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An Expat's Guide to Living in Sarajevo

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Kathi Numic
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Ever since meeting (and marrying) a Bosnian, I knew that I would probably be living in Sarajevo at one point in my life. I just didn't expect it would happen so soon! So when we settled in the Bosnian capital in mid-2021, I had mixed feelings about the whole adventure. Would I really enjoy life abroad in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

I'm glad I gave the city a chance because Sarajevo won me over!

While the Bosnian capital city is not on the bucket list of many, it offers an excellent quality of life, many outdoor activities right at your doorstep, a bustling restaurant scene, and various cultural events throughout the year.

Let me walk you through what you need to know to make this hidden gem your new home.

Getting to Know Sarajevo

The center of Sarajevo's Ottoman Old Town, or Baščaršija

With around 600,000 inhabitants, the Bosnian capital Sarajevo is the largest city in the country and a cultural and tourist hub. Especially during the tourist season in summer, Sarajevo's streets are bustling with visitors. The city has always been at the crossroads of East and West, with different religions – Muslim, Christian, and Jewish faith - and cultures living side by side peacefully. This multicultural history gives the city a unique vibe.

Since Sarajevo is located in a valley surrounded by big mountains, building space is limited, and the city has been built like a long snake along the Miljacka River. As a result, many Sarajevans have built their houses on the slopes of the mountains; you'll find many steep and narrow streets leading into the so-called "Mahalas," the old Ottoman neighborhoods.

Each Mahala has its own ecosystem with a mosque or church, a little supermarket, a café, or a bar. People generally look out for one another here. Community is a big concept of Bosnian society. You will soon learn that even though you haven't introduced yourself to everyone in the neighborhood, people will still know you!

Finding a Place to Live in Sarajevo

A typical Mahala built on a slope

As I said, Sarajevo is located in a valley, so you will find that many neighborhoods are at least partly built on the slopes of the mountains surrounding the city. Some parts of the city don't get a lot of sun for that exact reason, especially the neighborhoods on the slopes of Trebević Mountain.

You might be tempted to move into an old Austro-Hungarian building with high ceilings and wide double doors. They are amazing – I've lived in one, too, before. But even if a flat is newly renovated, the pipes and boilers in the buildings are still old, and things break down frequently.

Finding a flat in Sarajevo is relatively easy compared to other capital cities. You can check the website olx.ba for offers or hire a real estate agent to help you with the search – they won't charge you, instead the landlord has to pay for them. Most flats come furnished, so you just have to move in and unpack your bags. Internet is generally good, so if you're working from home, you shouldn't have any trouble with a bad connection.

Some Nice Neighborhoods to Check Out:

  • Mejtaš
  • Bjelave
  • Marijin Dvor
  • Skenderija
  • Malta
  • Obala Kulina Bana (not exactly a neighborhood, but you find nice flats along this street)

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Rent

This really comes down to what you're willing to spend and what requirements you have in living space – rents range from 250 Euros/month up to 1,000 Euros/month. Naturally, newly renovated flats or flats in very central locations are more expensive.

For reference: We pay 400 Euros/month for a centrally located 2-bedroom apartment with a balcony.

Settling into Life in Sarajevo

The view from the famous Latin Bridge over the Miljacka River

Public Transportation

You do not need a car when you are living in Sarajevo. The city is very walkable. Sarajevo is well-connected, with a tram and buses running up into the Mahalas. I use the app Moovit to check departure times and routes.

Learning the Language

You can get by with English in Sarajevo, but once you leave the city, you might encounter fewer English speakers. Learning Bosnian is generally going to make your life easier.

I recommend learning at least the basics to get by in restaurants and supermarkets – you can use apps like Drops or Mondly (set to Croatian). If you want to dive in deeper or if you're going to stay longer, a language course can help you get to the next language level. I recommend Bosnian2Go – I take my classes with them and their tutors are great.

You'll find putting in the effort to learn Bosnian will also pay off if you plan to take a trip to other Balkans countries like Serbia, Montenegro, or Croatia. These countries share a very similar language so if you can get by in Bosnia, you'd be able to get by in any of those places, too.

Making Friends with Locals and Other Expats

I was lucky to move here with a local partner who connected me with his friends right upon arrival. After a while, however, I was also on the lookout for a few international pals.

While there is an expat community in Sarajevo, it's small. In general, most of the expats living here work for international organizations or foreign embassies and are well-connected with each other. Since they all know each other, connecting with more international people can be easier once you make one international friend. In addition, they often meet up with their local co-workers too, which is a great way to get to know Sarajevans. This is basically how I met all my friends here in Sarajevo.

To make friends, I recommend joining the Sarajevo Young Expats group on Facebook if you have just arrived. Here, you can post that you are new, looking to meet friends, or suggest an activity like hiking together. I also recommend you follow the Visit Sarajevo Instagram since they advertise a lot of the events going on in the city.

The Best Places to Work From

The city center on the Austro-Hungarian side of the city

If you are a digital nomad or remote worker like me, you should get out of the house and see people from time to time. Those are some great places to work from and meet fellow remote workers:

My favorite cafés:

  • Kawa
  • Fabrika Dalmatinska

Co-working spaces:

  • Tershouse
  • Hub387

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The Best Time to Visit Sarajevo

Winters in Sarajevo can be long and harsh – mainly because the city is prone to smog. Also, smoking in bars and restaurants is still allowed in Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, if you are into skiing, winter might still be a fantastic time for your stay, given that there are Olympic slopes just about 30 minutes from the city center; otherwise, I would recommend spring, summer, and autumn.

A Few Words About Sarajevo's Past

Sarajevo, just below under the clouds

Most people know Sarajevo for three things: World War I started here, the 1984 Olympic winter games happened around the city, and then there was another war recently.

Visiting Sarajevo, you will soon see that the city has moved on from its past: it's lively, modern, and vibrant. And its inhabitants appreciate when visitors are curious about the different cultures and traditions Sarajevo offers – and not only about the recent past.

Of course, you can (and should) educate yourself about the current war and the city's history nonetheless. Here are a few museums you might want to visit:

  • War Childhood Museum
  • Galerija 11/07/95
  • Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide
  • Sarajevo Tunnel

Long-Term Visa Options

Fall in Sarajevo is a particularly great time to visit

Bosnia and Herzegovina is not one of the European countries with remote worker visas. Most nationalities can stay in the country for up to 90 days visa-free, though. There might be differences for different nationalities, so always double-check the requirements before entering.

If you're moving here for work, the company who has hired you should guide you through the visa process and the documents needed for you to secure your permit. In my case, I've been able to get a yearly residence permit since I'm married to a local.

For digital nomads, I recommend having basic international health insurance to cover you in case of emergencies. As a digital nomad, Safety Wing is a great option. If you're here with on a work visa, your employer should help you with local insurance.

Fun Things to Do In and Around Sarajevo

The cable car you can take from the city to Trebević Mountain

Explore Sarajevo's Heritage

As a first-time visitor, Sarajevo might strike you as quite different from other European cities. Especially its old town is a truly special place! The Baščaršija is the meeting point of Western Europe and the Middle East – Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian heritage co-exist here side by side.

A few highlights you shouldn't miss in the old town are:

  • The "Meeting of Cultures" symbol
  • The Orthodox cathedral, Catholic church, Synagogue, and Gazi-Husrev Beg Mosque which are all located within a few hundred meters from each other
  • Seblij fountain
  • The Yellow Fortress (especially at sunset)
  • Kazandziluk (the coppersmith street)

Go Hiking in the Mountains

One of the coolest things about Sarajevo is that you can basically start hiking right from your doorstep. There are many hiking trails around the city and just a 40-minute-walk from the center, you are surrounded by nature.

The mountain ranges around Sarajevo are part of the Dinaric Alps that run throughout the country. 30 to 40 minutes outside the city, you find the Olympic mountains, that offer more great hiking trails and mountain cottages to spend the night.

For an easy trip into nature from the city, you can take the cable car to Trebević. Here, you can choose from a wide number of hiking trails to either summit the peak, stroll through the dense forests, or check out the abandoned bobsled track from the Olympics that's now covered in great graffiti and open to the public.

Try Bosnian Food

Eating out in Sarajevo is quite affordable, and you have many restaurants to choose from. The city has superb traditional restaurants, great Italian places, and fun bars and pubs to try the (in)famous rakija!

Here are some Bosnian dishes I absolutely love, and you should try:

  • Klepe (Bosnian ravioli)
  • Zeljanica (cheese and spinach pita)
  • Mućkalica (stew with different meats)
  • Uštipci (doughnut-like fried dough balls)

Explore the Herzegovina Region

The southern part of Bosnia and Herzegovina has a pleasant Mediterranean climate. I love heading there during all seasons of the year. It's especially enjoyable when it's still winter in Sarajevo when you can already enjoy the warm sun in the south.

In addition, Herzegovina boasts beautiful villages, stunning waterfalls, and fantastic wine lands. You've probably heard of it's most famous city - Mostar.

Will Sarajevo Be Your New Home Abroad?

Living here for a year and a half, Sarajevo has gone under my skin and taught me so much about tolerance, multiculturalism, and different religions living together peacefully. Plus, it has given me everything I could want in a new home country.

If you want a more relaxed lifestyle, love the outdoors, great affordable food, and are looking for a home base from where to explore the rest of the Balkans, living in Sarajevo is the perfect idea for you.

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