You may have wandered into Sofia as part of a wider European trip or a tour of the Balkans. While Sofia is by no means Bulgaria’s top holiday destination, it is nevertheless a very pleasant and green capital city with plenty of tourist attractions to explore. Sofia can serve as a great introduction to Bulgaria and can give you a very good idea of what Southeastern Europe look and feels like.
So, what are the top 8 places to visit and things to do for visitors of Sofia?
8. See a controversial Soviet monument turned street art canvas
In recent years, the Monument to the Soviet Army (just off the Sofia University metro station) has made headlines all over the world with the multiple graffiti makeovers it has been given by anonymous Bulgarian street artists. In 2011, some of the main statues of Soviet soldiers were repainted as American comic book and pop culture heroes (including Superman, Captain America, the Joker and Ronald McDonald). This art action was a clever hint at the changing fashions – once culturally tied to the Soviet Union, today Bulgaria looks west for its cultural influences.
Other makeovers have been even more politically charged – Guy Fawkes masks were followed by Pussy Riot balaclavas and an apology to the Czech Republic for the Bulgarian participation in the Prague Spring. Most recently, the monument was used as a canvas to support the Ukrainian Revolution.
7. Feel the cosmopolitan spirit of Vitosha Boulevard
Vitosha Boulevard is Sofia’s main shopping street. A pedestrianized thoroughfare, its main part runs from the Saint Nedelya Church to the grand National Palace of Culture. Vitosha Boulevard is lined with comfortable cafés to sit in and engage in some people watching. If you’re hungry, you can have lunch or dinner at an Irish pub, an Italian restaurant or a Chinese fast food place.
Not far from Vitosha Boulevard, along Graf Ignatiev Street, is Slaveykov Square, well known for its open-air book market. Browse the dozens of stalls selling all kinds of literature in a multitude of languages, from romantic novels to political and scientific volumes.
6. Discover the royal splendour of Vrana Park and Palace
Though founded in the distant 1904 by King Ferdinand, Vrana Park and Palace is one of Sofia’s newest sights – until recently, access was restricted because the estate is the private property of the former Bulgarian royal family. However, the park was open to visitors in the summer of 2013 and while the palace is still under internal reconstruction, you can observe it and its beautiful fountains from up close.
With its botanic collection, artificial pond with lilies and Alpine garden, Vrana Park is a very suitable place for a romantic walk. Admission costs 5 BGN and guided tours are conducted every hour at no additional cost. On weekends, bus 505 runs from Eagles’s Bridge to the park once every hour.
5. Stroll along the lakeside in Pancharevo
12 kilometres southeast of the city centre, the former village of Pancharevo is a favourite weekend retreat for the citizens of Sofia. Pancharevo owes its attraction to its scenic location between the Vitosha and Lozen mountains and particularly to the artificial Lake Pancharevo, a preferred place for sunbathing, swimming, fishing and watersports. Because Sofia is relatively far from the sea, locals jokingly call Lake Pancharevo the “Sea of Sofia”.
Take buses 1 or 3 from Tsarigradsko Shose metro station and you’ll be enjoying the beaches of Lake Pancharevo in no time. There’s a trail with a panoramic view of the lake for you to hike. And if you feel like seeing some medieval ruins, you can visit the fortress of Urvich at the neighbouring village of Kokalyane.
4. Marvel at the Ancient Roman heritage
Sofia is one of Europe’s most ancient capitals. Originally established by the Thracians, it was later an important city of the Roman Empire; Emperor Constantine famously referred to it as “My Rome”.
A large part of Sofia’s ancient heritage is still preserved. The most prominent example is the red-bricked Hagia Sophia (Sveta Sofia) Church from the 6th century which gave its name to the city itself. Make sure you visit the church’s underground crypt to see Roman frescoes and artifacts.
Saint George’s Rotunda is even older than the Hagia Sophia Church and bears the title of the oldest extant building in Sofia. Dating to the 4th century, its unusual cylindrical structure is now curiously nested in the courtyard of the Sheraton Hotel, Ministry of Education and Presidency edifices.
Many locals still don’t know that Sofia has a partially preserved Roman amphitheatre. It’s not easy to find though – its ruins are now mainly inside the Arena di Serdica hotel. Ask at the reception and they will be glad to let you in to see the amphitheatre for free. Being on the underground level of a hotel and knowing that gladiators fought on this very spot is a surreal feeling.
3. Go hiking or skiing on Vitosha
How many capital cities around the world boast a full-sized mountain right on the outskirts? Vitosha is not only the most prominent feature of Sofia’s landscape, but also an attractive destination for nature lovers. In summer, you can embark on an entertaining trek up to the highest peak Cherni Vrah (2290 m) or to the stone river of the Golden Bridges (Златните мостове, Zlatnite mostove); in winter, you may want to head to the Aleko winter sports centre to check out the quality ski runs.
Regardless of the season, Vitosha Nature Park (the oldest in the Balkans) ought to feature prominently in your visit to Sofia.
2. Tour the history museum and the gorgeous medieval church in Boyana
The National Historical Museum in Boyana is Bulgaria’s largest and most elaborate museum. Housed in a former government residence in the Boyana neighborhood on the outskirts of the city (take bus 64 from Hladilnika), it covers all ages of Bulgarian history, from the Paleolithic to modern times. Keep your eyes open for the incredibly detailed Thracian gold treasures, particularly the ancient Panagyurishte Treasure with its elaborate animal and human-shaped drinkware.
While in Boyana, I strongly recommend paying a visit to the celebrated Boyana Church from the Middle Ages. A small church on the outskirts, the Boyana Church is actually Sofia’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site – and for good reason! Its three layers of frescoes, the most famous of which are from the 13th century, are absolutely magnificent and lifelike. Some researchers have gone as far as to label them a predecessor of the Renaissance.
The National Historical Museum has free admission on the last Monday of every month. Else make sure you get a combined ticket for the museum and the Boyana Church (12 BGN) – bought separately, each is 10 BGN, so you can save 8 BGN if visiting both! Bus 64 goes to Boyana from Hladilnika (10-15 min on foot from James Bourchier metro station).
1. Enter one of the largest Orthodox cathedrals in the world
The huge gilded domes of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral are an unmistakable feature in the city centre of Sofia. The cathedral took 30 years to build and now serves as the principal place of worship of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. It is lavishly decorated in a Neo-Byzantine style and impresses with its towering proportions.
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral’s crypt houses a very large collection of Orthodox icons that’s definitely worth a visit. And if you’re into communist memorabilia, the outdoor flea market on the cult yellow pavement adjacent to the cathedral is the place to go. Just don’t let the vendors overcharge you and spend a decent amount of time haggling for the best bargain!