The federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina is still recovering from the devastating war of the 1990s. Relations between Serbs, Croats, Muslims and other ethnic minorities are peaceful today but still far from easy, with unacknowledged voluntary segregation still in effect in parts of the country.
However, the country is safe and friendly and extremely cheap to travel around, all of which begins to explain why more and more travellers are choosing to visit. The Balkan state’s artistic and historic cultures, its national parks and ancient cities and its breathtaking beauty are just some of the reasons why it is slowly but surely gaining international renown as an excellent holiday destination.
Bosnia’s climate is as varied as its terrain and as volatile as its politics. Generally speaking, Southern Bosnia enjoys the climate of Southern Europe � long, hot summers and mild winters, while the mountains spend much of the year under a thick covering of snow and ice.
However, storms and high winds can blow across the Balkans at any time of year, and Bosnia is no exception. Indeed, the many factors influencing the weather � that is, Bosnia’s geographical features which make and break different weather fronts � contribute to a capricious climate. It’s probably sensible to pack sun block and a fleece whatever time of year you’re going, and wherever you plan to travel to. Sarajevo in particular can burn you and freeze you in the course of 24 hours, as the mountain peaks force brief and extreme weather fronts over the city.
Because of this, there is not really a ‘best’ time of year to visit the country � Bosnia’s springtime wildflowers, hot summers, golden autumns and frozen winters all have their advocates. To give you a sense of what to expect in the short-term, the BBC website has a comprehensive and often accurate five-day forecast for Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Things to do and see
Sarajevo is perhaps one of the most fascinating cities in the world, not only for its history and culture but also for its exceptional beauty. Home to the country’s impressive national galleries, museums and libraries, Sarajevo also offers eclectic, attractive architecture, great views, great food and great shopping in its several ancient markets.
The town still bears the marks of war, and perhaps the best way to get to know it is just to wander around, taking in the atmosphere and the curious mix of ancient and Soviet-era architecture and watching people go about their business. The old town’s pavement caf�s have great views over the city and to the green hills beyond � from here, it’s difficult to believe the dark events of Sarajevo’s recent history.
In winter, resorts such as Jahorina provide excellent skiing and snowboarding for the lowest prices in Europe, and are near enough to Sarajevo (less than an hour’s drive away) to combine a city break with ski holiday � or for the less sporty to escape from the slopes.
Mostar is Herzegovina’s counterpart to Bosnia’s Sarajevo. The ancient bridge, destroyed during the war and rebuilt in 2003, is its most famous landmark. An amazing feat of engineering when it was first built, today it has become a symbol of the country’s reunification. Mostar’s ancient buildings, markets and narrow streets also attract travellers, and others still use the city as a base for hiking in the beautiful surrounding hills.
Further north, adventurous travellers go rafting down rapids near Banja Luka. Indeed, across Bosnia-Herzegovina, it is possible to find small outfits offering hiking tours and watersports wherever available, with new tourist industries literally rising out of the rubble of the war.
But the rubble remains � ruined churches, buildings and sometimes whole settlements abound. As this is cleared away bit-by-bit, bits of the country’s ancient and recent history goes with it, so even the ruins and remains are worth your attention.
The untouched Bjeslanica hills and mountains in the South offer some of the best, and certainly some of the most remote, hiking in Europe. As well as the wildlife and the scenery, you can pass remote villages such as Lukomir where residents continue a way of life that has long since died out elsewhere. The organic, home grown and home-made food is fantastic, the people friendly and the villages and mountains are beautiful. infohub.com has compiled a non-comprehensive list of walking and hiking tours on offer.
The biggest national tourist information centre is situated in Sarajevo:
Herzegovina’s major tourist contact-point is in Mostar, contact details can be found online at Hercegovina.com.
Daily flights to Sarajevo from the UK are increasing, and prices are reasonable. For backpackers on a budget, it might be worth considering flying into Dubrovnik, which is just over the southern border in Croatia, with a bargain airline. You can then take the 5-hour bus journey through southern Bosnia to the capital, or to other destinations within Bosnia, for a few pounds. The scenery is amazing but roads are full of hairpin bends and this is probably not a journey to undertake if you suffer from travel sickness.
Standard European Inter-rail tickets, are valid within Bosnia-Herzegovina, and this is a popular way of getting to the country overland. Ensure you have your passport ready when making an international train journey, and expect delays at the border.
Within the country, train services were decimated by the war, but where lines continue to run, travel is cheap and reliable, and passengers can enjoy breathtaking scenery as well as a comfortable journey.
Across the Balkans, bus routes offer the most frequent and comprehensive public transport networks, and Bosnia is no exception. It is possible to get pretty much anywhere on the bus system, which is fairly priced and generally very reliable.
Most bus stops will have an information desk, but consult notice boards and try to ask locals and other travellers for information as well. Indeed, verify travel details with more than one person wherever possible, as times and prices can vary and even the locals may be unaware of changes to services. Furthermore, services can vary in price, journey-length and comfort level, so consulting those who know the system can make your journey more pleasant.
Bad roads and worse drivers make driving in Bosnia an activity for the daring and the foolhardy. Car hire often works out as more expensive than bus travel but it does buy you independence and if you’re intrepid enough to hit the roads, you can be rewarded with some stunning road trips. However, don’t attempt to drive in the mountains during winter unless you have a death wish. If you do decide hiring a car is the best solution for you car-hire-centre.co.uk has some great deals.
During the war, the Holiday Inn was the only working hotel in Sarajevo, and it housed all the international journalists in the city. This situation is changing as the infrastructure heals and the tourist population swells. It is easy to find a reasonably priced hotel in any town or city, but many of these are dank and somewhat depressing. It can be worth seeking out a more convivial hostel or even organising an apartment or a home stay, as these options are usually cheaper and often more pleasant than spending a night in a hotel.
Elsewhere, it’s usually possible to find a guesthouse or a family who take paying guests. This is not only good value for travellers on a budget, it can also be a fantastic way of meeting locals, eating local food and improving your language skills. Remember you’re in somebody’s home and try to respect your host’s way of life � ask permission to smoke, inform them if you plan to stay out late, and so on. Most travellers find that their polite requests are dismissed with a laugh, but it’s worth keeping in mind the fact that your hosts will not necessarily be familiar with your habits, particularly if your hosts are elderly or living in remote rural areas.
Renting self-catering accommodation is also good value for money, particularly for groups of travellers. Holiday Lettings and Sublet.com both offer short-term renal accommodation in Bosnia, but if you’re willing to take the risk and ask around on arrival, you can often find rooms in beautiful old buildings for next to nothing. Again, there are more options for travellers in Sarajevo and Mostar than elsewhere.
UK residents can apply for a comprehensive, up-to-date report on health issues for travellers in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The personal report, which includes recommended vaccinations, foreign office travel health advice, advice on seasonal diseases and up-to-date health news, is available from the Medical Advisory Services for Travel Abroad (MASTA). The MASTA website also has details of locations of travel clinics to visit before you leave.
At the time of writing, UK guidelines stipulate hepatitis A vaccine, and advise you to be up-to-date with tetanus, diphtheria and polio shots before you travel. Check with your doctor or NHS direct for current guidelines.
National emergency healthcare is improving, but remains frighteningly poor. Contact your embassy wherever possible and they will try to provide emergency healthcare of a higher standard. Failing that, it’s well worth seeking out a private doctor or applying to the German military base in Sarajevo, which treats non-military patients. Private healthcare is still relatively inexpensive and should be covered on the most basic of insurance packages � though you may have to pay first and reclaim later.
The emergency clinic in Sarajevo can be found in Kolodvorska 14. It can also be accessed remotely by telephone or online:
Tel: 033 619 454, 033 618 062
Some of the sadder hangovers of the war � not least, Western prejudices, but also real threats such as land-mines � mean you will probably be advised to buy fairly comprehensive insurance cover. STA Travel offers deals for under 26’s that cover accident, emergency and illness.
Don’t let this put you off, though. Bosnia has seen enough violence over the past century and today it is one of the least intimidating, safest and friendliest places in Europe.