Bulgaria’s capital city Sofia is a growing destination for tourists looking to discover the Balkan peninsula and enjoy a laid-back culture and friendly country.
I went to Sofia for the first time with three friends on a short trip to Bulgaria. The country is only one border away from me, yet it took me almost four years to make time for the journey. Now that I know (although I never doubted it) how awesome it is, I will not wait another four years to go back!
Cities in the Balkans are the perfect size for a little getaway. Although they all have a rich history, dynamic culture and are always buzzing with all sorts of activities, you can enjoy them thoroughly in just a few days. That’s the case in Belgrade, Serbia’s vibrant capital city. Similarly, there is so much to do in Sofia but for those of us with a limited amount of time (and money), here is how to make the most of a long weekend.
Introduction to Sofia: where, when, how
Sofia is the capital city of Bulgaria, a Balkan country of seven million with a long history dating back to the first ages of humanity in Europe. The country’s language is Bulgarian, written in the Cyrillic alphabet. Its currency is the Lev (which means lion, an animal Bulgaria is very fond of). The country is also a member of the European Union since 2007.
The best time to get there is between May and October, to avoid cold winter and rainy spring. Sofia’s airport has seen a big increase in its traffic in the past years so definitely check out the possibilities of flying there directly.
The public transportation system in Sofia works pretty well despite the buses and some trams and trolleys looking quite old. It gives it some charm! Some of the trams actually reminded me of the old-fashion lines in Milan. Don’t look at it as old, but as vintage. You can buy a single-journey ticket at the kiosk near the station or get a one-day or a three-day pass from the ticket office at any metro station. There are also night lines, but you need to buy the ticket on the bus (4 levs, or about 2 euros for a single trip).
If you want to enjoy the nightlife and meet lots of locals, mind public holidays. For instance, don’t come between Orthodox Easter, 1st of May and 6th of May (Bulgarian Armed Forces Day) if those dates are following each other closely with lots of weekends in between (like in 2019). Chances will be that all the inhabitants will be out of town.
Something to remember: one quirk of the Bulgarians is that they nod to say “no” and shake their head to say “yes”. Here is a list of other things I found funny, cool and interesting on my first trip to Bulgaria.
Day one: Ruins, museums and sunset
I hope you like walking! A good way to discover the city is to take a free walking tour around the city centre. We did the Free Sofia Tour and had a very good experience. The guide was great and dynamic and the group not too big. The visit lasted around two hours and got us around the main points of interest in the area. If you like it don’t forget to leave a tip at the end to help the organisation keep the tours going.
I’m not a fan of guided tours and I avoid them when I’m travelling alone. But I see the point in taking one to meet fellow travellers and maybe make friends if that’s what you are looking for. And with a group, it’s a good way to see what’s around without wasting time trying to decide where to go and what to see first.
If you want to wander on your own, here is a list of some of the spots you will want to hit. That will likely occupy most of your day.
Walk around the Serdika metro station. Serdika was the name of Sofia in ancient times. Walk among the ruins at the main metro station of the city, check out the Banya Bashi mosque nearby – you can enter freely, with the appropriate coverage for women, the synagogue (not free), the Orthodox church of Saint-Sunday and the Roman church of Saint George, considered the oldest building in town. There is an indoor market by the mosque in which you can buy some food if you’re feeling hungry and also some artists selling their work outside between the metro and the mosque.
Behind the mosque is the City Museum of Sofia, a beautiful building that used to host public Turkish baths. It was renovated and transformed not long ago into a museum. On the left of the building, you will find fountains with thermal water. People say they can cure anything. You will see lots of locals coming to fill in their bottles with this “magical” water. Feel free to take some, fill in your reusable bottles for the road or just drink directly at the faucet.
If you need a coffee fix, the Фабрика ДЪГА / Rainbow Factory is nearby. I haven’t visited the place myself but I have seen it being recommended by locals as one of the places where you can get good coffee in Sofia. And that’s not easy.
If it’s time for you to grab a bite, you’ll find lots of places in the area, especially in Basho Kiro street.
Get to the National gallery of art and to the Russian church. It’s a beautiful, small church and as the story goes, you can go inside and make a wish to the (dead) priest Serafin who will take your words to heaven so your wish might come true.
The basilica Saint Sofia, from which the city has gotten its name, is just a few hundreds of metres further. Time for a little game: look for the bell outside. I won’t tell you where it is, but look up! And please, do not try to ring it, it’s disrespectful and you might hurt yourself.
Now is the time for the big finish: make sure you get to the Cathedral of Saint Aleksandar Nevski at sunset. It’s one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen in a city. The building itself is nice to look at and gigantic. It used to be the biggest Orthodox church in Europe but is now second to Saint Sava in Belgrade.
Behind it is the university and the Garden of the library Saint Cyril and Methodius. There are lots of bars and restaurants in the area. The nightlife is very student-oriented if that’s your scene. For craft beers, Vitamine B has a great offer, including an “Animal” locally brewed beer supporting Animal Rescue Sofia. I had a Divo Pivo, another local beer and enjoyed it a lot. You will find live music at Dada Cultural Bar.
Day two: Sredets, the hipster “five corners”
Bulgarian pace of life is slow. As in other Balkan country, people like to idle and enjoy doing nothing with friends in cafés and parks. For your second day in Sofia, bathe in the sun and relax while people-looking. The best place for that is what locals refer to as “the small five corners”, or as Google Map will show it, the Sredets neighbourhood. The “five corners” are just a small part of it where you’ll want to sit and appreciate life after exploring the rest of the district.
The neighbourhood is roughly located between the National Palace of Culture and the Palace of Justice where the Free Sofia Tour starts, the National Assembly and the popular Vitosha Boulevard.
Get your morning coffee fix at Dabov or Chucky’s, the former being my absolute favourite. You can also buy a cup to go. The cappuccino with Ethiopian beans at Dabov was amazing (very, very strong as an espresso if that’s how you like your coffee). They also have tea and I appreciate that they give you a big bottle of water to drink with your coffee. It means they know what they’re doing, unlike many cafés we sat at in Sofia. Bringing water when serving coffee is part of the Balkan coffee culture and once you’re used to it, you miss it in places where they don’t think of it.
Once you’re awake, have a nice walk around the National Palace of culture and enjoy the park. The main alley feels very artificial but in just a few steps out of the way, you’ll find more nature, an artificial waterfall and lots of playground for kids. Check out the monument and the Temple of Bulgarian martyrs.
At the north end of the park, you will find the entrance to Vitosha Boulevard, a popular pedestrian street full of cafés, restaurants and souvenir shops. Very touristy of course, although clearly a place where lots of locals hang out as well. At the other end of the street are the Palace of Justice and the area you explored on your first day.
There are many monuments and points of interest in the neighbourhood, such as the National Gallery of art, the monument to the Tsar liberator and lots of theatres. Look up for street art and interesting architecture.
Now about the “five corners”. The nickname refers to the junction of three streets: Han Krum, September 6th and Neofit Rilski. At this exact crossroad, you will find the amazing, must-visit, vegetarian restaurant and bakery Moon & Sun. We grabbed a banitsa (a Bulgarian pastry speciality similar to burek and pita) there on our last morning right before getting in the car back to Belgrade and it was a moment of pure delight. You can order to take away or sit at a table. The menu is fresh and seasonal.
If what you want are traditional meaty Bulgarian food and local beers, head out to Halbite, a restaurant and beer bar slightly hidden in this area. We enjoyed our lunch there in the little garden. There were cats. We tried lots of Bulgarian dishes, like the Tarator, a cold soup that tastes like tzatzíki and Skembe Corba, tripes soup (it was mildly tasty, warm and fatty, exactly how I wanted it). I also had mish-mash, a vegetarian omelette of sorts and one of my friend had the sirene po shopski, Bulgarian white cheese, tomatoes and egg baked in a pottery dish. And of course, they have an impressive list of local and international beers. Just make sure the waiters don’t forget half of your order… It’s not about Halbite but about Bulgaria, service is usually not great so no need to sweat on it, take it as it comes.
As for nightlife, you will find plenty of bars around. The one you need to cross off your to-do list is Hambara. The place is located at the end of a dark alley not far from Halbite. Push the door and find yourself in a small, all-wood place lit only by candles. As the story goes, the intelligentsia would gather more or less secretly there during communism. The place hasn’t changed a bit since, but the crowd is now mostly composed of tourists, although there were locals when we went there. Get one drink at the bar if you can catch the attention of the person behind. Once you’re done with this “must-do” attraction of Sofia, you can move on for the rest of the night.
We didn’t go very far though. Right next door, to be precise, at the “Sponge Bob” bar. I’m not sure why this theme, but the place is a place frequented by locals and has a total rock playlist. It is dark but not gloomy, decorated with a large banner of Sponge Bob on one wall and small bicycles hanging above the shelves. The barman/owner is amazing and very welcoming. He chatted with us, played some Bosnian rock for us and gave us tips about the city (he is the one who recommended us Dabov coffee, for instance).
Day three: relax or keep exploring!
I am pretty sure you’ll want to take it easy after last night, so why not check one of the many gigantic parks of Sofia? I really appreciated how green the city felt. I was delightful to just wander in the middle of the trees and people-watch.
The Southern Park is one possibility, easily reachable by tram or metro. Part of it feels quite wild but some areas are very fitted out with playgrounds for kids and cafés. A good place to ride a bike!
The Borisova Gradina park, the city’s oldest park located behind the stadium Vassil Levski, is another huge green space to explore. There are monuments, young people hanging out with music and beers, and if you keep going you will find the city’s TV tower. The Museum of socialist art is on the south-eastern outskirt of the park. If the weather is bad, museums are always an option.
You might also want to check out other walking tours, like the communism tour or the free food tour. If you take the Free Sofia Tour the guide can tell you more about the organisation’s other activities.
Last but not least, if you’re a street art buff, check out the Hazdhi Dimitar neighbourhood on the outskirt of the city. That’s where the Urban Creature Festival started in 2011. It doesn’t have the ancient heritage of the centre and makes therefore for a quite different experience of the city.
If you have more time in the country, there are many other cities worthy of a visit. Plovdiv, the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe, is less than two hours away and should not be missed when visiting Bulgaria. If you’d rather stay closer to Sofia, the Rila monastery is an easy day trip. And for the hikers among us, the Vitosha mountain is a paradise easily accessible from the city. It’s the mountain that is almost always visible in the background when you explore Sofia.
Let me know how was your experience!