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Rising from the ashes, reincarnated after the war, Bosnia and Herzegovina are one of the world’s most evocative travel destinations. Majestic mountains set the scene, mysterious cities relive historic glories, and the people are delighted to see you. Sarajevo and Mostar are two of Europe’s hottest cities right now, and a journey through the Balkans is only complete when you explore this heart-shaped land.
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Bosnia and Herzegovina are one of those places that are attractive beyond belief yet only just recovered from the heartbreak of war. The country has recovered and evolved into one of the world’s most enigmatic and evocative travel destinations. Mortar damage and bullet holes may still be seen, and they add something to the atmosphere. But the times of civil war and strife are long gone. Now is the time to explore the country filled with exquisite natural and cultural beauty. Breathtaking landscapes set the scene, most of the country defined by the Dinaric Alps, a rather rugged chain that sweeps all the way through the Balkans. Rivers twist down dividing historic towns while providing a platform for rafting adventures. Most life is in the foothills, particularly small stone villages where religions mix harmoniously. This is a country where you hear church bells ring after the muezzin calls to prayer, and the current unity of a Christian Islamic history is very different from what happened when Yugoslavia broke up. You can happily spend days in the mountains, with hiking trails slowly opening up to less than intrepid visitors. Despite the phantasmagorical setting, the two premier highlights are cultural, Sarajevo in Bosnia, and Mostar in Herzegovina. After undergoing substantial regeneration, both have become travel icons in Eastern Europe. While they still bear scars, the reincarnations are celebrating once-forgotten glories. Both are quirky, filled with café culture that is as welcoming as the gregarious locals.
Most visitors tend to be passing through Bosnia and Herzegovina, stopping in Sarajevo and Mostar on a longer Balkan vacation. The stone architecture found in these two cities is emblematic of the country, a euphoric mix of East and West, blending Ottoman and Turkish styles with Central Europe. It is a blend that extends to the overwhelming atmosphere, something you cannot quite put your finger on until you leave and reflect on the experience. Sarajevo has the country’s main international airport and is the entry point for many, a city that quickly immerses you in the country’s riddle. When coming overland, Mostar is a relatively short drive northeast from Dubrovnik and the Croatian coast. Bosnia is usually the southernmost point on an itinerary, but it is also possible to continue further south, through the mountains to Montenegro and the coast in Albania. Extend the visit beyond the two favorite stops, and you find a country of off the beaten track highlights. You will see stunning waterfalls in the thick forest close to Roman and Illyrian remains. Jahorina hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics and continues to offer excellent winter skiing. Medieval Orthodox monasteries cling to the mountains, while the dervish order monastery of Tekija is somewhat precariously balanced on the edge of nature. Travnik is an ode to the Ottoman era, a mosque, and fortress reminiscing of a time when it was known as the European Istanbul. If you want to explore and seek lesser-known adventure, this is just the start of where local guides can take you.
An Ottoman hammam built into a cliff, besides an old ramshackle home for dervishes and a waterfall surging out of the rock. There is a hint of culture, outstanding nature and quiet cafe to sip on Herzegovina’s coffee and a slab of Turkish Delight.
Mountains and Winter Sports
Sarajevo was the official host of the 1984 Winter Olympics although most of the action took place in Jahorina, a ski resort barely 30 minutes drive from the capital. While ski slopes can be found all over the Dinaric Alps, having an infrastructure created for a world stage makes Jahorina a premier choice. It is something to do for a day when you visit from mid-December to late-March. There are enough routes and runs to occupy you for longer, including the slopes used for the Winter Olympic downhill.
Trebinje is located halfway between Dubrovnik, Croatia, and Mostar. This town on the border is one of the prettiest in the Balkans. Photo albums are dominated by the 16th-century Arslanagic Bridge, while the maze-like Old Town is packed with street-side cafes and coffee-loving locals. It is almost a miniature version of Sarajevo or Mostar, full of local atmosphere and a feast for the senses.
Travnik and Jajce
These small old towns are likely to become iconic travel destinations in future years. For now, they are mostly quiet, even if Travnik gets a surge of day-trippers in summer. Travnik is the old Bosnian capital, and its pedestrianized streets delight, harking back to the days of medieval glories while still being full of beautiful Ottoman remains. Jajce is fringed by a citadel, and dates to the 15th century, it is home to catacombs, Orthodox churches, and excellent cafes.
Rafting and Canyoning
The white-water rafting in Bosnia is arguably the best on the whole continent. There are a number of places to do it, with the Una River near Bihac widely regarded as the best. Canyoning can also be on the itinerary, abseiling down waterfalls and slithering along rushing rivers in a wetsuit.
Bosnia and Herzegovina can be visited almost any month of the year. The winters are mild in Herzegovina but sub-zero throughout Bosnia, the ski season continuing from mid-December until late-March. Other than winter sports enthusiasts, this is a quiet time for tourism. However, most of Europe can be drab during these months while Bosnia and Herzegovina still offer its trademark energy. A country of mountains means a string of microclimates, and it is incredible how the weather can change over the course of a day. Rainfall is scattered throughout the year, and there is no absolute best month to come. Spring is usually pleasant during the day then cool at night. Summer is warmer and can get humid, with June to August seeing a surge in visitors. Like most of Europe, September, and October are good months to consider, offering nice weather and a lack of other tourists.
Hotels are on a small scale, reflecting the number of visitors in the country, but all offer modern amenities and facilities to stay. Do not expect anything too flashy as it is not the style. Instead, look forward to cute features and all the necessary comfort. Be cautious about the old socialist-era hotels, which are in need of renovation. However, there is not any lack of great accommodations. The choice and quality of accommodation can come as a surprise, especially in Sarajevo and Mostar. Infrastructure is developing rapidly, and it will not be long before good hotels can be found in smaller destinations across Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is not part of the European Union but has adopted similar immigration and customs protocol. U.S. and Canadian passport holders can travel there for 90 days without a visa. The critical consideration is how to get there. Mostar has an international airport, but Sarajevo is the only realistic inbound option, with daily connections to major European cities. Roads and railway are slowly being restored after being ravaged by war. You can get around comfortably, even if some of the routes are more potholes than asphalt. The routes from Sarajevo to Mostar and Sarajevo towards Zagreb have been rebuilt and are as good as new. While the country is small, it is often worth adding a day longer than you think you may need, for the experience is found in the atmosphere rather than a rush between sights. The local currency is pegged to the euro, with one convertible mark equaling just under two euros. Most establishments accept payment in euros, and you can withdraw euros from some of the ATMs. With Visa and Mastercard you should not have a problem withdrawing local currency in Mostar and Sarajevo, nor with paying by plastic in upmarket hotels, shops and restaurants. It is a little hit and miss beyond these destinations or any sizable city.
Bosnia and Herzegovina market itself as one of the world’s safety country, with Sarajevo the safest capital. That may be stretching a point, but it reflects the easygoing nature of the people and cities. After four years of brutal civil war, the people do not want to return to a time of violence. Crime levels are low and mostly unheard of against visitors, pickpockets not an annoyance like in other European cities.
Landmines continue to be a danger in rural parts of the country. It is essential to stick to trails when walking or driving, especially if a guide does not accompany you. Estimates suggest that 1 million landmines scattered the countryside as of 1995, with the process of clearing them still ongoing. Cleared areas usually have signage, as do areas of land what are unsafe. However, these signs are not always visible and cannot be relied upon, especially after a flood in 2014 swept through low lying areas.
The mountain landscape will keep you healthy, and you will have lots of time to stretch your legs, in and out of the city. You should be very cautious about drinking tap water, wherever you are in the country. While the air is clean, the cities live in basins so that they can have a layer of smog above them, perhaps unexpected in a country as visually sublime. Even so, it is nothing worse than the standard U.S. or European city, and it is never long before you are back breathing clean mountain air.
Travel around Bosnia and Herzegovina, and there is an obvious topic on your lips. The war. It’s similar to visiting Vietnam, except the scars are even more recent. Everyone aged over 25 will remember the war and will have lived through great hardship. As you would expect, there is a determination to move on rather than looking backward. The majority of people do not want to remember, nor talk about what happened. So bringing up the Balkan Wars over a coffee is not recommended. The exception will guide that you travel with, but again, exercise caution before broaching the subject. It is something that is best explained and described when you are visiting remnants of the war, as the stories flow naturally from these places. Local people look forward, and their energy emanates from positivity. These are incredibly welcoming people, eager to invite you to share a coffee at a cafe, keen to make friendships with foreign visitors. In some senses, this mountainous land has always been the home of misfits, liberals and easy-going people forced out (with or without choice) from the homogenized culture of surrounding countries. Meeting the locals is central to the experience, and you are likely to be amazed by their diversity. Bosnia and Herzegovina have always provided a home for a sundry of people, as epitomized by the easy harmony between different religions. Most days include an invitation for coffee, which leads to friendship, another reason you should take more time than you think you need here. Other than bringing up war scars it is unlikely you will upset the locals. Dress modestly for religious buildings of course, but this is a land where the people want you to feel free. So dress how you please and do not think too much about it. In comparison to its neighbors, a surprising proportion of people can speak English or will find someone who can speak English so they can converse with you.
The food is filling, lots of pastries and traditional pita dishes like burek. It has evolved from Ottoman times, and while the fare cannot be considered gourmet, it is tasty and part of the local experience. Herzegovina has a growing wine scene, not something to impress the purist but certainly unusual and worth a try. For generations, the locals have brewed rakija, a strong fruit-based spirit that can be revolting or surprisingly delicate dependent on where you try it. You sip on it rather than down it, the classic experience is a long evening of rakija mixed with cured meats, bread, and cheese (known as a Meza).
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