Despite all those rugged mountains, the snow-caked heights of the Dinaric Alps, the beautiful Una River and towns like Mostar and Stolac where Ottoman and Byzantine, Roman and Balkan, Slavic and oodles of other styles all coalesce between the ancient streets, Bosnia and Herzegovina remains a somewhat off-the-beaten-track corner of Europe. Check out this list of the country’s best places to visit, which flits from the wild hinterland to the buzzing, burgeoning capital along the way.
Bisected by the babbling Lasva River as it flows through the central mountains of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the pretty mid-sized town of Travnik does well to balance its interesting past as the capital and stronghold of the erstwhile viziers of this old Ottoman sub-region and modern day adventure sports and outdoorsy draws. The first aspect manifests in a curious array of traditional eastern-style edifices and monuments, two Ottoman clock towers (unique throughout the country) and a handsome 15th-century old town heart. The second aspect makes its home on the slopes of Vlasic Mountain on the horizon, which is now one of Bosnia’s most celebrated skiing, Nordic walking and hiking destinations.
Home to the best-loved ski field in all of Bosnia and former host of the Winter Olympics, Jahorina draws snow lovers and summertime hikers alike to its high perch amidst the pine-spotted upper levels of the Dinaric Alps. Of course it’s the lifts and pistes here that take centre stage for most travelers, with no fewer than 10 chairs and a planned gondola serving 30 kilometers of groomed alpine runs. But Jahorina isn’t only for when the snow falls; not with the hunting lodges and pre-historic wonders of the Orlovaca cave system nearby, along with the pretty town of Pale beckoning from the valley below.
A bustling, bubbling and surprising European capital that’s now heading full throttle into the modern age, Sarajevo has all but shed its former reputation as a ravaged war zone. Memorials to the fallen and killed from the tumultuous conflicts of the 1990s do still fringe the city’s districts, but there’s certainly a newfound confidence and panache flowing through the central streets; one that embodies a real defiance for the atrocities of war. Think striking mosques looming over al fresco beer bars, aromatic Turkic restaurants peppering enchanting bazaars, pretty city parks and arched stone bridges, all underpinned by modern art museums, jazz fests and more!
One of the real gems of the Republika Srpska side of Bosnia Herzegovina, Trebinje reflects beautifully against the waters of the winding Trebisnjica River as it cuts through the heart of the city’s historic centre; a medley of elegant Ottoman rises and original eastern facades that was constructed largely in the 18th century. There’s also the pretty arched bridge of Arslanagic to see on the edge of town, along with a gorgeous Serbian Orthodox cathedral on the ridges above. Travelers should also be sure to scale to the crumbling remnants of the Klobuk fortress on the hill, which offers sweeping views of the Trebisnjica River valley.
Hemmed in by the grass-green and craggy ridges of the Herzegovina Humina, Stolac is considered by many to be single most beautiful town in the country. Amidst its enchanting old heart, the spot fuses layer after layer of unique architectural and cultural heritage, going from the crumbling remnants of Roman Diluntum that stood here in the 3rd century to the elegance of Austro-Hungarian Baroque. Then there are the haunting tombstones of the Radimlja necropolis on the edge of the town to see, along with the pretty riparian stretches of the Bregava River, complete with clicking wooden watermills and real-stone bridges.
One of the undisputed jewels of the entire Balkan Peninsula, Mostar oozes Bosnian history from each of its Byzantine cracks, Slavic crevices and Ottoman facades. The piece de resistance has to be the arched Old Bridge that spans the Neretva at the town’s heart, now meticulously reconstructed following destruction in the Croat–Bosniak conflict and a bearer of that coveted UNESCO tag. And all around this masterpiece cast in stone, Mostar layers Dalmatian builds and Franciscan churches, oriental designs and arabesque mosques into one glorious aesthetic, while gold sellers continue to barter in the Old Bazaar and beer drinkers sip lagers in al fresco terraces by the riverside.
Indelibly green and bolstered by the roaring waterfalls that cascade through the urban bluffs at its heart, welcoming Jajce is one of the favoured gateways to the lakes and gorges of the pretty Bosanska Krajina region of the north. Back in the town itself and travelers can discover a clutch of fascinating museums, like the AVNOJ that chronicles the resistance efforts of the Yugoslav partisans in World War Two, underground catacombs, charming Bosnian-style homes dressed in painted timber and – of course – the unmissable citadel that sprawls over the central hill – a remnant of the town’s medieval past.
Brcko can be found straddling the borderlands with Croatia to the north, planted on the edge of the Sava River and home to Bosnia’s only real port worthy of note. While the town boasts a smattering of elegant Hapsburg edifices and an endearing blue-collar vibe, the real reason it’s worth a visit is because of its unique position as the country’s only self-governing city, where the various factions that only decades before now were embroiled in the Croat–Bosniak-Serb conflicts mix and forge their own unique enclave and personality on the edge of BiH Federation and the Republika Srpska alike.
9. Banja Luka
Razed and razed again by both earthquake and war, Banja Luka – the largely unknown capital of the Republika Srpska region of Bosnia and Herzegovina – retains little of the historic Ottoman and Slavic richness it once exuded, save a few reconstructed gems like the Cathedral of Saint Bonaventure and rebuilt, erstwhile-UNESCO Ferhat-Pasha Mosque. However it’s not for the sights that people head to this 200,000-strong city in the wooded Vrbas River valley. No sir, they come to sip beers and get loose to the sounds of the region’s famous thumping electro-folk, sample Trappist wines in the Pivara Banjaluka monastery (the only of its kind in the Balkans) and hit the hiking trails of the mountains on the horizon.
10. Kravice Falls
A truly photogenic wonder of Bosnia’s backcountry, the Kravice Falls cascade in countless streams over the verdant ridges south of Mostar. More than 25 meters high, the cataracts here attract swimmers and strollers during the summer months, while others will come to simply gawp as the mist rises from the freezing plunge pools and roaring Trebizat River (daring types may also want to try their hand at the on-site rope swing that can be seen depositing fearless locals into the waters). Kravice is best accessed from nearby Ljubuski, while others will rent a car out of Mostar and drive down through the dense fir forests.
11. Una National Park
Shrouded in beautiful swathes of virgin forest, the Una National Park is one of the more recent additions to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s line-up of outdoorsy gems. It makes its home amidst the wild hills that roll down from the Dinaric Alps on the cusp of Croatia, protecting great stretches of riparian woodland and the channels of the Una and Unac Rivers. Visitors who make their way here can look forward to the striking waterfalls at Martin Brod, interesting sights like the soaring Ostrovica Fortress and the newly-reconstructed Rmanj Monastery, complete with its reworking of the Serbian Orthodox style.
While Tuzla might not immediately seem like the best place to while away your Bosnian days and its place smack bang in the industrial heartland of the nation might not seem attractive from the get go, this colourful and confident town is actually a great place to feel the pulse of the real, raw BiH. Travelers can delve into a clean and well-pruned old town that comes complete with soaring minarets and stone-clad squares, sunbathe on the edge of curious salt lakes (a remnant of the ancient Pannonian Sea), and experience the country’s most prestigious literary festival with the onset of the Mesa Selimovic event in July.
An endearing little town that sits draped between the ridges of the verdant Una Valley, Bihac comes shrouded in blooming coniferous shades of green and the rugged hills of the Bosanska Krajina. At the town’s centre stands a square-cut medievalist keep and its concomitant church tower, while a series of pop-up islands beset by the turquoise-green channels of the Una itself make for some seriously good urban park strolling. There’s also a pretty new town square to wander through, complete with babbling fountain installations, along with an interesting arabesque Ottoman tomb to boot.
A real must on any Bosnian bucket list, Blagaj sits nestled in the depths of a rugged gorge of the Mostar Basin, right on the spot that the Buna River bursts into existence from the subterranean depths below. In fact, the town’s most-visited site sits neatly on the edge of the Buna’s source, rising in beautiful Ottoman styles to form the great Sufi lodge of the Tekija. But that’s not all the town can offer. No sir, there’s elegant Ottoman mansions besides, along with a series of fascinating arched bridges in the Byzantine style and earthy homestays with timber terraces and cosy rooms aplenty.
15. Blidinje Nature Park
This wide plateau that connects the Cvrsnica and Vran peaks in the south-western edge of Bosnia and Herzegovina remains one of the nation’s less-trodden and off-the-beaten-track natural gems. It’s famed for the colossal trunks of its endemic Bosnian pine trees, while it also boasts thick forests where white-bark evergreens shroud a flower-peppered woodland floor. The whole area is also peppered with elaborately carved medieval stele that hearken back to the Orthodox traditions of pre-Ottoman Bosnia. Blidinje comes complete with a web of marked hiking trails that make it a great option for walkers and outdoorsy types. #crazytourist