View of Sarajevo from a hill.

Bunkers, beats & adventure: how to spend a perfect weekend in Bosnia & Herzegovina

Head to this former seat of Ottomans and kings to find extraordinary landscapes, an emerging food scene and exuberant nightlife.

Sarajevo is the capital city of Bosnia and Herzegovina and sits in the Sarajevo valley.
Photograph by Nor Safariny, Shutterstock Images
This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

Bosnians have a saying that goes: ‘Where logic ends, Bosnia and Herzegovina begins.’ Which makes complete sense when you dig into its history. This former Ottoman frontier is one of only three Muslim-majority countries in Europe, a heritage visible in the labyrinthine bazaars and jewel-bright mosques of Sarajevo and Mostar. 

Walk out of the capital’s Old Town, however, and you’ll encounter the fine geometry of Austro-Hungarian churches, followed by hazy Yugoslavian-style basement bars that pulse with Balkan turbo-folk music. Confronted with a history spanning many centuries and empires, you realise that the 1992-1995 Bosnian War was but a chapter. Some mortar scars remain, but the scale of the reconstruction effort, like so many things about this country, is mind-boggling. 

You certainly won’t be short of things to do here. Bosnian businesses have been busy making nature and culture more accessible to visitors, working with partners like the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The results can be seen in initiatives such as the Herzegovina Wine Route, opened in September 2021  — making it easier than ever to toast your trip with a generous glass of red Blatina. 

Day one: Olympic heritage & old town

Wake early in the capital Sarajevo to catch the cable-car to Trebević mountain. Where Bosnian Serb forces once advanced during the Siege of Sarajevo, you’ll now find huddles of pines muffling the noise of the city. From here, you’ll see the 18th-century Yellow Fortress, which fires a cannon at sunset throughout Ramadan, and the oval of the former Olympic Stadium; the 1984 Winter Olympics are a source of considerable local pride. Join families on a stroll along the disused bobsleigh track before taking the cable-car back down. Head to Munchies Sarajevo bar in the northern neighbourhood of Višnjik for seasonal, fusion street food such as red trout sushi tart and fried veal sandwiches. 

Forty years of Austro-Hungarian rule left its fingerprints all over Sarajevo, not least with the grand theatre on Susan Sontag Square — the writer staged a production of Waiting for Godot here in 1993 that drew such attention, many believe it helped end the war. From here, it’s a short stroll to the Markale food market. Here, you’ll find stacks of smoked beef and tangy Livno cheese, a Bosnian delicacy. Continue to the Catholic Sacred Heart Cathedral and its aluminium statue of John Paul II, locally known as the ‘shiny Pope’, then detour south to the City Square, site of a giant chess board. Continue to Latin Bridge, where student Gavrilo Princip assassinated Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand, setting the First World War in motion.

Sarajevans say that as you step over the ‘Sarajevo Meeting of Cultures’ mark on Ferhadija street, you leave Vienna and enter Istanbul. The first indication is the bezistan (covered market) and mosque. Head to Kazandžiluk, where Sarajevo’s coppersmiths have plied their trade since the 16th century. You’ll find more fine copperwork at Inat Kuća, whose name (‘spite house’) originates from a row between its owner and city authorities, who planned to build City Hall on the site. The restaurant’s owner eventually agreed to sell the land, on the condition that the entire house was relocated to the other side of the river. The signature dish is Bosanski Lonac, a herb-infused hotpot cooked in a wood fire. 

Day two: Bunkers & Balkan beats

Catch the 07:15 train to Konjic, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s adventure capital. Book in advance to arrange river rafting and tours of Tito’s Bunker, available by appointment only. The bunker was believed to be a weapons storage facility until the 1990s, when its true purpose was revealed following the breakup of Yugoslavia. Underground, there are almost 70,000sq ft of rooms for everything from food storage to medical facilities, designed to keep President Tito and his cronies safe for up to six months in the wake of a nuclear attack. The bunker took 26 years to build and cost a staggering $4.6bn (£3.7bn) at the time. Today, it’s a contemporary gallery where artists explore themes such as war, politics and identity.

The best way to see the local scenery is from a raft on the Neretva River. There are mid-level rapids with occasional thrills, plus enough calm moments to admire the limestone cliffs reflected in the mineral-blue water. Most tours include a beach barbecue lunch. If you prefer something more sedate, head to Novalića Kula for a hearty mixed grill and coffee overlooking the Ottoman-era Old Bridge. Meander on to Zanat, a design shop and museum, where brothers Orhan and Adem Nikšić maintain the woodcarving tradition they inherited from their great-grandfather, Gano. These days, the brothers bring in designers such as Harri Koskinen and Monica Förster to add some Scandi flair to a now-global Bosnian brand. 

Catch the 17:18 train back to Sarajevo for dinner at The Singing Nettle. Though old-fashioned in appearance, it’s popular among young Bosnians for its vegetarian takes on traditional food, plus its range of pestos, cakes and spirits made from — you guessed it — nettles. For nightlife, try busy local favourite City Pub for live rock music, then head west to the bar Balkan Express on Maršala Tita. It imitates a Communist-era apartment, with gilded portraits pinned to yellowing wallpaper and dim, Soviet subway-style lighting. Opposite is basement club Jazzbina, which hosts live jazz, blues and DJ sets. Grab a Sarajevsko beer and settle in for the night. 

Three historic towns to explore

Bosnia and Herzegovina has a wealth of beautiful towns lined with cobbled streets and brimming with historical relics — head beyond Sarajevo to experience more architectural and cultural highlights.

1. Jajce

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s former capital has witnessed key moments in the nation’s history: it was here that the Turks executed Stjepan Tomašević, the last Bosnian king, in 1461. The site of his crowning was renamed Mehmed II Mosque, then St Mary’s Church; today, it’s simply called the Clock Tower. Duck into the shadowy Jajce catacombs — the burial site of Jajce’s founder, Hrvoje Vukčić Hrvatinić — on your way up. Further down the hill, the AVNOJ Museum is on the site where Marshal Tito signed documents to found the second Yugoslavia in 1943, kick-starting the reassembly of a country dismantled by the Nazis. It’s right next to the town’s waterfalls.

2. Mostar

The gravity-defying arch of Mostar Old Bridge is perhaps the most photographed sight in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and something of an emblem of the country. It has a history as staggering as its engineering. Ottoman architect Mimar Hayruddin’s creation stood for more than 400 years until shelling by Bosnian Croat forces brought it crashing into the Neretva River. The bridge was rebuilt between 2001-2004, after which it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s best viewed from the minaret of the Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque. Watch locals making the death-defying leap into the waters below; there’s even an annual bridge-jumping festival in July.

3. Stolac

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s 28 stećci  (medieval tombstone graveyards)  comprise the second of the country’s three UNESCO cultural sites; the third is the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge in Višegrad. Stolac’s Radimlja necropolis is perhaps the best preserved, with 133 stones carved with warrior figures and symbolic motifs, and also has a small visitor centre. Some 20 miles from the coast, Stolac is a pleasing jumble of cobbled streets and fig trees, very much a classic Mediterranean town. Climb up to Vidoški old town; at the centre, you’ll find the residence of its former governor, Duke Stjepan Kosača, now a tumbledown fortress ringed by pines.

Top three local wineries

1. Marijanović

Josip Marijanović grows two Bosnian grape varieties (Žilavka and Blatina) at this family vineyard in tranquil Služanj. The vineyard is known for its 33 Barrique red — an equal-parts combination of Blatina, Syrah and Cabernet. Try it on one of the tours. 

2. Carska Vina

Around a million Catholic pilgrims descend on the town of Međugorje every year in the hope of sighting the Virgin Mary — and to drink fine wines at Carska Vina. Owner Andrija Vasilj recently opened the nearby Cesarica wine hotel

3. Andrija

Andrija winery has been in operation since 1903, which has given the team plenty of time to develop a comprehensive visitor experience. Tours and tastings feature up to five wines, along with Herzegovinian charcuterie and desserts; there’s also a souvenir shop, plus rooms in which to sleep it all off. 

Top five culinary experiences

1. Local dinner

On a hilltop overlooking Sarajevo, the Panjeta family host cooking lessons and dinners. Apart from the meat, all ingredients come from the organic garden, including the grapes that go into the family’s potent rakija brandy. 

2. Bosnian coffee

Among Bosnians, coffee-drinking is tantamount to a sacred rite. Bosnian coffee is brewed once, which (they say) results in a fresher-tasting brew. In Mostar, family-owned Café de Alma offers coffee-making demonstrations and a selection of fragrant, zesty Turkish delights. 

3. Picnic with horses

Dine among the 800 wild horses of the Kruzi Plateau. This is a proper feast, with slivers of cured ham, rounds of citrussy Livno cheese, honey mead and the tour company’s own ‘Wild Ale’ from the Livanjka Craft Brewery. 

4. Stolac smokvara

The best way to enjoy Herzegovina’s figs is in smokvara, a sticky, syrupy cake often served with strong coffee. Most say the best smokvara is made in Stolac; there, the Mehmedbašića Kuća historic hotel runs a tasting experience. 

5. Herbs & honey

Book a tasting tour with Trebinje Travel Guide, which includes a visit to Ljekobilje lavender farm and beekeeper Neđo Pažin, one of Herzegovina’s few organic honey producers. 

Published in the June 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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