Architecture in Sarajevo: a history lesson

Posted by on 14 Oct, 2014 in Blog, Bosnia & Herzegovina | 13 comments

There were a lot of reasons I loved Sarajevo – seriously, there were loads – but there is one reason in particular that made me fall in love with the city pretty much instantly: the architecture.

Sarajevo is famed for its tumultuous history and the city’s architecture expresses this beautifully; the Ottomans, the Austro-Hungarians, the Yugoslav wars and the Siege of Sarajevo have all left their mark, making the city one of the most interesting in Europe.

Baščaršija – the Turkish Quarter

The city was officially founded in 1461 by the Ottomans, who ruled the city for around 400 years. Today, their lasting legacy is the neighbourhood known as Baščaršija.

Bascarsija, Sarajevo

This part of the city was reserved for commerce only, which is why so many of the buildings are only one storey.

Trinkets in Kazandziluk / Coppersmith Alley, Sarajevo

Here you’ll find narrow alleyway after narrow alleyway of shops and stalls, a huge market and the beautiful Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque – the most important in the city.

Fountain in the courtyard of Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque, Sarajevo

This area is also home to the aptly-named Pigeon Square, which is centred around the Sebilj fountain.

Pigeon Square - Ottoman influence Sarajevo

Austro-Hungarian outpost

But in 1878, after 400+ years of Ottoman rule, Sarajevo became part of Austria-Hungary practically overnight. This was a pretty dramatic change and brought a completely new style of architecture to the the city. (There’s even an ‘East-meets-West’ monument at the point where the Austrian and Ottoman parts of the city meet.)

East meets West - History of Sarajevo

But despite initial resistance, this era of the city’s history brought a lot of benefits. The Austro-Hungarian Empire brought industry, better infrastructure and new technology to Sarajevo, which became a sort of test-ground for innovations before they were rolled out in Vienna. Thanks to this approach, Sarajevo became the first city in Europe to have a fully electrified tram system in 1885, which is still in use.

Austro-Hungarian history of Sarajevo

The buildings along the river are some of the best examples of Austro-Hungarian architecture in the city, including the University of Sarajevo building.

The University of Sarajevo

Austro-Hungarian buildings

The Siege of Sarajevo

During the violent and insanely complicated Yugoslav wars that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia, Bosnia & Herzegovina was caught in the crossfire between Serb and Croat forces, who had pretty much agreed to half the country between them (to put it bluntly and simply). This culminated in the Siege of Sarajevo. Lasting from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996, the Siege was the longest of a capital city in modern warfare.

Without going into great detail (as I want to discuss the Siege more later), this period had big effect on the city’s appearance, but not necessarily in the way you would think.

For starters, still-bombed-out buildings in Sarajevo are rare. The city has received substantial funding in recent years to rebuild its historic centre and while one or two still remain, you are unlikely to see more than a handful.

A reminder of the Siege

Yet reminders are still there: Sarajevo roses can be spotted around the city, though they are not as obvious as you would think. They are the small craters left by exploding shells in the city, which have been filled in with red paint to commemorate the those who were killed by its impact.

A Sarajevo rose

Of course, one of the most poignant reminders of the the death toll of the Siege can be seen at the Martyrs’ Cemetery in Kovači, though the people buried there represent just a fraction of the thousands killed during the conflict.

The martyr's memorial cemetery, Sarajevo

Moving on

But it’s important to remember the city is still changing – and for the better.

The fully-renovated national library finally reopened this year – it was purposefully bombed during the early stages of the Siege, destroying thousands of irreplaceable works of literature. Thanks to generous EU funding, it was painstaking rebuilt and though we didn’t have time, the interior is supposedly well worth the €2 entrance free.

The national and university library of Bosnia & Herzegovina

The distinctive Festina Lente bridge was also opened in 2012, becoming a new symbol of the city. The bridge is found outside the distinctive Academy of Fine Arts, whose students designed it.

Festina Lente & the Academy of Fine Arts

What’s more, the city is home to a surprising number of skyscrapers – both old and new, giving it a very cosmopolitan feel, and a somewhat unexpected skyline.

The skyline of Sarajevo

Sarajevo is a beautiful city.


Is there a city whose architecture particularly struck a chord with you?
Comment below!


  1. Thank you for sharing your info and photos about Sarajevo… I must admit I didn’t know much about it and so your post was very helpful… I remember the Olympics and the turmoil in Sarajevo but never saw photos of the city. It’s very beautifully designed…

    • Thank you – I’m glad you enjoyed it :) The Olympics were a bit before my time but I know you can go and visit the abandoned bob sleigh tracks up in the mountains.

  2. Is it cliche’ to choose Barcelona? I really was so impressed by its amazing architecture… And of course my hometown of NYC…

    • Not at all – I still haven’t made it to Barcelona, but I hear the architecture is a big draw.

  3. Great post and beautiful photos! Sarajevo has never been on my radar (Blagaj however is a whole different story), but you make it sound really tempting. It’s quite pretty and it reminds me of some of the cities in the west of Romania. :)

    • Blagaj is on your list? That really surprises me, I found it a totally underwhelming destination when I went…

    • Speaking of cities in West Romania – what are your thoughts on Timisoara? Worth visiting?

      • Timisoara and Arad are two cities I have yet to visit, but I would love to go for an extended weekend (it’s just such a frickin long tram journey from Bucharest!). I think it’s definitely worth visiting, I have friends and family there and they all speak very highly of it. If you’re interested, maybe we could arrange a trip together 😉

  4. Great blog and photos. The contrasts in the architecture are fascinating and are a fab way to trace the history of the city.

  5. Hmmmm. So, I just barely made it into B&H this week (actually I had my birthday dinner there last night!), and despite my travel partner’s suggestion of it, I was kind of not keep on Sarajevo. WHY did I not read this post before my trip??? (why? bc I was working 20 hrs a day getting ready for business meetings in London starting on the 15th, that’s why.) UGH. I am so disappointed, we should have gone. Instead we kind of roamed around the villages of eastern Croatia, eating our way through the region.

  6. I went many years ago and would really like to go back – a city with a tumultuous history and an awful lot to see

    • Couldn’t agree more Sarah. I went for two full days and would love to go back to see more.


  1. 6 (more) overlooked and underrated cities in Europe | Continental Breakfast Travel - […] is a melting pot of Ottoman, Serb and Austro-Hungarian influences, which can clearly be seen in the city’s beautiful …

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