Istanbul had been one of our favorite cities: Positioned between Europe and Asia, it provides a blend of cultures that is both exotic and familiar. However, because of recent political volatility, travel visas for Americans visiting Turkey are in a state of flux. For now, Americans seeking Istanbul's unique vibe may want to look elsewhere.
We recently visited Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a destination that provides many of the exotic sights of Turkey while still welcoming Americans. With a population of around 275,000, it offers the activities of a larger city in a compact size.
Most of what we knew about Sarajevo was that it had been the 1984 Winter Olympic city and that it had endured a horrific and brutal siege for four years during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. Parts of the centuries-old city were destroyed, including the Olympic sites.
Twenty years later, however, Sarajevo has recovered and is a thriving hub where East meets West. (Markings on the pavement on historic Ferhadija Street proclaim the Sarajevo Meeting of Cultures, along with an an east/west compass.) A stroll down the avenue brings visitors along a timeline of the architecture and cultural influences of the Ottoman Empire, Austro-Hungarian Empire, Socialist period, and modern times.
Sarajevo has earned the moniker "Little Jerusalem," based on the diverse houses of worship in Bascarsija, the city's oldest neighborhood. There, the minaret of the 500-year-old Bascarsija mosque plays the call to prayer within hearing distance of the 19th-century Roman Catholic Sacred Heart Cathedral and the Orthodox Congregational Church of the Holy Mother. Just across the Miljicka River, the Moorish-style Ashkenazi Synagogue has been active for more than a century.
Narrow pedestrian streets are cluttered with covered bazaars. Wizened gentlemen wearing traditional breeches and vests relax for a copper pot of mint tea at sidewalk cafes. The aromas of spices and roasting meats are reminiscent of Istanbul.
Despite this Middle Eeastern comparison, Sarajevo is undoubtedly European: History buffs will remember the Latin Bridge, site of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the tinder that sparked the onset of World War I.
The city is renowned for being welcoming to visitors, providing a tasty Balkan food culture that represents its varied influences over the years. By European standards, it is also very affordable.
With Olympic-caliber skiing and snowboarding only 30 minutes from downtown hotels, Sarajevo is also a year-round destination. For those seeking a less crowded part of Europe that also offers diverse cultural heritage, Sarajevo is worth exploring. Best options with flights from the United States are via connections through Munich or Vienna.
For more information, go to https://sarajevo.travel/en.