Mostar means 'bridge-keeper', a name that first entered the history books in 1474. In the 16th century the iconic stone Stari Most replaced the previous wooden suspension bridge, the wobbling of which had terrified traders as they gingerly crossed the fast-flowing Neretva River. The new 'old bridge' dates from a time when Mostar was booming as a key transport gateway within the powerful expanding Ottoman Empire. Some 30 esnafi (craft guilds) sprang up, including those for tanners (for whom the Tabhana was built) and goldsmiths (hence Kujundžiluk, 'gold alley').

Under Austro-Hungarian rule in the 19th century, the city's centre of gravity shifted north to Trg Musala where neo-Moorish buildings such as the City Baths and Hotel Neretva projected a grand new city image.

Before the 1990s conflict, Mostar was one of the most ethnically mixed cities in Yugoslavia, with one of the country's largest proportions of mixed marriages. Bosniak Muslims and Croats each comprised about 35% of the population, with Serbs at around 19%.

When Serb- and Montenegrin-controlled units of the Yugoslav army started bombarding Mostar in April 1992, the city's Bosniaks and Croats initially banded together. However, on 9 May 1993, a bitter conflict erupted between the former allies. A de facto front line emerged north–south along the Bulevar, with Croats to the west and Bosniaks to the east. For two years both sides swapped artillery fire and by 1995 Mostar resembled Dresden after WWII; all its bridges – including Stari Most – were destroyed, along with numerous historical buildings including all but one of its 27 Ottoman-era mosques. Around 2000 people lost their lives.

Vast international assistance efforts rebuilt almost all of the Unesco-listed old town core. However, more than two decades after the conflict, significant numbers of shattered buildings remain as ghostlike reminders. The psychological scars will take generations to heal and the city remains divided, with two bus stations and two postal systems – one Bosniak and the other Croatian. Serbs now number only 4% of the population, with Bosniaks at 44% and Croats at 48%.