Bosnia’s Rich Coffee Culture Tradition
Written by Jennifer Walker
With Qatar Airways launching flights to Sarajevo on November 2, Eastern Europe-based travel writer Jennifer Walker takes us on a caffeinated tour to one of her favourite cities in Europe.
More than just a beverage, coffee in Bosnia comes served with its own distinct culture. From the handcrafted copper coffee sets made in the backstreets of Bašcarija to its ritualistic preparation, Bosnian coffee captures the true spirit of this Balkan country.
“Coffee is life in Bosnia,” my host Micky says as he places a tabla (copper tray) down on the table. The aroma wafts out of a copper-plated dzezva, a pot accented by a long, thin handle used for pouring. He carefully spoons out the froth before serving the remaining coffee into the two fildzan, small ceramic cups kept warm by a copper holder.
“Bosnian coffee must have the froth,” he says. “Otherwise it’s bad coffee.”
He instructs me to take a sip of cold water first, before offering me a sugar cube from an ornate copper bowl called a šecerluk – the final piece of the handcrafted kahveni takum (coffee set).
“Take a bite, let it dissolve under your tongue, and then take a sip of coffee,” he instructs me, telling me it’s the ‘Bosnian way’. “It looks like Turkish coffee,” I comment.
He corrects me. “This is Bosanska kafa, Bosnian coffee. It’s similar, but different. It’s ours. It’s the blood of our culture. Everything happens over coffee in Bosnia. People fall in love over coffee, they make friends over coffee, and they seal business deals over coffee.”
The multilayered complexity of Bosnia’s coffee culture lies in its ritualistic nature, where even the Bosnian language is peppered with rich vocabulary associated with coffee drinking. Razgalica is the first coffee you’ll drink upon waking up, razgovoruša is your afternoon coffee, šutkuša is drunk in the early evening, docekuša is drunk while entertaining guests, and sikteruša is a coffee drunk upon farewell – and the words don’t stop there.
Coffee made its way from the Arabian Peninsula via Istanbul and came to Bosnia and Herzegovina with the Ottomans, who ruled the country from the 15th to the late 19th century. While there are similarities between Turkish coffee and Bosnian coffee, there are differences, and as subtle as they are – never call it Turkish coffee!
Unlike Turkish coffee, which is poured in the kitchen and served alone already in the coffee cup, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the entire ensemble comes out with great fanfare, laid out on the tabla. The copper pot keeps the coffee warm for multiple helpings, and the serving ritual itself takes place at the table.
Another distinction lies in the actual preparation. The Turkish method adds the coffee and the sugar into the water before setting the dzezva down on the stove and bringing it to the boil. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, only the water is heated to boiling point, after which the dzezva is taken off the heat, and then the coffee, but no sugar, is added and warmed up for a few more seconds to allow the coffee to brew and the thick foam to bubble up. The difference between the two coffees might seem negligible, but the very ritual of coffee preparation is a core part of Bosnian culture.
The Bosnian coffee tradition doesn’t just begin in the dzezva though – the actual coffee grounds are as important as the preparation itself.
Walking along Saraci and turning into a small side street running near the Gazi Husrev-Beg Mosque, the aroma of freshly ground coffee wafts in the air.
Coffee bean purveyor Dzemkof Minas Kafa has remained unchanged for decades. Vintage photographs of Sarajevo line its printed walls, and large stashes of coffee beans lie scattered around the shop.
“Our beans come from Brazil,” the owner tells me. “We buy them raw, and we roast them here. You buy the beans whole and grind them at home, but we can grind the coffee for you. It’s important to get the texture right: it needs to be a very fine powder, almost like flour.”
He runs the beans through a grinder, pulverising them before pouring the contents into a paper bag.
“It’s best consumed fresh,” he says. The aroma from the bag captures a smoky feel accented with a distinct nuttiness.
To immerse yourself in the Bosnian coffee tradition, explore the backstreets around ‘Coppersmith’s Alley’, Kazandziluk, where hammers knock away in the workshops, shaping sheets of copper into elaborate coffee sets, grinders, and other crafted goods.
Index café(Kazandziluk, 31) has been renovated from its retro shabby look to a more traditional folk style. However, it’s still a favourite hotspot for the local coppersmiths and fans of authentic Bosnian coffee.
For a more relaxing Bosnian coffee experience, head up the side street to Dibek (Luledina 3). This hidden café lined with silk wallpaper is popular with young Bosnians who recline in the cushioned booths sipping coffee between puffs from a nargila pipe, another popular local pastime. In the summer, you can relax in the carpeted courtyard.
You can also enjoy a Bosnian coffee in the beautiful historical courtyard at Kuca Sevdaha (Halaci 5), which houses a museum dedicated to 20th-century musicians from Bosnia’s sevdah folk music tradition. You’ll also find other local specialities, like rose water, juniper sherbet, and local sweets similar to Turkish delight.
More than just another cup of coffee, Bosnian coffee embraces the country’s cultural history and hospitality. Live life like a Sarajevan – slow down and really smell the coffee.
Strolling the Bašcarija neighbourhood
In the heart of Sarajevo’s Old Town, Bašcarija sprang up as a trading quarter under the Ottomans in the 15th century. Strolling round its narrow streets, the city’s trading history reveals itself in the workshops of Kazandziluk and under the domes of the historic Bezistan covered markets. At its heart, locals meet up in front of the Sebilj, a 19th-century fountain at the centre of ‘Pigeon Square’, nicknamed for its feathery residents. It is said that by drinking from its tap, you’ll return to Sarajevo again and again.
As Sarajevo grows in popularity, a number of luxury, boutique, and cultural hotels have popped up around the city.
City Boutique Hotel
Situated at the centre of Sarajevo’s Old Town, this compact hotel is a stone’s throw from all the major sights. Its roof terrace provides sweeping panoramas across central Sarajevo, and with only 19 modern, comfortable, and elegant rooms, the staff here pay special attention to each guest. There is a healthy and filling breakfast on offer, and the hotel further promotes a healthy atmosphere by not permitting drinking or smoking on the premises.
Mula Mustafe Bašeskije 2, +387 33 566 850
Isa Begov Hamam Hotel
A fairly recent addition to Sarajevo’s hotel world, this hotel set in a historic building with handmade carpets and Ottoman motifs succeeds in capturing the spirit of the city’s Old Town. While the full Turkish breakfast offered to guests, including halal options, is a plus, the hotel’s greatest attraction is its beautiful hammam, which was the first in the city. Located just across the river from the Bašcarija neighbourhood, the hotel is within walking distance of most of the city’s sights and restaurants.
Bistrik 1, +387 33 570 050,
Founded in 1882, Hotel Europe has become an institution in the Bosnian capital. Its central location along with the hotel’s 130 years of tradition combine the best Sarajevo has to offer. The hotel mixes up cutting-edge modern design with its original Habsburg features, and you’ll find all the amenities you’d expect in a five-star hotel. Vladislava Skarica 5, +387 33 580 400
Gazi Husrev-begov Bezistan
Between Fehadija and Saraci,, where Sarajevo seems to melt from Vienna into Istanbul, you’ll find the historic Gazi Husrev-begov bezistan. This covered bazaar built by the Ottomans in the 16th century is still in use today and is a great place to pick up gifts, from jewellery and scarves to technical items, books, and even antiques. Haggling is a fun way to interact with the locals.
+387 33 532 144
The Bosnian family I stayed with promised that Dzenita was one of the best places in town for traditional Bosnian food. The interior is simple, but the food here is lovingly homemade, especially the barley-veal soup, a hearty local dish. Prote Bakovica 10, +387 33 236 248, 8am–midnight daily
This small café is a cabinet of curiosities filled with a collection of vintage artefacts. Zlatna Ribica, meaning ‘Goldfish’, is truly unique. It’s a wonderful place to people-watch over a cup of coffee or talk to locals, and is a popular spot for artists and creatives. Its inclusive atmosphere makes it easy to strike up a conversation. Kapitol 5, +387 33 836 348, 8am–2am daily
Located in the city suburbs, Pionirska dolina (Pioneer Valley) is home to the oldest zoo in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Today, Sarajevo Zoo houses over 50 species of animal, and you’ll also find various activities like electric cars, playgrounds, merry-go-rounds, and trains to keep the children occupied, as well as beautiful walks if you’re looking for something set more in nature.
8am–8pm daily, Patriotske lige 58, +387 33 560 567
Zetra Olympic Complex
In 1984, Sarajevo held the Winter Olympics, and today the complex is one of the city’s biggest sport and culture complexes. In summer, the complex is home to ZOILAND, a recreational area offering a fun park, playground, and other recreational activities. Alipašina b.b., +387 33 212 035
This amusement park in the centrally located Sarajevo City Center (the largest shopping centre in the city) spreads out over an area of 4,000sqm. You’ll find children’s play areas, bowling, billiards, play houses, ball pits, and simulator games, among other attractions for children. The facility is not only fun for the children, but its attentive staff also make sure your children are under constant supervision.
Fra Anela Zvizdovica 1, +387 33 733 090
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Distance: 3,614 km
Flight Time: 5 hours, 25 minutes
Frequency: 3 flights a week