Here’s my selection of a few fun things to do in Sofia, Bulgaria – we went in winter, but these would be fine any time of year.
Sofia is one of Europe’s oldest cities, with sweeping boulevards, cobbled streets, and a surprising amount of Roman ruins. Gritty, concrete Soviet architecture sits side-by-side with ornate golden cathedrals. It’s got a wonderfully laid-back atmosphere, with lots of quirks to it. When communicating with locals, nodding your head means ‘no’ and shaking it means ‘yes’ – this is something that’s always stuck in my mind. There are plenty of trendy places to eat and drink (rakia: see point 6).
It is truly underrated for some reason, but is a brilliant first experience of Eastern Europe.
A little disclaimer: We actually went to Sofia in October 2014, but I’ve checked and everything listed is still going strong. We’ll definitely go back, but for now, I really wanted to write about it. So here it is.
1. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
We’ve done so many European city breaks and most of them have a cathedral. We generally don’t love traipsing round religious buildings to be honest. But Alexander Nevsky is absolutely worth seeing. I’d go as far as to say it’s the best cathedral in Europe (sorry, Prague). The mint, white and gold colour scheme is very Pinterest and I mean, just look at it. It’s so clean and bright looking. An absolute beaut.
Sadists will also enjoy the gruelling climb up the bell tower to look at the city views.
2. Museum of Socialist Art
This was SO bloody hard to find. It’s just outside the city centre so you have to hop on the metro (blue line) to G. M. Dimitrov. Then go north along the same road the station is on and turn right onto ul. Lachezar Stanchev. It looks like there’s not going to be anything there but office buildings, but it’s hidden down there. You’ll see a ginormous red star outside the gate. If you read our recent blog on travel planning tips, this is where our tip on mapping everything on your phone comes in handy.
It’s worth the faffery to get to though – a fascinating sculpture park of communist statues and an indoor gallery of propaganda art. There was a little gift shop too. The sheer size of the statues is bizarre.
3. Free Sofia walking tour
We really enjoyed the Free Sofia Tour and would recommend it – it’s honestly one of the best things to do in Sofia when you’ve just arrived. We did it on our first day in the city to get our bearings. It’s run mostly by students who speak perfect English and know the city exceptionally well. The guide had a few amusing stories as well as knowing the history and stuff. Even though it’s free, it would be rude not to tip because it is so good. It runs every day and you can just show up.
You meet under this incredible landmark at the Palace of Justice: a lion who had the best bemused expression of any statue I have ever seen.
4. Sveta Nedelya Square
This square is where the city was founded. There are some impressive fountains and another particularly pretty church, the Sveta Nedelya. It’s a lovely maroon colour with gold and white features, which puts the UK’s boring brick churches to shame.
In the square, you’re surrounded by two churches, a mosque and a synagogue. This was one of the best things that our tour guide pointed out. They’ve been there in harmony for years – what a nice message. Can’t we all just get along FFS?
Also by this square is Serdica station. When they were excavating for the new line, they found all these ancient Roman ruins. Amazingly, they didn’t just bulldoze through them for the sake of profit, but they actually preserved them and made them a feature of the station, behind a window so you can go down and see them.
5. Spot all the different religious buildings
Continuing the theme of religious harmony and tolerance, it’s worth having a mooch round some of the buildings. The most exciting interior was in the synagogue. Check out that ceiling.
Our walking tour guide told us about how they managed to protect 48,000 local Jews during WW2. The king at the time officially told Berlin that he could not agree the deportation of Jews, saying that they were busy building roads. There’s a lot of history around that – have a look at this if you want more.
6. Drink rakia
It’s the local booze. We had it at this cool super-retro bar called Raketa Rakia Bar. All I can say is: proceed with caution…
7. Learn about the city’s communist history
Sofia is full of communist history, including monuments and architecture. We found it infinitely better than Berlin if you’re interested in the period – and there are far fewer tourists as a bonus.
It’s very much part of the city – not swept under the carpet but accepted and analysed. You can do a specific free walking tour just about Sofia’s communist history, which we’ll definitely do next time we go.
8. Eat at the beautifully quirky ‘Made in Home’
This café was so good, we ate there twice. The food was top notch, especially the goat cheese salad. You could get a proper cup of English breakfast tea, too (always an issue abroad!).
The decor was eclectic, with little bird cages and mismatched chairs everywhere. Right up my street.
9. Spot the bell in the tree and go to the Sveta Sofia Underground Museum Necropolis
The church of St Sofia, which the city was apparently named after, doesn’t have the standard bell-in-tower setup. It’s gone for the much more interesting al fresco bell-in-tree option.
Unusual bell-placement aside, the church has one of the best museums we’ve ever been to.
From the outside, it’s just a boring brick church. But inside, you can go underground to see some amazing Roman ruins. There are mosaics, frescoes and a necropolis. It’s all designed and lit really nicely, with lots of glass and reclaimed wood type stuff. I know that sounds weird, but it’s all a bit Scandi-inspired and very tastefully done. When we went, you weren’t allowed to take photos, but you can see some here.
10. People watch in the parks and green spaces
Is there anything better than spending an hour or so staring at strangers when you’re on holiday?
11. The Rotunda of St George
Not another religious site? Yep. If you’re a regular on this blog, you’ll know that we’re generally not into churchy stuff at all. But Sofia has so many good ones. And this one was actually interesting to go and see.
It’s the oldest building in the city: built in the 4th century and still in use. Located in the middle of the presidency courtyard, there’s a striking contrast in architecture and if the sun hadn’t been that bright, it would have made for a good photo. Soz about that.
12. Eat cakes in shabby chic Vila Rosiche
Still some of the best cakes we’ve ever had, Vila Rosiche was amazingly somewhere we stumbled upon rather than researched and wrote down to go to – but it turned out to be one of the most recommended places on TripAdvisor.
It’s down a little alleyway that opens out into a fairytale garden. We had a lime cheesecake that was a solid 10/10 on the cake scale and something else that was nearly as good but I’ve completely forgotten what it was now.
13. Drink water from the hot springs
There’s warm water flowing under the city that is piped into these outdoor taps. You can fill a bottle and sample it for free. Apparently, it’s good for aches and pains. I’m afraid we were just as achey after it, but that might have been the 12 miles a day we were walking. Isn’t that always the way when you’re on holiday?
14. Shop on Vitosha Boulevard
I usually find ‘high street’ type clothes shops abroad pretty horrific (apart from in Scandinavia) but Sofia had some brilliant affordable ones. Towards the end of this boulevard, there was on on the left called DiKa that was like a Bulgarian version of Zara, only much cheaper. It’s been three years and I still regularly wear a skirt I got there.
There were also all the usual pointless international shops that you could go to at home. So sniff out all the local brands and get something you couldn’t get anywhere else.
15. Find the statue of Saint Sofia
She’s brandishing a wreath (for peace) and an owl (for wisdom and sending letters to Hogwarts).
The statue replaced one of Lenin in 2001 and was pretty controversial. Is she or is she not too gold and/or too pagan? I quite liked her, as statues go. Not as amusing as that lion earlier on, though.
Bonus tip: Sofia is beautiful in the snow
This isn’t a ‘thing to do’, so doesn’t really belong on this list but I thought I’d crack it in anyway. After a few days of sun and 27 degree heat, we woke up to snow on our last day in Sofia. Out of nowhere. The city looked gorgeous though so it was really nice! Luckily, we had gloves and everything with us.
Things to do in Sofia, Bulgaria: useful information
As noted at the beginning of this post, we went in October 2014. So taxi prices and so on might have changed a wee bit since. We really want to return, so will amend this post when we do.
How to get there (and away)
To get to Sofia, we flew from Manchester airport. The flight took about 3 hours 20 mins. When we got there, we got a taxi into the city. We used an official one (be careful to do this, as ever). The driver tried to pretend that his meter was broken, but it was only 15 lev (about 8 euro) after some wrangling.
Where to stay
We stayed at a really cheap but amazing hotel called Hotel Favorit. Our room was huge, probably the biggest we’ve ever stayed in, and it even had its own balcony. Boring fact: I’m currently using a pen from the room. I know. This kind of unique insight is exactly why our blog is so successful.
How to get around
The trains and metro are cheap and fairly easy to navigate despite the Cyrillic alphabet, but almost everywhere is walkable. Taxis are a wee bit unruly but even if you’re overcharged a bit, as a privileged UK traveller, it will still seem cheap. Depending on where you’re staying, you might want to consider taxis at night. We felt safe in the day, but like many cities, there were a few dodgy areas so we did get taxis a couple of times.
When to go
We went in October when it was bustling but not overly busy. As mentioned above, the weather was extreme to say the least. We went to bed having had a really sunny, warm day. Woke up to snow, out of nowhere. It was actually really good because we saw the city in glorious sunshine and pretty snow.
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