticulously crafted—an artisan trade going back to the 16th century. As you wander through this little copper wonderworld, hearing clings and clangs of hammer on metal, it’s a great opportunity to buy some real Bosnian copperware. (I always appreciate shops selling wares that do not say Made In China!)
Given the deep history, I found taking a guided walking tour especially worthwhile. (I went on this specific walking tour which was amazing.)
Sarajevo’s history goes back to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand (the event that sparked World War I), the days of the Ottoman Empire, and far beyond. At the nexus of ancient trading routes, Sarajevo once connected Constantinople, Dubrovnik, Venice, and many other major cities in the region. Alongside Sarajevo’s bazaar, you can still see the ruins of its ancient caravansary, where Silk Road merchants would rest after their long overland journeys.
Despite the events of the Balkan War, Sarajevo was always regarded as a city of religious and ethnic tolerance. It even earned the nickname “the Jerusalem of Europe” owing to its churches, synagogues, and mosques existing practically side by side.
For this and other reasons, you might find Sarajevo more diverse than expected. Although the scars from the Bosnian War are unavoidable, locals would like Sarajevo to be seen as a city of tolerance again. It seems to be blossoming into a centre of culture and arts; when I visited, the city was absolutely buzzing with parties and events due to the annual Sarajevo Film Festival, soon followed by Sarajevo’s second-ever Gay Pride parade.
I am sure you can tell that I was completely charmed by Sarajevo. If it’s not already on your travel list, I suggest adding it now!
Sarajevo travel tips
- Be sure to take a guided walking tour of Sarajevo. I booked this walking tour via GetYourGuide which gave a great introduction to the city.
- Walk up the hill and grab a coffee at Kamarija cafe for a great sunset view of Sarajevo.
- Try the Bosnian coffee! It’s served in a tiny copper pot together with some Turkish Delight. Kovači street is a great spot for this.
- Don’t miss the War Tunnel Museum, which gives some unique insight into the Balkan War. It’s a 30-minute drive from the city centre. You can take a bus, but a guided tour gets you there faster and offers so much more context. My guide’s father fought in the area near the so-called Tunnel of Hope and shared some remarkable stories.
- The Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide offers some harrowing but essential insight into the atrocities of the Balkan War.
- Short on time? Then don’t bother with the abandoned bobsleigh tracks of the 1984 Winter Olympics. Reaching these graffiti-covered concrete tracks was once a bit of an adventure, but today, it’s only a mildly interesting tour stop.
2. Traverse Bosnia by train
From Sarajevo, it’s time to head deeper into Bosnia. While I travelled around Bosnia primarily by bus, I made an exception for the journey between Sarajevo and Mostar. The train line between these cities is known for its fantastic views all the way.
Starting in Sarajevo, the train glides through numerous tunnels and climbs high into the mountains, offering glorious views of the valleys below. It then snakes its way down into the Neretva river canyon, more or less tracing the river until reaching Mostar. (Beyond this, the train continues to the Croatian border.)
The Sarajevo-Mostar train journey has been hailed as one of Europe’s most beautiful. While you may have to get up very early to catch a morning service, the views are well worth it. About halfway, you can consider a stop in Konjic, a town known for its river rafting and tours of a former nuclear bunker built for Yugoslav dictator Tito.
3. Explore medieval Mostar
The town of Mostar is arguably Bosnia’s biggest tourist attraction. Being within range of the Croatian coast, it can get pretty busy with day-trippers at times, but I think this does not detract from its appeal. Yes, it’s quite touristy, but very charmingly so.
Best known for the Stari Most, its Medieval bridge across the Neretva river canyon, the town’s name literally means “bridge keeper”. Trade flowed through Mostar for centuries; its streets were once a busy bazaar of carpet sellers, merchants, tax collectors, and so on. During the Balkan War, the bridge was utterly obliterated. Between 2001 and 2004, it was carefully restored to its former glory using traditional building techniques.
You could probably tick off the town in an afternoon or so, though the pleasant atmosphere and nearby excursions can keep you in Mostar longer. The monastery of Blagaj and the waterfalls of Kravica or Koćuša make for excellent day trips. It’s also highly worth taking a guided tour to learn about Mostar’s history.
One fun tradition you can watch in Mostar is the divers jumping off the bridge into the river below—a practice going back 450 years. Divers have to be well-trained to make the 23-meter dive. The biggest challenge is facing the river’s ice-cold temperature (a mere 7°C in the height of summer!), which can cause a heart attack if the proper techniques are not used.
If you feel up to it, they offer a certified bridge diving course for about €30, after which you can take the plunge. Once a year, Red Bull holds a contest with an additional platform raising the dive to a whopping 28 meters.
Mostar travel tips
- Check out the small museum next to the Stari Most to learn the history of this famous bridge.
- A free walking tour will tell you so much more about the town. I went with Mostarfreetour, which was the first such tour in Mostar. They offer a ton of great insights and history — no upselling or dropping you off at a souvenir shop!
- Café de Alma is Mostar’s only coffee roastery and a great place to try Bosnian Coffee.
- Looking to party? Mostar has a nightclub inside a cave! Appropriately named The Cave, it’s just off the east side of the bridge.
- Backpackers will feel right at home in Mostar, thanks to a significant number of cosy and family-run hostels—the kind where granny might be cooking the meals or the owners offer their own impromptu tours.
4. Try the Bosnian food
Part of what makes travelling in Bosnia so enjoyable is the food, which is inexpensive and delicious. Given its location and history, it’s no surprise that Bosnian cuisine includes many Central European and Turkish influences.
What everyone tells you to eat first is Cevapi. It seems like it’s the national pride, but basically, it’s kebab inside some pita bread. Oh — and it’s also stuffed with loads of raw onion! Don’t eat this if you’re expecting to kiss anyone, though it does make for a filling snack. Many a budget backpacker in Bosnia will surely be getting through the day on some €1 Cevapi.
More refined dishes include Klepe, a minced meat dumpling and Dolma, stuffed vegetables like eggplant and pepper. Another favourite of mine was Sarma, vine leaves stuffed with pork or vegetables. Some of these dishes may sound familiar if you’ve travelled elsewhere in the Balkans or the Caucasus.
Turkish-derived sweets make for some lovely desserts like Baklava (sweet pastry) or Tufahija (boiled apple stuffed with walnut).
I enjoyed the cuisine in Bosnia and appreciated the prices as well, which did not take a bite from my budget. I typically lunched or dined for about €3 – 7. Not bad!
5. Learn about the Balkan War
It seems unfair for Bosnia and Herzegovina to forever be known as ‘that country where a war happened’. It’s such a friendly and beautiful place that’s highly worth visiting based on its wonderful landscapes, mix of cultures, and cuisine.
Then again, the topic of the war can’t be avoided. Bosnia was literally ripped apart by it. So, for the foreseeable future, Bosnia will sadly be ‘that country where a war happened’.
The trauma and scars still run deep. Locals routinely start sentences with “before the war…” or “after the war”. You can see graveyards and monuments as constant reminders of the conflict. Every guide I met in Bosnia talked about the war at length, and because it was so recent, often in highly personal ways.
I was extremely touched by the testimonies and stories. A guide in Sarajevo shared first-hand accounts of the siege of Sarajevo and the killing of innocents; it is intense to hear about this from someone who lived through it. Later on, my Bosniak guide struggled to mention the war criminal Slobodan Milošević; unable to call him by name, he paused, then uttered the words ‘that motherf***er’ in a way that utterly grabbed me by the throat. I’d never heard anything said quite in this way, from such a deep place, as though all the pain of the entire war was concentrated into those two words.
There are also stories of hope and reconciliation. I met another local who shared a remarkable tale of his father meeting the man who had critically wounded him in war and who found it within himself to forgive him. The story was retold by the TRT television station here.
While the war museums and such could be dismissed as ‘dark tourism’, I couldn’t imagine visiting Bosnia without paying respects to what happened. The war history is not the reason you’d go to Bosnia, but it’s essential to learn about it while you’re there.
6. Literally chill at the waterfalls
Let’s switch our focus back to Bosnia and its natural splendour, much of which is less known than its recent history.
Bosnia has some spectacular waterfalls, and, like those found in Croatia, the word is increasingly getting out!
One great waterfall is Kravica, a horizontal series of cascades splashing down from almost 25 meters. It’s a swimming spot popular with both locals and tourists, many coming from Dubrovnik or Mostar in the summer. There is no public transport to the waterfalls, so taking a taxi or a local tour is necessary.
You can swim in the lake but know that the water here and other swimming spots in Bosnia tend to be very cold even in summer. Despite air temperatures exceeding 40° C (104 ° F) while I was in Bosnia, jumping in the waters felt like a bit of an Arctic experience. I could only manage to stay in the water briefly before needing to warm up in the sun again. Still, it was great to cool off during the hottest time of the year!
7. Go wild water rafting
With not so many dams built in Bosnia, wild rivers such as the Tara and the Neretva offer fantastic river rafting opportunities. You don’t have to worry about needing any rafting experience, as an expert skipper will tell you what to do at each turn.
The main area for rafting can be found near the town of Konjic. It’s about halfway between Sarajevo and Mostar, so it’s easy to book rafting tours from either of these cities. A typical rafting trip takes 5 hours, covering about 25km, with a BBQ lunch along the way.
Further afield is the Tara river, said to be even more impressive for rafting. Along the border with Montenegro, the Tara River Canyon is known as the deepest and sharpest canyon in Europe.
Thanks to various camps set up along the river, instead of just the 1-day rafting experiences found elsewhere, you can raft for multiple days at Tara Canyon. These rafting camps are located in the national parks far away from any roads; letting you have a truly wild experience both in and outside the raging rapids.
8. Try the Bosnian coffee
Despite Bosnians insisting that theirs is definitely not Turkish coffee, they are quite similar, apart from some technical differences in the brewing process. The thick and dark brew packs a real punch. Often it is served with rahat lokum, a Bosnian candy that is similar to Turkish delight. The Bosnian coffee isn’t filtered, so watch out for any residue at the bottom of your cup.
The old town of Sarajevo is filled with cute cafes where this local brew will be served in a traditional coffee set for you to try. In Mostar, be sure to visit Cafe de Alma, which is also a roastery. It’s run by some passionate coffee lovers who will happily talk your ears off about the roasting and preparation process.
The proper way to serve yourself is to put a sugar cube in your cup first, then pour a bit of coffee on top to dissolve it, then slowly fill the rest of the cup with coffee, being careful not to pour too many grounds into your cup.
9. Take a trip to Blagaj
File this under “worth a trip”: the small village of Blagaj, 12km southeast of Mostar. During the Middle Ages, Blagaj was known as the capital of the Herzegovinian region. It’s now become a bit of a tourist spot, with the Dervish House serving as its main attraction.
The Dervish House is a small Muslim monastery located along the turquoise waters of the Buna river and beside a large karst cliff. You can wander through its prayer rooms, which remain in use at times but are open to visitors. Boats can take you inside the adjacent river cave.
While the Dervish House is scenically located, to be honest, it takes only half an hour at most to see it. Still, it’s a nice spot to visit if you’re in the area. The restaurants on the river offer a reason to linger a while.
After ticking the Dervish House off my list, I spent the afternoon relaxing in a hammock at a bar on the river, about a kilometre or so downstream, occasionally swinging from a rope into the river. Sometimes travel isn’t all about sightseeing!
10. Stay in authentic Trebinje
With my time in Bosnia drawing to an end, I wanted to stay in one more place that’s not on the Sarajevo-Mostar travel trail. My choice was Trebinje, a small riverside town close to the Croatian border.
If authentic places are your thing, then Trebinje will be right up your alley. It’s not among the first places that people tend to visit in the Balkans, which instantly makes it feel like something a bit different. Its small historical centre has a very welcoming atmosphere, and it was great seeing just how lively Trebinje gets on the weekend, the streets filled with locals out to strut, dance, and dine.
Visiting a hilltop monastery, bicycling along the river, and paragliding from the surrounding mountains are some of the only activities here. There is also an artificial beach on the river where you can relax among the locals.
There aren’t enough activities in Trebinje to interest the nearby Croatian beach holiday crowds, nor is it ‘postcard perfect’. But with its cluster of small, locally run guesthouses and unpretentious charm, it’s highly worth stopping by if you travel for the experience.
If you are travelling around the Balkans, it’s a good waypoint if you’re heading towards Croatia or Montenegro. It’s also within day-trip range of the famed city of Dubrovnik in Croatia. Savvy budget travellers stay in Trebinje to avoid Dubrovnik’s insanely high accommodation prices during summer while still taking the chance to visit this renowned World Heritage Site.
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