Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) was my first experience in a “war torn” country. (Yes I do have a problem, can’t just go on a cruise it’s just not interesting enough . . . ) Sarajevo remains one of my favorite cities in the world. I didn’t know what to expect when I stepped off the plane – the only local person I had ever talked to was the gentleman sitting on my DC-Vienna flight earlier that summer. Fairly new to the game of traveling at that point, I thought it would be a good idea to brush up on my Balkans knowledge by reading a book entitled “The Fall of Yugoslavia” on the plane. BIG MISTAKE.
We had barely lifted off the tarmack when this gentlemen points at my book and then tells me that he is going to tell me the “real story.” He talked the entire 9 hour flight with the exception of hushing his elderly mother when she would interrupt him. His real story was made up of conspiracy theories about how Tito (held various roles in Yugoslavia from the end of WWII until his death in 1980) was not even really from Yugoslavia and you could tell this from the hint of Spanish accent during his speeches. It was a long 9 hours, but I did get some great restaurant and gelato recommendations for Vienna out of the whole debacle.
But, back to Sarajevo, as you first leave the airport it’s what I affectionately call “commie condos.” CC’s are typically high-rise white concrete buildings that all look the same, with the token black satellite dish poking out from each apartment’s balcony. A constant throughout Eastern Europe. Then you enter the Habsburg area of the city and you could be in Vienna if you didn’t know better, and finally at the city’s center you find mosques and architecture reminiscent of the Ottoman era.
Where to stay? Highly recommend Hotel “Villa Orient”, the staff were amazing and it was a great location.
Transportation/safety concerns? From the airport it’s easy to get a taxi into the city. To explore you can walk many places and of course there is public transport . I felt safe at all times – even taking walks by myself in the early mornings in the 1-2 mile radius around the hotel. When exploring the rest of BiH I was fortunate enough to be doing a research seminar and had ground transportation from the OSCE Mission. I personally would not have felt comfortable traveling without the OSCE drivers when visiting other parts of the country. Beyond the safety concern, if your ability to move between cyrillic script and latin letters is not strong it can quickly get tricky to find your way between the street signs and available maps that switch back and forth between the two alphabets.
And I will leave you with the number one rule for BiH: STAY ON THE PAVEMENT. It’s a beautiful country, but it’s still recovering. Demining is a constant effort, and even if an area has been cleared after winter weather the mines can shift. So walking around the city, good idea. Hiking in the hills above Sarajevo, bad idea.