The Balkan States are not a region many consider dreaming of where they’ll visit next. It’s still considered an offbeat region, although that is changing quickly. Croatia jumped onto the tourist radar over the past handful of years, and as tourism increases, many are discovering that neighboring Bosnia & Herzegovina is a destination in its own right. I’ll fess up right now, I deeply loved my three weeks the country, and I consider it one of the most underrated places I’ve visited. The country is stunning and the people are warm. Also, the country has waged a huge effort to overcome the atrocities of the 90s war, and they are a culture and people moving forward, but not forgetting.
Bosnia is still flying under the radar for most travelers; Croatia and Montenegro are hotspots for their coastline, but Bosnia has a stunning mountain scenery and a culture unique to the region. For travelers, it makes a fascinating vacation — if not the easiest travel experience. English is not widely spoken throughout, not even in some of the touristy areas. If you visit with a sense of adventure and patience, you’ll find everyone friendly and willing to pantomime with you if that’s what it takes!
There’s a lot to do on a trip to Bosnia & Herzegovina. Rafting the country’s gorgeous rivers is hugely popular, as are winter sports too. The country has a stunning landscape — mountains, rivers, waterfalls — it’s easy to navigate on public transport, and the people are hospitable and welcoming to tourists. It’s a beautiful, offbeat place to explore and I highly recommend it. Consider socially responsible travel, and read on for more information you should know before you visit Bosnia & Herzegovina. Or jump to the city guides below:
Before You Go, What You Should Know
Throughout the Bosnian War, many people were displaced to neighboring countries. Others left as refugees, never to return. And many lost their lives. Travelers should dive into the recommended readings and form a nuanced understanding of the region’s past, as well as how that has affected its current politics.
First settled by the Slavic peoples, around the 14th century Bosnia and Herzegovina became a province of the Ottoman Empire. It’s this influence that brought Islam to B&H. The region stayed under Ottoman control until that influence began to wane throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. By the end of WWII, Bosnia and Herzegovina became a part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
Bosnia and Herzegovina declared sovereignty and independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991 and 1992. It’s this action that set off a chain of events that would shape the country’s few years with the Bosnian War — a bloody civil strife focused around ethnic and religious differences. The Serbs resisted the declaration of independence, preferring to create a country divided along ethnic lines that aligned to neighboring Serbia and Croatia. Eventually, NATO — alongside internal and external forces — created a peace that ended with a Peace Treaty signed by all parties. But that peace took years and some might say is shaky. Throughout the Bosnian War, many people were displaced to neighboring countries. Others left as refugees, never to return. And many lost their lives. The country’s capital experienced the longest siege of a capital city in history. Sarajevo was under siege for four years and the effects of that are still visible on the capital city, as well throughout other areas of Bosnia & Herzegovina.
Modern Bosnia-Herzegovina has a very diverse population, with independence uniting the country’s religious and ethnic groups. Roughly 45% are Muslim, 36% Orthodox, and 15% Catholic. With the past divisions in mind, it’s important to understand that there are two (and sometimes three) distinct regions that have united to act as one country and to function under one currency. And though unity in mid-90s brought peace to the region, there are still tensions and politics that are deeply embedded in the region’s history. For travelers, understanding the 90s civil war is important. Even with that foundational history, however, it’s best to steer clear of discussing religion or politics, nor should you presume to refer to locals under one of the terms that denote ethnicity/religion/regional ties such as: Bosniak, Croat, and Serb. Bosnian is usually considered neutral to refer to anyone from the region and does not connote religious/ethnic ties.
If you’d like more history, this is a quick and thorough timeline of the country’s historic events.
The Fast Facts About Bosnia & Herzegovina Travel
Electricity: 230V/50hz. European 2-pin (Type C & Type E). Americans will need an adaptor.
Primary Airports: Sarajevo Airport (SJJ)
Water: Both safe and unsafe. Sarajevo has safe tap water and very strong food safety measures. Rural areas of the country are not safe. Bring a reusable bottle and refill with safe water, or consider the merits of a SteriPen or LifeStraw for your trip.
Internet Situation: Internet has come a long way since my visit in 2009. It’s more widespread then it once was, and pretty decent. Most hostels and many hotels will offer it complimentary. This is a good list of free wifi spots in Sarajevo, and they have listings for all major cities if you’re in a pinch and need a connection.
Local SIM: Mobile data is available in most areas and is very affordable. BH Telecom is the best option for maximum chance of coverage throughout both Bosnia & Herzegovina. You will find prepaid SIM kiosks; just buy one of these and top up for the amount of data/time that you need. There are both data + voice, and just data options; it’s explained more here with kiosk location information too.
Visas: North Americans and Europeans do not need a visa to visit Bosnia-Herzegovina for up to 90 days. Most of Central and South America is covered under that same policy. Those outside of this region who hold a Schengen visa are admitted for 15 days. Check the latest visa requirements here.
Festivals of Note: Street Art Festival in Mostar (Spring); Sarajevan Winter (February/March); Bascarsija Nights (July); Jazzfest Sarajevo (November)
Safety: Crime is low, particularly crimes against tourists. Pickpocketing in crowded areas and public transport are the biggest threats. This makes a good solo travel destination as a result of the small size of cities and safe, easy navigability. That said, anything can happen on the road. I am a firm advocate of travel insurance; here are my tips to pick a good travel insurance.
Budget: This is a good budget destination, though not rock-bottom prices. The day-trippers from Croatia’s cruise ships jack up the prices a bit in Mostar. Generally, backpackers should plan on about $30 per day — this includes budget eating like bureks/cevapi and hostels throughout your stay. Low-end hotels are also pretty nice, so for a bit more you can easily upgrade. This page gives a good budget overview for various travel styles.
Best Time to Visit: May through September is the best time. Winters are bitterly cold in the region, but summer is hot and sunny.
Food Considerations: This region of the world is hard for vegetarian travelers. They are meat-heavy cultures and with so little English spoken, it can be hard to communicate dietary restrictions. But the fresh food at markets is easy to acquire. I always carried an apple in my bag to stave off hunger. Plan on eating a lot of spinach and cheese bureks — they’re vegetarian and make a tasty lunch (especially with plain yogurt!). I wrote a bit about what it’s like to be a vegetarian traveler in Bosnia. You must learn “I’m vegetarian and I do not eat meat” in Bosnian. You will need it. Also consider these food safety principles when picking where to eat.
Accommodation: Bosnia has a well developed tourism infrastructure, despite relatively low levels of tourism. You can easily book pensions, B&Bs, and hostels online, or via phone if you’re driving around the country. Consider booking with locally-owned accommodation to ensure the money is staying within the communities. In rural areas, look into eco-lodges and etno villages — these ensure you have the lowest impact possible on the local environment. And while the links in city guides below go to a hotel booking site, many are also found on AirBnB if you are member. (A Little Adrift readers get a $35 AirBnB credit here to give it a go.) I stayed with locals in Sarajevo and it was such a wonderful way to see the city. For backpackers, Hostelworld is perfect for pre-booking hostels. And if you buy a local SIM (which you should), you can easily call ahead and directly reserve spots en route. If none of these will do, check out my detailed guide to finding good places to stay.
Transportation: The train system in Eastern Europe is extensive fantastic for getting into Bosnia. Because other countries are close, many travelers arrive in Zagreb and train into Sarajevo. Also, the bus system takes over nicely where the train doesn’t go. Traveling Bosnia is not the cheapest travel in the world; neighboring countries are on the Euro and that has inflated the costs a bit. Buses will get you everywhere you need to go, but may take a bit of planning if you want to head anywhere but Sarajevo and Mostar as only a couple buses each day run to the smaller cities. Both major touristy cities, Mostar and Sarajevo, are quite walkable.
Possible Issues: Landmines are still a major concern. If you are driving the country, or hiking, be extremely cautious. It’s recommended to stay on paved roads and existing hiking routes. If you’re visiting smaller towns, carry enough cash to cover if they don’t have an ATM.
Pre-Trip Reading Inspiration
Fiction & Nonfiction Books About Bosnia & Herzegovina:
This region’s war torn past is recent; I highly recommend that you preface any trip with any of these recommended books and articles. There is a delicate nuance to even the most subtle language you use. Knowing the history and the culture smooths over awkward moments (like my first accidentally offensive moments in a cab in Bosnia!) and gives you a richer experience. Knowing the history is more important here. You may step on toes without even knowing it like I did.
- Goodbye Sarajevo: I find memoirs a compelling way to learn about history, as well as its impact on the citizens living through that piece of a nation’s history. This true story is a beautiful piece that looks at how a set of siblings coped during the war, and how they reconnected to life and each other after the war ended.
- Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Wartime Sarajevo: A riveting and heartbreaking look into how the outbreak of war changed the lives of the people living through it.
- Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History: Fascinating travelogue and history of the Balkan region as the author delves into the roots of the Balkan conflicts and how they are manifested in the modern Balkan states.
- Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: Beautiful and lyrical book that combines the author’s travelogue with a history of the region and insights from the region right as World War II began. A compelling way to read about Balkan history though it can be hard to distinguish fact from fiction throughout.
- The Bridge on the Drina: The book is a vivid depiction of the suffering history has imposed upon the people of Bosnia from the late 16th century to the beginning of World War I. It has been hugely well received and will give political insights to the region and Balkan and Ottoman history.
Podcasts and Online Reads:
- 14 Years a Fugitive: The Hunt for Ratko Mladić, the Butcher of Bosnia: A chronicle of how this Bosnian-Serb general — who is accused of killing thousands of civilians at Srebrenica and Sarajevo — evaded capture for so long.
- Life in the Valley of Death: A sad and sobering long read about the man whose job it was to find the mass graves of those executed in during the war.
- Bosnia Divided: A look at the soccer culture in the country and what the divided football culture says about the divisions that remain with the cultures living in Bosnia & Herzegovina.
Socially Responsible Travel
Bosnia & Herzegovina’s tourism scene is growing as neighboring countries take the spotlight. Travel to Croatia and Montenegro is on the rise, and visiting B&H is seeing the benefits. While Bosnia-Herzegovina has little coastline like its neighbors, the country’s fast-flowing rivers and beautiful mountain ranges make for a wonderful nature holiday. As with any country, particularly those still developing strong tourism industries, it’s important to practice socially responsible travel. Consider these ideas when you’re traveling through the region.
Book Local and Eco-Friendly Accommodation
Bosnia-Herzegovina has a large network of locally-owned pensions and B&Bs. Additionally, once you leave the touristy cities and head into the surrounding nature, you’ll find ample opportunity to support the country’s eco-tourism efforts. Consider using eco-lodges and etno villages whenever possible. These types of rural accommodations are designed to limit human impact on the environment and to preserve culture. The etno (also spelled ethno in some places) often include traditional building methods from the Balkan’s region, and they aim to recreate and educate about traditional village life.
Support Local Artisans
Buying your souvenirs from local craftsmen is a positive way to support traditional artisans techniques and handicrafts. It’s also an excellent way to experience the region, and to later remember that special part of the local culture. Consider learning about traditional winemaking at Lake Skadar, or discover Sarajevo’s copper-making history and traditions. Spending money with local businesses is one of the best ways to ensure your travels have a strong and last impact on the local economy.
Leave No Trace Behind
Many travellers visiting Bosnia & Herzegovina head to the mountains and into nature on their visit. Consider bringing a reusable water bottle to limit your use of plastic water bottles — you can easily refill. And when hiking, skiing, or participating in outdoors activities, carry your trash back with you. You may even choose to bring a small bag on hikes and help clean up the local environment, as some areas have a fair bit of litter.
Consider these additional responsible travel tips to lessen your impact on the places you visit.
Explore City & Regional Guides for Bosnia & Herzegovina
Rafting or kayaking on the Una and Vrbas rivers are two top spots for this adventure activity, and many rate Neretva Canyon as well.
- Taking in Sarajevo’s lively cafe culture.
- Observing and understanding the bombing damage in Mostar.
- Hunting down delicious delicious sweet eats around Sarajevo.
- Hiking to the cross above Mostar for sweeping views of the river, the city, and the Stari Most bridge.
- Wandering Mostar’s Old Town, then sipping tea and people watching in the late afternoon.
Sarajevo is the perfect size city for travelers. It’s the capital of Bosnia, and the biggest city in the country, but it’s still small. You can stand in the center of town and see the gently green rolling hills surrounding the city. I truly loved my time in Bosnia, perhaps even more because it’s not a tourist hot-spot. It’s a bit off the beaten path so you don’t queue for hours and it’s easy to strike up conversation with locals (at least, with those who speak English!). You can easily use the transit system to explore the city. Just buy your bus tickets from the all-purpose magazine stands and shops — be warned the transit police will come on board regularly to check tickets. Plan many of your activities around food, this was my primary activity in the city. Find good spots to sample baklava, the traditional burek, and take the time for full tea, sugar, and Turkish Delight experience.
Things To Do
- Shop in the Turkish Quarter. Sarajevo’s Turkish quarter boasts weaving, cobblestone streets tiny shops selling fun souvenirs and postcards. Give the streets a wander for a couple hours, then find a hole-in-the-wall burek restaurant for a delicious lunch amid the locals — this is where they head for lunch as well!
- Beys Mosque. Find this one, it’s gorgeous.
- Take a hike outside the city. The city sits flush into the surrounding hills, and there are beautiful landmarks in the distant hills. Ask your hotel or hostel for a good path out of town, and then set off with water and sturdy shoes. Even if you don’t make it to the right place, the hike is gorgeous, as are the views of Sarajevo. And Yellow Bastion is also recommended for good city views.
- Sip coffee and nibble sugar cubes. Find a cozy cafe in Sarajevo’s old town and make it your spot for the days you’re in town. Bring a book, bring some friends, order traditional coffee. Then, drink the strong Bosnian coffee like a local by nibbling the sugar cube before each sip. It’s a lovely and delicious way to pass a couple of hours.
- Visit the tunnel museum. This spot will provide insights into the war and is a popular tourist spot.
- Consider visiting offbeat spots recommended by locals. This guide has a great list of everything from local music venues to great walks around the city, recommended by a Sarajevo native.
Places to Eat and Sleep
- Residence Rooms. I’ve heard great things about this spot. Good wifi and they’ll help you arrange fun activities in the city. Right in the heart of where you want to be in Sarajevo. Good for a short stay in the city since it’s so close to everything!
- Hostel and Guesthouse SA. A bit of a walk from the heart of things, set in the middle of an old, historic neighborhood. This is a great alternative choice if you want to relax a bit more.
- Tons of cafes and quick eats. I can’t emphasize enough: Go sit in the crowded little restaurants, sharing tables with the locals and the heat from the ovens permeating the space. The bureks in these spots are worth it — as are the conversations!
Small and touristy, this lovely city in the south is flat out charming. Hordes of cruise ship passengers from Dubrovnik, Croatia visit on a day trip most afternoons. Even so, it’s a wonderful spot. And doubly so if you’re staying in town for a week and you can visit the gorgeous waterfalls, towns, and scenic spots nearby. A general recommendation is to steer clear of the touristy area in the mid afternoon hours — use this time to head out on the recommended day trips. If you’re in town when the cruise shippers arrive, head to an outdoor cafe, sip a cool beverage, and engage in a favorite local pastime: people watching.
Things To Do in Mostar
- Explore the cobbled alleyways of Old Town. There aren’t a ton of particular activities in the area, but the town was recently war torn and that is still incredibly evident in many of the buildings, and certainly the vibe. Explore the shops, buy souvenirs and strike up a conversation with anyone who speaks English (they can be few and far between!). Bosnia has an outdoor cafe culture, so that’s where you’ll find the locals too.
- Visit the Stari Most bridge at various times of day. Read up on the history of the bridge so you understand just why this is such a well-loved landmark for Bosnians. Kind of like the Taj Mahal, it looks totally different depending on the time of day, so plan to visit it several times!
- Visit the Koski Mehmed Paša Mosque. If the hike to the cross isn’t doable (explained below), consider the small entrance fee to this mosque as payment for the stunning views of Stari Most from the minaret.
- Visit Blagaj Tekke (Dervish Monastery). Just 12 kms outside of Mostar, this holy spot is popular with both pilgrims and tourists. It’s very pretty and I highly recommend it. You can get there by bus, car, or perhaps a day trip booked through your accommodation.
- Day trip to the cool waters of Kravice Waterfalls. Wear your swimsuit under your clothes so you can take a tip in the pretty turquoise waters. It’s 40 kms outside of town, so it’s doable in a day and there is a cafe on site where you can grab lunch and coffee.
- See the splendid views from Pocitelj. Much of this town was destroyed during the war, but it’s in a gorgeous location and just 30 kms outside Mostar. It makes an easy day trip.
- Hike to the Kris na Humu. This is not a popular tourist hike, it’s not been set up for that, so be prepared to forge your own route. You’ll be a fair clip outside the tourist center, but it’s worth a half-day if you have time. From the streets of Mostar, the huge cross is visible on a nearby hill. From the cross, the views over Mostar are gorgeous. It also provides a unique angle on the Stari Most bridge, which was rebuilt after war damage and a sign of hope for the city.
Places to Eat and Sleep
- Guesthouse “Taso”: Recommended by an A Little Adrift reader, this place looks like it has all the amenities you would need to enjoy your time in Mostar.
- Hostel Dino: This is a small, clean, and basic hostel. It doesn’t have a backpacker vibe, much more like a 2-star hotel. It has WiFi, air conditioning, private rooms, and the family running it is very sweet. Their son, Dino, met me train at the station and walked me to the hostel to ensure we didn’t get lost! It’s affordable and they were so kind. If you’re on a tight budget this is a good spot.