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Cities in the Spotlight: Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina

Updated: Mar 11

Today we will be taking another trip to Europe, this time visiting Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina.


Mostar City Information

Mostar is a city and the administrative center of Herzegovina-Neretva Canton of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, an entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the historical capital of Herzegovina. Mostar is situated on the Neretva River and is the fifth-largest city in the country. Mostar was named after the bridge keepers (mostari) who guarded the Stari Most (Old Bridge) over the Neretva during the Ottoman era. The Old Bridge, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century, is one of Bosnia and Herzegovina's most visited landmarks and is considered an exemplary piece of Islamic architecture in the Balkans.


Mostar Historical Significance

Human settlements on the river Neretva, between Mount Hum and the Velež Mountain, have existed since prehistory, as witnessed by discoveries of fortified enceintes and cemeteries. Evidence of Roman occupation was discovered beneath the present town. As far as medieval Mostar goes, although the Christian basilicas of late antiquity remained in use, few historical sources were preserved and not much is known about this period. The name of Mostar was first mentioned in a document dating from 1474, taking its name from the bridge-keepers (mostari); this refers to the existence of a wooden bridge from the market on the left bank of the river which was used by traders, soldiers, and other travelers. During this time it was also the seat of a kadiluk (district with a regional judge). Since Mostar was on the trade route between the Adriatic and the mineral-rich regions of central Bosnia, the settlement began to spread to the right bank of the river.

Prior to 1474, the names of two towns appear in medieval historical sources, along with their later medieval territories and properties – the towns of Nebojša and Cimski grad. In the early 15th century the county (župa) of Večenike covered the site of the present-day Mostar along the right bank of the Neretva, including the sites of Zahum, Cim, Ilići, Raštani, and Vojno. It was at the center of this area, which in 1408 belonged to Radivojević, who built Cim Fort (prior to 1443). Mostar is indirectly referred to in a 1454 charter of King Alfonso V of Aragon as Pons ("bridge"), for a bridge had already been built there. Prior to 1444, the Nebojša Tower was built on the left bank of the Neretva, which belonged to the late medieval county still known as Večenike or Večerić. The earliest documentary reference to Mostar as a settlement dates from 3 April 1452, when Ragusans from Dubrovnik wrote to their fellow countrymen in the service of Serbian Despot Đorđe Branković to say that Vladislav Hercegović had turned against his father Stjepan and occupied the town of Blagaj and other places, including “Duo Castelli al ponte de Neretua.”.

In 1468 the region came under Ottoman rule and the urbanization of the settlement began. It was named Köprühisar, meaning fortress at the bridge, at the centre of which was a cluster of 15 houses. The town was organized into two distinct areas: čaršija, the crafts and commercial centre of the settlement, and mahala, or a residential area. The town was fortified between the years 1520 and 1566, and the wooden bridge was rebuilt in stone. In 1519 (Hijri 925) the settlement was recorded as a castle and both as Mostar and as Köprühisar and it was inhabited by Muslims and Christians. It had 4 Muslim households and 85 Christian households. The stone bridge, the Old Bridge (Stari most), was erected in 1566 on the orders of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and at 28 m (92 ft) long and 20 m (66 ft) high, quickly became a wonder in its own time. Later becoming the city's symbol, the Old Bridge was designed by Mimar Hayruddin, a student and apprentice of Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan. In the late 16th century, Köprühisar was one of the towns of the Sanjak of Herzegovina. The traveler Evliya Çelebi wrote in the 17th century that: "the bridge is like a rainbow arch soaring up to the skies, extending from one cliff to the other... I, a poor and miserable slave of Allah, have passed through 16 countries, but I have never seen such a high bridge. It is thrown from rock to rock as high as the sky."

Austria-Hungary took control over Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1878 and ruled the region until the aftermath of World War I in 1918 when it became part of the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs, and then Yugoslavia. During this period, Mostar was the main urban centre of Herzegovina. In 1881 the town became the seat of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Mostar-Duvno and in 1939, it became a part of the Banovina of Croatia. During World War II, Mostar was also an annexed city in the Nazi German fascist puppet state, the Independent State of Croatia. During the period of Austro-Hungarian rule (1878–1918), Mostar's city council cooperated with the Austro-Hungarian administration to implement sweeping reforms in city planning: broad avenues and an urban grid were imposed on the western bank of the Neretva, and significant investments were made in infrastructure, communications, and housing. City administrators like Mustafa Mujaga Komadina were central players in these transformations, which facilitated growth and linked the eastern and western banks of the city. Noteworthy examples of Austro-Hungarian architecture include the Municipality building, which was designed by the architect Josip Vancaš from Sarajevo, residential districts around the Rondo, and Gimnazija Mostar from 1902 designed by František Blažek.

After World War II, Mostar developed industries producing plastics, tobacco, bauxite, wine, aircraft, and aluminum. Several dams (Grabovica, Salakovac, Mostar) were built in the region to harness the hydroelectric power of the Neretva. The city was a major industrial and tourist center and prospered economically during the time of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Between 1948 and 1974 the industrial base was expanded with the construction of a metal-working factory, cotton textile mills, and an aluminum plant. Skilled workers, both men, and women, entered the workforce, and the social and demographic profile of the city was broadened dramatically; between 1945 and 1980, Mostar's population grew from 18,000 to 100,000. Because Mostar's eastern bank was burdened by inadequate infrastructure, the city expanded on the western bank with the construction of large residential blocks. Local architects favored an austere modernist aesthetic, prefabrication, and repetitive modules. Commercial buildings in the functionalist style appeared on the historic east side of the city as well, replacing more intimate timber constructions that had survived since Ottoman times. In the 1970s and 1980s, a healthy local economy fueled by foreign investment spurred the recognition and conservation of the city's cultural heritage. An economically sustainable plan to preserve the old town of Mostar was implemented by the municipality, which drew thousands of tourists from the Adriatic coast and invigorated the economy of the city. The results of this ten-year project earned Mostar an Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1986.

According to the 1991 census, Mostar had 127,000 inhabitants with roughly an equal number of Bosniaks (34.6%) and Croats (34%), Serbs (18.8%), and 13.6% of those who declared themselves Yugoslavs or Others. After Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia in April 1992, the town was besieged by the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA), following clashes between the JNA and Croat forces. The Croats were organized into the Croatian Defence Council (HVO) and were joined by a sizable number of Bosniaks. The JNA artillery periodically shelled neighbourhoods outside of their control from early April. On 7 June the Croatian Army (HV) launched an offensive code-named Operation Jackal, the objective of which was to relieve Mostar and break the JNA siege of Dubrovnik. The offensive was supported by the HVO, which attacked the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS) positions around Mostar. By 12 June the HVO secured the western part of the city and by 21 June the VRS was completely pushed out from the eastern part. Numerous religious buildings and most of the city's bridges were destroyed or severely damaged during the fighting. Among them was the Catholic Cathedral of Mary, Mother of the Church, the Franciscan Church and Monastery, the Bishop's Palace, and 12 out of 14 mosques in the city. After the VRS was pushed from the city, the Serbian Orthodox Žitomislić Monastery and the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity were demolished.

Throughout late 1992, tensions between Croats and Bosniaks increased in Mostar. In early 1993 the Croat–Bosniak War escalated and by mid-April 1993 Mostar had become a divided city with the western part dominated by HVO forces and the eastern part controlled by the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (ARBiH). Fighting broke out in May when both sides of the city came under intense artillery fire. The city was divided along ethnic lines, with a number of offensives taking place, resulting in a series of stalemates. The Croat–Bosniak conflict ended with the signing of the Washington Agreement in 1994, and the Bosnian War ended with the Dayton Agreement in 1995. Around 2,000 people died in Mostar during the war. Two wars (Serb forces versus Bosniak and Croatian and Croat-Bosniak war) left Mostar physically devastated and ethno-territorially divided between a Croat-majority west bank (with ca. 55,000 residents) and a Bosniak-majority Old City and east bank (with ca. 50,000 residents), with the frontline running parallel to the Neretva River. Most Serbs had fled the city.

Since the end of the wider war in 1995, great progress has been made in the reconstruction of the city of Mostar. Over 15 million dollars has been spent on restoration. A monumental project to rebuild the Old Bridge, which was destroyed during the Bosnian War, to the original design, and restore surrounding structures and historic neighbourhoods was initiated in 1999 and mostly completed by the spring of 2004. The money for this reconstruction was donated by Spain (who had a sizable contingent of peacekeeping troops stationed in the surrounding area during the conflict), the United States, Turkey, Italy, the Netherlands, and Croatia. A grand opening was held on 23 July 2004 under heavy security. In parallel, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the World Monuments Fund, with funding provided by the World Bank, undertook a five-year-long restoration and rehabilitation effort to regenerate the most significant areas of historic Mostar, particularly the urban tissue around the Old Bridge. Also in July 2004, the Stari Grad Agency was launched to operate and maintain the restored buildings, including the Old Bridge complex, and promote Mostar as a cultural and tourist destination. In July 2005, UNESCO inscribed the Old Bridge and its closest vicinity on the World Heritage List.

International reconstruction efforts also aimed at the reunification of the divided city. The February 1996 Mostar Agreement led to the adoption of the Interim Statute of the city the same month, and to a 1-year period of EU Administration of Mostar (EUAM), headed by former Bremen mayor Hans Koschnick, till early 1997. After six years of implementation, in 2003 OHR Paddy Ashdown established an "international commission for reforming Mostar", whose final report noted how the HDZ/SDA power-sharing in Mostar had entrenched division and corruption, with "rampant parallelism" in administrative structures and usurpation of power by the municipalities over the City.  A new Statute was negotiated and finally imposed in February 2004 by OHR Paddy Ashdown. In November 2010, the Constitutional Court struck down as discriminatory the electoral framework for Mostar. The Bosniak and Croat ruling parties were unable, however, to reach a new compromise. Lacking a legal basis, local elections could not take place in Mostar in 2012 and 2016, and outgoing mayor Ljubo Bešlić (HDZ BiH) remained in office as the only person authorized to allocate the city budget on an emergency basis. Almost a decade without administration led to a decline in service provision, including trash collection. In October 2019 Irma Baralija won a case against Bosnia and Herzegovina at the European Court of Human Rights for the lack of elections in Mostar. Finally, a political deal, agreed upon under international mediation in June 2020, enabled legislative amendments in July 2020 and the conduct of the vote in Mostar on 20 December 2020.


Travel to Mostar

*taken from Lonely Planet*

Mostar is the largest city in Hercegovina, with a small but thoroughly enchanting old town centre. At dusk the lights of numerous millhouse restaurants twinkle across gushing streams, narrow Kujundžiluk bustles joyously with trinket sellers, and, in between, the Balkans' most celebrated bridge forms a majestic stone arc between medieval towers. Stay into the evening to see it without the summer hordes of day trippers. Stay even longer to enjoy memorable attractions in the surrounding area and to ponder the city's darker side – beyond the cobbled lanes of the attractively restored Ottoman quarter are whole blocks of bombed-out buildings, a poignant legacy of the 1990s conflict. Between November and April most tourist facilities go into hibernation, while summer here is scorchingly hot. Spring and autumn are ideal times to visit.


Must See Sites

Stari Most; The world-famous Stari Most (meaning simply 'Old Bridge') is Mostar's indisputable visual focus. Its pale stone magnificently reflects the golden glow of sunset or the tasteful night-time floodlighting. The bridge's swooping arch was originally built between 1557 and 1566 on the orders of Suleiman the Magnificent. The current structure is a very convincing 21st-century rebuild following the bridge's 1990s bombardment during the civil war. Numerous well-positioned cafes and restaurants tempt you to sit and savour the splendidly restored scene. An engineering marvel of its age, the bridge was nonetheless pounded into the river during a deliberate Croatian artillery attack in November 1993. Depressing footage of this sad moment is shown on many a video screen in Mostar. After the war, Stari Most was painstakingly reconstructed using 16th-century building techniques and stone sourced from the original quarry. It reopened in 2004 and is now a Unesco World Heritage site famed for its bridge divers.

Kajtaz House; Hidden behind tall walls, Mostar's most interesting old house was once the harem (women's) section of a larger homestead built for a 16th-century Turkish judge. Full of original artefacts, it still belongs to descendants of the original family but is now under Unesco protection. A visit includes a very extensive personal tour. The roof was lost in wartime bombardments but otherwise the pretty half-timbered structure has survived remarkably intact, including the carved-wood ablution boxes and the pebble-floored kitchen with meat-hanging beams. Out of season, opening hours are hit-and-miss. Enquire about the semi-regular Mostarian Night from 1688 (, a dinner and show held here with characters in period costume performing folk music and dances.

Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque; Entered from a gated courtyard, this 1618 mosque (substantially rebuilt after the war) has a dome painted with botanical motifs and punctuated by coloured-glass windows. You can climb the claustrophobic minaret for sweeping town views. Access to the charming courtyard doesn't require a ticket unless you want to get close to the parapet for the river view.

Muslibegović House; Ring the bell to be ushered into this walled Ottoman courtyard house, built in the late 17th century and extended in 1871. Its main function today is as an atmospheric hotel, but several of the sitting areas are decorated with museum-like collections of artifacts and costumes.

Crooked Bridge; Built around 1558, this pint-sized bridge crosses the tiny Radobolja River amid a layered series of picturesque millhouse restaurants. The original bridge, weakened by wartime assaults, was washed away by floods on New Year's Eve 1999; it was rebuilt in 2002.

Hamam Museum; This late 16th-century bathhouse has been attractively restored with whitewashed interiors, bilingual panels explaining hammam (Turkish bath) culture, and glass cabinets displaying associated traditional accouterments. A wordless five-minute video gives a slickly sensual evocation of an imagined latter-day bathhouse experience.

Partisan Memorial Cemetary; Although this cemetery is sadly neglected and badly vandalized, fans of 20th-century socialist architecture should seek out this magnificent memorial complex, designed by leading Yugoslav-era architect Bogdan Bogdanović and completed in 1965. Paths wind up past a broken bridge, a no-longer-functioning water feature, and cosmological symbols to an almost Gaudi-esque upper section made of curved and fluted concrete, which contains the graves of 810 Mostar partisans who died fighting fascism during WWII.


Must Try Food & Drink

Ćevapi; Despite their clear Turkish provenance, Bosnian ćevapi are a source of great national pride and the country's favorite dish. These tiny, hand-rolled minced meat sausages are commonly made with ground beef - or a mix of beef mince with other meats such as pork, veal or lamb - seasoned with a mix of different spices; usually garlic, salt, black pepper, and sometimes paprika or hot red pepper flakes. After they have mellowed for a couple of hours, ćevapi are barbecued over charcoal. Traditionally, one portion of the dish consists of ten pieces of ćevapi tucked in a soft, moist, slightly grilled flatbread called lepinja or somun, and a variety of accompaniments such as kajmak, a type of clotted cream spread, roasted red pepper and eggplant relish called ajvar (especially popular in Croatia and Serbia), and raw onions.

Smokvara; Smokvara is a traditional dessert hailing from Herzegovina. It is prepared with a dark-brown dough consisting of fig pekmez—a thick syrup-like product—wheat and corn flour, sugar, oil, and water. The dough is shaped into flat disks that are then baked before they are doused in a variety of sherbet that combines pekmez, sugar, and water. Because of its sweetness, smokvara, whose name stems from the local term for figs (smokve), is best paired with strong Bosnian coffee.

Uštipci s lučnicom; This traditional Herzegovinian meal is made with delicious, oily fritters that are drizzled with homemade sour milk combined with butter and garlic. The fritters are made according to an old Herzegovinian recipe utilizing flour, eggs, milk, and salt. This dish is a key part of Herzegovinian cuisine, one that has reared many generations, and it is a symbol of the ancestors' tradition. Nowadays, it is a top-tier delicacy across Herzegovina.

Blatina; Blatina is a red grape variety that is exclusively cultivated in Herzegovina. The wines produced from Blatina are usually full-bodied, dense, and concentrated with earthy and fruity notes that are often accompanied by well-balanced minerality. Interestingly, the grape only has functional female flowers which means that it needs other grape varieties to pollute and is fairly difficult to grow. Because of this, it earned a peculiar nickname - praznobačva (empty barrel). Blatina pairs well with various meat dishes, charcuterie, and aged cheese.

Japrak; Though it probably derives its origin from Turkish and Levantine cuisine, traditional Herzegovinian japrak is an authentic dish consisting of a minced meat filling that is wrapped in blanched leaves of raštika, a local variety of leaf cabbage. The filling is usually prepared with minced beef or veal that is combined with rice, salt, and pepper. These small-sized stuffed leaves are slowly cooked for hours, occasionally alongside smoked meat. Apart from the traditional version, some varieties replace cabbage with vine leaves, add tomatoes, or season it with mint. The dish is best enjoyed when served accompanied by mashed potatoes or sour cream.

Pura s lučinicom; Pura s lučinicom is a traditional Herzegovinian dish made with corn flour that has been milled in a water mill. After it has been combined with water and cooked, it is drizzled over with a combination of homemade sour milk, butter, and garlic. Light, yet flavorful, this dish can be consumed throughout the day, either for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. It is a staple of Herzegovinian cuisine and has reared many generations of people in the area, symbolizing the tradition of ancestors' lives in the region.

Žilavka; Žilavka is the best-known white grape variety from Herzegovina. It is a light-skinned grape that produces wines with high alcohol content and bright acidity. Although it is not exclusive to the region, Žilavka is strongly associated with Herzegovina, and it is believed to be a native Herzegovinian grape. In the past, Žilavka was primarily used in blends, but it is now promoted as an excellent monovarietal wine. The wines are bright, fresh, and mineral, usually accompanied by citrus and herbal notes. They are best enjoyed young, but some producers opt for oak aging to produce more complex and heavier wines. Žilavka is best paired with lighter dishes, and it goes exceptionally well with lamb, eel, freshwater fish, and vegetable dishes. It can also pair well with seafood, cheese, and cold cuts. This white grape is also used in the production of local brandy.


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