Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, and one of Europe’s oldest cities is quite the treasure trove. With a history that stretches over seven millennia (phew!) and home to Eastern Europe’s most extensive historical museum, it is “ruin-rich” with Roman ruins from 2000 years ago when the city was called Serdica.
Sofia is often overlooked by travelers heading to ski resorts (or the coast)- being located at the foothills of the popular ski mountain, Vitosha. Few realize that Sofia is a laid-back, yet modern and youthful city that is every bit worth exploring!
Once described as the “triangle of religious tolerance” (after its three colossal temples of three major religions- Christianity, Islam, and Judaism), Sofia is characterized by cobblestone boulevards, onion-domed churches, Ottoman mosques, fine art galleries, and charming boutiques. It also has its quirks — such as the Snail House and the Soviet Army monument that keeps getting a makeover. Add to that electrifying nightlife and delicious cuisine- you’re set for the weekend!
Continuing our virtual travel series inspired by the ’36 Hours’ column of The New York Times, we take you to Sofia this week!
36 Hours in Sofia
9:00 AM: St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, located in the heart of Sofia, is a Bulgarian Orthodox cathedral built in Neo-Byzantine style. It is one of the top 50 largest Christian church buildings (it can hold 10,000 people) in the world, and has bits of everywhere: marble from Munich, metal from Berlin and manufactured in Vienna and mosaics from Venice.
With countless arches, gilded domes, stone carvings, and murals, the majestic structure towers 148 feet at its highest point! The bell tower has 12 bells that weigh a total of 23 tons and can be heard from a 10-mile radius.
The church is named after the Russian prince Saint Alexander Nevsky and was built to honor those who lost their lives during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878 that liberated Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire. The museum in the basement contains an exquisite collection of Orthodox icons and masterpieces.
10:00 AM: Day Hike to Vitosha Mountain
Vitosha is the oldest protected nature park in the Balkans and the best place for a day hike in Sofia. Spread over 100 square miles, it has rivers, caves, waterfalls, monasteries, hot springs, lodges, ski lifts, hiking trails, and so much more on offer!
The Vitosha Mountain, which emerged as a result of volcanic activity, stands at 7,513 feet at its highest point — the Black Peak.
If you’re not keen on a long hike, you can take the Simeonovo ski lift (longest tourist lift in Bulgaria) that goes directly to Aleko Hut, the base for starting all the highest treks on Vitosha Mountain. Bulgaria’s longest cave — Duhlata, with a total length of 18,200 m, is also located in Vitosha.
Post-hike, spend some time at the Vitosha boulevard- Sofia’s main shopping street. It’s worth a visit, even for non-shopaholics. The street is lined with some of Sofia’s most beautiful buildings, including the Sofia Court of Justice and Sveta Nedelya Orthodox Church.
12:00 PM: Dragalevtsi Monastery
After a hectic morning, catch your breath at the peaceful Dragalevtsi Monastery of the Holy Mother of God of Vitosha. A Bulgarian Orthodox monastery on the lower slopes of Vitosha mountain, it was founded in the mid-14th century by Bulgarian tsar Ivan Alexander. It was abandoned after the Ottoman conquest of Sofia and re-established in the late 15th century when it became an important literary center. Nuns currently inhabit the monastery.
1:00 PM: Lunch at Cosmos
Grab a bite at Cosmos restaurant that has a fun vibe and delicious Bulgarian food made with local ingredients. Don’t miss the Bulgarian rose dessert that comes highly recommended!
2:00 PM: National Museum of Military History
Having enjoyed the outdoors in the first half of the day, head over to the National Military History Museum after lunch. The museum is dedicated to military history and consists of over 10,000 artifacts showcased through an archive, exhibition, and library.
3:00 PM: Extreme Bike Riding (Or Just A Stroll)
The adventurous souls can try their hand at extreme bike riding in Sofia’s most beautiful and popular park: South Park. For the less adventurous, there are numerous cafes to chill at and walking paths for a leisurely stroll.
4:00 PM: Ring A Bell
The Bells Monument (“Камбаните”/”Kambanite” in Bulgarian) at the base of the Vitosha mountain is a must-visit place in Sofia. An inscription at the monument’s base says it all: “Children of the future accept the eternal, fiery call of immortality — Unity, Creativity, Beauty.”
Built in 30 days for the UN “Year of the Child” in 1979, it has four 122-foot-tall pylons and seven bells to represent each continent. The two semicircular walls encircling the pylons contain 95 bells, each from different countries and social organizations and containing messages from children.
5:00 PM: Church of the Miracle-Maker
The Russian Orthodox Church in central Sofia is also known as the Church of St Nicholas the Miracle-Maker and is located on Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard. Built on the Saray Mosque site that was destroyed in 1882 after the liberation of Bulgaria by Russia from the Ottoman Empire, it was meant to be the official church of the Russian Embassy next door.
The church is designed in the style of Russian Revival architecture and has stunning murals inside, although they have darkened over time and because of the smoke of candles and need restoration.
5:30 PM: Museum of Dolls & Bulgarian Folklore
Hop over to the Kuklite Museum of Dolls in Sofia to browse through 3000 dolls and learn more about Bulgarian Folklore. The dolls range from odd to unique and exquisite, are made up of different kinds of materials and hail from different countries around the world (including Nepal!). The museum itself is located in a 100-year old aristocratic house that is as fascinating as the dolls themselves!
6:30 PM: Take A Tour
Sofia has a range of tours on offer, and if your curiosity hasn’t yet been satiated, head out for a walking tour, communist tour, night tour, or an alternative tour.
8:00 PM: Eat Like the Locals
When in Bulgaria, do like the Bulgarians do! In this spirit, brace yourself and try some tripe soup. You may love it or hate it, but it is a local delicacy and part of many Bulgarians’ dietary regimes! Interestingly, it’s also an effective hangover cure. Don’t forget to add a lot of garlic and spicy red pepper to it.
You can also try Tarator — Bulgarian national cold summer soup based on Ayran (a common Balkan non-alcoholic drink made of yogurt, water, and salt) but also contains cucumber, garlic, walnut, dill, and sunflower oil.
Other delicacies worth trying include Banitsa (a Bulgarian baked good made of layers of whisked eggs, cheese, and phyllo), Patatnik (a Bulgarian potato dish), and Mekitsa is a deep-fried pastry similar to a doughnut.
Pick a restaurant that the locals love- here’s a list!
9:00 AM: Boyana Church
Another church- as beautiful as the others, but with its own unique characteristics. The Boyana Church is a medieval Bulgarian Orthodox church in Sofia’s outskirts and added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979. 89 scenes with 240 human images are depicted on the walls of the church, giving a glimpse into east-European medieval art.
10:00 AM: Boyana Waterfall
Boyanski Vodopad (in English Boyana waterfall) is a 20-meter high waterfall that’s very close to the Boyana church. It has two walking trails — both equally picturesque.
12:00 PM: Museum of Socialist Art
The Museum of Socialist Art in Sofia is a museum of art that covers the history of the communist era in Bulgaria. Located in a drab, utilitarian building in a shabby neighborhood, the museum exhibits socialist paintings, sculptures, and propaganda art.
1:00 PM: Lunch
2:00 PM: Adrenaline Rush
After lunch, male your way to Reflip Rafting Club for river rafting or Sky Camp for paragliding in the outskirts of the city.
5:00 PM: National Theatre
The Ivan Vazov National Theatre is Bulgaria’s national theatre. It is also the oldest and most authoritative theatre in the country and one of Sofia’s important landmarks. It has a neoclassical building, and Sofia’s bombing in World War II caused considerable damage to it. It was reconstructed in 1945, followed by more renovations in 1971–1975 and 2006.
Fun fact: the building’s facade is depicted on the obverse of the Bulgarian 50 levs banknote issued in 1999 and 2006.
6:00 PM: National Palace of Culture
The National Palace of Culture is the largest multifunctional conference and exhibition center in south-eastern Europe. It was opened in 1981 in celebration of Bulgaria’s 1300th anniversary.
The National Palace of Culture has 13 halls and hosts the Sofia International Film Festival amongst other prominent events.
7:30 PM: Dinner in the Dark
End the day with a tasty dinner at Tenebris restaurant- the first dark restaurant in the Balkans! Enjoy a 5-course gourmet meal in complete darkness. The hosts of this restaurant are visually-impaired, and the idea is to provide a dining experience of a different kind.
Best described by one of the customers: “Tenebris Dark restaurant is not a place to eat. It’s a place to taste, a place to sense, to intimately experience the food.” Surely not to be missed!
Hidden Poetry of Sofia
From our 36-hour virtual visit to Sofia, it is evident that this beautiful city is rich in history, art, architecture, and culture. But did you know that there are 28 poems from 28 European countries on the walls of 28 buildings in Sofia?
Initiated by the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Bulgaria that later became a European project, each EU member state embassy adopted a wall in Sofia and decorated it with a poem in its national language, Bulgarian and English, to bring Europe’s values closer to people. Here’s the list of places in case you wish to visit!
How to get there
Sofia Airport is the busiest airport in Bulgaria. Over 20 airlines operate service to/from Sofia, with direct flights to/from many European and Middle East cities. Sofia is also accessible by train and bus from various European cities.
One of the easiest ways to travel around Sofia is by taxi. The public transport in Sofia is excellent. Take your pick from buses, trams, trolleybuses, or the subway.
When to visit
The best time to visit Sofia is April-May and September-October, as the weather is pleasant during this time and it’s not peak tourist season (which is between June to August).
Bulgaria unilaterally applies a visa-free system for holders of valid Schengen visas. EU nationals are only required to present evidence of their EU citizenship and identity to be admitted to any EU member state.
The national currency is Bulgarian Lev (BGN). Although Bulgaria is part of the EU, it is not part of the Eurozone that uses the euro as its currency.
Bulgarian is the official language of Bulgaria and is spoken by a majority of the country’s population. It is a close relative of Macedonian and a member of the Slavic group of languages. The Cyrillic alphabet is used to write Bulgarian. The two main minority languages spoken in Bulgaria are Turkish and Romani.
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