Bosnia-Herzegovina is a fantastic country, and easily one of Europe’s most underrated destinations. Stunning natural wonders, incredibly warm and engaging people, riveting history (both old and recent), delicious cuisine — check, check, check, and check.
Because of its recent heritage of war, its rough-around-the-edges infrastructure, and its vivid Muslim culture, Bosnia can be jarring to some visitors. For that reason, I view the city of Mostar — within a short drive of Dubrovnik and the Dalmatian Coast — as a wading pool for Bosnia. Dip your toe in. If you like it, there’s so much more to see.
It seems unlikely that Epcot will ever open a “Bosnia” pavilion. But if they did, it would look a lot like the old center of Mostar. It is, in a word, cute. The ankle-wrecking, smoothly rounded cobbles twist through a vibrant bazaar atmosphere. Visitors often remark, “It’s like being back in Turkey!” And sure enough, Mostar was an Ottoman market town for most of its history. But it’s not Turkish…it’s Bosnian.
In the Old Town, all roads lead to the iconic Old Bridge — the icon of the city, built by Süleyman the Magnificent, destroyed in the wars of the 1990s, and since rebuilt. Down at the riverbank below, you enjoy the best views in town…and, if it’s hot (like it was today), you can cool off your toes in the frigid Neretva River.
Crossing the Old Bridge, you’ll trip over chunky marble “steps” that are spaced just far apart enough to guarantee stumbling. Even an agile cat would stagger like a drunk along here. The two guys in the foreground are Mostar’s divers. They’re taking a break, but in a moment they’ll hop up on the railing and carry on until they drum up enough tips to make it worth their effort to do a swan dive seven stories down into the water below. As my local friend and I were walking across this bridge, intently watching our feet to avoid tripping, suddenly we heard a loud splash…and realized we’d just missed the show.
Both in Mostar and in Sarajevo, I noticed lots and lots of tourists from the Middle East. This carries on Bosnia’s rich heritage as a meeting place between East and West. Just as Americans go to Mostar because it offers an enticing peek at Islam in a familiar European package, people from the Middle East enjoy it as a comfortably Muslim destination that’s also exotically European.
During communist Yugoslavia, religion was discouraged, and most people did not openly practice their faith (whether Islam, Catholicism, or Orthodox Christianity). But since the fall of the Iron Curtain, it’s been interesting to see the rebound of various faiths across Central and Eastern Europe. In Russia, the Church is so influential that the former KGB chief Vladimir Putin claims he was, secretly, deeply religious all along. In Romania, a newfound faithfulness fills atmospheric, centuries-old Orthodox churches that were, for decades, considered tourist sites rather than holy ones. And across Bosnia, you find many new mosques, libraries, madrassas, and cultural centers, many of them funded by donors from wealthy Middle Eastern countries.
At the edge of Mostar’s fantastyland of an Old Town, the cobbles abruptly end. Most tourists U-turn, head back to their day-tour bus, and hit the souvenir stands that caught their eye during their short visit here. But that’s a shame — if you keep going, you enter Mostar’s ragtag pedestrian shopping street, where locals (and mopeds) outnumber tourists. This is where the real people of Mostar gather to drink coffee and listen to a mix of loud music: American pop and souped-up “turbo folk” music (imagine a Balkan-flavored techno mariachi music).
Mostar provides a case study in how easy (and cheap) it is to stay in touch if you’re comfortable with basic cell phone technology. I carry an unlocked phone with me. (You probably already own several, in a junk drawer somewhere in your house.) Even though I’m only in Bosnia for four days on this trip, I bought a SIM card that I can stick in a slot in my phone to have access to very cheap domestic calls (20 cents per minute) rather than my cell phone provider’s exorbitant roaming charges ($1.79 per minute). The SIM card cost $3, included that much credit, and took literally seconds to purchase and insert into my phone. I only made two calls the whole time I was in Bosnia (to confirm my Sarajevo hotel and to make a dinner reservation). And yet, given the pricey per-minute roaming costs, buying my own SIM card still saved me money. For the full scoop on SIM cards, check out our Travel Skills article on that topic.