I was drawn to Sarajevo Old Town, otherwise known as Baščaršija, like a moth to the flame. Here are my favourite photos of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s most magnetic neighbourhood, plus my top photo spots and recommended things to do in Sarajevo Old Town.
When it comes to photogenic cities that are perfect for exploring on foot, Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is in a league of its own. The Baščaršija is a mass of laneways, crowded plazas and stone inns protected by a low ceiling of wooden shophouses, matte domes and piercing minarets. Its markets, merchants and cafes are just begging to be photographed.
We arrived in Sarajevo in the middle of a snap snowstorm: But that didn’t matter one iota. It only took a matter of minutes for me to decide that Sarajevo Old Town is my kind of place. Ten days and countless photo expeditions later, I had predictably fallen head over heels. Now that Sarajevo and I have parted ways (for now, at least), I wanted to share my favourite images from the city to inspire you to visit Bosnia and Herzegovina, too.
History of Sarajevo Old Town
Sarajevo’s Old Town is sometimes referred to as Baščaršija, the name of the 15th-century Ottoman-built marketplace that gives the centre its overall shape and feel. Contrary to the name, it isn’t the oldest part of the city at all: The hillside fortifications on Sarajevo’s outskirts predate the Baščaršija by a few thousand years.
It was these stone bastions that lent the city its name (Sarajevo is derived from the Turkish word saray, meaning palace). The Old Town as its known today was designed by Sarajevo’s Ottoman rulers to promote trade and industry in the valley. Its marketplaces, mosques and madrassas buttressed the growing metropolis, famously described as a place where East meets West.
It may not be the original Sarajevo, but the Old Town is still the most important part of the city. History has been made on these streets. Unlike other old towns in Europe, Sarajevo’s is beloved by locals just as much as it appeals to tourists. It’s where Sarajevans share coffee, sip rakija, pray to their gods—and of course do their shopping.
In short, Sarajevo Old Town is an utterly captivating urban landscape that no visitor to Bosnia and Herzegovina or the Balkans region should miss.
My best photos of Sarajevo Old Town
Pigeon Square & Sebilj fountain
‘Meet me in Pigeon Square’—it must be a phrase that every Sarajevan utters at least thrice weekly.
The anchor of the city, this is where all the twisted backstreets converge. The open plaza, with the gorgeous wooden Sebilj fountain at its centre, is just big enough to accommodate the monsoon of cafe tables and coffee drinkers that washes over the city every morning around 10am. That, and of course the resident flock of pigeons that give the area its nickname.
Sarajevo’s main market, Baščaršija
Baščaršija so defines Sarajevo Old Town that its title and the name of the area are interchangeable. Erected in the 15th century by design of Isa-Beg Isaković, the city’s Ottoman ruler, the name ‘Baščaršija’ literally means ‘main market’ in Turkish.
Like Hanoi Old Quarter, the streets here still bare the names of the traditional handicrafts and merchants who plied their trades in tiny workshops and doorways in days gone by. All matter of products are sold in the main market, including carpets from Iran and Middle Eastern led lamps.
Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque
There are more than 200 mosques in Sarajevo, but none are larger or more stately than Gazi Husrev-beg. Occupying prime position, its as if the rest of the Old Town radiates out from the complex.
Catholic churches, orthodox cathedrals and Bosnia and Herzegovina’s last working synagogue: Sarajevo Old Town has it all. But I found the city’s mosques most visually compelling. As with every mosque we’ve visited in Bosnia and Herzegovina thus far, this one warmly welcomes guests outside of prayer time. It’s especially interesting to see the mosque on a Friday, when the courtyard fills up with worshipers and eager spectators press their faces against the iron grills in the mosque’s outer wall.
Kazandžilu, Coppersmith Street
The only old street that’s held onto its legacy and original trade is Kazandžilu. I must have walked down that street two dozen times, stepping to the beat of the coppersmith’s tools as they transform metal sheets into works of art.
Sarajevo kahva culture
Few things are more symbolic of Sarajevo than traditional Bosnian coffee. Rooted in Turkish tradition, making and drinking coffee is a social ritual beloved by all Sarajevans. A complete Bosnian coffee set, called a kahveni takum, includes a copper tray (tabla), a džezva pot, a šećerluk sugar pot and a small cup called a fildžani.
Sarajevo Old Town is littered with kahva shops.
A Bosnian feast
Granted Bosnian food isn’t exactly the most photogenic cuisine on earth, there are many beautiful food traditions involved in the making and sharing of meals that are a joy to observe. Just poke your head inside any of Sarajevo Old Town’s buregdžinicas (pie shops), or ćevabdžinicas (ćevapi restaurants) to see food artisans in action.
People watching in Sarajevo
One of the best things I did in Sarajevo was go out and explore the Old Town one morning shortly after sunrise. Streets usually packed with tourists and families were deserted, giving the city a totally different, bare-bones feel. It’s the perfect time to watch shopkeepers setting up for the day and groups of friends enjoying their first coffee of the morning.
In my experience, people in Sarajevo are incredibly kind and gracious—and don’t mind posing so a sneaky tourist can snap a photo or two.
Vijećnica, Sarajevo City Hall
Built by the Austro-Hungarians in the Neo-Moorish style, Vijećnica, Sarajevo’s City Hall, perfectly typifies the ‘East meets West’ aesthetic that makes it so unique. Located on the fringe of the Old Town, it’s a must-visit if you’re in the area. The history of the building is gut-wrenching; once you know, you’ll understand why Sarajevans are justifiably proud of it. Whatever you do, don’t walk by without going inside.
Beyond Baščaršija: The Miljacka & the nexus of East and West
The Miljacka river slices through Sarajevo, dividing the Old Town into two parts and setting the easy-to-follow parallel layout of the city’s main streets. Wander just a few steps beyond the Baščaršija and you’ll find yourself in another world, one where Austro-Hungarian facades dominate.
Summary: My favourite photo spots in Sarajevo Old Town
- Pigeon Square & Sebilj fountain
- Baščaršija covered market
- Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque
- Kazandžilu (Coppersmith Street)
- Kovači Street
- Morića Han (including Isfahan Gallery carpet shop and Caffee Divan)
- Buregdžinica Oklagija (to see burek being made)
- Miljacka river and the Latin Bridge
- Vijećnica, Sarajevo City Hall
What are your favourite spots in Sarajevo Old Town? Does Sarajevo look like the kind of city you’d love to explore? Please share your thoughts and suggestions below!