Should you visit Banja Luka?

Should you visit Banja Luka?

Banja Luka first came to my attention when I looked into visiting Bosnia and Herzagovia (my final Balkan country). Initially I only considered visiting Sarajevo the capital and the picturesque Mostar 2.5 hours south by train. However, as I’m based in the northwest of England, flying to Sarajevo was very difficult with no direct or connecting flights, and Mostar no longer has a commercial airport. 

But Banja Luka, the second largest city in Bosnia and Herzagovia (after Sarajevo), is well connected by the budget airlines RyanAir and WizzAir, offering low cost flights from European cities, predominantly in Germany and Sweden. So, after scoring a £6 flight to Brussels Charleroi Airport and a £20 connecting flight to Banja Luka, I set off. 

Arriving in Banja Luka

I landed at the small airport, which I’ve read described as looking “like a gas station in the middle of nowhere”. This is a pretty good assessment, however there are some amenities, including an ATM and a small kiosk to buy a mobile SIM card. The currency is the Convertible Mark (KM) which isn’t available in the UK, so I was thankful for the ATM. Most places also take euro (€) ‎but notes only. Just remember than 2KM is 1€ and you will need cash. Most places won’t take cards. 

Banja Luka Airport
Banja Luka Airport

I opted not to get a taxi from Banja Luka airport, which is located 25 miles north of the centre as I feared being ripped off. But if you do – remind the driver to put on the meter. Instead I took the Smiljić Travels bus which only runs when the flights do. Parked outside and bright green, you won’t miss it. Cost was 5€ or 10KM. When you get off in the centre the same bus stop has the return timetable coinciding with the flights. On my return the bus was 20 minutes later than the advertised time. Yes I panicked…. but all turned out fine.

Alternatively you can arrive by bus from other cities, such as Sarajevo which is 5 to 6 hours away. The bus goes to the station on the outskirts of Banja Luka but I wouldn’t call its distance to the city centre walkable, especially with luggage. So you’d either have to get a taxi or take a local bus – Lines 6, 8 and 10 run from the bus station to the centre.

There’s loads of accommodation in Banja Luka, from 4* hotels at £60 a night to apartments for £18. It really is a budget friendly destination. I went with an apartment for £18 a night and a 15 minute walk from the centre. 

Now you’ve made it cheaply to Banja Luka, what is there to do? 

Familiarise yourself with the history of the area. I’m no expert on the Bosnian War which occurred in the early 90s but I tried to learn as much as I could. Banja Luka is in the Republika Srpska which stands for Bosnian Serb Republic. Even today the predominant language is Serbian and not Bosnian. This area was created at the start of the war in 1992 to be a place for Bosnian Serbs, which meant the removal of Croats and Bosniaks (Bosnian muslims). 

First stop in learning about the history – the Museum of Republika Sprska

While this museum doesn’t touch on anything after the 1960s, it covers the medieval period and native animals in the region.

Museum of Republika Sprska
Museum of Republika Sprska

There’s also a haunting exhibition upstairs on the Ustaše, a fascist group in Croatia at the time of the Nazis, who massacred many Serbs, Jews and Romas. In the UK we were taught about Nazis Germany and the Holocaust but I wasn’t aware of what was going on in other parts of Europe, like the Balkans, so it was quite an eye opener.


Ferhat Pasha Mosque

In the 16th century the Ottomans built Ferhat Pasha Mosque, also known as Ferhadija Mosque. During the Bosnian War, in 1993, it was demolished as part of the expulsion of the Bosniaks from the area. Even in 2001 when permission was granted to rebuild it, fighting occurred and it remained a contentious issue with disputes over who would pay for it (estimated to be close to $8 million to accurately rebuild it to how it was before). 

Finally in 2006 rebuilding began and it opened in 2016. Wikipedia says that approximately 136,000 of the 496,000 Bosniak refugees have now returned to Srpska.

Ferhat Pasha Mosque
Ferhat Pasha Mosque

Unfortunately the mosque was closed on the two occasions I passed by and on the third, a large tour group blocked my entry. 

The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

Staying on the religious theme is the very impressive Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which also had to be rebuilt in 2004. 

Initially built in 1929, during WW2 a German bomber hit it, causing significant damage. Then, the Ustaše ordered it to be fully destroyed “brick by brick”. It wasn’t until during the Bosnian War that permission to rebuild was granted and reconstruction began in 1993. Today over 90% of Banja Luka residents identify as Serbian Orthodox.

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour
Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

Kastel Fortress

Now for something that’s actually original – Kastel Fortress. It sits on the Vrbas river bank and dates back to before the Romans. While some parts have been restored, many of the original walls remain. Banja Luka was always a target for conquerors as it laid on the Roman’s salt road, with this fortress protecting the route. Today it’s a relaxing area, with benches and open grass spaces to sit. 

Kastel Fortress
Kastel Fortress

Inside is the restaurant Kazamat, formally an old prison, with views over the river Vrbas. If you visit, remember to order the traditional dish of the area – Banja Luka Ćevapi, minced lamb and beef in bread called somun, served with chips and onions. As with all Balkan countries, be prepared for everything to be covered in salt. The regional wine is dangerously drinkable, and you must try the Banja Luka beer called Nektar, available almost everywhere. If you wish to try more local beers then visit the Master Craft Brewery, on the other side of the river to the fortress. 

Restaurant Kazamat
Restaurant Kazamat – local wine and Ćevapi

Museum of Contemporary Art

Located by the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour is the museum of contemporary art. It’s open from 08:00 to 22:00 everyday and is free to enter. It has changing art exhibitions and while it’s small, it does showcase Serbian artists you’ve probably not seen before. 

Jova bar next door was recommended for food but I found it closed on a Sunday. Many restaurants are closed on Sunday. 

Museum of contemporary art
Museum of contemporary art

City market “Tržnica”

If, like me, you opt for an apartment over a hotel or are staying for a long time, you might want to visit the city market to buy fruit and vegetables, along with meat and fish to cook for yourself. 

Those lucky to time their visit during the country’s berry season (July to the end of September) will be able to cheaply pick up fresh plums, pears, cherries and strawberries. 

Safikada’s Tomb

Opposite Kastel Fortress on Patrijarha Makarija Sokolovica is Safikada’s tomb. Banja Luka has their own version of Romeo and Juliette. The beautiful Safikada of Banja Luka fell in love with an Austro-Hungarian solider, which was forbidden by her parents. He went off to fight leaving poor Safikada alone. When she found out he died on the battlefield she put on her wedding dress and stood in front of the cannon that was shot everyday at noon. Her last words were: “I will always be faithful to you.” The tomb lies where her body fell with visitors lighting a candle to remember her love story.

Safikada's tomb
Safikada’s tomb

Outside of Banja Luka

Krupa Waterfalls

Another big appeal of the Balkans is the nature. Krupa Waterfalls is a 30 minute drive south of Banja Luka’s centre. It’s a peaceful area with many hiking trails. It is best to access with a car but I have read a review mentioning it’s accessible by public transport.  

Mariastern Abbey – Trappist Monastery

North of the centre and reachable by bus number 1 is the famed home of the Trappist monks and their cheese shop. While only two monks remain, it’s still open and producing cheese. For cheese fans, it’ll totally be worth the trip. 


Banja Luka is definitely worth a couple of days. It’s fantastic to get off the beaten track and see how people live in a typical Balkan city. If you want somewhere pretty and colourful then visit Ljubljana, Slovenia or if you want a bustling capital city then go to Zagreb, Croatia as you won’t get either here. But Banja Luka has enough history and sights to explore to hold its own and I spent the whole time not hearing anyone speak English (although the majority of waiters and hospitality staff had conversational English, another plus for Banja Luka).

3 Replies to “Should you visit Banja Luka?”

  1. Really interesting. Amazing you could fly there so cheap. I would like to try the regional wines and beers 🍷 Thank you for sharing your adventure.

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