The humble city of Mostar may not be the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but it has plenty to offer the curious traveler.
The historic city is nestled between two mountains and straddles the valley’s Neretva river. Urbanization began with the Ottomans in the 15th and 16th centuries. They built a narrow bridge high over the Neretva and it was named Stari Most after the bridge keepers (mostari) who stood guard bravely.
The bridge passed the test of time, standing tall as the city passed into the hands of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It remained under their control until after World War I, when it became part of the State of Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs, and then a party of Yugoslavia.
Unfortunately, Stari Most did not withstand the Yugoslav War of the 1990s. War erupted when Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia. The ensuing conflict exposed deep-rooted grievances, culminating in the Croat-Bosniak War. Mostar was under constant bombing and shelling during this systemic ethnic cleansing of Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims). The persecuted fled across Stari Most to the Muslim side of the bridge and clung on for dear life. All in all, the siege lasted from 1992 to 1994. Like countless victims of the ethnic conflict, Stari Most was lost.
Much has gone into rebuilding the city of Mostar. Though many bullet-riddled walls and ruins remain, they stand proudly alongside rebuilt homes, restored mosques, and new constructions alike. As for the Old Bridge, Stari Most has been restored to its former glory. On a sunny day, you’ll find speedo-clad divers taking a brave leap from the apex of the bridge (that is, if enough euros make their way into his hand).
Though the scars of this history remain visible, it is a city that looks towards a brighter future; this not only makes it an interesting place to see, but offers a meaningful reason to pay a visit. Mostar is relatively close to the Croatian border so if you happen to be in the region, try and make your way there'; you’ll be charmed by both the people and the old town.
Mostar is rather small and makes for easy wandering but here are a few attractions you must not miss.
Old Town Bazaar
Stroll to the Muslim side of the bridge, where you’ll find the Turkish old town. Though stalls in the narrow cobblestone alleyway of today are filled with souvenirs — long-necked copper džezva and drinking sets for Turkish coffee — you can still get a sense of what the old town bustle might have been like.
Rebuilt after the war, Stari Most and the old town bazaar are a UNESCO world heritage site. Builders used original construction methods where they could .and even retrieved fallen stones from the bridge for the reconstruction. Thirty years may make it one of the youngest UNESCO attractions, but it is an important reminder that the war is part of our recent history and some wounds are still healing.
To experience the pedestrian-only bridge without a steady stream of foot traffic, you’ll have to get up rather early — but it’s totally worth it. Be sure to stroll down to the river’s edge to get a view of the bridge from below.
Visit the War Photo Exhibition
MUST SEE — There’s a small war photography museum that puts the city’s chilling history into perspective. You’ll find the entrance on the Croat side of Stari Most, up a narrow set of stairs that leads from the diver’s upwards past a quaint Turkish coffee shop. We found it by following signs.
The museum displays the work of New Zealand photojournalist Wade Goddard, who was on the ground in Mostar during the war. His captions explain his work in detail and provide visual testament to the city’s important history.
Explore Mostar’s Mosques
Mostar’s skyline is a unique one and that’s largely because of its mosques and minaret towers. Concentrated on the eastern bank of the Neretva River, many were rebuilt after the war and remain open to visitors. For a different view of Mostar, climb up the tower of the Kosko Mehmet-Pasha Mosque, which dates back to the 1600s. The courtyard and complex is also worthy of admiration.
Watch a ‘Pro’ Diver
There’s a local dive club located at the foot of the bridge and if you’re lucky, you might see a dive club member make the daring jump into the chilly Neretva below. This happens most commonly during the summertime and peak tourist season, when divers can earn a little cash for their bravado. Those of you who follow the RedBull cliff diving circuit may already be familiar with this unique diving venue.
Dip Your Toes in the Neretva
While you may not wish to dive from Stari Most, you can still cool down with a dip in the river. Be advised that the water is cold and the current is strong — needless to say there is some inherent risk involved.
Drink Bosnian Coffee
Bosnian/Turkish coffee is the best way to start a day in Mostar. It is a strong and flavourful brewed coffee that is traditionally made in a copper pot called a džezva. The coffee packs a punch so don’t complain about the tiny cups. There are many coffee shops along the bazaar and riverside that serve Bosnian/Turkish coffee and many come with a square of Turkish delight. Enjoying a cup is ingrained in the local culture so it’s probably wise to take party in the tradition.
Snack on Burek
This flaky Bosnian pastry comes filled with cheese, spinach, or meat and it is DELICIOUS. Find a local bakery and get a filling pastry for 7 Bosnian marks or less (1 euro). Any bakery will do but the more locals entering the shop, the better.
Get a Local Perspective at Vila Zahumka
When we stayed in Mostar, we were lucky to find Vila Zahumka and its welcoming owner Dado. Located in a quiet neighbourhood within walking distance from the Old Town, Vila Zahumka was much more than a pleasant place to stay. It offered a meaningful window into the city’s history.
The recently refurbished Vila Zahumka stands proudly beside its twin, which belongs to another owner and has not been restored since the war. The difference is striking. Chatting with Dado, we learned that Dado’s parents had been forced out of their home in the middle of breakfast. Just a child at the time, Dado spent 3 years in a Croatian camp before moving to Denmark. The process to get the house back has been a long and difficult road, and the restoration extensive.
Dado finally reopened the doors of Vila Zahumka this year. Much thought and care has gone into every detail of the accommodation. There, you’ll also a comfortable stay and a genuine dose of Bosnian hospitality.
Read our impressions on Mostar: