The peaks of the Dinaric Alps form the lip of a bowl, at the bottom of which Sarajevo sits like a social science experiment. Three of the four Abrahamic religions and numerous ethnic groups grind against each other and have for centuries, the strain of external and internal conflict sometimes violently exploding upon the hapless Sarajevans. The best view of this crucible of culture (and war) is from the green-shaded hillsides that surround the city, which can be reached after only a half-hour walk from the center – a remarkable thing for any capital. While the city is great to look at, the hillsides when viewed from the city are just as pleasing to the eye, their stacked dwellings and wild valleys evoking a certain bygone mountain charm. In the foreground, though, the snow white headstones of war cemeteries carpet barren expanses, a reminder that the city is always a catalyst away from another violent reaction.
Istanbul’s unique position straddling two continents affords a lot of travel opportunities, with quick direct flights throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. As an American living in Turkey, I try to explore as often as I can, particularly to less-traveled destinations. While my last weekend trip was to Prague, for this trip, I ventured to another Eastern European capital with far fewer tourists but an equally fascinating history.
The place: Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina
When I stepped off the plane in Sarajevo, the immigration officer asked me what I was doing in Bosnia. I struggled for a moment before answering “holiday” but really had no single good answer. A combination of cheap tickets, a holiday weekend, and an intriguing destination was what brought me to Bosnia. Most people associate Sarajevo with the tragic Bosnian War in the 1990s, or as part of the former communist Yugoslavia, but today the city is rebuilding and winning fans with cafe culture, Ottoman architecture, and easy access to outdoor adventure. The blend of religions and ethnicities have led the city to be called the European Jerusalem, and travelers will find the excellent exchange rate ($1 USD = 1.5 BAM, which is tied to the Euro 2:1) and widely-spoken English especially welcoming.
- One of the most amazing things about Bosnia is the the people. Resilient, scrappy, and friendly, Sarajevans have survived a lot and recovered remarkably well in a short time. I was particularly sobered by imagining the incredibly difficult adolescence people my age (30) must have had during the 1992-95 conflict. To get an idea of life under siege, you only have to walk around the city and take in the many bullet hole-ridden, damaged and shelled buildings, like the Moorish National Library which is undergoing reconstruction. Every visitor should go to the Historical Museum, across the street from the infamous Holiday Inn war correspondent hub, with a humble but moving exhibit on the siege. The Tunnel of Hope is another must-see museum documenting and preserving the cramped passage between the city and the free zone, where residents could connect with aid and communication with the outside world.
- Sarajevo also offers excellent value. Decent hotels start at 40 Euros and rarely top 100 Euros. I stayed at the very comfortable and personal Hotel Michele for 85 Euros with a nice breakfast and wifi; celebrity guests have included Bono and Morgan Freeman. Tram or bus tickets are under 2 BAM, with taxi rides among the lowest in Europe (the most expensive ride is to the airport and under 25 BAM). Most attractive to expats who pay a small fortune for alcohol: beer, wine, and cocktails are 3 to 10 BAM most everywhere. While not a party town, there are a few good night spots including one of my favorite bars ever: the delightful Zlatna Ribica with the most well-stocked bar bathroom I’ve ever seen.
- While many of the sights are fascinating and affecting, the small museums and tourist attractions are still limited and can be seen in a day or two. The historic Bascarsija Turkish quarter is fun to stroll but crowded with more souvenir shops than craftsmiths these days. Sarajevo is better spent relaxing at a cafe on pedestrian Ferhadija Street and absorbing the history and culture than ticking sights off a list. Surrounded by mountains and valleys, there are also lots of opportunities for hikes, day trips, and skiing in winter.
- Bosnian food is not bad, but many staple dishes are strikingly similar to Turkish food, such as stuffed burek pastries and cevapi meatballs (see: Turkish kofte). While tasty and locally-sourced, the food in Sarajevo tends to be heavy and meat-centric, without the abundance of salads and fish that balance out Turkish menus. High-end international and modern Bosnian restaurants are popping up around town, while cheap eats can be had for under 10 BAM. Reliable mid-range options include Noovi Wine Bar near the British Embassy for pizzas and a great regional wine list, and To Be
or Notto Be (name reflects the plucky and determined spirit of Sarajevans during the siege) for homemade pastas and funky twists on traditional dishes. A famous local restaurant is Inat Kuca, or House of Spite, across the river from the National Library. The story behind the name dates back to the building of the library (then City Hall) when the house’s resident refused to let them build over his home, so they took the house brick-by-brick across the river to where it stands today (how’s that for thwarting eminent domain?).
Tiny but admirably high-tech (they offer mobile and web check-in) Sarajevo International Airport doesn’t offer many flights outside of Eastern Europe, but national carrier B&H Airlines has affordable flights from major hubs including Frankfurt, Istanbul, and Zurich. Many travelers arrive via car or bus from neighboring countries; Croatia’s popular Dubrovnik is 5-7 hours by car and there’s an overnight train to/from Zagreb.
Make it a week
Check out the other half of B&H: Mostar in Herzegovina is another beautiful river town with a famous bridge not far from the Croatian coast. Bosnia is also an emerging destination for adventure travel with a large diversity of activities and landscapes. The Balkans have a wealth of places to go, but be aware of the history and potential Serbia visa issues when traveling overland.
1. In Melbourne’s the Age, Andrew West writes about a fabulous train journey from Jakarta to Yogyakarta to Surabaya and then back to Jakarta.
2. Sophie Cooke extols the pleasures of Sarajevo and rural Bosnia in the Guardian.
3. In the New York Times, Jaime Gross spends 36 hours in Salt Lake City and fills readers in on the buzz on SLC’s new organic dining scene.
4. Jay Jones does the Wisconsin artisan cheese tour circuit for the Los Angeles Times.
5. In the Globe and Mail, Bonny Reichert writes an ode to backcountry canoeing and camping in Ontario’s Algonquin Park.
The rapidly changing landscape of today’s globalized economy means that countries are developing at breakneck pace. Yesterday’s war zones are turning into tomorrow’s tourist destinations at the blink of an eye, while today’s utopias (see: Dubai) are disintegrating just as fast.
Need more convincing? Check out Hans Rosling’s lecture on the rise of Asia over at TED.
Here at Gadling we have our own humble opinions on the next hotsposts for tourist traffic, not the from the socioeconomic perspective, but rather from that of a road hardened traveler. Take a look below:
The memory of the Yugoslav Wars is too fresh for many of us to think of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a tourist destination, but in the ten years since the conflict, the country and its capital city, Sarajevo have made enormous strides. Long gone are the days of ethnic conflict, strife and war crimes — 2009’s Sarajevo is a charming, cosmopolitan city surrounded by hills, cafés and culture.
At first glance Iran doesn’t look very inviting, what with an authoritarian government intent on building nukes and quashing dissent. But look past the politics and you’ll find a hospitable country with excellent cuisine, rugged scenery, and a fascinating history. Add in a reliable bus system and you can have a relaxing vacation with people who love to meet foreigners. The only danger we faced in Iran was the very real possibility of being fed to death.
Although many Europeans have already discovered Morocco, the North African country is still not on the radar for most Americans– but it should be. Perhaps the world’s safest Muslim country, Morocco features labyrinthine markets, delicious cuisine, and access into an amazing culture few truly understand. Best of all, it’s less than an hour ferry ride from the southern tip of Spain.
Soon, Americans will have the privilege of visiting a country that has heartily resisted the capitalist mode of living. It’s true: traveling to Cuba is like going back in time, but it is so much more than that, too. It’s about embracing a nation that has struggled to find its own voice. But Cuba succeeded, and what lies just 90 miles from Florida is a vivacious country that deserves attention, care, and understanding.
Ten years ago, Colombia was branded as the kidnapping capital of the world. Despite decades of drug trafficking, paramilitary threats, and urban crime, this country with its canyons, seas, cloud and rain forests is quickly becoming one of the South America’s — and the world’s — most breathtaking and hospitable travel destinations.
Visit the only African nation never to be colonized. Ethiopia was practicing Christianity when Europe was still bowing down to pagan idols, and their rock-hewn churches and isolated monasteries are centers of learning and the arts. There are natural wonders too–from chilly mountains to blistering desert to African savanna, as well as some of the highest waterfalls in African and the source of the Blue Nile. The Ethiopians discovered coffee and make it better than anyone else in an elaborate half-hour ceremony. What more could you ask for?
Now that they’re earning the big bucks from the canal, the tropical paradise of Panama makes Costa Rica look like Orlando with monkeys. Recent democratic elections saw a peaceful change of power and an ongoing real estate boom is drawing a funky mix of expats and nature lovers. Come for the beautiful virgin rain forest, stunning wildlife, a fascinating indigenous culture and outstanding seashore on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
The cradle of civilization, the home of the Garden of Eden, a unique cuisine and a rich culture.
. .and one of the most war-blighted places in the world. Could Iraq really be the next big tourist destination? A few hardy tour operators and their customers think so. How far will you go to have the adventure of a lifetime?
Don’t you wish that you would have gotten in on that vacation rental property in Barcelona before the Euro and the depreciated dollar? Or jumped in on that investment in Costa Rica before the cruise ships brought the Central American country to its tacky, souvenir-decorated knees?
Hindsight at 20/20 is a cruel, cruel mistress, and as one gleans the profits that savvy investors can make in an up-and-coming country, it’s hard not to think about destinations that are at their respective tipping points of tourist attention.
Oracles we are not, here at Gadling, but we have spent a fair amount of time on the road visiting those off-the-beaten path destinations — those places to where few westerners travel and where many can still score a great deal on a dirt cheap vacation. As many of us believe, these are the true gems of the road — where it’s still possible to grab a beer in a restaurant surrounded by locals, buy trinkets really made by indigenous artisans and stay in a stranger’s guest house for free.
Starting with Sarajevo, Bosnia yesterday and Iran today, we’ll take you on a brief tour through lands not far off the radar — places where not too long ago it was forbidden or outlandish to think of a visit. Hopefully with our help you’ll consider them for your future travels. You can follow along through next week at this link.