Why travel to destinations that are overrun by tourists when you can enjoy a lesser-known destination like Sofia?
There’s never been a better time to visit Sofia, the vibrant capital and largest city in Bulgaria. While cities like Venice, Dubrovnik, and Prague are jam-packed with tourists leaving you feeling suffocated, Sofia is still less touristy and friendly. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do in Sofia.
With its rich culture and history, world-class museums and galleries, flourishing cafe scene, outdoor beer gardens, and colorful boutique shops, Sofia is getting more appealing each year. It’s a city to watch in 2019.
Things to do
You won’t find an old town in Sofia, but you’ll find remains of ancient Roman settlements in city squares, modern hotels, and metro stations. There are more ruins to be discovered as more buildings are being constructed in the city. Apart from the Roman ruins, which are the hidden gems of Sofia, it also boasts of a mix of Byzantine and Ottoman influences. Interestingly, mosques, synagogues, and cathedrals exist harmoniously in the city center.
For first time visitors, I suggest the following things to do when in Sofia:
1. Take a walking tour
Take a walking tour with Sofia Free Tour, a non-profit organization. Daily tours are available starting from the Palace of Justice. You don’t have to make a reservation. Just show up at 10 am, 11 am or 6 pm from April to October. And at 11 am, 2 pm or 6 pm from November to March. This introductory tour won’t give you enough time to explore the iconic sights. It’s just an introductory tour of Sofia.
I suggest taking this tour on your first day in Sofia. It’s a great way to get your bearings around the city and learn more about Sofia from an experienced local guide. Sofia Free Tour’s guide is trained to tell stories and history of the city. You’ll get to see the Roman settlement of Serdica, and also discover the difference between Byzantine and Ottoman Sofia, Imperial Sofia and Modern Sofia.
Some sights to take note of:
- St. Nedelya Church
- Statue of Sofia
- Largo Square Ruins
- Banya Bashi Mosque
- Sofia Synagogue
- Bath Museum of Sofia
- Mineral water area
- The Presidency Building
- Rotunda of St George
- St. Sophia Basilica
- St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
2. Shop for rose oil products
The best souvenirs to buy when visiting Sofia are products made from rose oil. Most souvenir shops sell rose soap, rose hand cream, rose-infused desert, and rose cosmetics.
The Bulgarian rose oil is from Kazanlak, known as the Valley of the Roses in Bulgaria. You might want to add Kazanlak to your travel itinerary if you’re visiting in June. The town celebrates the Festival of the Roses every year in June.
3. Walk along Vitosha Boulevard
Sofia can be divided into Byzantine and Ottoman Sofia (Banya Bashi Mosque, Statue of Sofia, St. Nedelya Church), Imperial Sofia (the Yellow Brick Road and St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral) and Modern Sofia (Vitosha Boulevard)
Vitosha Boulevard is Sofia’s main shopping street. Most of the buildings are from the post-World War II era. The pedestrian-only part of the boulevard is called Pirotska. Enjoy the sights and choose a spot at Pirotska to relax and have a meal or coffee.
4. Join day trips
Recommended day trips from Sofia are Rila Monastery, Blagoevgrad, and Plovdiv.
Where to stay
For a budget to mid-range hotel, I recommend Budapest Hotel. It’s a 10-minute walk from Lion’s Bridge, 15-minute walk to St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and 20-minute walk to Serdica station. It has an on-site restaurant serving buffet breakfast and a la carte lunch and dinner. The hotel also offers dessert, coffee, and snacks throughout the day at the lobby.
Sofia Place Hotel
Sofia Place Hotel is close to Vitosha Boulevard and about a 10-minute walk to Serdica station. It has an in-house bar and a restaurant offering Balkans cuisine.
Sofia Hotel Balkan
For a 5-star stay and old European style hotel, choose Sofia Hotel Balkan. It is located next to the Serdica station and close to restaurants, cafes and Sofia’s major tourist attractions. Sofia Hotel Balkan is part of the President’s Palace complex.
What to eat and drink
Bulgarians like their grilled meat, meat stews, smoked and salted fish, pickled cabbage stew, beef stroganoff, goulash, and dumplings. Their cuisine is a mix of Balkans, Turkish, and Slavic dishes.
Some foods to try:
Mekitsa – fried dough for breakfast
Kavarma – meat and vegetable stew
Meshana Skara – grilled meat
Musaka – (or moussaka in Greek) Bulgarian musaka is made of potatoes, eggs, and minced meat
Kebapche – Bulgarian kebabs
Baklava – a dessert made of phyllo and nuts
Rakia- a spirit made of grapes and prunes
How to get there
There are no direct flights from the US to Sofia. However, you can fly to other major cities in Europe for an easy connecting flight to Sofia.
I flew with British Airways from New York JFK airport to London Heathrow for a connecting flight to Sofia. Or you can fly with Austrian Airlines from Newark to Sofia via Vienna or into Istanbul with Turkish Airlines to Sofia. Other airlines to consider are KLM, Lufthansa, and Air France.
Sofia is also served by low-cost airlines like Wizz Air and Aegean Airlines.