Sarajevo is a wonderful city! It is set in a valley ringed by mountains. The narrow Miljacka River courses through the center of town, opening up the views and helping the first-time visitor stay oriented. There is also the lively old Turkish quarter (Baščaršija) that features a large pedestrian area and a maze of shops and restaurants.
Sarajevo was founded in 1461 as part of the Ottoman Empire. It grew particularly rapidly during the 16th century under the leadership of Gazi Husrev-beg, who built most of what is now the Old Town (Baščaršija) and after whom is named Sarajevo's most important mosque. Sarajevo soon also had its own water system, clock tower (also built by Gazi Husrev-beg), bathhouses and schools (this at a time when many western Europeans considered bathing to be unhealthy and education was reserved for the wealthy). By 1660, Sarajevo had grown to an estimated 80,000 people and had become the most important Ottoman city in the Balkans after Istanbul itself. The city's golden age, however, soon began to crumble. In 1699, Prince Eugene of Savoy, leading an Austrian army, raided, looted and burned much of the city. It remained in a weakened condition until it was absorbed into the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1878.
The Hapsburg era was a time of great building and modernization in Sarajevo. The Roman Catholic Cathedral of Jesus' Heart – the largest Catholic cathedral in Bosnia – was built during this time, as was the Moorish style Old Town Hall and, as you might expect from Austrians, the local brewery. Sarajevo also became the first city in Europe with a tramway. It was also in Sarajevo, on June 28, 1914, that Hapsburg heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated, an event that lit the fuse that ignited World War I.
After World War I, Sarajevo became part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia that was cobbled together out of former Austria-Hungary holdings in the Balkans. During World War II, the city was taken by the Germans and their pro-Nazi allies, the Utstaše (Ustashe) of Croatia, who were responsible for many atrocities against Jews, Serbs, Gypsies and others in the region. After liberation in April 1945, Sarajevo became part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
During the Communist years, Sarajevo's growth resumed. Large residential blocks and industrial facilities were built and Sarajevo once again became one of the most important cities in the Balkans. The city's population grew from 115,000 after World War II to 430,000 by 1991. It achieved world recognition in 1984 when it hosted the Winter Olympics. Following the games, tourism and Sarajevo's economy both flourished.
Sarajevo's rebirth came to an abrupt end in April 1992, shortly after Bosnia (like Slovenia and Croatia) declared independence from Yugoslavia. Ethnic Serbs living in Bosnia, with the active support of Slobodan Milošović's Serb dominated Yugoslavian military, declared their own republic within Bosnia and set about to grab as much territory as they could "ethnically cleanse". The scenic hills that surround Sarajevo were soon filled with Bosnian-Serb artillery and the city came under the longest siege in the history of modern warfare. From April 1992 until February 1996, Sarajevo sustained daily barrages of artillery, mortar and high-caliber weapon fire. Snipers in the hills or in buildings in town terrorized unarmed civilians on the streets. Some 12,000 people were killed, more than 50,000 were wounded and much of the city was destroyed. Cultural landmarks such as mosques and the Bosnian National Library in the Old Town Hall were intentionally targeted and repeatedly shelled. But Sarajevo never fell and the international peace process, slow to get started, finally gained some traction and the siege was lifted.
Today, although Sarajevo has been largely rebuilt, the scars of war are still frequent sights throughout the city. The beautiful, Moorish-style Old Town Hall still stands as a burned-out shell, its valuable collection of books and manuscripts destroyed. The former parliament building, a skyscraper built in modern times, also remains a charred skeleton. And everywhere throughout the city one sees pock marks on building walls or plaques honoring those killed on a certain corner.
The city also remains politically divided. Part of city now lies in the Serb-controlled "Republika Srpska" (Serb Republic). Travelers arriving from the country Serbia come into a bus station in "Srpsko Sarajevo" (Serbian Sarajevo), not the main bus station in Sarajevo. Most of the city's remaining Serb population has moved to the Srpsko Sarajevo region of the city.
But Sarajevo is once again enjoying an influx of tourists and it is easy to see why: its a fascinating city with an interesting mix of cultures in a beautiful setting.
Religious Sites in Sarajevo: Within a radius of a few hundred meters, visitors to Sarajevo can find several important mosques, a major Serbian Orthodox church and a grand Roman Catholic cathedral. A little further from the center, one finds small neighborhood mosques with interesting wooden minarets. And one cannot walk far in Sarajevo without seeing vast cemeteries distinguished in style by the religions of the deceased. (24 Photos) [Preview This Slide Show]
Sarajevo Commerce: The Baščaršija area of Sarajevo is the old Turkish quarter of the city. Today it is a lively area of shops, restaurants and pedestrian walkways. Whether you are looking for traditional textiles, fresh fruits, engraved artillery shells, SpongeBob SquarePants or the night club Bill Gates never knew he owned, you can find it in Baščaršija. (11 Photos) [Preview This Slide Show]