Weekend in . . . Sarajevo
A cultural and gastronomic tour of the Bosnia-Herzegovina capital
Sarajevo from a spot overlooking the city. Photographs: Djamila Grossman for The New York Times
Restaurant Kibe with panoramic views of Sarajevo
Burek pastry dough filled with beef at Buregdzinica Bosna
At midday in Sarajevo, muezzins call from minarets as church bells echo through the Dinaric Alps. Street cars rumble past hookah smokers and cafe-goers. Chic women click-clack down cobbled alleyways. The city’s charisma is intoxicating, but the hustle and bustle belies a tragic past. In 1992, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s capital changed from a beacon of diversity, with Yugoslav Muslims, Christians and Jews worshipping within feet of one another, to the site of a nearly four-year siege that claimied more than 11,000 lives.
But much has changed over the past decade or so. The creative spirit that Sarajevans fought to preserve is very much in evidence these days. Neighbourhoods cradled in this valley and ringing the foothills are fertile entrepreneurial grounds and a testament to the epochs that came before.
Cafes, theatres, boutiques and restaurants have sprouted up among buildings in myriad styles, including Ottoman, Secessionist, communist and modern. And locals and visitors alike are rediscovering the surrounding mountains on the slopes that hosted the 1984 Winter Olympic Games.
Sarajevo’s circuitous history lesson begins with dinner at 4 Sobe Gospode Safije (the Four Rooms of Mrs Safija). It occupies a house built in 1910, the epoch of the city’s 40-year Habsburg Empire, by an Austrian count for a local woman, Safija. Their crosscultural love was taboo, but this Bosnian-European restaurant, restored to early 20th- century splendour and filled with period pieces, is among the city’s best. Choose the grilled veal with rosemary and anchovy (28 Bosnian convertible marks, BAM/€14.31) or the sea bass with ginger (21 BAM/€10.73) and a bottle of local red Blatina (35 BAM/ €17.89) or white Zilavka (35BAM/€17.89).
Theater of the soul
In the same neighbourhood, below the former Olympic stadium, get in before the lights dim at Sarajevski Ratni Teatar (the Sarajevo War Theatre, or Sartr). Established a month after the siege began, Sartr put on hundreds of shows during the war and became a symbol of defiance. “Being creative was the only way to survive during the war,” says Nihad Kresevljakovic, the theatre’s director. “In that way, Sarajevans know that culture and art are really basic human needs, like food and water.”
The black-box repertory (tickets from 5BAM/€2.55) still channels those exposed-nerve instincts into empathetic works – musicals, dance, documentary theatre and dramas – on the city’s most creatively free stage. Coming productions include The Secret of Raspberry Jam, which provides an intimate look at Sarajevo.
For a nightcap, head to Zlatna Ribica (Golden Fish). Diagonally across from the Eternal Flame honouring victims of the second World War, this cafe and bar is Sarajevo’s kitschiest drinking hole. A wall of mirrors reflects a softly lit tangle of refitted candelabras, decanters, overstuffed armchairs, musical instruments, Christmas lights, tiny TVs flickering black-and-white images and a bowl with goldfish swimming at the junction where the bar’s two rooms meet. In the background, jazz plays. In winter, try the secret-recipe mulled wine (5BAM/€2.55); in summer, order sangria with oranges and cherries.