Bulgaria’s biggest city, Sofia, is the perfect location for one of these ‘do it in a weekend’ getaways. While many choose Prague, Amsterdam or Warsaw, Sofia is a fairly underestimated city break, despite being one of Europe’s most compact and walkable locations. Those travelling to Bulgaria tend to opt for its many beautiful ski resorts or picturesque coastal towns, unknowingly missing out on the charm and cosmopolitan vibe of this rich and dynamic city.
Situated at the foot of the Vitosha mountain, Sofia is made up of streets lined with domed churches, Ottoman mosques and Red Army monuments. These are married with extravagant shopping malls, luxury hotels and some of Europe’s coolest bars, creating a distinctly east-meets-west vibe throughout the city. Rapid development has led to an increase in trendy international boutiques and an innovative restaurant scene, that rivals some of Europe’s biggest cities. Affluence is apparent on every corner, from the flashy cars whizzing around the city to the well-heeled women carrying Vuitton bags – a far cry from the Bulgaria you may have envisaged. Yet, despite being a modern, urbanized city, Sofia is also surprisingly green, with huge, winding parks holding the buildings in embrace.
Things to do in Sofia
Although no grand metropolis when compared to places such as Rome, Paris or London, Sofia is nevertheless an attractive and cultured city with many museums, art galleries and theatres to keep you entertained…
Take a free walking tour of Sofia: Twice a day, local tourism volunteer NGO sets off from in front of the Palace of Justice to give tourists a free tour of this beautiful city. Welcoming, English-speaking volunteers will lead you on a two-hour walk through the city’s main sites, and fill you in on all the interesting background details. From students to backpackers to businessmen, this tour is an excellent introduction to Sofia and a great way of making friends if travelling alone.
Picnic in a park: Borisova Gradina is Sofia’s finest patch of greenery and home to the Vasil Levski Stadium, CSKA Stadium and Maria Luisa Pool, as well as a gigantic communist monument built in 1956, known as the Mound of Brotherhood. Why not pack up some strawberries and fresh bread and have a unique walk in the park, where you can admire the countless statues and flowerbeds.
Soak up some culture: If you’re looking for some historic insight, the National Museum of National History is the place to go. The musty halls of this old-fashioned museum present a didactic collection of animal, plant and mineral specimens, whilst the ground floor focuses on rocks, crystals and minerals. The stuffed animal collection in the upper floors even includes a brown bear dangling a Nazi hunting medal from its claw. Equally impressive is the Royal Palace museum, which was originally built as the headquarters of the Ottoman police force. The Palace was also the place where Bulgaria’s national hero, Vasil Levski, was tried and tortured before his public execution in 1873. After the Liberation, the building was remodelled in Viennese style and in 1887, it became the official residence of Bulgaria’s royal family until the communist takeover. Today, the Royal Palace houses the National Art Gallery and the Ethnographical Museum, which contains a collection of regional costumes and crafts, as well as varying temporary exhibitions on topics ranging from traditional festivals or carpet-making. Even the rooms of the Museum are a sight in themselves, showcasing marble fireplaces and ornate plasterwork and don’t forget to pause at the old dining room to view a lobster, fish and dead duck on the ceiling.
Get your architectural fix: There’s no better place to do this than at the outstanding domed Sveta Nedelya Cathedral, one of the Sofia’s major landmarks. Built in the mid 1800s (on top of the foundations of several older churches) the cathedral’s interior is is a montage of Byzantine-style murals. A glass case holds the body of Sveti Kral Stefan Milotin, a medieval king of Serbia, wrapped in a velvet robe, whose bones are said to have miraculous healing powers.
Restaurants in Sofia:
Dream House: A vegetarian restaurant with a colourful menu, serving up dishes such as grilled tofu, algae soup and vegetable stir-fry. Itsa best to visit on a Sunday, when there’s an all-you-can-eat buffet with beer and wine available.
Egur-Egur: Armenian cuisine, featuring kebabs, steaks, stews and other meaty offerings for a much-needed bit of stodge after a night drinking in the Sofian bars.
BeSo: Here you’ll find an open sushi bar of excellent quality. Pair this with a “see and be seen” atmosphere, netted off VIP booths and an impeccably designed interior and you have more than enough reason to visit.