Travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina: 10 Things We Learned

As we prepared for travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina, we realized how little we knew going in, other than vague memories of the war. Now there is far more to share.

So there we were, catching an airless bus out of Dubrovnik. Rumbling toward a place called Neum on a tiny finger of territory 20 kilometers long, the spit which gives modern-day Bosnia and Herzegovina its legal access to the sea, we didn’t know what to think. When they heard we were going to travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina, some people thought we were nuts. (Nothing new there.) Others asked if our plan really was “safe.” When we got there, at least one Bosnian wondered why we came at all. But now that we’ve been, we want to return.

Travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina: 10 Things We Learned

Beautiful Mostar

Ten things we learned about travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina:

1. Getting in and out might seem a little difficult, but it’s really nothing to worry about. As it turned out, we had a lot of time to think about travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Getting in and around, and then out, takes a while. We recommend going by surface, actually. There’s always something better about an approach at ground level, seeing your destination mirage in the distance, drawing nearer to the moment when outskirts give way to the reality of place. It beats dropping in from the sky to have a look around and then jumping back out.

Be ready for thorough border processing. You will be perused and your documents will be scanned a couple of times – coming out of wherever you came from and coming in. If you’re self-driving, be prepared for a much longer line at the checkpoints than if you’re on a bus.

If you want a cushier experience, you might want to sign on for a tour. We just bought regular tickets to Mostar at the Dubrovnik station. Online ticketing? Sorry, not available. Mostar to Sarajevo? Same deal, pay in cash at the station in Mostar. Buses are frequent, amenities are hit and miss. Announcements we couldn’t understand were kindly translated by fellow travelers. Yep, they could probably tell by looking at us that we might need a little extra help. We felt rather solicitously cared for, as Americans of a “certain age.”

travel to bosnia and herzegovina

Sarajevo is a city of hills

You may want to look around for alternative transport options if you’re outbound from Sarajevo, as we did. An independent van company ended up offering a much more comfortable, air-conditioned experience at a fraction of the price on that leg. We just needed to be willing to accept an indeterminate departure: the van would leave when its passenger quota was filled. No worries. We checked out of our hotel, the kind young man at the front desk made several phone calls to confirm and reconfirm departure, and ran outside to help us with luggage when the van finally did arrive.

2. There’s a difference between Bosnians and Bosniaks. Bosniaks are an ethnic group. Bosnians are a nationality. Political affiliations have historically occurred along religious and ethnic lines: Bosniak Muslims, Serb Orthodox Christians, and Croat Catholics.

Travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina: 10 Things We Learned

A Bride and Groom in Sarajevo – one was Turkish and the other Bosnian, hence the two flags at right.

In the 1970s a political elite emerged via diplomatic service and Yugoslavia’s membership in the Non-Aligned Movement. After Tito’s death in 1980 and the demise of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia’s individual nationalistic groups vied for influence. In the Bosnian National Assembly, ethnically-based parties clashed over independence vs. remaining in the Yugoslav federation. Ethnic Serbs favored the federation, and independence was desired by Bosniaks and Croats. This led to the war in the 1990s.

3. It’s more of a cash economy than you might be prepared for. After World War II, when Tito and his partisans formed the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Herzegovina was one of its six constituents. Up until 1992, Bosnia was prosperous: military defense industry and multi-national corporate presence brought economic strength. An upwardly-mobile Bosnian might have worked at Volkswagen, Coca-Cola, Marlboro, Holiday Inn, or been involved with the 1984 Olympic Winter Games. Then war devastated the Bosnian economy and destroyed its physical infrastructure. Its GDP essentially collapsed, free falling by 60%. Much of the country’s production has yet to be restored. Unemployment is close to 40%, with no sign of real stimulus affecting political and economic inertia.

Travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina: 10 Things We Learned

Traditional Artistry in Hammered Metal

As you might expect with such conditions, there is a great deal of ingenious economic maneuvering. Our guide walked us through Sarajevo and revealed that while he held multiple graduate degrees in political science and diplomatic relations, he couldn’t find a job. Instead, he formed the tour company. With about 20 people in his tour that day, we estimated tips-only income might have equated to about $50 per hour. Paid in cash, of course.

The independent hotels in which we stayed either took only cash or had to be persuaded to accept payment by credit card. Whether this was due to an erratic banking environment or other bookkeeping-related reasons, we couldn’t say. Smaller businesses and restaurants were cash-only operations as well. ATMs are plentiful, and our U.S. non-chip debit cards worked just fine.

4. The scale of famous places and distances may be different than you expect. In the middle of Neum, our bus made a hard right, zig-zagging up and away toward Mostar. As the crow flies (across Google Maps) it’s not that great a distance between the two, less than 90km. Traffic, road conditions, and struggling uphill were bus-related challenges that led to a journey of more than 3 hours.

Travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina: 10 Things We Learned

A mountain road outside Sarajevo

We could look across the river from our Sarajevo hotel to the place where the Archduke was assassinated. Somehow, I’d expected it to be a big plaza, where the assassins could have hidden in enormous crowds. It wasn’t; it was just a tiny nondescript little street corner.

Travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina: 10 Things We Learned

The Latin Bridge in Sarajevo – where the Archduke was assasinated

The hills from which Serbian forces fired on the streets of Sarajevo in the early 90s seemed all too close; the airport where the UN airlift off-loaded life-saving supplies is only a couple of kilometers from the city center.

Travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina: 10 Things We Learned

The hills are close in Sarajevo.

The fresh market where 68 people were killed and 200 wounded by an artillery shell, a tipping point which led to NATO air strikes, is no larger than our favorite open-air market on the island of Kauai. Sarajevo’s market was open-air then, too. Now it has a protective roof and business goes on with the memories.

5. Yes, it’s safe to travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina. The war has been over for 20 years. That said, evidence of war is easy to see. Background: Between 1990 and 1992, sovereignty was declared by various entities in the region and boycotted by others. An independence referendum was held with 63% turnout and 99.7% in favor; Serb nationalists didn’t vote at all. As admittance into the United Nations became pending in 1992, tensions escalated. Neum, the little coastal town in which our bus turned inland, took artillery fire from Serb positions in March that year. A month later, a Serb attack on Sarajevo’s peace rally is the moment that is generally agreed catalyzed open warfare between the three major ethnic communities.

Bosniak civilians were targeted, captured and displaced by Serb forces and sympathizers. Both Serbian and Croatian interests sought to expand their respective borders. When government-sanctioned warfare began in 1993, non-Serbs suffered civil rights violations and ethnic cleansing, such as occurred in the genocide of Srebrenica. This elicited a NATO bombing campaign while Croat and Bosnian allies pushed back against the Serbs. In 1995, by agreement between representatives of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia, the fighting stopped, with NATO peacekeeping forces deployed.

Travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina: 10 Things We Learned

Poignant Plea on a Sarajevo Building – note the shrapnel and mortar evidence on the gray building next to it

As we awaited dinner on our first night in Mostar, we picked up a coffee table-sized photography book at an adjacent restaurant table. Its images were taken during and right after the war. The city was leveled, beautiful Stari Most and the main mosque destroyed. The book itself was tattered, with a vintage aspect. We had to keep reminding ourselves that these events were younger than our children, whose childhoods seem like yesterday. The video below brings those days back to life (click here to watch on YouTube):

Travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina: 10 Things We Learned

Beautiful Stari Most has been rebuilt

We sought the perspective of our two young guides from Sarajevo. The first had spent the war years, which began when he was seven years old, attending a makeshift school in the basement of his apartment building. His teachers risked their lives to get to their students. His mother walked several kilometers to work, always in high heels: she “wanted to look good if today were to be her last.” The second had spent childhood in Vienna with relatives who took his family in when the war broke out. No one ever expected things to endure over four years.

Both young men felt it was necessary to move on from the past; both acknowledged that personal losses might prove this impossible for others. They accepted that political opinions vary in opposite directions depending upon whom you ask. These assessments were equal parts logic and forgiveness; we were humbled and impressed.

“Official” resources warn that travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina can be dangerous due to unexploded land mines and other residual ordnance. No doubt this is true. Certain areas are marked off-limits with forbidding signage. We encountered none.

Travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina: 10 Things We Learned

Memorial plaques on a Sarajevo building

The country has had twenty years to make more highly trafficked areas safe for passage. If you stick to paved highways and urban locations when you travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina, you’ll be fine. Even our foray on dirt roads into the mountains above Sarajevo where Olympic ski runs and infrastructure still serve winter sports enthusiasts was without incident or any evidence.

6. Politicking has always been complicated here, and it still is. This land has long been a crossroads for religions and empires. Clashes and power struggles, boundary fluctuations, and regime changes since the 9th century have permeated the Bosnian identity and landscape.

Today, there are multiple levels of political structure arising out of the war’s impact on the country’s ethnic groups. The national government is relatively weak, with decentralized decision-making in layers: geographic districts, cantons, municipalities and “official” cities. One of the main political objectives Bosnia and Herzegovina has at this time is integration within the European Union. Reforms are still in progress ahead of that affiliation.

Travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina: 10 Things We Learned

Oversize Chess in a Sarajevo Park

Are practicalities in daily life affected by this complexity? Definitely. Rarely, we were told, does anything get done at satisfactory speed. Sometimes, it was shared, progress is made outside of requirements. Other times, projects are indefinitely halted. We can all relate how “decision by committee” affects outcomes. This is the mire within which attempts to better and modernize the country operate.

Discover the best hotels in Bosnia.

7. The coffee is wonderful, but you need to know the 1-2-3 rule. Bosnian coffee is world famous for good reason. It’s strong, but not muddy as other regional coffees can be. As is common in this part of the world, coffee culture includes ritual preparation and ceremonial enjoyment.

Should you be invited in for coffee with a new friend in Bosnia you must understand the rule of 3: the first coffee is always one of welcome. The second coffee is brewed and poured as the signal for intimate conversation concerning whatever subject is at hand. It is during the second coffee that you and your host strengthen your bond by understanding (but not necessarily agreeing with) each other. The third brew and serving? It’s last call. You will enjoy it together, but you also know you’ve been given the nod that once finished, you’ll be on your way.

travel to bosnia and herzegovina

Traditional metalwork trays, tea and coffee services

8. The local beer is really good. Sarajevsko pivo has been brewed since 1864 in Sarajevo. Alert students of history will realize that the company was founded long before the decline of the Ottoman Empire’s hold over Bosnia. This disputes the notion that Islamic tradition and alcoholic beverages cannot co-exist. Brewed with spring water from a source in the courtyard of the current building (which dates from 1893), Sarajevsko is a plucky little thirst quencher. We both liked it.

Travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina: 10 Things We Learned

Tasty Local Beer

9. Travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina will convince you this is one of the most visually beautiful places you might ever visit. The scenery holds its own here, the country’s topography a pleasing combination of mountains, hills and flatlands. Climate is Mediterranean in the south, while inland you’ll get hot summers with cold and snowy winters. About 50% of Bosnia is forested, with wildlife such as bears, wolves, boar,  deer, falcons, and the rare chamois. One of the only two remaining primeval forests in Europe, the Perucica Forest Reserve is located within Bosnia and Herzegovina’s oldest national park.

Travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina: 10 Things We Learned

A Mountain Village Undisturbed by War

Not only is the geography scenic, but so is the evidence of man. Impossibly beautiful vistas with storybook qualities awaited us everywhere. We appreciated a meld of modern vibrancy and timelessness.

Travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina: 10 Things We Learned

Bringing in Cut Hay for Baling

We also recognized that hardship meant the old ways might not live much longer.

Travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina: 10 Things We Learned

Common Water Supply in a Mountain Village

10. Your dollar goes a very long way and is very welcome. Tourism and ecotourism is on the rise. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s southern Alpine terrain has wilderness and natural assets which attract skiers, bikers, hikers, whitewater enthusiasts and mountaineers.

travel to bosnia and herzegovina

Olympic Ski Slopes

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s history as a cultural crossroads provides a variety of architectural, religious, commercial, and interpersonal perspectives. Your dollar goes farther here than in neighboring Croatia and other Western Mediterranean and EU countries.

Travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina: 10 Things We Learned

Traditional Artisan Ware in Bazaar

We were welcomed with a generosity of spirit and high levels of comfort at very affordable rates. We’ll be bringing you more in later posts on our wonderful experiences in this beautiful country. But for now, we leave you with this: the value of travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina is highly demonstrable by any measure. Why not consider it?


Pinnable Image:

Travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina: 10 Things We Learned

Comments

  1. says

    We are so close to Bosnia and Herzegovina right now, in Croatia, and we’re bummed that we won’t have time to visit. Next time… Thanks for sharing your experiences. The stories of from your young guides are humbling, yet fascinating- secret schools, mom wanting to look nice in case it was her last day. Wow.
    Toccara has an awesome blog post here: Vrsic Pass: A Drive Through the Julian AlpsMy Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Toccara – Definitely keep Bosnia and Herzegovina on your list. We are so glad we visited. I really would have liked to have met that mom. His other stories of her made her out to be quite the character.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Himanshu – You’re right, it is so unspoiled. Lots of raw wilderness, which you don’t usually see in Europe.

  2. says

    Thanks for sharing great tips and history.
    Back in 2007 we crossed Croatia by bus, and passed by the Bosnian border. That time we didn’t have the guts to visit the country, like most of people we thought it wasn’t safe. Now, especially after your post, I´m considering to put Bosnia Herzegovina on your travel plans for next year when we go back to Europe.
    All the best,
    Nat
    Natalie Deduck has an awesome blog post here: Ironman Langkawi » The ultimate guideMy Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Natalie – There are lots of people who evidently still are afraid of coming to Bosnia and Herzegovina, so don’t feel bad. We just don’t think those fears are valid anymore. I hope you consider a visit now. 🙂

  3. says

    I’m currently sitting in Montenegro, and had considered visiting Bosnia and Herzegovina, but thought it would do us good to stay put for a while. You’ve officially changed our mind! Thanks for the fabulous tips in your post (I especially love the coffee 1-2-3 rule!). We are seriously considering making a change to explore firsthand!

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Andrea – Oh, do keep in touch and let us know your thoughts should you visit. You are very, very close. 🙂

  4. says

    Sadly we missed visiting Bosnia (due to an *ahem* missing passport!). Your post was so insightful about the process of getting in and the interesting things to know! I love that the coffee has social meanings behind it! I guess a 3rd coffee is better than being flatly told to get lost! I’d love to visit Bosnia and Herzegovina one day!
    Kim-Ling has an awesome blog post here: How we fell in Love with DubrovnikMy Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Kim-Ling – Oh, do we know what it’s like when important stuff goes missing. I hope you get to Bosnia and Herzegovina next time around.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Kay – It’s a good and timely reminder how things can change so quickly, and have long term effects. The Olympic venue we visited is still used for downhill skiing, but the amenities have suffered from what appears to be lack of funds to keep things spruced up. Very haunting, as are other parts of the infrastructure which have gone even further into ruin.

  5. says

    Your right, it is a stunning country and landscape. Difficult to understand much of the politics, religion and regional conflicts but you did an excellent job sharing much of the history and current situation. I’m glad that bridge was rebuilt,it is such an iconic image of the city.
    noel has an awesome blog post here: Travel Photo Postcard – Keauhou, HawaiiMy Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Noel – It seemed as though nowadays tolerance might be more prevalent in Bosnian communities than ever. If this is the legacy of the war, it’s a good one.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Janice – We love Croatia, too. And we’d love to spend more time in the region altogether. Bosnia and Herzegovina is tops on that particular wish list. 🙂

  6. says

    I must admit my knowledge of Bosnia and Herzegovina relates to what I learned at school, so not a great depth. I really enjoyed learning more and would love to visit. One thing that stood our for in this article, was how, no matter what the conditions of the country, education was valued and so was pride on oneself. These are important. We will visit Bosnia and Herzegovina when we can. I love the photos, and my favourite is the hay truck. The 1,2,3 rules of coffee – how priceless.
    Paula McInerney has an awesome blog post here: You won’t get Champagne and Caviar on Tigerair AustraliaMy Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Paula – I think you’ve hit the point – humanizing and maintaining that humanity during awful circumstances fosters resilience and compounds courage. This attitude was common among the people we met, and to say we found it admirable would be an understatement.

  7. says

    It looks so beautiful Betsy. We were so near but so far as we spent a week in Dubrovnik but had a different agenda and not enough time. Next time, i’ll definitely make the effort to get there. I didn’t know the 1-2-3 rule about coffee … interesting … but I did know the beer is good!
    Jo has an awesome blog post here: Heaven in the Hills: AraluenMy Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Jo – You’re right, it is unbelievably beautiful. It’s wild, with a mix of familiar and disorientation, then and now, that really resonated with us. We weren’t completely comfortable, but we became so. Hard to explain. Some places you never do get comfortable, but this one gets under your skin.

  8. says

    The Bosnia – Herzegovina Region is high up on our list of must-see places and your post was fascinating with it’s mix of politics, history and culture as well as some gorgeous photos of the countryside. This is exactly the kind of place where slow travel is perfect as this seems to be a country calling for a total immersion!
    Anita @ No Particular Place To Go has an awesome blog post here: A River Runs Through It: TaviraMy Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Anita – I think you’re right about immersion. I want more Bosnia and Herzegovina because it’s so gorgeous, but tinged with such a mix of sadness, tradition, anger, depth, and positivity. These are people for whom life may be or have been hard, but they live hard right back.

  9. says

    What a lovely post! I’m so amazed by the scenery in Bosnia and Herzegovina…it’s shocking to imagine it’s been the scene for so many battles and war tragedies. Those plaques are poignant reminder of those war torn days, which hopefully will never return. My daughter’s in-laws are from Serbia and many people seem to be struggling economically in that region so recovery from the conflict will be a long process. Supporting local businesses as you did will surely help.
    Michele Peterson has an awesome blog post here: Top 3 Vegan Eats on KauaiMy Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Michele – We visited Serbia right after B-H. You’re right about the economy. Belgrade seemed more prosperous, but only by a hair. More posts to come from this region from us!

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Denis – Seeing the location in person was enlightening and thought-provoking: we have no idea what impacts may be, and everything has the potential to be connected in some fashion.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Anita – How intense those days must have been for you and your colleagues. It was not that long ago. Glad you enjoyed this post. More to come!

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Veronica – Yes, Croatia is fabulous, just amazing. Bosnia and Herzegovina is, too. It will really get ahold of your heart.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Billie – I think it’s more like we’re disinclined to believe generalities or hype. We learned from visiting Winter Olympics in Sochi. We would love to return to B&H and spend time in more communities. Yes, Sarajevo seems quite small, but with a huge impact, obviously.

  10. Carol Colborn says

    You always have such a balanced post on a place, going not just to the places to see but also delving into its history without getting bogged down by details and explaining its current psyche without intense politicizing. We are going to Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia and Bulgaria in October-November. How I wish we had added B/H!

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Carol – We will be looking forward to seeing your posts. We also visited Serbia and Bulgaria this trip, and had planned to visit Kosovo but ran out of time. I think it’s important to refresh ourselves on history for cultural context. I’ll be posting more on B-H as well as Serbia and Bulgaria in the next few weeks, so perhaps those observations will be helpful. Thanks!

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Rachel – Croatia is a tourist magnet for big reasons. It’s a spectacular country. I don’t know if I would consider B-H an alternative to Croatia, because I believe it stands on its own and has different aspects to justify a visit. You’re right, should they join the EU, it will be a different experience. Somehow I think it’s going to be a while before that happens, though.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Sue – Thank you so much, and thank you for mentioning this post in your newsletter. We really appreciate it. Stay tuned for additional posts (with a few food photos) about Bosnia and Herzegovina. 🙂

  11. says

    What a wonderful description of Bosnia and Herzegovina in words and photos! We have always wanted to visit, but somehow get side tracked. Time to get serious! We actually prefer going to places that are somewhat off the beaten path (you know those places you are “warned” about visiting from family and friends). I love the 3-2-1 coffee, and may have to incorporate that into my life. Very nice Betsy!
    Cheryl has an awesome blog post here: Bathing in Beer – The Beer Spas of PragueMy Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Cheryl – You two would really enjoy a visit. And yes, we know about being “warned” not to visit places, too. 😉

  12. says

    Travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina seems like the thing to do these days and it’s no wonder from your beautiful pictures.
    I also loved the 1 2 3 coffee rule and think it should be implemented internationally!

  13. says

    Thanks for the history lesson. You always have such a wonderful way of weaving important cultural information into your posts. I look forward to reading more about this area and appreciate your getting the word out about a place that could really benefit from the tourism dollars. Like you and Pete, I enjoy getting a bit further off the beaten path and it’s good to read about the safely issue from someone whose actually been to Bosnia and Herzegovenia!
    alison abbott has an awesome blog post here: 12 Food Surprises in CatalunyaMy Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Alison – Thank you. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Bosnia and Herzegovina to anyone. You’re right that it’s not the first place that people think of when visiting the Balkans, but getting the word out may perhaps influence other travelers to visit. We sure hope so.

  14. says

    Great post with extensive information! When I was in Dubrovnik a couple of years back, I too got a chance to take a day trip to Mostar. The old town was somehow charming. Then we wandered a bit outside and saw so many buildings that had bullet holes and remnants of the war – quite sad! But overall, it was a wonderful experience. Such a beautiful and underrated country. Enjoyed your article 🙂
    Nita has an awesome blog post here: Inspiring Travel QuotesMy Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Bruno – Interesting that you would pick up on that vibe. We did sense uneasiness, but attributed it more to difficult economy and low tourism numbers. Bosnia and Herzegovina is struggling. The benefit to travelers is that our money goes farther and our presence is very much appreciated.

  15. Dani says

    Kudos to you. Your blogs are great…..by far the most informative intelligent blogs I have read . You give so much insightful information and trust me I have read hundreds and hundreds of blogs.Great job

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