The historic city of Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina is both charming and complicated; idyllic and evocative. The first sight of the centerpiece bridge makes visitors swoon – but seeking out lesser-visited corners of the city can result in an everlasting love. When we visit Mostar, we like to dig into the history, venture into nature and connect with locals. Since we’ve spent more time in Mostar than most tourists, we’ve devised a list of 21 things to do in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina to help other travelers experience the city.
As we watched the third taxi drive away leaving us still standing on the curb, we started to wonder if an adventure to the abandoned Olympic bobsled track on the hillside of Trebevic Mountain was going to happen. The first driver said he didn’t know where it was. The second simply said no. The third told us he hasn’t gone there since the war. When we had read about visiting the remains of the 1984 Sarajevo Olympic bobsled track no one mentioned any difficulty in catching a cab.
Actually, the details about visiting the track were fairly vague. There are tour buses that make the trip, but none stay long enough to explore. Some people hike it, but most get lost and find it takes much longer and is much more strenuous than they anticipated. No sections of the track are labeled on Google Maps.
We visited Sarajevo 20 years after the Siege of Sarajevo and realized it’s a city that is still very much in recovery. Although it seems nearly impossible to visit Sarajevo without at least some knowledge of the war that occurred there, it would be equally impossible to go and not notice the marks left from almost four years of fighting. Everywhere we looked, we saw reminders of war; bullet holes in buildings, hillside graveyards and heartbreaking monuments.
Just like the city itself, Sarajevo cuisine is a blend of east and west, with both Turkish and European influences. Of the many reasons we were looking forward to visiting the city, sampling the local fare was high on the list.
On our previous travels to the Balkans, we quickly took a liking to two of the most popular regional dishes, cevapi and burek. Not only are these two meat dishes hearty and satisfying, they are also incredibly inexpensive. During our 10 days in the city, we feasted on Sarajevo cuisine. In addition to the two mainstays, we also branched out to try other gastronomy, sipped on plenty of Bosnian kafa, indulged in a few desserts and sampled the local beer and traditional spirits.
Visiting Sarajevo wasn’t always at the top of my list. The name conjured vague images of brutal fighting that I never really understood. I was in high school at the time of the Bosnian War and while I’m sure world events were covered in one or more of my classes, the only world I operated in was that of my immediate social circle. Such was the life of a teenage girl in the middle of America.
But, earlier this year, we visited Mostar, another city that fell victim to the Bosnian War, a war that erupted after the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. The idyllic pictures we had seen of the jade Neretva River flowing beneath Mostar’s classic Old Bridge conflicted with the wartime images in our heads and enticed us to go and see for ourselves. What we saw was a serene old town that had been painstakingly put back together, piece by piece. If we had been on one of the many fly-by tours, we may not have even realized that just 20 years ago, the town was under heavy fire and that the beautiful, centerpiece bridge had been completely destroyed.
Throughout our journey, there have been certain places that have captivated us – Mostar is one of them. In so many ways it resembles the other fairytale European cities we’ve visited, with the quaint historic center so appealing draped across the Old Bridge and down both sides of the Neretva River. But with the recent war and differing religions, it felt oddly foreign for Europe. As our mini-van bus rolled out toward Split, Croatia, we reflected on our week in Mostar and were glad we spent more than the average half day most tourists give the city.
We were positively stoked when our Airbnb host, Tarik, said he wanted to take us to the nearby town of Blagaj to visit the Tekija House. The historic Turkish Dervishes monastery, built in 1520, sits at the base of Hum Mountain. Sheer cliffs rise high above the house and, next to it, the Buna River begins its flow from a spring inside a cave.
It was about a 15 minute drive from Mostar and I had to restrain myself from asking Tarik too many questions. He happily chatted with us as he pointed out the sights and gave us a local’s perspective of the town he grew up in and loves. It was a drizzly afternoon, but I hardly even noticed.
It would be impossible to visit Mostar and not notice the co-existing religions in the small town, as both churches and mosques are part of the landscape. Historically, Serbian Orthodox Christians, Bosnian Muslims and Croatian Catholics – and even a few Jewish families – resided peacefully throughout the river valley. The Croat-Bosniak War in the early 1990s not only damaged the city, but also changed the harmonious intermingling of Mostar’s religions, but even today we can hear the church bells keeping the time and the Muslim call to prayer.
Historically, Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina was a model city for citizens of differing ethnic and religious backgrounds to peacefully co-exist. The Croat-Bosniak War in the early 1990s shattered that notion. We aren’t going to pretend to understand how the war has affected the people and city of Mostar today; we can only imagine that it isn’t the harmonious place it once was.
From our observations as week-long visitors, we don’t see or feel any tension among the people, but the remaining physical evidence is quite apparent. While the historic center has been restored, the area around it is in various stages of reconstruction. Several buildings barely still standing are left in ruins; a daunting, daily reminder of the recent war. Since I feel as if I’m failing to accurately describe it in words, I will let the pictures tell the story.
We’re continuing our stay in the Balkan region, this time spending a week inland in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina. I regrettably admit that my knowledge of this area is based on a weak recollection of high school social studies – and suffice it to say that isn’t getting me very far. We are learning as we go, reading as much history as we can, while getting a true history lesson just by walking down the street. So far, we’ve had a great introduction to Mostar.
An introduction to Mostar: The Old Town
The historic old town, a UNESCO site, sits prettily along the banks of the swiftly moving, green colored, Neretva River with mountains rising around it. Taking in the panoramic view, we see a soaring church bell tower and several mosque minarets throughout the city nestled in the valley. At first glance, the entire scene evokes thoughts of a pleasant, idyllic town.