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Sofia, Bulgaria: Where 7,000+ Years Blend In A Vibrant Fusion

Sofia and Vitosha

The 2nd highest capital in Europe, surrounded by mountains from all sides, with the magnificent Vitosha Mountain watching over it for many centuries, Sofia is a place like no other.

If you’re searching for a destination which combines modern and antique, stylish and unpleasant, history and contemporary, nightlife and nature, the beauty and the beast, you should definitely consider visiting the capital of Bulgaria.

Everything here is multi-layered, multi-cultural, multi-ethnical, and multi-religious. And, not surprisingly, quite colourful and very tolerant.

You’ll shake your head in disbelief, your jaw will drop in awe, your eyes will fill with tears, and your head will spin from the emotional rollercoaster you’re going to experience while walking the streets and visiting the sites of Sofia, Bulgaria.

Find out what expects you in the Bulgarian capital and decide for yourself if you’re ready to handle it all.

History Of Sofia: A City Of Many Names And Many Rulers

Sofia is one of the oldest settlements in Europe. The oldest relics found here are dated to more than 5000 years before Christ. In order to understand Bulgaria’s capital better, first you need to learn how the city evolved, which names it carried, and who ruled it before digging in deeper.

Sofia’s Names Have Changed But Not Its Charisma

Serdica: during the Antique, at the same time the Troyan War was fought, the Thracian settlement Serdica existed.

In 29 AD, the city became part of the Roman Empire. During this time, the city was moderately sized, but the urban planning and architecture was rather magnificent, not lacking amusements and an active social life. Today, the fortress walls are partially excavated and you can walk over the same stones the Roman soldiers marched on.

Sredets: during the Middle Ages, the name changed to Sredets. In 809 Sredets was first annexed to the First Bulgarian Kingdom by Khan Krum. The Romans have already Christianised the city but in the rest of Bulgaria, the new religion first spread half a century later. It was officially accepted around 865.

Sofia: in the 15th century, under the Ottoman Empire ruling, the city received the Christian name Sofia, meaning “wisdom”.

Serdica City Walls Ruins And Mosque

Walk the Roman streets at Serdica ruins excavation site, dated 4th – 6th century AD, in the centre of today’s Bulgarian capital. On the right, you can see the imposing building of TZUM and at the far end is Sofia Mosque.

Sofia Hasn’t Always Been The Capital Of Bulgaria

On April 3rd, 1878, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Sofia was selected as the capital of the Third Bulgarian Kingdom. Although the city had always played a significant role in the Bulgarian history, up until now it had never served as a capital.

During World War II, Sofia was heavily bombarded and over 12,500 buildings were destroyed, including the building of the City Library with 40,000 books inside, a history-drenched 11th-century church, and the spectacular National Theatre.

Motto: “Grows but never gets old”. The controversy is that some buildings haven’t been renovated since they were built and their façades are marked with cracks revealing bare bricks and concrete. Still, if you try to distance yourself from the contemporary problems of the city’s infrastructure and architecture, you’ll find the motto quite suitable.

Diversity: Sofia’s rich history left its mark on every aspect of today’s life. The city’s architectural plan even today follows the plans the Romans made for the main streets and boulevards. The different religions, which co-existed for centuries, still live together nowadays. In the small area of Sofia’s centre, you can find Orthodox churches constructed between 4th and 20th century, the central mosque, the largest Sephardic synagogue in Europe, and a huge modern Catholic cathedral.

Graffiti

Colourful graffiti in a parking lot just across the street from TZUM

The Most Beautiful Aspect Of Sofia: The Tourist Attractions

Most of Sofia’s landmarks are conveniently situated in the city centre, which is easily walkable. This means you will not waste your precious travel time to commute from one attraction to another. Instead, you can use the extra time to just relax for a few hours, make new friends, or go shopping.

The Temples Of Sofia: History, Religion, And Tolerance Through The Centuries

There’s no better way to immerse yourself in Sofia’s history than by visiting a few of the temples in the Bulgarian capital. Not only will you learn fascinating first-hand facts about Europe’s past, you’ll also get a real-life lesson in tolerance.

St. George Rotunda: the oldest temple in Sofia is quietly tucked in the inner yard between the Presidency, Sheraton Hotel and the Ministry of Education. The brick building of the Rotunda was built in the 4th century.

It still serves as a church nowadays. You’ll notice it sits below the level of the street under layers of history. Around it, you can also see the ruins of a Roman street. The neighbouring communist-era buildings provide a shelter from the outside hassle and noise and once you find yourself in the inner yard, be prepared to be transported back in time.

St. Sofia Church: the red bricked Byzantine church rises high above the ground since the 6th century and offers quite large a chamber. Below it, however, is one of the newest museums in Sofia which opened to the public in 2013.

St Sofia and Alexander Nevski

The entrance of St. Sofia church. Below it are the remains of previous churches and around 50 tombs. In the far end peak the golden domes of Alexander Nevski Cathedral.

The church was erected on top of a necropolis and the remains of three earlier churches. Around 50 tombs can be seen today, which were built between 3th and 5th century BC. The newer ones bear Christian symbols. The walls of several of the tombs are covered with wall paintings, very untypical for burial sites, and the floors are strikingly ornamented with mosaics.

The sight of the underground museum will make you forget that you’re indeed in the 21st-century capital city of Bulgaria. Watch your head as you climb down the stairs, and walk through arcs and tunnels to explore the final resting place of people who lived centuries before us.

St. Petka Samardzhiyska: you’ll find the small Medieval stone church in front of the subway entrance “Serdica” inside the pedestrian passage. It is believed, although never proved, that here lie the remains of Vassil Levski, Bulgaria’s national hero. My advice is to admire the church from the outside and not go inside, even if it’s open, as the interior, frankly, is quite disappointing.

Sveta Nedelya Cathedral: Holy Sunday Cathedral, as the name translates, is considered to be the central point of Sofia. It lays above the crossroads of ancient Serdica’s main streets and hides a lot of mysteries inside its tombs.

The first church on this spot was constructed in the 10th century. Later it was demolished and a much larger cathedral was erected in its place in 1867.

Earthquakes, bombings, and assassinations took place in or around the cathedral, leaving their marks and the blood of hundreds of people on the walls. In 1925, over 150 people were killed in a terrorist bombing. The cathedral was later restored and expanded.

Banya Bashi Mosque: Sofia’s Central Mosque was a part of a larger bath complex, hence the name Banya, meaning bath. The architect, who designed it, is the great Kodja Mimar Sinan, also responsible for the construction of some of the most famous mosques in the Ottoman Empire.

The encryption on the mosque’s wall reads 1576 but travellers have reported having seen it in 1553 already. The interior is decorated with artistically inscribed Koran citations and floral ornaments.

Sofia Synagogue

A tram passing by the Central Hali in the distance and Sofia Synagogue in front.

The Sofia Synagogue: planned in Bulgarian National Romanticism style by the Austrian architect Grunanger in the early 1900s, it is the largest Sephardic synagogue in Europe. The floors are covered with Venetian polychrome mosaic and the walls are ornamented with divine floral motives.

Alexander Nevski Cathedral: the biggest cathedral of Bulgaria and one of the largest Orthodox cathedrals in the world was erected in 1912 in Neo-Byzantine style. It is the most famous landmark of Sofia. If you happen to arrive by plane, make sure you look through the window to admire the golden globes of the cathedral’s domes.

Don’t miss the chance to have a look inside the cathedral once you’ve marvelled it from the outside. The sight of the marble columns and thrones and the smell of incense will play with your senses.

Alexander Nevski Cathedral

The imposing golden-domed Alexander Nevski Cathedral is the most famous Bulgarian tourist site.

St. Nicholas The Miracle-maker, a.k.a. The Russian Church: this is one of the most beautifully decorated churches in Sofia. Both its interior and exterior are rich in detail and feature a huge amount of gold, marble, and colourful tiles. It was built in 1914 and its distinguishable gilded onion domes are a lovely contrast to the surrounding buildings in downtown Sofia.

St. Joseph Cathedral: the largest Roman Catholic cathedral in Bulgaria was unfortunately destroyed in the bombarding of Sofia during World War II. In 2002 on his visit to Bulgaria, Pope John Paul II laid the foundation stone of the new building. In 2006, the cathedral was again inaugurated.

Currently, a Roman amphitheatre is being excavated in its proximity and will soon be open to the public.

Hint: all of the described temples are open to the public but please have in mind that they are places of worship. Be respectful and don’t disturb the people praying inside. Dress appropriately and take off your hat, before entering churches, and your shoes, before entering mosques.

Sofia’s Museums And Galleries: Education And Art Blend To Marvel The Visitor

Sofia History Museum: the former central bath building now hosts the newest museum in Sofia. Even if you’re not a history buff, when was the last time you saw a collection of Orthodox icons on display in a former therapeutical pool?

The building of the former central bath has been left unused for decades despite its great architectural value. Luckily, the city of Sofia did one smart thing in turning the architectural masterpiece into a museum.

You can follow the history of Sofia through 7,000 years, check the 18th- and 19th-century fashion in clothing and home interiors, and see the stunning Louis XXIV horse-driven carriage, which the first Tsar of the Third Bulgarian Kingdom drove for his coronation.

National Archaeological Museum: hosted in the building of Sofia’s oldest preserved mosque, where better can you explore the history of the Bulgarian lands? Since you’ll need hours, or even days, to have a look at the whole collection in detail, and your time is probably very limited, my advice is to at least have a look at the highlight of this gorgeous museum – the bronze head of the Thracian ruler Seuthes III from the 4th century BC. Make sure to observe the head from several different angles. You’ll notice how the eyes follow you no matter where you stand.

National Archaeological Museum

The impressive collection of the National Archaeological Museum resides in the oldest preserved mosque in Sofia.

National Museum of Natural History: the oldest Bulgarian museum, founded in 1889, features as the name suggests natural history exhibits and organises educational programmes. You can find it in the building right next to the Russian Church.

You can see thousands of stuffed mammals, birds, insects and a collection of about a quarter of all the world’s minerals on display.

National Historical Museum: the prominent building of the former communist president’s residency in Boyana now hosts over 650,000 items from prehistorical times to the present. You’ll need a full day only for this museum if you decide to take a closer look at the collections on display.

Unfortunately, the building lays at the outskirts of Sofia and getting there is a bit difficult. Still, any history buff should make the effort and visit this impressive museum.

Alexander Nevski Crypt: located underneath the cathedral, the crypt hosts as you might expect a collection of icons and other Christian artefacts. The entrance is on the left-hand side of the imposing cathedral.

Alexander Nevski Crypt Under The Moon

The entrance to Alexander Nevski Cathedral’s crypt under the left dome and Square 500 gallery at the back.

National Museum of Military History: the museum is a bit outside of Sofia’s centre, but this shouldn’t be a problem for anyone wishing to visit it. The most interesting collections are situated in the museum’s backyard: tanks, aeroplanes, missiles are parked in behind the museum’s building.

Earth And Man Museum: this is one of the biggest mineralogical museums in the world with over 20,000 pieces on display. Learn all about the mineral resources of the world and admire the giant crystals on display. It’s a lovely museum containing huge energy: visitors have reported feeling dizzy after an hour-long tour inside.

National Polytechnical Museum: do you know how lasers actually work? You’ll get a really cool demonstration if you decide to visit this museum. You’ll also see inventions from the last couple of centuries and you’ll be amazed at how our everyday life has changed thanks to science and technology.

National Art Gallery: hosted in the former royal palace building, the collection features over 50,000 Bulgarian artworks from the Middle Ages to the present.

Shipka 6: at this address near Sofia University, you’ll find the building of the Union of Bulgarian Artists. It hosts a gallery where temporary exhibitions are regularly organised. Check the current ones and decide if they interest you.

Square 500: the formally known National Gallery for Foreign Art hosts over 2,000 artworks from Bulgarian, European, Asian, American, and African artists.

Hint: have in mind that on Mondays most of the museums and galleries are closed. Check opening hours on the respective websites or ask your accommodation’s reception for assistance.

Ruins Of Serdica: Unearth The Past And Walk Back In Time

You cannot visit a city with such a long history and not stumble upon the ruins of the past settlements. The excavation sites of the Serdica city walls have been incorporated in today’s infrastructure and architecture of the Bulgarian capital.

You can find the best-displayed ruins in the Largo between the Presidency, TZUM Central Department Store, and Serdica subway station. You will notice how everything is multi-layered and the deeper you go underground, the further back in history you’ll step in.

Serdica Under The Moon

The moon shines over the grand communist-era buildings which watch over the Roman ruins in the heart of Sofia.

Another part of the Serdica wall is currently being prepared for the public just in front of the imposing building of Sheraton Hotel and an amphitheatre is being reconstructed in front of the St. Joseph Cathedral.

Smaller parts of the city walls can also be found in the back alleys in the area, but you have to search a little bit harder to find them. Communist-era concrete resident buildings have surrounded some while others have been directly incorporated in hotel lobbies, subway stations, and other buildings’ basements.

As you can imagine, the moment someone starts digging in Sofia’s centre, he starts unearthing artefacts and ruins from past settlements.

Significant Buildings And Monuments: A Colourful Mixture Of Architectural Styles

National Theatre “Ivan Vazov”: named after the patriarch of Bulgarian literature, the red coloured building is one of the most stunning and significant buildings in the Bulgarian capital. It’s the heart of the cultural life in Sofia. Performances are held every night during the active season from September through June and the charming little city garden around it is a favourite gathering place for young and old (see the section about green areas for more details).

National Theatre Ivan Vazov

The drop-dead gorgeous red building of the National Theatre “Ivan Vazov” catches the last sun rays on a beautiful spring evening.

Even if you can’t attend a performance as most of them are held in Bulgarian, don’t miss the chance to spend a few minutes admiring the oldest and most authoritative theatre building in Bulgaria, constructed in the beginning of the 20th century in Neoclassical architecture.

National Opera and Ballet: from the outside, the building from 1953 doesn’t seem so impressive. It’s the interior, which will leave you breathless, and then once the performance starts and the world renowned opera and ballet stars come on stage, you’ll have an experience to remember for the rest of your life.

Eagles’ Bridge: a beautiful historical bridge, featuring four bronze sculptures of eagles. It was built in 1891 as a symbol of freedom on a very busy and important crossroad in Sofia.

Lions’ Bridge: the bridge with four gorgeous bronze statues of lions was designed on another very busy and important crossroad in Sofia in a place where criminals were hung previously. The lions symbolise the revolutionaries and intellectuals who were executed by the Ottoman rulers.

Sofia University: this is the oldest higher education institution in Bulgaria. It was established in 1888. The construction of the building was completed with the financial support of the brothers Evlogi Georgiev and Hristo Georgiev, whose magnificent statues decorate the central staircase of the institution.

Vassil Levski Monument: the striking monument rises at the spot where Bulgaria’s national hero and revolutionary Vassil Levski (1837 – 1873) was hung by the Ottoman rulers. Twice a year, at his birthday, on July 18th, and on the day of his death, February 18th, members of the state, parliament, students, and citizens pay their respect and leave flowers at the monument.

Monument of Tsar Osvoboditel: the monument of the Russian Emperor Alexander II, a.k.a. Tsar Liberator, whose armies helped Bulgaria overthrow Ottoman Empire’s ruling in 1876, is one of the most outstanding and significant monuments in Sofia. Alexander II is portrayed riding his horse. The bronze figure watches over the building of the Bulgarian Parliament just across the boulevard, also named Tsar Osvoboditel (Tsar Liberator).

Tsar Osvoboditel Monument

The monument of Alexander II, a.k.a. Tsar Osvoboditel, looking at the Bulgarian Parliament. The yellow-brick paved boulevard in front of him also carries the name Tsar Osvoboditel.

National Palace of Culture (NDK): built in 1981 as a congress centre, it still hosts the biggest multifunctional hall in Bulgaria as well as several smaller ones. The park around NDK is charmingly decorated with fountains and flower gardens and is one of the favourite places of Sofians for strolling around on a nice day, people watching, having a drink, meeting friends, or skating.

One of the most controversial monuments in Sofia is at the far end of the park. Although its name “1300 Years Bulgaria” and the occasion it was constructed for are rather significant, the fact that it was erected during the final years of the socialist era left an unpleasant taste to it.

It has since then been left in ruins, and currently the area around it is closed as it poses a threat. If you’re searching for communist-era monuments, however, put this monument as number one on your list.

Parks And Green Areas: The Best Places To Charge Your Batteries

City garden: the garden in the heart of the city hosts a gorgeous fountain and is a favourite meeting place for old and young. You’ll see teenagers drinking beers and flirting, couples dancing while street musicians perform their tunes, elderly gentlemen playing chess. Have a seat on one of the benches or in the café in front of the National Theatre building and watch theatregoers and passengers starting their night out.

Park Borisova gradina: the largest and most famous park in Sofia is a historic forest, which was arranged in 1884. Named after the last Bulgarian monarch, Tsar Boris III, it covers a huge area of 300,000 m².

On its grounds, you’ll find multiple monuments, artificial lakes, stadiums and sports grounds,  swimming pools, an astronomy observatory, and, of course, lots of walking alleys and paths with benches and recreational spots.

Soviet Army Monument

The controversial Soviet Army monument rises high above the park surrounding it. Vitosha Mountain in the back watches over the Bulgarian capital.

Knyazheska Garden a.k.a. Soviet Army Park: you can’t miss the sight of the highly erected Soviet Army monument if you’re in the area between Sofia University and the Eagles‘ Bridge. It commemorates the help of the Russian troops during World War II. Its controversy comes from the fact that Bulgaria was a German ally during both World Wars.

The park around the monument is a nice place to relax or watch teenagers practise their flips on skateboards or bikes.

University Botanical Garden: just opposite the Vassil Levski monument, you’ll find a place of tranquillity and extraordinary beauty. Since 1892, the garden is open to the public in the heart of the buzzing capital.

Kambanite (The Bells): the complex was officially open in 1979 as part of UNESCO’s children art festival activities. It is a concrete park on the outskirts of Sofia. Originally, 68 bells from all over the world hung and nowadays the number has increased to 100. Awaken the child in you and try to find a bell from your country to hear its enchanting song.

Vitosha Mountain: the extinct volcano watches over Sofia and can be seen from almost anywhere in the Bulgarian capital. If your schedule allows it, don’t miss a chance to hike on one of the trails and see how stunningly awe-inspiring Sofia can be on a clear day from above. And if the city is covered in smog, go above it to enjoy the sunshine and a fresh breath of mountain air.

Shopping Areas: Find Local Brands And The Best Value For Your Money

Pirotska Street: you can find everything you might or might not want to buy in the 350 m long section of the street: souvenirs, covered bazaars and boutiques, clothes and shoes, supermarkets and drugstores, street food stalls and cafés, beggars and rich tourists on shopping sprees.

The prices are very reasonable and the quality of the goods is decent. If you’re searching for souvenirs, which are not overpriced, or for new clothes for your wardrobe, this is the place to shop.

Vitosha Boulevard: the pedestrian street with many cafés, eateries, and overpriced shops is great for a stroll and people watching session but I wouldn’t recommend shopping here. If your budget and time allow it, though, sit for a coffee, beer or lunch in one of the establishments and enjoy the colourful parade.

Vitosha Boulevard

Vitosha Boulevard is a pedestrian street overlooking the magnificent Vitosha Mountain, with lots of (overpriced) shops, cosy cafés, and a colourful parade of people.

Malls and covered markets: there are multiple newly-built malls in Sofia as well as several historical covered markets.

The Central Hali is a historical building, which hosts gourmet food, souvenir and boutique shops, and several other establishments. I wouldn’t buy anything there as the prices are greatly inflated but the building and the atmosphere inside are worth a quick stop.

Same goes for the huge communist-era building of the Central Department Store (TZUM). Previously it was the place to shop for just about anything in the city. Since the 1990s, however, it’s no longer a department store but rather an expensive mall with boutique shops. Or, as Sofians call it, just another museum where you walk in, look at the labels and walk out the doors.

The newer malls of Sofia offer brands found in the rest of Europe and the world as well as several Bulgarian brands. No surprise then that the prices are the same as everywhere else. I can’t honestly recommend one single mall for shopping and I don’t think you should go out of your way to visit one either. If there’s a conveniently located mall near your accommodation, spare an hour or two for some people watching or a coffee but it’s really nothing special visiting a mall in Sofia.

Open-air markets: the most famous ones are almost in the centre of the city. Zhenski Pazar (Women’s Market), Pazar Rimskata stena (Roman Wall Market), and the stalls on Graf Ignatiev Street are probably the most convenient places to visit. A fair warning: beware of pickpockets and altered scales.

Practical Information: Trot The Streets Of Sofia Like A Local

Sofia is no different than any other large city in that it has a few things to avoid and watch out for. The warnings below are the worst case scenarios and not an attempt to scare you or present the capital of Bulgaria in a negative light. Simply do what you’ll normally do everywhere else in the world: use your common sense and observe your surroundings carefully.

Electricity: 220 V, 50 Hz, same plug as in most of Europe. You can buy adapters at gadget shops if you didn’t bring your own.

Currency: the local currency is called “lev” (singular) or “leva”  (plural) or “lv” for short. The rate is fixed for 1€ = 1.95 BGN ($1 = 1.80 as of April 2017). Change your money only at banks or withdraw from ATMs. Avoid exchange kiosks as they buy and sell at unfavourable prices, and can even try to scam you.

Two of the most popular currency scams are adding an extra one after the decimal point, exchanging Euros at 1.195 BGN, and selling you older, invalid, and useless banknotes.

Lodging: you can find reasonably priced hotels even in the heart of Sofia. Check other travellers’ recommendations and reviews and book according to your budget and comfort needs. The preferred location for the best views is Tsar Osvoboditel Blvd. The higher your room is, the better the view over the roofs of Sofia will be.

Eateries: in the city centre, you’ll find traditional Bulgarian food, as well as international dishes. Street food is cheap, delicious, and safe to eat. Use common sense, check that there are people already eating at the stall you want to order from, or in the restaurant you want to sit in. Check e.g. Google Maps for reviews and recommendations from both locals and travellers or ask at your accommodation’s reception before going out.

Pirotska Shopping Street

Pirotska Street is great for a shopping spree and sampling street food at the same time. Check out the brightly coloured sneakers while munching on sweet corn from the vendor under the blue umbrella.

Transportation: the subway is the only public transportation I can highly recommend. There are several tricks to remember when you ride it. Don’t buy a ticket in advance as they expire and are only valid from the station you buy them at. If you don’t want to buy a single ticket each time you want to ride the Sofia subway, buy a magnetic card and charge it with 10 rides. Most probably, you won’t need more than that anyway. The current price for 10 rides is 12 BGN and the single ticket is 1.60 BGN. The magnetic card itself costs 1 BGN.

Outside the operating hours and areas of the subway, use a taxi. The current rate is under 1 BGN for both day and night rides and stickers with the price are displayed on the front and side windows of the taxis. Check them before you hop in as many taxi companies rely on people’s trust and inflate their prices.

Day Trip Ideas From Sofia: Escape The Crowds To Nearby Heavenly Places

In case you’ve had enough of Sofia and want to explore other parts of Bulgaria, you can easily plan a day or overnight trip or two.

  • Go for a hike in the Vitosha Mountain and enjoy the best views of Sofia from above.
  • Chase evil spirits at the International Festival of Masquerade Games “Surva” in Pernik.
  • Visit Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second-largest city and one of the oldest in Europe.
  • Spend a night at the Rila Monastary, the largest Orthodox monastery on the Balkans.
  • Walk the cobblestone streets of Bulgaria’s smallest and warmest town – Melnik.
  • Relax and rejuvenate in the SPA capital of Europe – Velingrad.
  • Unwind, go fishing or watch a peacock dance at the Windmills Complex in Gorna Malina.

Visit Sofia For An Invaluable Lesson In History And Tolerance

Despite not being the most glamorous destination in Europe you could visit, Sofia’s rich history and diversity have shaped a stunning and brilliant mixture of architectural styles, colours, shapes, and contrasts which will not leave you indifferent.

In fact, I’m absolutely sure once you’ve immersed yourself into the quintessence of Sofia, you’ll come back for more.

Are you ready to hop on the emotional rollercoaster and visit Sofia? What’s the first place you want to see in the dazzling Bulgarian capital?

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