Let me begin this post with a little confession. Although I came up with the idea of visiting Bosnia and Herzegovina last summer, I only had a basic understanding of what to expect. I’d never been to the Balkans before, but the unspoiled landscapes and rich history were calling out to me. After spending a week exploring BiH’s cultural heritage and listening to the locals’ stories, it completely stole my heart.
Now, I’ve seen a few similar posts doing the rounds, but I thought I’d switch it up a little. Instead of providing you with a long list of the best Bosnia and Herzegovina travel tips, I chose to narrow it down. Here are 10 facts that you genuinely need to know before visiting Bosnia and Herzegovina. Some are things I already knew, while others are pieces of information I picked up along the way. I hope you find these facts as fascinating as I did!
1. Bosnia has a turbulent past and was war-torn in the 1990s
Although Bosnia is perfectly safe to visit now, this beautiful country was ravaged by an atrocious, bloody war just 30 years ago. The conflict, which followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, lasted from 1992 to 1995 and claimed tens of thousands of lives. Sarajevo endured the longest siege of a capital city in modern history, lasting for 1,425 days. During that time, an average of 329 shells fell on the city each day, with a record 3,777 shells on July 22, 1993.
Memories of the war are still very much alive in Bosnia, as you walk past bullet-riddled buildings and visit memorial sites. During our time in Sarajevo, we went on our very first free walking tour, which was an incredible, eye-opening experience. Our tour guide recounted his experience of living through the war as a child while walking us through the most important places related to the siege of Sarajevo.
He also shared some insights about the country’s political system and post-war recovery, which was very enlightening too. I described the entire experience in my Sarajevo guide and I highly recommend you to read it! It’s all the more heartbreaking now that we’re witnessing similar events unfold again, this time in Ukraine.
2. The currency in Bosnia is the convertible mark
If you’re a 90s kid like me, the name mark may sound familiar to you. Remember the German mark? The Bosnian convertible mark used to be pegged to it at par, hence the name. When the German mark was replaced by the euro in 2002, the convertible mark’s exchange rate was fixed at the same level as that of the German mark. For easy reference, €1 is approximately 2 KM.
When it comes to bringing money on my travels, I’m totally old-school. Sure, my Revolut card is an absolute life-saver, but I just LOVE the rustle of paper as I count the bills! If you’re like me, I highly recommend exchanging your money into euros before you leave and then getting your convertible marks from a local exchange office when you arrive in BiH.
Don’t worry if you don’t find one right away or run out of cash. The euro is also widely used in shops, restaurants, and hotels, so it’s always worth asking if you can pay in euros. Our Sarajevo hostess gave us a free hand in choosing the currency we wanted to pay in, and I imagine it’s similar in many other touristy places.
3. The concept of ethnicity is as important as nationality
Although the war is long over, ethnic tensions remain high across the entire country. The three main ethnic groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina are the Bosniaks, the Serbs, and the Croats. I’ll explain the names in a moment. The people of Bosnia and Herzegovina take great pride in their ethnic identity. Even those who grew up in the aftermath of the war often feel a stronger connection to their ethnic group than to the country.
A fun fact is that you can often tell someone’s ethnicity just by their name. When we introduced ourselves to a group of locals, the first thing they brought up was the biblical origin of our names. Where we’re from, name meanings are hardly more than a curiosity, so it was interesting to observe a completely different approach!
This ethnic division also means that Bosnia and Herzegovina probably has the world’s most complicated government system. This small country, with a little over 3 million people, has 3 separate presidents who rotate seats every 8 months. There are also 13 prime ministers, over 180 ministers, and more than 700 members of the parliament to represent each of the 3 constituent nations. And if you’re an atheist or simply don’t identify with any of these groups? Sadly, it excludes you from public service employment. This underrepresentation means that some people in BiH choose to live as “closeted” atheists.
4. There’s a separate republic within Bosnia
If that wasn’t messy enough, hear this – Bosnia and Herzegovina is actually made up of two autonomous entities. Yes, that’s correct! There’s the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the vast majority of people are Bosniaks. Then, there’s Republika Srpska, where most of Bosnia’s Serb population resides. And on top of all that, there’s also the Brčko District, a self-governing multi-ethnic unit. Just reading all this sounds like a recipe for chaos!
We found it absolutely wild that on our way to the Sarajevo War Tunnel, there was a road sign saying we left the Federation of B&H and drove into Republika Srpska. While this arrangement aimed to safeguard the interests of each of the ethnic groups after the war, it actually drove the division further. Serbs would happily see Republika Srpska as part of Serbia, while Croats would like Herzegovina to break away from Bosnia. This divide reaches into all aspects of people’s lives, from separate waste collection companies to different education systems!
5. Bosnians and Bosniaks mean two totally different things
So, you’ve seen me use the words Bosnian and Bosniak in this post, and may be wondering… But isn’t that the same thing? Well, actually, they’re two fundamentally different things!
It all ties back to the concept of nationality and ethnicity. If you want to talk about someone’s nationality, you’d use the words Bosnian, Serbian, and Croatian. So, for example, someone who lives in Bosnia is Bosnian, but that doesn’t mean they’re Bosniak. Bosniak refers to the Bosnian Muslims living in the country. Just like most Croatians are Croat, but many Croats are not Croatian. The same goes for Serbians and Serbs. Hope I made these two concepts clearer, so you can use the correct terms when you visit Bosnia and Herzegovina!
6. You can’t always rely on timetables
We learned this the hard way during our time in Bosnia… While we didn’t really have any issues in Sarajevo, Mostar was a whole other story. From extremely confusing timetables to missed international buses, everything that could possibly go wrong did. One of these mishaps actually led to us forming a great friendship with a fellow traveller – who knew common travel problems were such a bonding experience? So, I can’t really complain about how it all turned out in the end, but it was extremely frustrating and stressful in that moment. I described every single travel fail in more detail in my Mostar guide, so if you’re wondering what to look out for, head over there!
7. Avoid going off the beaten track
This next point isn’t some well-articulated metaphor to convince you to stick to popular touristy places. No, what I mean is literally going off the beaten path can end up very badly for you. Even though the war ended almost three decades ago, Bosnia is still struggling with the after-effects.
Initial estimations showed that around 8.2% of the country’s entire territory was mined between 1992 and 1995. Due to a lack of funding, de-mining Bosnia is an ongoing process. While over 130,000 landmines have been removed so far, there are still approximately 180,000 active mines left. This makes Bosnia and Herzegovina one of the most heavily mined countries in the world.
Since the end of the war, more than 600 lives have been lost due to landmines and unexploded munitions. When the Pokémon Go game took the world by storm, there was a huge risk as some people’s phones led them into actual minefields! Most of them are in forests, so you’re highly unlikely to run into any issues as long as you stick to the marked footpaths. If you’d still like to go hiking and explore nature, there’s an EU-funded app called Mine Suspected Areas that warns you of potential mine areas.
8. Don’t be surprised to only see hot or soft drinks on the menu
As more than half of the country’s population is Muslim, some traditional restaurants in Bosnia don’t serve alcohol. However, many Bosnian Muslims are secular and therefore like to enjoy a drink or two.
One of the Bosnian specialties is Rakija, a strong (at least 40% ABV) alcoholic beverage made from various types of fruit. The most popular ones are plum and grape rakija, but the bar we went to had more than a dozen different options. As the only strong liquors I drink are gin and rum (and only mixed with soft drinks), I didn’t particularly enjoy it. But, if you drink alcohol, having at least one shot is a must on your trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
9. Bosnia has a complicated coffee culture
If you can’t find alcohol on the menu or don’t feel like having a tipple, don’t worry! You can enjoy a cup of Bosnian coffee, or bosanska kafa, instead. In Bosnia, coffee is more than just a drink. It’s a ritual or, as the locals call it, ćejf.
Ćejf is an important notion in Bosnian culture that is hard to translate into English. It’s essentially that unique quirk you have that has to be performed in a specific order and brings you deep satisfaction. Chances are, you have your very own ćejf too, but it’s become such second nature to you that it’s not as noticeable.
Drinking coffee in Bosnia definitely falls under that category. While it may resemble Turkish coffee at first, the preparation method is completely different. A lovely girl working at Mostar’s Café de Alma walked us through the entire ritual, which I described in more detail in my Mostar guide!
Now, I have to admit that Bosnian coffee is an acquired taste. For me, personally, it has all of the elements that I don’t like in coffee. It’s exceptionally strong, sludgy, and has a bitter aftertaste. So, even though my Moka pot isn’t going anywhere just yet, I really appreciate Bosnia’s rich coffee traditions. Bosnians tend to sit for hours, making conversation over a cup of coffee, which is something I’m much more likely to get behind than a quick coffee to go!
10. You won’t get much use out of your credit card
If you’re the kind of person that hardly carries cash, I have some bad news for you. It’s better to exchange or withdraw some cash in advance, as not all places accept debit or credit cards. While it won’t be a problem in supermarkets, larger shops or restaurants, small, less touristy places might not have a terminal.
Another thing that surprised us was the amount of cash-only accommodations. Again, if you stay at a hotel, they may have the necessary equipment. If, however, you choose to stay in a guesthouse or a flat, prepare to pay your host in cash. This threw us off a bit, as we pre-booked all of our accommodations on Booking.com and expected to pay with a card once we got there. Thankfully, we had enough cash withdrawn to tackle this unexpected turn of events. We were also allowed to pay in EUR, so don’t worry if you don’t have any KM on you!
To avoid such surprises in the future, I would highly recommend checking under ‘House rules’ at the bottom of the page on Booking.com. This will tell you whether your host accepts card payments, or if the place is cash-only. I will definitely do that too from now on – you live and you learn!
Thanks for sticking around until the end! These are the main things I believe anyone visiting Bosnia and Herzegovina should know. I hope you learned something valuable and it will make your travel planning process smoother!
Which of these facts did you find most surprising and why?