The small Balkan country of Bosnia and Herzegovina had never really been on my radar as a place to visit. But while visiting Croatia, I had the opportunity to take a day trip to Mostar from Dubrovnik.
It was the photo of Stari Most, the old bridge, that originally drew me in, but there’s so much more to the city. I was surprised at how gorgeous Mostar was, the colorful culture, the history – both rich and sad – the local markets inside the city and magnificent hilly landscape outside the city.
Named after the medieval mostari (bridge keepers), Mostar, in the southwest of Bosnia, is the fifth-largest city in the country and rivals Sarajevo as Bosnia’s most-popular tourist attraction.
Just a 2.5-hour drive to transverse the 50 miles to Mostar from Dubrovnik makes it a must-do day trip. Take note that Bosnia and Herzegovina is currently not part of the European Union so make sure you have your passport if driving in from another country like Croatia.
History of Mostar
Prior to the war, Bosnia and Herzegovina was part of the former Republic of Yugoslavia. The city was a major industrial and tourist center and prospered economically during the time of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. After Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia in April 1992, the town was besieged by the Yugoslav People’s Army.
In early 1993 the Croat–Bosniak War escalated and by mid-April 1993 Mostar had become a divided city. Fighting broke out in May when both sides of the city came under intense artillery fire. The city was divided along ethnic lines and in November, the iconic medieval Stari Most bridge was destroyed.
The conflict ended with the signing of the Washington Agreement in 1994 and the Bosnian War ended with the Dayton Agreement in 1995, but not before 2,000 lives were lost.
The Bosnian War left its mark on Mostar. Abandoned buildings riddled with bullet holes and graffiti mar the city, leaving a message of the past oppression.
Best Time to Visit Mostar
As always, this is subjective to each person’s weather and tourism preferences. High season is summer, but it does get quite hot and crowded in the small historic center. Winter can get cold in Mostar, but the shoulder season months of May and October are perfect in terms of pleasant temperatures and fewer tourists in part because children are in school.
Below are the best things to do in Mostar, as well as great places to visit in the surrounding area if you have time.
What to See in Mostar
1. Old Town
Our tour bus arrived just outside the ruins of the wall in Mostar’s old town. It was a bit of a trek to get to the old town, so we followed our local guide, Fatima over an ancient stone walkway, seeing the fairytale-looking old town just off in the distance.
It was very hot at the end of June, and I was glad to see the old town advance quickly. It was so pretty with light gray limestone buildings and colorful roofs sprawling out over the town below.
3. Stari Most
To get to the Old Town, we had to cross the Stari Most bridge Built in the 16th-century, the Ottoman-style bridge is Mostar’s most recognized landmark. Most in the Bosnian language means bridge and star means old. The bridge was a vital vein for the city’s trade, connecting the two parts of the city.
The bridge stretches almost 100 feet across the Neretva River, connecting the two sides of the city. The bridge’s pointy arch is pretty steep and can be slippery in the rain. Along the sides are handrails and bars of raised concrete underfoot to assist visitors in getting across.
The ancient arched stone bridge was commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent and designed by student Mimar Hayruddin in 1556 to replace an older wooden suspension bridge. The construction took nine years to complete and is considered one of the finest examples of Islamic architecture in the Balkans.
The jewel of Mostar, Stari Most was destroyed when it was bombed by the Croats on November 9, 1993, during the tragic Bosnian War. The Old Bridge was attacked as a way to hurt the town’s movement to and from each side of the river. The bridge withstood more than sixty shells before it eventually collapsed into the river below.
Thanks to the United Nations, The World Bank, UNESCO and several European countries including Croatia, Turkey, Italy, and the Netherlands, the bridge was rebuilt in 2004 by hand using the original traditional method, and incorporating the bridge’s original old stones fished out of the river by Hungarian army divers. It was restored to its former glory and is easily the most Instagrammable place in Mostar.
3. Old Bridge Museum
To learn more about the history of the iconic bridge, we walked over the bridge and stopped at the Old Bridge Museum, just steps before Old Town.
Housed in a building on the right side of the bridge’s tower, the museum houses a War Photo Exhibition and a dramatic video that shows the actual bombing as it occurred and was caught on film, including the collapse of the structure, the demolition, and the reconstruction process. The video is emotional, but I highly recommend it. The rebuilding of the old bridge demonstrates the resiliency, passion, and tenacity of the Bosnian people to lift themselves back up after enduring terrible devastation.
In 2005 the bridge was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, attracting thousands of tourists to Mostar every year.
4. Kujundžiluk Čaršija
The old bazaar (čaršija) in the Kujundžiluk heart of Mostar is not to be missed. Narrow cobblestone footpaths crisscross the markets on both sides of the bridge retaining the same Ottoman vibe it’s had for centuries. Lining the street are stalls selling vibrantly-colored textile and pashminas, Turkish rugs, embroidered tablecloths, copper items, Aladdin lamps, and handicrafts. The stalls are next to and/or beneath traditional Ottoman houses, restaurants, and small inns.
The merchants were friendly but not pushy at all. No one hawking at you to come into their establishment as you find in a lot of other countries. I bought a pair of handmade silver earrings.
5. Koski Mehmed Paša Mosque
Built in 1618, Koski Mehmed Paša Mosque is small and unpretentious but still attractive in large part due to its picturesque position on the bank of the turquoise Neretva River. It’s the only mosque in Mostar where the original paint and décor has been preserved. Visitors can enter the mosque for a small fee, and photos of the lovely interior are permitted.
Like Stari Most, the mosque suffered extensive damage to its minaret and roof dome during the Bosnian war and had to be rebuilt.
The mosque is the site to get the best photos of Mostar. You can either climb the 89 narrow, winding minaret stairs (the stairwell is very crowded and the balcony at the top is tiny, so it’s not for the claustrophobic) for a 360-degree aerial view of the river, bridge, and old town, or go around back to the garden and walled courtyard for an equally impressive view.
6. Neretva River
The beautiful blue-green Neretva River flows through the city center, in effect cutting it into two pieces with Old Town on one side and the countryside on the other. You can swim in it if you’re partial to cold water.
7. Bridge Diving
The most famous activity in Mostar is the diving spectacle off the Old Bridge. What might look like random youths to onlookers are actually trained professionals there to entertain the crowds (and collect money bets). In the past, Red Bull has sponsored diving competitions for the 78-foot drop into the icy river.
During the summer months, if you get hot you can certainly take a dip in the frigid, fast-current river beneath the bridge, but do NOT try to dive off the bridge. It’s extremely dangerous and people have died trying to imitate the expert divers. For those adrenaline junkies who still insist, there are people who will give hands-on “instruction” but I hope your travel injury insurance is up-to-date.
8. Street Food
Bosnian food is a mixture of Middle Eastern, Balkan, and traditional Yugoslavian influences, mostly featuring spicy grilled meats such as lamb, beef, sausage, and chicken. Cevapi is grilled meat or sausage served with raw onions in thick, folded pita bread. Pljescavice are mincemeat patties. Klepe is ravioli pasta filled with meat and served with a creamy garlic sauce, similar to pierogi (Poland) and varenyky (Ukraine).
And don’t forget the Baklava, my favorite dessert ever…the stickier and sweeter the better!
9. Bosnian Coffee
I loved the Bosnian coffee! Somewhat similar to Turkish coffee, it’s a thick, strong, aromatic coffee served with Turkish or Croatian sweets and cubed sugar which you are supposed to bite then drink the coffee. Bosnians are very proud of their “stop everything” to have a coffee break and conversation, similar to the Swedish fika tradition.
Some places to find good Bosnian coffee are Café de Alma, Stari Grad Café, and Koski Basta Caffe.
10. Muslibegović House
Once the residence of the noble Muslibegović family, the fine Ottoman architecture is now a protected national monument, luxury hotel, and museum. The hotel has been named one of the world’s Top Ten hotels, with interior décor displaying beautiful Ottoman rugs and fine wooden furnishings, and a lush courtyard outside. In the museum, you can find exhibits of books, manuscripts, and handicrafts.
In Mostar, you might feel more like you are in Istanbul rather than central Europe. 400 years ago the Ottoman Empire ruled and thus influenced the culture; it has endured the test of time, passing down from one generation to the next. Food, religion, and lifestyle have retained the eastern European feel, while subtly changing during each age to reflect the current period.
If you have more time to spend in Bosnia and Herzegovina, head to one or more of these places!
The first stop on our day trip to Mostar from Dubrovnik was Medjugorje, 16 miles southwest of Mostar and close to the border of Croatia. Medjugorje is Bosnia and Herzegovina’s unofficial Catholic pilgrimage site.
According to Catholic tradition, in 1981, the Virgin Mary allegedly appeared to six local children on Apparition Hill where the “Queen of Peace” statue marks the site of the apparition.
There really wasn’t much to do or see in the tiny village after seeing the church and walking around the minuscule town square. I did find a tiny boutique where I fell in love with a red and white striped dress which I bought for around $8 USD.
Right before getting to Mostar, our tour stopped in the village of Pocitelj, a picturesque walled medieval village resting on the bank of the Neretva River. Established in 1383 by King Stjepan Tvrtko I, ruins of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Pocitelj Castle are the main attraction here.
Sadly, Pocitelj was heavily damaged during the 1992-1996 Bosnian War by Croatian forces, destroying some great Islamic works of art and displacing the townspeople. In 1996 the World Monuments Watch named Pocitelj as one of the 100 most endangered cultural sites, and in 2000, the government of Bosnia and Herzegovina placed the site under protection.
I climbed a series of very steep stairs, with local merchants along the sides selling refreshments. The steps ascending up the landscape and at the top, I got a better shot of the castle. For those with more time (wish I’d been able to do it!) you can go inside and climb the Gavrakapetan Tower of the old fortress.
Known as the Niagara Falls of Herzegovina but mostly undiscovered by tourists, 130 miles south of Mostar are the spectacular Kravice Waterfalls. The 90-foot waterfalls cascade into a spectacular deep emerald lake. The falls are most photo-worthy in spring when the swollen falls are fierce, but it’s a great place to swim underneath the falls in the summer, or picnic and hike during the fall.
About 40 miles from Mostar, Blagaj Tekke is considered to be one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s most holy and ancient sites and certainly has to be one of the most beautiful. Constructed around 1520 by Dervish monks, the tekija (monastery) reflects a fusion of Ottoman and Mediterranean architectural styles. The site itself was the home to an ancient brotherhood of Dervishes for around 600 years.
Perhaps due to its dramatic location, tucked under a cliff overlooking the source of the vibrant Buna River, Blagaj Tekke managed to evade destruction during the Bosnian War.
You can enter the functioning monastery (proper clothing required), rent a canoe, take a boat ride into the cave, or just have lunch taking in the peaceful view.
While many people shy away from Bosnia and Herzegovina because of their memory of the heartbreaking civil war during the 1990s, Mostar’s warm and intriguing Turkish-influenced culture makes it one of the best-value, off-the-beaten-path destinations in Europe.
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