With its drab suburbs and distinct lack of charming old buildings Sofia (София) can appear an uninspiring place to first-time visitors. However, much has been done in recent years to revitalize the heart of the city, and once you’ve settled in and begun to explore, you’ll find it a surprisingly vibrant place, especially on fine days, when its lush public gardens and pavement cafés buzz with life. It also possesses the draw of verdant Mount Vitosha, just 8km to the south.
Sofia was founded by a Thracian tribe some three thousand years ago, and various Roman ruins attest to its zenith as a regional imperial capital in the fourth century AD. The Bulgars didn’t arrive on the scene until the ninth century, and with the notable exception of the thirteenth-century Boyana Church, their cultural monuments largely disappeared during the Turkish occupation (1396–1878), whose own legacy is visible solely in a couple of stately mosques. The finest architecture postdates Bulgaria’s liberation from the Turks: handsome public buildings and parks, and the magnificent Aleksandar Nevski Cathedral.
Most of Sofia’s sights are centrally located and within easy walking distance of each other. The pedestrianized Bulevard Vitosha forms the heart of the shopping district and leads north to the Church of Sveta Nedelya, from where bul. Tsar Osvoboditel passes the major public buildings, culminating with the grand Aleksandar Nevski Church.
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There is a wealth of hospitable, characterful and downright quirky hostels in central Sofia, with competition between them ensuring that prices remain reasonably low. If the bunk-bed lifestyle doesn’t appeal, many of Sofia’s hostels do offer self-contained double rooms as well. Hostels fill up quickly in summer, putting pressure on both staff and facilities, so always ring in advance to secure a bed. The business end of the market is well catered for, and a growing number of boutique hotels, mid-priced family-run establishments and guesthouses have added considerable variety to what’s on offer.
A fifteenth-century mosque now holds the Archeological Museum, whose prize exhibit is the magnificent Valchitran Treasure, a Thracian gold cauldron plus cups. Also on show is a collection of Thracian armour, medieval church wall paintings and numerous Roman tombstones.
The Banya Bashi Mosque was built in 1576 by Mimar Sinan, who also designed the great mosque at Edirne in Turkey. The mosque is not officially open to tourists but modestly dressed visitors may visit outside of prayer times. Behind stand Sofia’s mineral baths, housed in a splendid yellow-and-red striped fin-de-siècle building, closed since 1986 and still being restored. Locals gather daily to bottle the hot, sulphurous water that gushes from public taps into stone troughs outside, opposite ul. Exzarh Iosif.
Down bul. Tsar Osvoboditel, past Sofia University, is Borisova Gradina, named after Bulgaria’s interwar monarch, Boris III. The park – the largest in Sofia – has a rich variety of flowers and trees, outdoor bars, two football stadiums and two huge Communist monuments.
The City Art Gallery in the City Garden, immediately to the south of pl. Aleksandar Batenberg, stages regular exhibitions of contemporary Bulgarian art.
Drinking in Sofia is a round-the-clock activity, with numerous cafés and kiosks doling out coffee, juice and alcohol during the day, and bars and pubs pulling in punters by night. For evening entertainment, there’s an ever-growing number of clubs, most playing a mix of pop, retro, rock or the ubiquitous local “folk pop”(chalga). Jazz and Latino music are also popular. Entrance fees for clubs range from nothing to 20Lv depending on the venue, expect to pay more if a major DJ is manning the decks. A valid ID is compulsory.
While none of Sofia’s restaurants could be classed as truly outstanding, you’ll at least find a greater choice here than anywhere else in the country. The cheapest places to grab snacks, a beer or a coffee are the many cafés and kiosks around bul. Vitosha or in the city’s public gardens. International coffeehouse chains such as Starbucks and Costa have opened a number of cafés in recent years and there are plenty of pricier restaurants offering a range of international cuisine.
Laid out in the 1950s to demonstrate the power of Communist rule, the Largo is an elongated plaza flanked on three sides by severe monumental edifices built in Soviet Classicist style. They include the towering monolith of the former Party House, originally the home of the Communist hierarchy, and now serving as government offices. The plaza extends westwards to the Sofia Monument, the city’s symbol which represents the eponymous Goddess of Wisdom. On the northern side of the Largo is the Council of Ministers, Bulgaria’s cabinet offices.
A wooded granite mass 20km long and 16km wide, Mount Vitosha, 8km south of the city, is where Sofians go for picnics and skiing. The ascent of its highest peak, the 2290m Cherni Vrah, has become a traditional test of stamina. Getting here on public transport is straightforward, although there are fewer buses on weekdays than at weekends. Take tram #5 from behind the Law Courts to Ovcha Kupel bus station, then change to bus #61, which climbs through the forests towards Zlatni Mostove, a beauty spot on the western shoulder of Mount Vitosha beside the so-called Stone River. Beneath the large boulders running down the mountainside is a rivulet which once attracted gold-panners. Trails lead up beside the stream towards the mountain’s upper reaches: Cherni Vrah is about two to three hours’ walk from here.
An imposing nineteenth century building houses the National Gallery for Foreign Art, which devotes a lot of space to Indian wood-carvings and second-division French and Russian artists, though there are a few minor works by the likes of Rodin, Chagall and Kandinsky. Heading west past Alexander Nevski Cathedral, you’ll pass two recumbent lions flanking the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, set beside the wall of the plain, brown-brick Church of Sveta Sofia which gave the city its name in the fourteenth century.
Sofia’s oldest church is the fourth-century Rotunda of St George, built upon the city’s oldest Roman foundations and housing frescoes from the eighth century onwards. Surrounding the church is the Presidency, guarded by soldiers in colourful nineteenth-century garb (Changing of the Guard hourly).
Built on the site of a mosque in the early twentieth century, the Russian Church is a stunning golden-domed building with an emerald spire and an exuberant mosaic-tiled exterior, which conceals a dark, candle-scented interior. The nearby Aleksandar Nevski Cathedral is one of the finest pieces of architecture in the Balkans. Financed by public subscription and built between 1882 and 1924 to honour the 200,000 Russian casualties of the 1877–78 War of Liberation, it’s a magnificent structure, bulging with domes and semi-domes and glittering with gold leaf. Within the gloomy interior, a beardless Christ sits enthroned above the altar, and numerous scenes from his life, painted in a humanistic style, adorn the walls. The crypt, entered from outside, contains a superb collection of icons from all over the country.
The city’s main shopping street, bul. Vitosha, is the place where you are most likely to come across familiar high-street shops and brands. Luxury goods, clothes and accessories are also on display at Tzum, which served as the city’s main department store during the Communist period, and still radiates a modicum of Stalin-era grandeur. The City Center and Sofia malls are characterless yet immensely popular malls stuffed with clothes shops, eateries and bars. For souvenirs there’s a long line of open-air stalls just in front of the Aleksandar Nevski Memorial Church selling paintings, reproduction icons, Russian-style fur hats, antiques, lace and embroidery.
At the heart of Sofia is ploshtad Sveta Nedelya, a pedestrianized square dominated by the distinctive Sveta Nedelya Church, whose broad dome dominates the vast interior chamber. Colourful modern frescoes adorn every square inch of its walls.