Backpacking Bosnia: the ultimate travel guide
This post is a travel guide about backpacking Bosnia. It includes all the practical things you need to know about travel in Bosnia.
Why Backpacking Bosnia?
The first time I visited Bosnia was in 2005 as a volunteer. It was a project from a dutch NGO called the Bouworde and we were rebuilding homes of the elderly that were damaged during the war.
For me, Bosnia was love at first sight with its friendly people, green hills and small villages. Since then I have returned several times. Backpacking Bosnia was always a great experience and the country has lots to offer.
You might have heard about Sarajevo and Mostar. These picturesque places are getting more popular every year for good reasons. However, there is much more to see and do in Bosnia. In general, it is still an off the beaten path destination with a lot of places that are waiting to be discovered.
Therefore backpacking Bosnia is very rewarding. The nature and mountains are spectacular with plenty of outdoor activities. The beautiful blue rivers such as the Una and the Neretva are perfect for rafting. Furthermore, the mountains offer many hiking trails through forests where wolves and bears still roam around.
As a bonus Bosnia is still one of the cheapest destinations in Europe. You will find that prices for accommodation, transport and food are low. You pay little, but get lots in return when Backpacking Bosnia.
Visas for Backpacking Bosnia
Bosnia has a long list of countries that do not need a visa. They can stay in Bosnia for 90 days in total (within 180 days). The list of visa exempt countries include the USA, Canada, China, Russia, Australia, Japan, the European Union, most of Eastern Europe and most of South America.
Others do need to get a visa at a Bosnian embassy or they can enter Bosnia for 15 days with a multiple entry Schengen visa (in this case you must enter Bosnia from a Schengen country).
How to travel to Bosnia
Travel to Bosnia by plane
Bosnia has several international airports served by budget airlines. Sarajevo (Wizz Air: Budapest), Tuzla (Wizz Air: several destinations), Mostar (Eurowings: germany) and Banja Luka (Ryan Air: several destinations).
Tuzla might be the cheapest airport to fly into Bosnia. However, the airport is quite far from the city. Depending on the time you arrive you can take the local bus (a 5 minute walk from the airport to the main road) or a taxi. The latter might be more than the cost of your flight ticket.
Travel to Bosnia overland
The first time I went to Bosnia I travelled overland from Amsterdam. First by train to Munich, then the night train to Zagreb and from Zagreb by bus to Banja Luka. This was still a time when taking the train was cheaper than flying.
This is of course no longer the case. However, flying into one of the neighbouring countries might sometimes be considerably cheaper than flying directly into Bosnia.
Bosnia is neighbours with Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro and there are good bus connections between these countries and cities in Bosnia.
Places to visit in Bosnia
There are a lot of places to visit in Bosnia. For a good introduction to the country I can recommend my one week Bosnia itinerary.
Let me start with Tuzla. A few years ago Tuzla opened up its former military airport for budget airlines. Since Wizz Air is now flying directly from Eindhoven to Tuzla this was the start of several of my trips to Bosnia.
Tuzla itself might not be on the tourist radar, but is an interesting destination as one of the most multicultural cities of Bosnia. It used to be an important center of industry as well, but is now facing difficult times.
Unemployment is high in Tuzla as many industrial factories and firms are closing down. It was in Tuzla that a series of protests and riots started against the government that soon spread throughout Bosnia in 2014.
I stayed at an Airbnb from a welcoming family that had lived in Tuzla their whole life. They explained how the economic situation was getting worse. The mother used to work in Tuzla’s only hotel but has now quit her job. She didn’t receive her salary for months, something that had never happened before, not even during the war.
When you are in Tuzla you can feel some of the decay. You wouldn’t say for example that this is the third biggest city in the country. However, its old town is scenic with the pastel coloured buildings. Tuzla is also home to Europe’s only salt lake. One day is enough to visit both.
Transport: From Tuzla there are frequent buses to Olovo (2 hours) and Sarajevo (3 hours)
On the way from Tuzla to Sarajevo you will find the small town of Olovo that sees few foreign visitors. This is a truly off the beaten path destination and there is in fact not much to do in the town itself. However, Olovo is surrounded by stunning mountains that makes it a great base for some trekking in the surrounding hills.
Olovo is in the Krivaja river valley and at the confluence of two other rivers. There are several thermal springs in the area where the waters are believed to have healing powers. The Aquaterm spa in the centre of Olovo is believed to cure rheumatism and neurological problems among others. The amazing nature and landscapes remain the main draw of Olovo though.
Some of the mountain paths are part of the via dinarica, a long distance hiking trail that is being developed to increase ecotourism in the region. It crosses the Dinaric Alps through several countries in the Balkans. National Geographic rated the via dinarica as one of the best destinations in 2017.
I really enjoyed the small hikes we did by simply following the paths up the hill where we were awarded with beautiful views on the town below. Olovo is a safe area to walk around, but it is important you stay on the paths. Sadly, mines are still a problem if you venture deep into the forests around Olovo.
Transport: from Olovo’s bus station there are several buses to Sarajevo (1 – 2 hours)
It is easy to love Sarajevo with its charming old town and surrounding hills. It’s an incredibly diverse city full of history.
The bascarsija is a journey back in the past when Bosnia was part of the Ottoman empire while the elegant Austrian-Hungarian buildings speak yet of a different time. Then there are the socialist communal flat apartments at the outskirts of the city that are a stark contrast with the hilly suburbs where it feels more like a traditional Bosnian village.
Sarajevo alone could occupy you for an entire week with its interesting museums, delicious restaurants and cosy tearooms. It is also the gateway to Sarajevo’s mountains where you can go hiking in summer or skiing in winter. Former Olympic resort towns like Jahorina and Bjelasnica are a center of winter sports. In summer you can hike to the traditional village of Lukomir.
Read more in my post about the best things to do in Sarajevo.
Transport: there are several buses to the main cities in Bosnia like Tuzla (3 hours), Konjic (1 hour), Mostar (3 hours), Jajce (4 hours) and Bihac (6-7 hours).
Konjic is midway between Sarajevo and Mostar. Even though it is a very small city, it is worth a visit. It’s beauty is defined by the deep blue Neretva river that runs through the scenic historic center. The Old stone bridge in Konjic is one of the best preserved Ottoman bridges in Bosnia.
It was here, right next to the river, but hidden from view, that Titov built a bunker deep under the ground. The bunker was meant to keep him, his family and a considerable amount of other people high up in the Yugoslavian Parliament alive for two years after a nuclear attack. It was never used and is now open for visitors through Visit Konjic.
The bunker also hosts a modern art gallery at the moment. I thought it was an interesting visit showing the remnants of a past in which nuclear attacks seemed a real possibility in some parts of the world.
Besides visiting the old town and the bunker, one can also go rafting or if you have your own transport visit Boracko lake high up in the mountains.
Transport: there are several buses per day to Sarajevo (1 hour) or Mostar (2 hours)
Any visit to Bosnia is not complete without visiting Mostar. One of the most picturesque places in Bosnia Herzegovina. The charming historic town with the view on the old bridge over the Neretva river took my breath away.
With the excellent restoration work it is easy to forget Mostar’s gruelling past. It was, however, the most heavily bombed city during the war. Most historic buildings were destroyed including the old bridge connecting the Bosnian part of town with the Croatian part of town.
Now it feels like nothing has changed since the Ottoman empire ruled the area. It’s very scenic with the cobbled stoned streets and the minarets in the background. However, this is one of the most touristic places in Bosnia. I was here at the end of September when the amount of tourists was less, but I think it must be really crowded in summer.
Transport: There are frequent buses to Sarajevo (3 hours)
Travnik is a historic town in the center of Bosnia Herzegovina. It’s main sights are an impressive fortress and some colorful Ottoman buildings. It makes for a pleasant day trip from Sarajevo or a stop on the way from Sarajevo to Jajce.
Transport: there are several buses per day to Sarajevo (2 hours), Jajce (2 hours) or Mostar (4 hours).
Jajce is famous for its scenic location and its waterfall that is right in the center of the city. Above the waterfall lies the charming old town with its ancient citadel. Other nearby attractions include picturesque Pliva lake and some traditional wooden water mills.
Transport: there are several buses per day to Sarajevo (4 hours), Travnik (2 hours) or Bihac (3 hours).
Bihac & Una National Park
One of the most beautiful areas of Bosnia is without doubt the nature around the Una river. The story goes that the Una river got its name from a Roman warrior that thought the river was so beautiful that it was the one and only (Una). I can personally say that the Una is indeed one of the most spectacular rivers in Bosnia with its deep turquoise blue and emerald green colors.
Bihac is a pleasant city that forms the gateway to Una National Park with its network of river streams, pools and waterfalls that are surrounded by lush forests with dense vegetation and limestone cliffs. The nature is pristine and wildlife includes rare animals such as lynx, bears and wolves.
Una National Park is the perfect place for outdoor activities like rafting, kayaking, swimming, mountain biking and hiking. In addition, the park also has some cultural and historical heritage with ancient citadels, monasteries and mosques.
It’s Bosnia at its best and because it is somewhat remote it receives a small number of visitors. If you are looking for a peaceful and quiet spot full of nature that is off the beaten path, Una National Park is the place to go.
Sutjeska National Park
Sutjeska National Park is Bosnia’s oldest national park full of mountains and glacial lakes. It is home to the Perucica Forest reserve, one of the two remaining primeval forests in Europe and Maglic peak, the highest mountain in Bosnia.
It was also the location of the battle of Sutjeska in the second World War in which the partisans led by Josep Tito finally defeated the Germans after one month of fighting. There is now an impressive memorial.
Things to do in Bosnia
Bosnia not only has beautiful places to visit, but also offers lots of things to do for those that love the outdoors and adventure sports.
Bosnia is full of unexplored nature and with its hills and mountains is one of the best hiking spots in Europe. The Via Dinarica Green trail runs right through Bosnia from Una National Park to Sarajevo and beyond.
Bosnia has 3 national parks. Una National Park, Kozara National Park and Sutjeska National Park. Sutjeska National Park probably offers the best hiking trails if it comes to mountain sceneries including the possibility to hike to a glacial lake at the border with Montenegro.
Also from Sarajevo there are plenty of hiking opportunities. One popular hike is the trial to Lukomir. A traditional Bosnian village high up in the mountains. Another hike from Sarajevo leads to the mountain eco lodge of Vukov Konak.
Important when hiking in Bosnia is to always stay on the trails. Mines might still be a problem in some areas. This is not to scare you. Most of it is cleared by now and if you stay on well trodden paths and trails you should be fine.
Bosnia’s rivers are great for rafting. The most beautiful rivers to go rafting are the Una in Una National Park or the Neretva river. It’s also possible to go rafting in the Tara canyon at the border with Montenegro.
Is winter too cold in Bosnia? Most people will not consider traveling to Bosnia in winter. I did once and I must say that it was even more beautiful. Snow in Sarajevo is magical and the Olympic resort towns of Bjelasnica and Jahorina are the center of winter sports.
Skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing. It is all possible. But even if you don’t plan any adventure sports, Bjelasnica and Jahorina and other places in the Bosnian mountains offer a picturesque winter wonderland.
When to travel in Bosnia
Bosnia is an all year round destination and you can go Backpacking Bosnia any time of the year. It all depends what you are looking for.
I already made a case for winter and Bosnia is a great destination for winter sports. Spring brings pleasant temperatures and good weather. As the snow melts the mountains become green and flowers start to bloom.
Summers can get very hot in Bosnia, but the mountains offer a welcome respite from the heat. This is the best time for outdoor activities such as hiking and rafting.
Temperatures go down again in autumn when the colours in the trees make this the most beautiful time to go Backpacking Bosnia.
Accommodation when backpacking Bosnia
Accomodation in Bosnia is not necessarily focused on backpackers, but is nevertheless very affordable. You might be able to find backpacker hostels in popular places like Sarajevo and Mostar. But outside of the tourist trail it’s mostly bed and breakfasts or small scale guesthomes.
On my recent trips to Bosnia I used Airbnb a lot and they have some pretty good deals. It is also a great way to meet with the local people.
What and where to eat in Bosnia
Bosnia is one of the cheapest destinations in Europe and going out for dinner is extremely affordable in Bosnia. You will have lots of opportunities to find and try the delicious Bosnian food.
If you really want to keep things cheap one of the best places to eat is a local bakery (called pekara). They specialize in Burek, which is basically filo dough with different fillings. Common varieties are with cheese (sirnica), spinach with cheese (zeljanica), butter (maslenica) and meat. They make a delicious and filling breakfast or lunch and also a good option if you are vegetarian.
Another cheap meal in Bosnia is the local version of kebab called cevapcici. It comes in a pita bread with raw onions and is a great snack for lunch or dinner. Look out for a cevabdzinica that you can find almost anywhere in Bosnia. Next to cevapcici they often have other grilled meats such as pljeskavica (balkan hamburger) or Raznjici (shashlik). Unfortunately vegetarians will have a hard time to find anything to eat in such restaurants.
Even though the above options are the cheapest it would be a pity not to try more Bosnian food. Bosnian cuisine has balkan, turkish and mediterannean influences with recipes that are the same for hundreds of years. Expect delicious stews with fresh vegetables cooked in their natural juices and hearty soups.
A so called ascinica (canteen) offers simple home made traditional Bosnian cuisine on a budget, but the quality varies a lot. For the best Bosnian food experience you should treat yourself on a visit to one of the ethnic restaurants such as Sadrvan in Mostar or Inat Kuca in Sarajevo. You can check my list of the best budget restaurants in Sarajevo.
Try for example dolma (meat in grape leaves) or muckalica (stew of meat and vegetables). Personal favourites are tarhana (tomato based soup with a local pasta), Bosanski lonac (Bosnian pot) and peksimeti (fried mini breads)
Language and culture in Bosnia
Language and culture are a bit of a complicated issue in Bosnia Herzegovina. Officially there are three languages. Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian. They are very similar to each other and people speaking any of these will understand the others. Bosnian and Croatian use the Latin alphabet whereas Serbian is in the cyrillic script.
Bosnia has always been a country where east meets west and where different cultures came together. It was once ruled by Illyrian tribes, the Romans, the Ottomans, the Austrio-Hungarians and Tito’s Yugoslavia. The country as we know it now got its independence in 1995 after a bloody civil war in which the Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs fought against each other.
In the Dayton peace agreements Bosnia became a sovereign state divided in two. The Serb populated Republika Srpska and the Croat Bosniak federation of Bosnia Herzegovina.
I highly recommend you to read some books about Bosnia’s history before you go to get a better understanding of the current situation. Some good books are Bosnia: a short history by Noel Malcolm or the fall of Yugoslavia by Misha Glenny.
How to travel in Bosnia
backpacking Bosnia by bus
If you are using public transport, buses are the best way to explore Bosnia. Travelling between the major cities is easier than the information online may suggest. Finding up to date schedules isn’t very straightforward. There are different private companies and not all of them publish their schedules on the internet.
That said, there should be at least one bus per day or more between the bigger towns. You can buy tickets at the bus station. In most cases you can buy tickets on the same day, but popular routes do get fully booked. Going to the bus station the day before you want to travel to check the latest timetable and to buy your ticket isn’t a bad idea.
It’s not complete, but through Autobusni Kolodvor, ticket4me and getbybus it is possible to check some timetables and even buy some tickets online beforehand. Some reliable agencies are Autoprevoz and Centotrans.
Do keep in mind that there are less bus connections on the weekends and between Republika Srpska and the federation of Bosnia Herzegovina. Options to travel in between these two entities is limited.
Backpacking bosnia by train
Bosnia’s train infrastructure was badly affected by the civil war. For a long time trains had a reputation for being slow, uncomfortable and full of chain smoking locals.
In recent years Bosnia has invested in its rail network though. Plans to reopen certain domestic and international routes are promising. Check the Bosnian railways for up to date schedules. You can buy tickets at the railway station.
One noteworthy train journey is the Sarajevo to Mostar train that competes with the Belgrade to Bar train for being the most beautiful train journey in Europe.
Since 2017, Bosnia uses new Talgo trains for this daily journey making it a convenient 2 hour trip by train. This is probably the only route where the train is now actually faster than the bus.
Backpacking Bosnia by car
If you want to visit Bosnia off the beaten path, it’s probably best to have your own car. Renting a car in Bosnia is incredibly cheap and gives you a lot of flexibility to include places like Una and Sutjeska National Park and to make day trips to Bosnia’s incredible nature from the main cities.
For example, having a car makes it possible to visit Bjelasnica and Jahorina from Sarajevo, Pocitelj from Mostar or Boracko lake from Konjic. These are just a few of the exciting places to see in Bosnia.
Useful Apps for backpacking Bosnia
mojTaxi or TaxiBiH
Although the younger generation do speak english, the older generation is less fluent. Google Translate will be useful in this case.
Money matters for Backpacking Bosnia
Bosnia has its own currency, the convertible mark (KM or BAM). Originally it was linked to the German Mark, nowadays the exchange rate is around 1 Mark for 2 Euro. In touristic places they might also accept Euro’s, but this is not always the case.
There are plenty of ATM’s in the bigger cities where you can get Bosnian Marks. If you plan to go to the countryside for a longer period you may want to bring enough marks with you.
Costs of travel in Bosnia
Bosnia is one of the cheapest countries in Europe to travel in. Prices for accommodation, food and transport are all relatively low.
Accommodation: around 10 Euro for a bed in a dormitory and around 20 Euro for a budget private double room and 30 Euro for a midrange private double room.
Food: less than 5 Euro if you stick to fast food cevapcici and burek, around 10 Euro if you go to a midrange restaurant
Transport: 5 Euro for the bus from Sarajevo to Mostar (3 hrs) up to 23 Euro for the bus from Sarajevo to Bihac (7 hrs).
Tours: tours will be your biggest expense if you opt for them. They might be necessary if you don’t have your own transport or you have limited time and wish to visit some off the beaten path places like Una National Park, Sutjeska National Park or Pocitelj. You might also be interested in hiking tours or rafting tours.
Tour prices differ. One reliable agency is Green Visions where rafting tours are available from 40 Euro onwards and a day hike tour from Sarajevo to Lukomir for 50 Euro.
Safety when backpacking Bosnia?
Despite its turbulent past, Bosnia is now a very safe country to travel in. Crime rates are very low and you can easily avoid becoming the victim of pickpocketing by taking the usual precautions.
The main concerns in Bosnia have to do with road safety and land mines. Although road infrastructure is improving, some roads are pretty bad, especially if you go off the beaten path. Locals drive pretty fast as well.
Land mines are still a big problem in Bosnia. The highly populated areas are cleared, but in the countryside and some of the remote mountain ranges you will still find minefields. Sometimes there are warning signs next to the road, but this is not always the case.
Still, it is unlikely you will become a victim unless you really want to do some hiking in unexplored areas where very few people go. Use your common sense and stay on well established hiking trails or use a guide who knows the area.
Solo female travel in Bosnia
Bosnia is also very safe for solo female travellers. From my own experience I have felt perfectly safe walking through cities like Sarajevo, Mostar or Tuzla on my own. People are very friendly and when traveling by bus people sometimes asked where I was from.
The major religion in the Federation of Bosnia Herzegovina is islam. Dressing modestly is appreciated, but because of the multicultural nature of the country it is not as important as in other muslim countries in the region.
It might be useful to have a scarf with you if you wish to visit religious places, but in most cases these will be available on site as well, like in the Blagaj monastery near Mostar.
Resources about Backpacking Bosnia
Kami and the rest of the world: One of my favourite blogs about Eastern Europe. Kami has visited Bosnia several times and has some interesting posts about the country with useful tips.
Kathmandu and Beyond: The couple from Kathmandu and beyond have travelled extensively in the Balkans including Bosnia Herzegovina. They have some great posts on Bosnia with some off the beaten path places and unusual things to do.
Bradt guide Bosnia: The best travel guide about Bosnia is the Bradt guide that is very strong on background information.
Bradt Guide Via Dinarica: The Bradt Guide also has a travel guide on the Via Dinarica for those who want to hike the White trail through Bosnia.
Lonely Planet Western Balkans: The Lonely Planet does not have a guide for Bosnia in particular, but their guide on the western Balkans has a useful chapter about the country.
Black lamb and grey falcon by Rebecca West: This travel book is the account of Rebecca’s West journey through Yugoslavia in 1937. It is rich in history and ethnography about the region.
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