This frisky Bulgarian capital with complicated history is probably not on the “Top 10 Places to See in Balkans” list. Guess what? We loved it there (and we’ll put it on ours!). It’s spacious, it’s vibrant it’s interesting and somehow all-embracing. As our first stop in Bulgaria and Balkans, Sofia was a perfect introduction. In this article we’re going to share with you things we did there that made our stay special. And yes, you can do them too! Here’s our take on what to do in Sofia.
1. Take a walking tour
I know we say that about many places we go to (for instance, you might recall this article), but our walking tour in Sofia was incredible! We went with Free Sofia Tour. Our guide, Dessi, who is the definition of “bubbly personality”, provided us with tons of interesting and useful information. Sofia has a lot to see, and taking an overview tour for a few hours can help you scale down what’s in there for you. Are you interested in the history of communism? Sure. Love architecture? No problem. You can get both, the highlights and the necessary recommendations.
2. Explore sacred architecture
Bulgaria’s “traditional” religion is Orthodox Christianity and there are so many wonderful Bulgarian Orthodox churches around the city. One of the most famous is St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which is a landmark of Sofia. Bulgarian Orthodox churches are different from Russian Orthodox, so they’re definitely worth a visit. Speaking of which, you can also find Russian Orthodox church of St Nikolai the Miracle-Maker. Besides that, you’ll find catholic churches, mosque, synagogue and more. Sofia’s history is tightly connected to religions and all of them have their place there now.
3. Find the remains of Serdica
One of the truly amazing things about Sofia is all the discoveries they made during past few decades. In 2004 they discovered an amphitheater while building a hotel. It’s the biggest known Roman amphitheater in Bulgaria, and part of it is now incorporated into hotel’s lobby, available for visits. There are also other ruins of Serdica (Sofia’s old name) in the city. How about the Roman church built in the 4th century with frescoes from the 10-14th centuries? Check out church of St George, or Rotunda.
4. Check out the City Garden in the evening
According to Dessi, City Garden is place where the parties are. Often, instead of going to clubs and pubs, young people come there to hang out. We went to see it ourselves – and Dessi didn’t lie! On a warm May evening people were socializing; park was full of life, people and music.
5. Drink free water
Sounds ridiculous, but how many places you’ve been to lately where you had to pay for water? I love it when cities have drinkable tap water, and even more when I see a water fountain where we can refill our bottles. In Sofia, next to the Central Mineral Baths, you can find a Hot Spring Water fountain! Yes, it’s a little strange at first, because the water is warm, but it’s totally drinkable and is supposed to be good for you.
6. Eat and drink!
Yessss this is a must. Come on, don’t you want to try local food in every country you go to? Luckily, Bulgarian food is great, especially for meat lovers. For the restaurants, you’ll probably get recommended something like Manastirska Magernitsa, but while food there is great, we found it a little overpriced. You can find the same food around town for not-such-tourist-prices. For drinks – you will find a variety of places everywhere in Sofia. Our personal favourite was 65 Fireflies which serves good drinks and has a cozy atmosphere.
7. Go on a day trip
Two well-liked options for a day trip from Sofia is Rila Monastery and Vitosha Mountain. While we skipped Rila Monastery this time, we did go to Vitosha by ourselves. The good thing about Vitosha is that you can get there by public transport. However, if the ski lift is closed, you’ll have to hire a car to get you up there. In May it was still a little cold up there, but worth our time. Panoramic views of the city and a little hike in the nature – that’s not a typical thing you enjoy during a city break. Just take a bus to Simeonovo Lift and you’ll be there!
While I understand the fascination with Bulgarian beaches, I find it sad that many people who visit this magnificent country, never get to see Sofia. It’s full of history: Romans, Byzantine, Ottomans, communism – there’s so much to learn! There’s lots of parks, great food, open-hearted people and myriad of things to see. And of course, you’ll get to learn that it’s SOfia, not SofIa. So, if you ask me whether I’d suggest to put it on your Europe bucket list, the answer will be a big fat YES.