With our whirlwind trip to Nepal taking all our attention for several weeks, pleasant, understated Sofia kind of got lost in the shuffle on our extensive Balkan holiday. That’s the thing about nice, normal cities, they are easy and enjoyable but don’t lend themselves to funny stories and bizarre anecdotes. Basically, Sofia has lots of impressive churches, pretty parks and a cool old tram system that lends the place a classic air. They also really love statues of important military dudes, we had our choice of international foods and I found a great place for a haircut. We really enjoyed just following our homemade list of what to do in Sofia, Bulgaria to wander in a disjointed circuit, picking a new area to focus on each day. It’s a very relaxing, walkable city.
First, though, we had to spend a long day on the bus from Belgrade. And, although it didn’t compare to our epic Balkan Express train journey from Bar, it did involve a couple-hour layover in a place called Niš, which was still in Serbia, and was kind of cool. All told, Sofia is a very nice place, and definitely a good spot to soak up some civilization before embarking on 4 far less civilized weeks in Nepal.
Is Sofia worth visiting?
Absolutely. In part of the world where many of the cities are, shall we say, lacking in organization, Sofia is a pleasant, manageable base to explore the many great attractions in Bulgaria. Of course, it has plenty to offer on its own as well. All those statues of important historic figures that I mentioned? Those are usually also connected to corresponding museums, charming parks and historic buildings, all of which are worth a visit. So, while it is easy enough to get a quick overview in a day or two, you could easily fill a week with all the interesting things to do in Sofia.
What to do in Sofia
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
This iconic cathedral is the face of Sofia. Its elegant lines and evocative colouring serving as a beacon drawing faithful and tourists alike. Whether you take the time to explore the inside as well or just seek out photographs from every angle, the Alexander Nevsky (also spelled Aleksander Nevski) Cathedral is a Sofia must-see. This was our favourite of the many impressive buildings that we saw during our time in Sofia.
Ivan Vazov National Theatre
Both the oldest theatre in Bulgaria and the official national theatre, this famous Sofia landmark features a graceful façade and a dominant location on the popular City Park. Named after the famous writer, this gorgeous building runs an impressive list of plays and performances. The Ivan Vazov National theater is right beside the City Garden so head over there next for a quick wander and to stop and watch the chess players.
Ride the Old Trams
A lot of Balkan cities still use trams as part of their public transportation system. Few, however, are such a part of the city’s identity as the trams of Sofia. There are both new and old styles still in use, both of which are very photogenic, but it is the rickety old yellow ones that offer the best “classic tram coming around the corner in Sofia” shot. We walked a lot of the narrower tram streets looking for the best spots to take photos of these Sofia mainstays, and in the end our favourite was the corner of Hristo Belchev and Dr. Georgi Valkovich. We also ended up riding the trams a few times, just sitting back and relaxing as we watched the city go by.
Visit Banya Bashi Mosque
Dating back to the 16th century, this beautiful mosque was designed by Mimar Sinan, a prolific Ottoman architect of the time. The name means “many baths” because the mosque itself is actually built directly on top of natural thermal spas which still spew up visible steam today. Despite over 500 years of Ottoman rule, the Banya Bashi is the only mosque remaining in Sofia. From just the right angle you can actually get a photo of the mosque, the Sofia Synagogue and the St. Nedelya Cathedral all in one shot, for a touch of true religious diversity.
Get a Photo at the National Palace of Culture Fountains
The National Palace of Culture is a pretty impressive sight itself, as the largest conference centre in southeastern Europe. The fountains, however, add an entirely different layer to the scene and are the perfect place to experiment with different angles and a variety of misty water shots.
Free Walking Tours
There are several different free walking tours that go daily, most of which don’t even require reservations. You just show up at the scheduled time and enjoy a relaxed walking tour of the city’s top highlights, getting a lot of background and local stories you wouldn’t otherwise know. While there is no charge for the tours, you have to pay for the transportation (6 lev) and should tip at the end. A interesting choice is the Sofia Green Tour which is a free 8km hiking tour at Vitosha where you will see the Boyana church, the Boyana waterfall, lake and view of Sofia from above.
Hike in Vitosha Nature Park
There are many great hikes to enjoy in this scenic line of peaks on the outskirts of Sofia, ranging from easy strolls to strenuous summit hikes. One of the latter is the climb to Cherni Vrah, and other highlights are the Golden Bridges, Boyana waterfall, Kamen Dal for great views of the city and the mineral hot tubs at Zheleznitsa.
Free Food Tour by Balkan Bites
This is a great variation on the usual historic walking tours. These daily tours generally take you to 4 different trendy or interesting restaurants in Sofia where you get to try some free samples and learn more about the place. There is a maximum number of people per tour (either 15 or 30, info varies) so we recommend getting there early, especially in high season.
Wander Borisova Gradina
Dating back to the 19th century, Borisova Gradina (Boris’ Garden) is the oldest park in Sofia, named after Tsar Boris III. It is a huge green space popular with walkers, bikers and those just looking for a little grass to hang out on. We went on multiple hikes through it and still didn’t get to all the areas. It is big enough to get away from sounds of the city and enjoy nature.
Go Shopping on Vitosha Boulevard
The top shopping street in all of Bulgaria, Vitosha Boulevard is where locals go to browse the latest styles and fashions, all with a view of the mountains out the end of the street. It runs all the way through the centre of the city from St Nedelya square all the way down to the National Palace of Culture and features all the high-end brands such as Versace, Lacoste, Emporio Armani and Tommy Hilfiger. It is also lined with dozens of terrific restaurants and bars that come in handy whenever you feel the need to spend huge wads of cash on something other than new clothes, or just want to settle down for some serious people watching. We didn’t do any shopping but enjoyed wandering down the street and stopping for a drink.
See the Sofia Central Mineral Baths
In a city known for its natural springs, the Sofia Central Mineral Baths spent over a century as the main public baths in the city. The baths themselves were shut down in 1986 but the huge yellow building has since been turned into a fascinating museum that is well worth visiting, both inside and out.
Walk Past the Roman Ruins
Popping up rather bizarrely right in the city centre next to (and below) one of Sofia’s busiest thoroughfares, these intriguing Roman ruins provide a small glimpse into the incredibly diverse history of this ancient city. We found the juxtaposition of ancient ruins next to modern traffic to be almost jarring, culturally.
Sample Sofia’s Nightlife
While it doesn’t quite compare with the European nightlife capital of Belgrade, the Sofia nightlife is no slouch when it comes to having fun after the sun goes down. Hundreds of bars and night clubs around the city offer unique themes and special events, making it easy enough to find exactly what you have in mind for your big night out.
Day Trips from Sofia
Just a couple hours south of Sofia, this is the largest, most important and most famous Orthodox monastery in all of Bulgaria, if not the entire Balkans. It is over 1,000 years old, can be found on the 1 lev note and is easily the most popular tourist destination in the country. It is a visual dream and offers a fascinating look into Bulgarian history as well as the workings of the modern monastery, as Rila still houses around 60 monks to this day.
Seven Rila Lakes
Not far from the monastery but offering a completely different experience, these seven beautiful Rila lakes are all connected by small streams and picturesque cascades. Each one is unique, with descriptive names such as “The Tear” and “The Kidney”. The lakes are located more than 2,000 metres above sea level and can get very cold even in summer, but the scenery more than makes up for the chill.
Bulgaria’s second city, Plovdiv was name European Capital of Culture for 2019. Inhabited since the 6th century BC, this elegant old city split down the middle by the Maritsa River is also known as “the city of seven hills” (apparently 7 is a bit of a theme in Bulgaria). Historically interesting sites are everywhere in Plovdiv, often several per block in the Old Town. It also plays host to dozen of festivals throughout the year, many of which draw big crowds in summer.
When to Visit Sofia
Sofia enjoys short hot summers and cold winters, including a fair bit of snow at times. While it is definitely more popular in summer, Sofia doesn’t get overrun with tourists like some European hotspots so it is still a good time to go. The shoulder seasons of April-May and September-October usually provide the perfect mix of mild temperatures and quiet attractions. We were there in the beginning of October and enjoyed the changing colours of the leaves and the pleasant fall weather.
What to do in Sofia in the Winter
Just because it gets cold from November to February doesn’t mean Sofia is off-limits in the winter. In fact, many travellers rave about the benefits of off-season travel in Bulgaria – no lineups, discount hotels, empty museums, available tickets for the theatres and ballet. Sofia’s authentic German Christmas market will transport you to downtown Munich, and you can even go ice skating in Borisova Gradina on Ariana Lake (at a cost of just a couple euros). Much like many cities throughout the Balkans, Sofia has a large variety of fun Escape Rooms which make perfect choices on a cold winter afternoon.
Skiers and snowboarders flock to nearby Vitosha Mountain to enjoy a more traditional winter activity and all the same day trips that are popular in summer can be done in winter, just at discounted prices and without the crowds (or sunscreen).
How Many Days Should You Spend in Sofia
In order to see all the best that Sofia has to offer you will probably need at least 3 or 4 days. A very busy 2 days might do the trick but you will almost certainly miss out on a few things. Considering all the excellent day trips available out of Sofia, plus the natural wonderland of Vitosha Nature Park, a week is not too long to spend in this vibrant capital. We were there for 3 nights and were able to hit all the highlights in that time.
What to do in Sofia in One Day
If time isn’t on your side, not to worry, you can still experience a good slice of what Sofia has to offer in just one day. All of the nicest religious edifices and the Roman ruins are located within blocks of each other in downtown Sofia and can be seen on one of the famous Sofia walking tours. A stroll up and down Vitosha Boulevard stopping for lunch, a drink and maybe a little shopping will take you into the early afternoon. Maybe now is the time to give your legs a break. Pick a tram route and settle in for a slow, seated tour around some of the local neighbourhoods. Now that you’ve had a bit of a rest, get off at Borisova Gradina and wander the park until hunger drives you back to one of the great downtown restaurants. Finally, plan ahead an pick up tickets for the theatre, or go the wild route and head out into the night clubs of Sofia to cap off your lone night.
Is Sofia Safe for Tourists?
Extremely safe. In fact, it is considered one of the safest cities in the Balkans, with a particularly low rate of violent crimes. You still need to be careful of pickpockets and the occasional scam artist who will hope to trick you out of a few lev, and steer clear of any large groups of street dogs which can occasionally cause problems, but overall it is a very safe place to travel.
Where to Stay in Sofia
Rosslyn Central Park Hotel Sofia is a beautiful, well-equipped and modern hotel in an amazing location right on famous Vitosha Boulevard.
Another good mid-range choice with a central location is the architectural monument, Design Hotel 36.
A great budget option is the tremendous value 5 Vintage Guest House, offering mid-range amenities (including a shared kitchen) at low-end prices.
Where to Eat in Sofia
We knew that we were heading to Nepal to hike in the Himalayas, which has amazing scenery but not so amazing food so we treated ourselves to our favourite genres of food while in Sofia. Our favourite restaurants included:
Skapto – Shishman 20 – Excellent burgers, washed down with even better brownies.
Pizza Box – They have really good thin crust pizza. It is only takeout but they have a table to stand at just away from the window.
Royal Thai – Great pad thai (so great we went twice).
How to get to Sofia from Belgrade
People come from many places to reach Sofia but the Belgrade-Sofia journey is one of the most popular for those travelling on a larger Balkan holiday. It also happens to be a little complicated so we’ll give you the details of our trip to help you make plans.
In Belgrade, the bus station is within walking distance or a short taxi ride from the tourist part of the city. Keep in mind there is a 60 dinar baggage fee out of the Belgrade station (roughly €0.50). Depending on the day you probably need to take two separate buses, changing in Niš in eastern Serbia (total cost €15 per person). We were able to choose between a half-hour and 2-hour break. We went with the longer in case of delays and so we would have time to explore a bit of Niš. You can store your luggage at the Niš bus station for 160 dinar per bag (roughly €1) that also includes the platform fee. There is a pay toilet at the Niš bus station (50 dinar) as well as snacks and drinks. If you have more time you can pick up something at one of the takeout restaurants across the bridge from the gate to the fortress. There is also a money exchange near the station if you want to pick up some Bulgarian levs. The only stop after Niš is at the border, where there is a pay toilet (100 dinar). In Sofia, the Central bus station is located at the train station. It has an ATM and a Billa grocery store, in case you want to stock up for your stay. You can take a tram into the city for 1.6 lev (around €1) and you can buy the ticket on the tram.
One of the most pleasant cities in southeastern Europe, Sofia should definitely be part of your Balkans itinerary. Whether you have to rush around and see all you can in one day or have a week or so to explore all it has to offer, make sure you set aside some time for this outstanding capital.
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