Bosnia & Herzegovina is where the Balkan war took the longest, fighting was the heaviest and where many war-related atrocities took place during the split up of Yugoslavia. When traveling through Bosnia & Herzegovina you are still often reminded of this recent dark history… Read about our experience in this still torn-up, yet beautiful country…
Understanding the Bosnian conflict: Republika Srpska
As it were mainly the Bosnian-Serbs (with aid from Serbia/ Republic of Yugoslavia) who triggered and continued the multi-year Bosnian war, I was expecting a potentially difficult Serbian-Bosnian border. (As with many prejudices on this Balkan trip, I was wrong again as it was the fastest in the entire Balkans).
Also, I was expecting to find a proud independent Bosnia on the other side of the Sava river, waving its blue-yellow flags everywhere… However strangely, I could not have been more wrong again, as after we crossed the border, we would still see mainly Serbian (and Russian-looking) flags. A clear first sign of the still ongoing (mostly silent) dispute in Bosnia & Herzegovina. After checking, these flags represent the Republika Srpska, a region within Bosnia & Herzegovina. As part of the Dayton agreement, this region was set up to end the years-long conflict within the country.
Top Tip: Read up on the complex Balkan history before you travel! Especially when traveling to Bosnia & Herzegovina, where the war and (ongoing) conflicts were and are still most prominent. A good start is the multi-episode BBC documentary “The death of Yugoslavia”, which you can find on Youtube.
Visit Srebrenica – Remember the largest genocide after WWII
The declaration of independence led to uprising of the Bosnian-Serbs, which ultimately led up to various genocides throughout Bosnia of (predominantly) Bosnian Muslim men throughout Bosnia. These genocides were mainly carried out by the army of Republika Srpska, sometimes with help of local police or volunteers.
By far the largest and most well-known is the genocide of Srebrenica (especially for Dutch people, due to the DutchBat soldiers serving the UN at the time). Here over 8000 people were killed, and remains are still being found today. The largest genocide in Europe after WWII, as per the international court of justice ruling.
Interestingly, the site is located within the Republika Srpska region (perhaps a reason why the memorial center is not informative at all? – this could be very much improved)… Next to the 7700+ graves there is hardly any other information provided to visitors. Unfortunate, as it would be good to educate the people who go out of their way to visit the Srebrenica Memorial center.
Should you visit the Srebrenica Memorial site in Bosnia?
As the Srebrenica memorial site & burial site was a relatively short detour coming from Serbia, we made a brief visit, but as the information on site is very limited, I would recommend not going ‘out of your way’ to visit. Rather visit the Genocide Museum in Sarajevo, as described below.
Best things to do in Sarajevo, Bosnia
From Srebrenica we drove onwards towards Bosnia & Herzegovina’s capital Sarajevo. During our stay it was mainly rainy, but even despite the weather this relatively small capital city is fun to explore! Make sure you book your accommodation in old city center (we stayed next to the Hotel Europe). This way you can easily venture into the Old Bazar, with its medieval Taslihan Caravanserai, the many beautiful mosques, and the Sebilj (an old wooden fountain).
Due to the Muslim influences Sarajevo is very different than other European cities. When wandering the narrow streets in Sarajevo, it feels more like parts of in Lebanon, Egypt or even Kuwait… Also the many (Saudi and UAE) tourists, with the fully covered ladies, add to the Middle-Eastern vibes…
Top Tip: By chance, we found Delikatesa; a small candy shop in Sarajevo’s Ferhadija street. They likely have one of the widest selection, flavor and packaging-wise of all well known chocolate (and candy) brands I have seen anywhere. For example they sell Merci by the flavor, instead of the usual mixed box. Unfortunately you have to withstand the grumpy employees to get to the sweet stuff, but it’s still worth it…
Top Tip: Bar & Restaurant-wise we liked the options outside of the Old Bazar better (but we have many years of Dubai under our belt)… What we really liked was the window table at BarSa restaurant.
Visit the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide
To understand more about the Bosnian genocide (especially in Srebrenica) you should visit the Museum of Crimes against Humanity and Genocide in Sarajevo.
Unfortunately, similar to the Siege of Sarajevo Museum below, the museum exhibitions are illogical and not very clear. I would expect more background, explanations, facts, charts, etc. Instead it mainly showcases attributes and (very long in small font) anecdotes… It is still worthwhile, but definitely room for improvement and it helps to already have a clear understanding of events before visiting the museum (this should not be the case)!
Visit the Siege of Sarajevo Museum, Bosnia
The longest siege in history of modern warfare has been the Siege of Sarajevo with 1425 days! During this time the city was bombed constantly and civilians were shot by snipers (in cases your former Serbian neighbors) from the surrounding hills!… Imagine this for almost 4 years… A total of 13,952 people were killed during the siege, including 5,434 civilians.
Top Tip: I mainly found this museum interesting due to the chat with the friendly museum host. However, the Siege of Sarajevo is also briefly exhibited in the Genocide Museum. Therefore, information-wise it does not add too much… (Unfortunately they do not sell combination tickets, you have to again pay a full entrance ticket!).
Go underground in the Sarajevo’s Tunnel of Hope
Outside of the city you find yet another ‘dark tourism’ sight related to the Siege of Sarajevo; the Tunnel of Hope… This tunnel was created to keep supplying the city and as a ‘portal through the outside’ during the long Sarajevo siege.
Unfortunately, again there is a lot of room for improvement here exhibition-wise as the photos and movies are not very self-explanatory. It may help to get a guide on the site (there is a free audio tour, but via your phone and Wi-Fi, all a bit messy). These are important parts of history, and I hope the Bosnian government will improve these types of museums in line with other countries that help remember. (They could take an example from Auschwitz, Rwanda’s Genocide Memorial and Cambodia’s killing fields, which all have much clearer museums in place).
Landmine situation in Bosnia & Herzegovina
Before we continue our journey throughout Bosnia & Herzegovina, it is good to stand still at one of the messages at the Tunnel of hope; the landmine situation. During the war the 3 conflicting factions placed landmines all throughout the country (and especially the current-day region borders). As a result, the country has had the most severe landmine problems in the world. There have been more injuries and deaths caused by landmines after the war (5000+) than during the war (3339). Despite the threat of landmines, people enter contaminated areas, mainly out of economic necessity. Slowly the mines are being erased, but there is a long way to go… So be warned, do not thread too far off the beaten path in Bosnia!
Building gun shot holes throughout Bosnia & Herzegovina
Especially when driving through smaller cities and towns onwards in our journey, you still see many buildings with gunshot holes and shell impacts still clearly visible on them. A daily reminder for people, who over the years, may not even notice these in their own walls anymore…
Should you visit Rakitnica Canyon in Bosnia?
A highlight on many itinerary lists is Rakitnica Canyon, just outside of Sarajevo. Although very nice scenery, I think it is mainly nice if you visit Bosnia & Herzegovina during wintertime, as driving towards the canyon you also pass the Olympic ski-slopes of 1984 (just a few years before all hell broke loose in the Bosnian war).
During summer time you can enjoy hiking activities and nice vistas. However, Bosnia has many more beautiful natural sights and scenic drives, so it may not be worth the detour per se!… However, when you are nearby make a brief stop at the atypical Umoljani mosque, which looks straight out of an Islamic Hansel and Gretel fairytale…
Enjoy the beautiful scenic drive to Mostar
After the brief detour through Rakitnica Canyon, we drove onwards towards Mostar. The scenic road alone is already reason enough to travel to Mostar. Make sure to stop once in a while and take in the marvelous scenery over Lake Jablanica and the steep mountain walls alongside the Neretva river.
What to do in Mostar, Bosnia?
Mostar was named after the bridge keepers (mostari) who guarded the Stari Most (Old Bridge) over the Neretva river during the Ottoman era. This obviously already indicates what the key sight of this ancient city must be; Mostar’s Old Bridge. We stayed at a guesthouse with nice views over the bridge just outside the small old city center.
The old city is fairly small and you wander through this in a few hours. Hence, depending on your plans, you could also stop here for a day trip without staying the night. But as with many tourist hotspots, the city gets a lot less crowded, and much nicer, after 16.00h, so staying a night in Mostar would be my suggestion!
Apart from the Old bridge and the few cobblestoned streets that make up Old town, ensure to make your way along the many riverside mosques and circle back towards Old town via the tranquil (modern) Bunur bridge.
Top Tip: You can take the best photos of the Mostar bridge from the ‘diving tower’... Almost no tourists (who all sheepishly follow each other make the effort). You can see it from the bridge and after just a short few minute’s walk you stand in front of the tower in all its glory!…
Top Tip: Dinner-wise, you will have the best views from the 2nd terrace of a nice family-run Lagero Restaurant. Amazing service and great traditional food.. Reserve a table just in case – preferably the table furthest from the bridge (as you will be sheltered from the evening wind)… It is one of the best places to enjoy a Mostarsko Pivo, where the views resemble the beer label!…
Best tips when visiting Blagaj Tekija
Just outside of Mostar you find the small town of Blagaj. The town itself has limited sights of interest, apart from its highlight the Blagaj Tekija.
There are quite a few (minor) tourist traps that you can easily avoid here.
- Don’t pay for parking. Just park just a few steps away from the (paid) parking area and walk the short walk towards the Blagaj Tekija.
- Unless you want to see the inside of the Monastery (Tekija), which are fairly basic and not other than other (catholic) monasteries, you do not have to pay any entrance fees. Most people sheepishly follow the crowd towards the Tekija entrance. However, in my view, the key attraction is the exterior and the natural scenery around the Sufu Monastery.
- Instead of entering the Tekija, just sit opposite at Vrelo restaurant and spend your cash on a drink or breakfast!…
- Or if already eaten, directly make your way up the small walking path (which has no signs) behind the restaurants for the ideal photo locations!…
Do NOT visit Kravica Waterfall!
Originally planning to visit Kravica waterfall, it got less and less appealing after reading (and hearing) the terrible reviews, crappy experiences and ‘scammy-sounding’ entrance fees. Having seen many waterfalls worldwide, we decided to leave our waterfall action for later in our Balkan trip (for example Plitvice in Croatia). Obviously, everyone’s itinerary and preferences are different, just do some research to make an informed decision!
As we did not visit Kravica waterfall, we also were less interested in ‘slightly off-route’ Pocitelj. This small town seems very similar to Mostar… So from Blagaj we drove through amazing steppe-like ‘African’ landscapes towards Trebinje.
What to do in Trebinje, Bosnia & Herzegovina?
Just before you reach Trebinje make a stop at the Tvrdos Monastery!… A great (photo)stop, or if you are luckier than we were, possibly a wine tasting session! However, no ‘wine-action’ to be found when we visited this quiet wine-making monastery…
Next to Mostar, Trebinje is another city in the Herzegovina region. It is a small city with not too many highlights… If in a rush you could skip this and drive directly onwards towards Herceg Novi (Montenegro) or Dubrovnik (Croatia). It has a small non-touristy city center, with a lively square (where I am currently writing most of this post).
The town’s main draws would be its impressive Arslanagic Bridge, without any of the ‘Mostar Crowds’ and Hercegovačka Gračanica (a hilltop church).
We also visited a small family-run Andelic winery. A nice brief stop, where we tasted some nice wines, overcoming the language barrier… Wine always helps and makes friends & improves communication skills!…
Should you visit Bosnia & Herzegovina?
And with Trebinje we come to the end of our Bosnia & Herzegovina leg of this extensive Balkan adventure!… In my opinion visiting Bosnia & Herzegovina is a must, especially when trying to understand and comprehend the (still) complex tensions and history of this region!… You still witness so many reminders of the bloody conflict. We left the country with the feeling that this conflict could still get out of hand anytime in the future… Hopefully that will not happen, as the Bosnians are so friendly, the country so nice and the history so sad that it should not repeat itself ever…
From Trebinje we traveled onwards to Dubrovnik, Croatia… Interested in this or other Ghost around the Globe adventures in the Balkans? Follow any of the links below!…
- Kosovo – The best things of the youngest European country
- Macedonia – Great insider tips!
- Albania – Read this before you plan your trip!
- Montenegro – Why you must visit this beautiful country!
- Serbia – Tips for Belgrade and the wider countryside
- Croatia – What to explore in this Mediterranean beauty?
- Romania – All you need to know!
- Bulgaria – Great short road trip along all highlights!