• sarajevo bosnia

War Torn Sarajevo, a Culture Shock

When people ask me what city I went to in Europe that was MOST unique, or my favorite, I usually bring up war-torn Sarajevo, Bosnia. I have mentioned it in other posts as somewhere with so much not-so-ancient history and an overflow of culture. I one day plan to go back. I couldn’t soak in as much culture as I wish I had, because I was already soaked up and filled with beer on that backpacking trip. Regardless, Sarajevo is not subtle; it slaps you right in the face the moment you arrive. Sarajevo: my very first culture shock.

After the many shockingly awesome places I’ve been now, I don’t think Sarajevo would have slapped me so hard. But I had been backpacking Western Europe, and hadn’t seen such different ways of living, nor had I even seen a city so clearly devastated by war. Sometimes called the “Jerusalem of the Balkans” up until recently it was the only European city that had a Jewish synagogue, Catholic Church, a mosque, and an orthodox church in the same neighborhood. It was awesome to see! There’s no comparison of learning in a classroom compared to seeing it firsthand. Firsthand you remember the facts because they scare you. They stick with you forever.

sarajevo war torn culture shock

I know you all love a good history lesson, so here goes a mini one from someone definitely not at all qualified to teach you:

After Yugoslavia was broken up, these monsters had a great idea to make a nation called “great Serbia”; they were Bosnian Serbs, Croatian Serbs, and Serbia. Then they decided on top of this, they would ethnically cleanse out the Muslims. This is called genocide. To do so, they put a siege on Sarajevo, the capital, and didn’t give them any way to import food or water. It was is the longest siege that’s happened in modern warfare. It lasted 4 years. They killed Muslims, shelled towns, and sadly, the war is known as having a mass amount of rapes (50,000). 200,000 people died. 2.2 million people were displaced. NATO eventually intervened and a peace agreement was signed (the Dayton agreement, signed in Dayton, Ohio).

sarajevo war torn culture shockNow, the town is bustling with people and tourism has never been better

sarajevo war torn culture shock Was it as big as the genocides you learned a lot about in school: the Holocaust, or the massacres in Cambodia and Rwanda? No, but it devastated and destroyed a proud and beautiful country. Being such an atrocity it must have happened ages ago, right? It was in 1991 (the siege started in 1992).  Maybe all you’ve ever heard of it is reading in Star Magazine about Angelina Jolie Directing a movie about the rapes during the war, called “In the Land of Blood and Honey”.

According to the Bosnians I spoke to, America is at fault because Bill Clinton knew and “did nothing because we have no oil”, but in actuality although there was an embargo from the UN on arms, the US secretly used black routes to get arms to the Bosnian Muslims throughout the war. It is scary to think that it was clear in the media at the time that ethnic cleansing was occurring, yet it took so long for it to be stopped. These things literally happening right now. The Bosnians I met were mostly nice, but I did have a tour guide act extremely rude to me because of my American Nationality.

sarajevo war torn culture shockcemeteries blanketed so much of the land.

sarajevo war torn culture shock

In 1991, the Bosnian Serb leader had said,

“In just a couple of days, Sarajevo will be gone and there will be five hundred thousand dead, in one month Muslims will be annihilated in Bosnia and Herzegovina”.

Hopefully this isn’t too much of a history lesson, but it was such a shock to learn. During the massacres, each side had help from other countries. The Serbs had help from Neo-Nazis from Western Europe, and Europen Christians; the Greeks even raised a flag after one massacre. The Muslims had help from Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah (wow!). The Serbs had “concentration camps” they kept and tortured their Bosnian Prisoners in.  12,000 kids died. The photos were shocking.

sarajevo war torn culture shockin memoriam of the children lost. 

Bottom line: it was horrible.

I was not only shocked by what I saw (the destruction) but in awe of all the hardened people I met who had lived through it. It’s hard to believe something like that can happen in Europe after the Holocaust! Interestingly, some buildings were still destroyed; the Bosnians want to rebuild exact to the original and they are doing it slowly as the money rolls in.

sarajevo war torn culture shock

sarajevo war torn culture shock

sarajevo war torn culture shock

sarajevo war torn culture shock

What To DO In Sarajevo 

Walking through the city now isn’t all sad and gloomy. At Pidgeon Square, kids play in the fountain and old men play life-size chess (this is a can’t miss). The restaurants are spectacular and the shops sell unique handicrafts. The market is full of honey, tin and copper, Bosnian/Turkish coffee dishes, and cute bohemian dresses and shawls. I bought a tin coffee set and coffee grinder for 40 Euro. Décor is stunning; with lanterns and beautiful “Arabian nights” look to the skinny alleyways.  There are calls to prayer throughout the day, a sound that is so beautiful.

sarajevo war torn culture shockPidgeon square & cute old men playing chess… it was serious business.

sarajevo war torn culture shock

sarajevo war torn culture shockMarkets full of local honey, and alleyway stalls selling tin & copper

sarajevo war torn culture shock

sarajevo war torn culture shock

It’s a place that refills you with hope and makes you appreciate everything around you. Although it has a rough history, it’s booming and full of people. Now they have the tallest skyscraper in the Balkans! Tourism in increasing and hostels are readily available. They even have their own beer: “Sarajevo”. Other than enjoying the cute town and Vrelo Bosne Park, you can walk across Latin Bridge, where Franz Ferdinand was killed, give back by paying 12 Euro to see the “tunnel tour” of passages used to get food and weapons in during the siege; the Kolar Family kept this a perfect secret, hike through the hill and rivers, or go in the winter and ski!

sarajevo war torn culture shockLargest skyscraper in the Balkans & the tunnel that saved lives during the war

sarajevo war torn culture shock

sarajevo war torn culture shock


The BEST BEST BEST part about Sarajevo:

  • CEVAPI (cevapcici)! Oh. My. Gosh. It’s my favorite food now. It sounds gross; but it’s a pita filled with sausage fingers, some cheese that looks like feta, and raw onions.

sarajevo war torn culture shock

  • Bosnian Coffee. It’s so strong, I can’t drink it alone. It comes with a little chewy candy to drop in, and lots sugar cubes.

sarajevo war torn culture shock

sarajevo war torn culture shock

  • The hostel we shifted to after the “hostel” we stayed at the first night. All wooden like a tree house, cool common room, 12 people to a room, free breakfast and wifi. This is where we met Jay and Brian, who we traveled with for a little while after to a music festival in Serbia, and to Budapest. They were cool bros.

sarajevo war torn culture shock

  • The shots come in these awesome potion bottles, and the bars are really fun! We even danced to techno at a club.

sarajevo war torn culture shock

 The WORST WORST WORST part about Sarajevo:

  • This hostel we stayed at our first night: 21 people, 1 bathroom, 1 gross communal kitchen, and many stray cats in my bed.

sarajevo war torn culture shock

sarajevo war torn culture shock

  • The shots in the awesome potion bottles taste like tequila and poison mixed with gasoline and a dash of 151. Don’t order “quince”.

sarajevo war torn culture shock

  • Don’t order pizza, it’s like ketchup on a pita.
  • The money is worth about half a pound, so when you order a beer for 2.80 mark, don’t expect change– they say it’s worthless. Except it can buy fruit, etc. That was a bit annoying.
  • Make sure to pay in Marks, not Euro because they will always round up, like most countries do.





About the Author:

Rachel Jones left a career in nursing and lived on the beaches of Goa, India for the five years. Now she lives in Mexico where she gives advice on the 40+ countries she’s visited in the last 10 years. She’s the author of two India travel e-books: Guide to India and Insider’s Guide to Goa. Her blog, Hippie in Heels, like its name, is a contradiction combining off-beat adventurous places with glamorous and bespoke travel. Hippie in Heels has been featured in ELLE, Marie Claire, Grazia, and Cosmopolitan magazines. She’s a writer for Bravo TV.


  1. Jamie January 6, 2014 at 7:01 pm - Reply

    What a tragically beautiful city. I actually loved your history lesson and feel a little pathetic that I am super uneducated on the genocide and our role (or lack there of). I guess that’s the benefit and curse of travel. Getting a first hand look and understanding of various tragedies and important historic moments but dealing with the dislike that may come with it as a result of where we’re form. Super well written post and thank for the education.

    • Rachel January 7, 2014 at 12:05 pm - Reply

      thank you so much! part way through writing it, I though “hmm this might be too much information…” glad you enjoyed reading!

  2. Lisa Imogen Eldridge January 6, 2014 at 3:14 pm - Reply

    I am so glad that you wrote this. Sarajevo is one of my favourite cities and I was blown away by the Bosnian people and their determination and resilience during the war. It’s such an amazing city and I visited Mostar too which was blitzed during the Bosnian War. It’s a country that truly captured my heart too. I miss Cevapi chichi – it was a meal and a half and so cheap!

    • Rachel January 6, 2014 at 3:26 pm - Reply

      I have heard Mostar is a “don’t miss” and i missed it- such a shame! I have got to go back! then I can eat more :)

  3. Elora January 7, 2014 at 4:21 am - Reply

    I had a friend, Dadio, as a child. He was a refugee from Bosnia during the war. His family was so kind, and he was such fun to play with. I often wonder how he is now. I’d really like to visit Bosnia someday!

    • Rachel January 7, 2014 at 12:04 pm - Reply

      And you should! I hope you get to :)

  4. Julie January 7, 2014 at 3:06 pm - Reply

    What a fascinating read! I knew obviously the basics surrounding this horrific conflict of the 90s but nothing too in-depth. And as a history nerd, I would so love to visit the city with its connection to World War I, the place where the Great War first began.
    It looks like an incredible place especially with the intermingling of cultures. I look forward to reading more of your adventures (I just recently discovered your blog).

    • Rachel January 8, 2014 at 7:07 am - Reply

      great! glad i’m getting positive feedback on the history lessons :) & happy you found my blog!

  5. Mike April 14, 2014 at 12:16 am - Reply

    Wow, good thing that Angelina Jolie taught you history. I guess there’s only one side to every story, right?

    • Rachel Jones April 14, 2014 at 2:20 am - Reply

      Hi Mike, I think you’re pretty confused…. I said “maybe all YOU’VE ever heard is… (about the movie). I haven’t even seen the movie, and I learned about this history by visiting the city itself, obviously. Not sure you even know the point of your own comment. Give it a think. Thanks for reading :)

  6. Jen May 20, 2014 at 9:25 pm - Reply

    Hi Rachel, I just found your blog today and have been enjoying reading through it. This post was very interesting, you provided a good background on what happened in the 90’s. It’s a shame one of the tour guides was rude to you because of your nationality. Anyway, I have been wanting to visit this area, so this was an interesting post to read. I can’t believe you had stray cats in your bed in one of the hostels! lol I’ll have to stay in a hotel when I go!

    • Rachel Jones May 21, 2014 at 12:25 pm - Reply

      I’m glad you liked reading about the background, so many just skim past :) If I had the budget I would totally stay in a nicer hostel or hotel toO!

  7. Nathalie July 17, 2014 at 5:23 pm - Reply

    Hi Rachel,

    Your blog makes us laugh! :) Me and a friend are traveling to the Balkans this summer. We were wondering what the name was of the ‘bad hostel’ so we can avoid it haha :)

    Take care, x

    • Rachel Jones July 18, 2014 at 1:35 am - Reply

      Hi! I don’t remember the name, and I wrote this post so long ago with the help of my journal which I don’t have in India with me :( it was the cheapest one on hostelworld for sure haha

  8. Wilmerdon August 20, 2014 at 1:17 pm - Reply

    If you had said that you are a Brit they would have given you a hug and treated you like royalty.
    Clinton did nothing. Reluctantly agreed for NATO bombing of Serbian positions after it was made clear that UK was about to act unilaterally. Can’t blame him, he was busy with… Err! But he didt stand in the Rose Garden, mouth the usual crap about how great the US is, blah blah blah!

    Many children born after the siege were named ‘Tonyblair’. He is a demigod there. Because the Brits acted. Sent in ground troops and saved thousands of lives.

    Enjoyed your blog and lovely pictures.

    • Rachel Jones August 22, 2014 at 2:12 pm - Reply

      I didn’t know they named kids tony blair, that’s very cute.

  9. Vesna September 6, 2014 at 11:24 pm - Reply

    Hi Rachel!
    While I was looking for some tips for travelling to India, I’ve found your blog. Then I realised you visited Balkans. Must say that at first I was really happy, because I like the fact that our tourism is getting better every year, but… There’s a great BUT. As you said, history lesson from someone definitely not at all qualified to teach you. Our history is very complex and do not try to make it simple. This is absolutely one sided story and I do hope your readers won’t judge based only on what they read here. I must say it’s impossible to blame just Serbians, Bosnians or Croatians, everyone was killing and getting killed, it was a civil war.
    Beside this, I believe everyone who decide to come to Balkans, won’t regret. Nature is lovely, food is delicious and it’s safe.

    • Rachel Jones September 11, 2014 at 8:17 pm - Reply

      I loved every bit of the balkans and definitely recommend the area in MANY posts for people to visit!

  10. Ariana February 20, 2015 at 7:40 am - Reply

    Being a bosnian born australian who left the war at age 4, i am always hit with that shock. The bullet holes, the grenade marks left on the ground, and the scars of the people still living there. My first time back since the war was in 2013. Just over 20 years since we left. Since then ive gone back three times, and my next trip is june-August, where i will be in mostar for a summer volunteer job. I started blogging just recently as a way to break down those barriers, change peoples views of what they saw on tv screens, and to show them why Bosnia should be added to their bucket lists. Despite the hardships, BiH is a nation that will move on from the war, slowly but surely. It holds so much beauty and whats what why im so passionate about blogging, Bosnia is my love, my passion.
    Wonderful post

    • Rachel Jones February 20, 2015 at 12:24 pm - Reply

      That’s great to hear, I look forward to reading about your time in Mostar.

  11. Rose May 8, 2015 at 7:20 am - Reply

    hey Rachel! (: im backpacking bosnia next month, any chance you can advise on the two hostels you stayed at as not liking the sound of stray cats in my bed :( thanks

  12. Jennifer McMasters May 1, 2019 at 9:39 am - Reply

    Rachel, just found your blog. Loving it. I never forgave my native USA for its lack of action in the former Yugoslavia. One year I watched as Katarina Witt won the gold at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. Then only 7 years later the nightly news showed images of those same people, Sarajevans, being blown up and ripped apart as snipers took them down in those same streets. My life changed forever that year. I decided I had to see it for myself so… I did. I went on a mission to understand ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia. Today, my best friend’s a Croat and my boss is a Serb. I love the Yugoslav spirit. I can’t imagine a more interesting or beautiful place than the Balkans but I’m always looking. Sarajevo sparked a flame in me. One that will always burn bright. Thanks for reminding me.

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