Bosnia and Herzegovina

Multicultural Sarajevo

(Last Updated On: 04/08/2019)

There is no other place like Sarajevo. And I don’t mean the breathtaking location of the place or the troubled recent history of the civil war and the siege. The capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina is probably the most multicultural city in Europe, where Catholic and Orthodox church stand next to each other and great mosque neighbor with the synagogue, down the street from the first two. When looking at Sarajevo from one of the surrounding hills the tall minarets cross the sky but the more observant eye will spot church towers as well. Wandering around the old part of the city is like jumping between two words, from Central Europe to Middle East and the other way around. It is not Bosphorus in Istanbul where two cultures collide, it is Sarajevo!

multicultural Sarajevo

History of multicultural Sarajevo

South Slavs have been present in the Balkan Peninsula since 7th century and shortly after they were Christianized. Part of them (now Slovenia, Croatia) were under the German influence therefore they became Catholics, another part (now Serbia, Bulgaria, Macedonia) were pushed by the Byzantine Empire to became Orthodox Christians. The current territory of Bosnia was right in the middle of this division. The area where Sarajevo is now was previously inhabited by the Slavs but the city was officially founded in 1461 by the Ottoman Empire and was under its rule for over four centuries. During that time many people converted into Islam religion and some of the most beautiful mosques, including Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque built in 16th century. That explains what many visitors to Bosnia don’t understand – how come there are so many Islam believers in a Slavic country.

multicultural Sarajevo
But in the same period also other places of worship have been built. First churches, even if rather small, appeared in Sarajevo at the beginning of 16th century (like the Old Orthodox Church few steps away from Sebilj – the heart of Ottoman part of the city). Sarajevo had also a really big Jewish population – the first synagogues opened in late 16th century when Sephardic Jews fled from Spain and found their shelter in the capital of Bosnia. The time of Austria-Hungary rule that started in 1878 brought even more religions to the city: Protestants and Ashkenazi Jews. It was the peak of the multicultural Sarajevo and the demographic of the city was too complex to easily understand.

multicultural Sarajevo

Multicultural Sarajevo – the reason of the siege

Even if there has always been some minor issues the inhabitants of Sarajevo could live peacefully next to each other, despite the big differences. The city has been a great example of tolerance that people were proud of and this resulted in the cosmopolitan atmosphere on the streets of Sarajevo. Not many knew and didn’t really care to know what origins they friends are. People enjoyed each others company and started families together despite their different backgrounds. No one really talked about the religion because there was no reason for that. Before the tragic war in the middle of 1990s 28% of inhabitants were Orthodox Serbs, 49% Bosnian Muslims and 16% Catholic Croats and 30% of marriages in Sarajevo were mixed. Unfortunately the rich multicultural background was a perfect excuse for the siege that lasted almost 4 years and costed lives of over 11.500 people. But even then many inhabitants of Sarajevo, not matter of which origins, stayed united and fought not against religion or politics but to defend their beloved city and its values.

multicultural Sarajevo
Sadly the multicultural Sarajevo didn’t really survive the siege. These days the majority of inhabitants (around 80%) are Muslims and Serbs experience a wide discrimination in many fields. It is easy to recognize the background, traditional Serbian, Bosnian or Croatian names show it all. The reality of multicultural Bosnia and Herzegovina is complex and not easy to comprehend, even for people living there. I know the more I read about the subject the less I knew.

multicultural Sarajevo

Old Town of Sarajevo – where cultures meet

But at least the Old Town of Sarajevo, closed in the triangle of streets Obala Kulina bana, Mula Mustafe Baseskije and Marsala Tita, is where the great multicultural background can be best experienced. In such a small area there’s at least half a dozen places of worship of four religions: Islam, Judaism, Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Church. They are within a walking distance from each other and the sound of church bells mix with the call for a prayer by muezzin. No wonder Sarajevo is often called “European Jerusalem”. Now, when I think about it I remember I felt exactly the same way in Jerusalem as I did in Sarajevo. The mix of religions and cultures in both cities was overwhelming, confusing and fascinating at the same time and made me feel I’m in a special place. I can’t recall any other destination where four major religions are so present and make such an unique mix.

multicultural Sarajevo

Crossing from one world to another

I remember my first visit to Sarajevo, back in 2012. I was walking down Ferhadija, the main pedestrian street in the Old Town. I was surrounded by the best examples of architecture so typical to Austria – Hungary period and very similar to what Brno, Graz or Zagreb look like. And suddenly at some point I’ve realized the scenery around me is completely different, I didn’t even notice when I crossed from one world to another. The name of the street has changed, to Saraci, and so was my surrounding. I found myself in the middle of Ottoman architecture with small coffeehouses, craftsman’s shops and the smell of grilled meat. It was pretty incredible! During my last stay in the capital of Bosnia I consciously tried to find the border between these two worlds. And there it was, sign on the ground clearly saying where East meets West! It was amazing – you stand in one point, look at the view in from of you and see magnificent Austria-Hungary architecture but when you turn around you see Orient style at its best example! Now jumping from one world to another is among my favorite things to do in Sarajevo!

multicultural Sarajevo
A short, less than 1km walk from the crossroad of Marsala Tita and Ferhadija to Sebilj passes by the Orthodox church on the right, Catholic Cathedral on the left, Jewish Synagogue on the left and then few mosques along the way further. When looking carefully at people it’s easy to notice there’s no typical look. Sarajevans are tall or short, with blond, dark or ginger hair and blue or brown eyes. There are Viennese style cafes next to coffee-shops that easily could be placed in Istanbul. The cultures and influences mingle but in many cases this is sadly only the vague memory of the old times.

multicultural Sarajevo

Not only in the Old Town…

Old Town is the center of the multicultural Sarajevo but it can be seen also in other parts of the city. The Old Jewish Cemetery, closed in 1966 and used during the siege as a Serb position to cannonade the city, is second biggest in Europe, after the cemetery in Prague. The Catholic Saint Joseph’s Church stands proudly at the beginning of the infamous Snipers Alley. The Olympic 1984 grounds after the tragic 1990s serve as a cemetery for three religions.

multicultural Sarajevo

Multicultural Sarajevo – the best tourist attraction of the city?

There are still inhabitants of different backgrounds and they can get along well with each other. But it is not an easy time for multicultural Sarajevo. The local authorities try really hard to bring back the cosmopolitan charm, even if just for tourists, and they’re doing pretty well. The streets and cafes are full and when I was wandering around I could really feel the city is diverse. And that is probably its biggest asset and attraction, the reason why so many people, including me, are so fascinated with Sarajevo. I know I will be back there rather sooner than later, to enjoy the multicultural vibe, the one that cannot be experienced anywhere else and the one that make Sarajevo so very unique.

multicultural Sarajevo
Have you been to Sarajevo? Would you like to visit Bosnia and Herzegovina? What’s the most fascinating city you’ve been to?


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If you think of visiting Bosnia and Herzegovina or just want to read more about the country don’t miss my other posts about this place:

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41 Comments

  • Reply
    Natalia
    03/04/2015 at 16:10

    I totally agree with you – there is no other place like Sarjevo where cultures, religion and history leave side by side. And it’s very beautiful and humble – that we my impression.

    • Reply
      kami
      30/04/2015 at 03:47

      I had exactly the same impressions! and this unique mix is the reason why I enjoy Sarajevo so much :)

  • Reply
    tony
    03/04/2015 at 17:16

    Uff… tez bylem w Sarajewie, stymze wtedy bylo lato. W ogole balem sie calej Bosni, bo to przeciez kraj muzulmanski, a media z glowy robia gowno! Wjazd do stolicy od strony polnocno wschodniej byl czyms co pamietam do tej pory, jednakze miasto spowite sniegiem i tym zimnym powietrzem, lekka mgla, prezentuje sie niesamowicie!

    • Reply
      kami
      30/04/2015 at 03:48

      ja za pierwszym razem byłam na samym początku października, pogoda byłą doskonała, ale jednak zimową porą Sarajewo ma zdecydowanie więcej uroku! A mediom nie można wierzyć! :D

  • Reply
    Monika
    03/04/2015 at 17:20

    One day I’ll go there.
    Your photos encouraging! – it seems to be a great place to visit.

    • Reply
      kami
      30/04/2015 at 03:49

      it is a great place! fingers crossed you will get there sooner than later!

  • Reply
    Henry | @fotoeins
    03/04/2015 at 20:30

    My God, kami – these are beautiful. Heart achingly so. Ever since I saw television images from the 1984 Winter Olympics to the images of the civil war, I’ve always wanted to come here. It might be a sign, too, when I came to know a friend who was born in Mostar; she and her family got out in time and emigrated to the US. Thanks for writing and highlighting Sarajevo!

    • Reply
      kami
      30/04/2015 at 03:51

      Thank you Henry! Since you remember Sarajevo so well from media I’m sure you’d enjoy there as much as I did – tracking down all the remnants of the recent history, both of the Olympics and the siege was probably my highlight of the visit there. It’s incredible how recent and how widely seen everything still is! I really hope you will get there soon!

  • Reply
    http://olazplecakiem.blogspot.com/
    03/04/2015 at 23:03

    Kolejny raz czytam o Sarajewie i dochodzę do wniosku, że muszę się tam wybrać :)

    • Reply
      kami
      30/04/2015 at 03:51

      zdecydowanie tak! polecam bardzo!

  • Reply
    Agnieszka/zależna w podróży
    04/04/2015 at 08:42

    Ciekawy tekst. Ale się uśmiałam z tym cmentarzem. Jak pisałam teksty o Berlinie to znajdowałam informacje, że żydowski cmentarz w stolicy Niemiec jest drugim największym po tym w Łodzi. Jak widać, co miasto to mit wielkiego cmentarza.

    • Reply
      kami
      30/04/2015 at 03:52

      parę tych największych jest, bo przecież jeszcze Łódź i Praga! :) a i pewnie kilka innych się znajdzie :)

  • Reply
    Meg Jerrard
    04/04/2015 at 19:41

    Thsi brings back memories – I was in Sarajevo in 2007, and couldn’t agree more – such a diverse city and there really is no place else like it. I highly recommend travel here, so I’m so glad to see your feature :)

    • Reply
      kami
      30/04/2015 at 03:56

      It must have been even more incredible in 2007! You’re so lucky to be there that early! I think it might be the most interesting city in Europe!

  • Reply
    Kirsten
    04/04/2015 at 20:32

    I love your photos and you do such a beautiful job writing about the history of the city. Well done! I have not been, but I would love to go!

    • Reply
      kami
      30/04/2015 at 03:56

      Thank you! I really hope you will get a chance to visit soon!

  • Reply
    Natalia from biegunwschodni.pl
    05/04/2015 at 16:21

    I love reading your posts and comparing your insights with my. For me Sarajevo is one of the most intriguing cities I’ve ever visited…

    • Reply
      kami
      30/04/2015 at 03:57

      it really is! there’s no other place like Sarajevo!

  • Reply
    Ron | Active Planet Travels
    05/04/2015 at 20:40

    Wow what a beautiful place with breathtaking history. Seems like a great to visit, even with it’s history, which makes it even more intriguing. Thanks for the share! :-)

    • Reply
      kami
      02/05/2015 at 17:02

      That’s what makes Sarajevo so amazing – a stunning location and an incredible history! Hope you will visit it one day!

  • Reply
    Angela
    06/04/2015 at 19:02

    What a beautiful place (even in the winter). Always fun to learn the historical importance of a destination.

    • Reply
      kami
      02/05/2015 at 17:03

      Winter gave even more magic to Sarajevo :)

  • Reply
    Raphael Alexander Zoren
    07/04/2015 at 07:39

    Sarajevo totally blew my mind! Such an amazing city with such amazing people!!! :D

    • Reply
      kami
      02/05/2015 at 17:03

      couldn’t agree more!

  • Reply
    Alli
    07/04/2015 at 13:55

    I absolutely love that photo that looks like it was taken at either dusk or dawn . . . it just looks as though the city is so soft from that view with those colours!

    • Reply
      kami
      02/05/2015 at 17:08

      it was at dusk :) I spent way too much time then, just staring at the view…

  • Reply
    Chris Boothman
    08/04/2015 at 18:45

    Sarajevo looks so intriguing with a plethora of history and culture to be found. I love the photography you have included and I think winter just makes this and even more attractive place to visit with the snow providing a perfect backdrop to the beautiful architecture here.

    • Reply
      kami
      03/05/2015 at 16:43

      you’re right! I was there in early autumn and in winter and the second one was definitely so much better!

  • Reply
    Dana @ Green Global Travel
    01/05/2015 at 23:10

    Jealous you’ve been to this beautiful, culturally rich and historic city! It sounds absolutely lovely from your description and pictures and I would love to visit at some point. Nothing like a city with history!

    • Reply
      kami
      03/05/2015 at 16:46

      fingers crossed you will get there one day, it’s pretty incredible!

  • Reply
    Teri @ BlueSkyTraveler.com
    30/07/2015 at 14:39

    Sarajevo… My mind was blown here as well. The layers of cultures was fascinating. In my travels across Europe, I never met more friendlier people than Bosnians.

    • Reply
      kami
      03/08/2015 at 22:33

      I’m glad I’m not the only one with these feelings towards Sarajevo! now I really want to return, for the 3rd time, to be part of it even more!

  • Reply
    rebica
    12/07/2016 at 23:39

    Dear Kami,
    I was really amazed by your wonderful post about Sarajevo and its historical, cultural, touristic brief…..Thank you very much for such a nicely expressed love and description of the city I was born and raised at, and where am living at…..However, although your all expressed knowledge about Sarajevo, please kindly, note that Sarajevo & Bosnia and Herzegovina didn’t go through the “civil war” but the WAR….Considering you as an educated person with a hope you will understand it, I’d like to state a fact that in BiH we have had a WAR! When you have the armies from the another, independent countries involved (Serbia and Croatia), you definitely can’t call it “civil war”….For the sake of all who lived and survived the horrible war and the siege of Sarajevo (I am the one of those lucky ones!) and for the sake of all those who lost their lives, I could only hope that all you foreigners will start to call it with a proper name, once and for ever – WAR!…..Even tough I don’t know why is so easier for the foreigners to call it “civil war” when there is available a Full Definition of war: 1 a (1) : a state of usually open and declared armed hostile conflict between states or nations (2) : a period of such armed conflict…..Hope this letter will meet your full understanding, have all my best.

    • Reply
      kami
      21/07/2016 at 21:35

      I’m so sorry to upset you Rebica. I know there’s still a discussion whether it was a civil war or war and it might be confusing for foreigners, partly because it’s always refer to as Bosnian War only. I’m so sorry again.

      • Reply
        rebica
        05/08/2016 at 05:53

        Dear Kami,

        Thanks a lot for your kind reply and understanding….I know how much the whole “Bosnian War story” is confusing to the foreigners, especially by those discussion whether it was a civil war or war…..
        Once again, many thanks for such a wonderful post about Sarajevo.
        Sincerely, Rebica

  • Reply
    Joel
    11/11/2017 at 06:01

    Hello, have you visited Bosnia and Herzegovina during December or January? If so, would you recommend it?

    • Reply
      kami
      22/12/2017 at 22:04

      No, only in February and it was good. But I saw pictures from winter months and it looked magical with all the snow!

  • Reply
    Christina L
    18/04/2018 at 03:59

    Hi Kami,
    Thank you for always giving us a glimpse into all the wonderful places you visit, which we could only hope to see for ourselves but guess what, I’ll be in Bosnia 1 week from today and I’m very excited! If I could ask you for a small favour – could you tell me where you took the 4th photo in this post? The one overlooking the city with the graveyard? Thanks.

    • Reply
      kami
      07/05/2018 at 15:01

      I’m so sorry for my late answer Christina, I must have overlooked your comment! How was Sarajevo? I’m sure you enjoyed it a lot, it’s such an amazing city! The picture was taken from the White Bastion but I guess you easily found it as it’s probably the best and most known viewpoint in Sarajevo :)

  • Reply
    Leo Cornelius
    15/09/2019 at 15:25

    hey i know this post came out a long time ago but i have been looking into going some time next year. Do you have any tips for things i should/shouldn’t do? Are things still a little bit uneasy from the war? i hope to hear from you. thanks.

    Leo.

    P.S. where did you take the photo of the nice little square with the wooden structure in the middle? just wanted to know because it looked pretty cosy there.

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