Whether you’re arriving to Sofia by air, road or rail, the first thing that catches your eye as you enter the Sofia Valley is likely to be Vitosha, Sofia’s unmistakable natural landmark. Rising to 2290 metres above sea level and well over a mile above the valley floor, the dome-shaped Vitosha is Bulgaria’s fourth-highest mountain massif. And due to its proximity to the capital city and the accessible Aleko ski area, the mountain is also the locals’ favourite weekend retreat in all four seasons.
Do thickly forested slopes, subalpine plateaus, unique stone rivers, thundering waterfalls, secluded monasteries or snow-capped summits sound like a day well spent to you? Well then, prepare to discover kashkaval tourist’s 7 scenic hikes in Vitosha, Sofia’s own mountain!
1. Sofia summit galore: Cherni Vrah
Though it might sound like a challenge with its respectable height of 2290 metres and its reputation for strong winds, Vitosha’s highpoint Cherni Vrah is in fact a very accessible summit in any season. Because of its closeness to Sofia and the multitude of transport links and trails, Cherni Vrah is by far the most climbed mountain peak in Bulgaria, with tens of thousands of visitors each year. That the meteorological station’s teahouse on the summit reliably serves warm bean soup and cold beer might also be contributing to its popularity!
Cherni Vrah (Черни връх, “Black Peak”) stands only a few hundred metres above the high-altitude plateaus and the tree line, making the hike from the slightly wonky Dragalevtsi chairlift’s top station (Goli Vrah) a literal walk in the park in good weather. The ascent from the Aleko ski area is only a tad more challenging. However, the low difficulty of the trails doesn’t in any way impact the grandeur of the panoramas, whether you’re looking down towards Sofia or around to the awe-inspiring ridges of Rila, Pirin or the Balkan Mountains.
2. Stone rivers from the Ice Age: the Golden Bridges
Ever heard of stone rivers? Imagine a stream-like accumulation of thousands of massive boulders, extending for kilometres down the mountain slope. Thanks to Vitosha’s extraordinary geological history, these unique landforms from the last Ice Age have become something of a signature for Sofia’s nearby mountain! And though stone rivers can be found in a multitude of locations in the higher parts of Vitosha, the most famous (and largest) of them ought to be the Golden Bridges.
This particular stone river is more than two kilometres long and its poetic name supposedly comes from the yellowish lichen that grows on the boulders. In summer, the Golden Bridges (Златните мостове, Zlatnite mostove) are a beloved location for picnics and sunbathing, with kids having the time of their life hopping from boulder to boulder while the parents are chatting and sipping a beer nearby.
3. Classic vistas of the capital: Kamen Del
Look south towards Vitosha from the central streets of Sofia and you might think its highest point is not Cherni Vrah (tucked in the distance somewhat further south), but the prominent rocky summit of Kamen Del. With its 1862 metres, it might be a noticeably lower peak than Cherni Vrah, but because of its position within clear and direct sight of practically the entire Bulgarian capital city, Kamen Del is deservedly known for the clearest and widest panorama of Sofia.
Though it barely rises above the turf and moss of the Big Plateau, Kamen Del (Камен дел, “Rocky Part”) has rightfully earned its name – it is surrounded by what can be described as a stone sea of andesite boulders.
4. Thunder in paradise: Boyana Waterfall
Hidden deep inside the thick beech forests above the Boyana neighbourhood of Sofia you’ll discover Vitosha’s highest waterfall, the imposing Boyana Waterfall. At its site, the white waters of the Boyana River strike the rocks below after a 25-metre drop, creating an unforgettable visual as well as acoustic experience.
It might be shorter, but the direct trail to the Boyana Waterfall is notoriously vertical and a challenge for your knees, though there’s no substantial danger of falling. For a somewhat more relaxed hike, take the detour passing through the Boyana Lake. And by all means combine your waterfall walk with a visit to the magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Boyana Church in the neighbourhood just below!
5. Hello from the other side: Kladnitsa
You’re an experienced Vitosha explorer and by now you feel like you know all the trails from Sofia like the palm of your hand? Then it’s time to venture into the “dark side” of Vitosha and see what it’s like from the south! Relatively unpopular but just as beautiful as the well-trodden paths closer to the capital, the scenic Eco Trail of Health begins in the village of Kladnitsa and follows the river of the same name. It continues upstream past the humble and serene Kladnitsa Monastery to the Selimitsa Hut. There, you can enjoy a simple but hearty mountain meal and marvel at the nearby stone river.
And if you’re in for a greater challenge, you can hike further up from Kladnitsa (Кладница) and Selimitsa all the way to Cherni Vrah. The vistas of Pernik and the Studena Reservoir below will be a welcome change from what you’re used to on the other side – and you’re likely to have the trail to yourself, as only a fraction of hikers take the trouble to start their summit trek from there.
6. Mineral hot tubs in the forest: Zheleznitsa
Vitosha and the Sofia Valley are nationally renowned for their hot springs of mineral water, a remainder of volcanic activity in the distant past. However, it’s only the mountainside village of Zheleznitsa that boasts two natural hot springs converted into stone hot tubs, hidden in the woods and free for everyone to enjoy!
Otherwise, Zheleznitsa (Железница), just south of Sofia and the bigger Bistritsa, is an excellent starting point for at least two very enjoyable summit hikes to Cherni Vrah via Skoparnik. The more popular one goes past the Fizkulturnik Hut, though the alternative, which visits the iconic Blue Arrow shelter, comes highly recommended.
7. Quest to the TV tower: Kopitoto
Now that’s a classic Vitosha walk that many elderly Sofia residents seem to do every sunny weekend! The hike from the Knyazhevo terminus of the 5 tram to the Kopitoto TV Tower is a pleasant forest ascent that is both very reachable and quite refreshing on a scorching summer day. Unless you’re doing it like Bulgarian mountaineering legend Boyan Petrov, that is, who runs the 800 metres of altitude difference while carrying a ten-litre bottle of water on his back!
When you reach the hoof-like Kopitoto (Копитото) outcrop and the capital city’s landmark TV tower, go through the abandoned lift station for a decent panorama of Sofia’s western districts (but watch your feet). And if you’re craving some basic food and drink, the Momina Skala area with its huts and restaurants is not too far away.
Getting to Vitosha from Sofia
Despite the mountain’s proximity, the transport links from Sofia still leave something to be desired, especially on weekdays. The Vitosha Metro Station is the closest rapid-transit link to the mountain. As such, it’s the best place to catch a bus to many of the mountainside neighbourhoods or to the lifts that can take you directly into the higher reaches of the mountain. A second bus hub for the mountain is the G. M. Dimitrov Metro Station.
Overall, the Sofia Traffic website offers decent journey-planning tools and can suggest the most convenient route based on your current location and destination. And a fantastic transport map of Sofia is available online from True North. The Vitosha Nature Park administration has a great overview map of the main trails, but the online version is in Bulgarian and Cyrillic only.
To get to the Dragalevtsi chairlift, which works only on weekends and holidays, take the 93 bus from Vitosha Metro. The lift’s end station at Goli Vrah is the easiest and most popular choice for a summit walk to Cherni Vrah. On weekdays, you can start your hike down in the Dragalevtsi neighbourhood itself, also accessible via tha 64 bus. And on weekends, the 66 bus continues past the chairlift up to the Aleko ski area (Hotel Morenite).
The more modern and pleasant Simeonovo gondola goes up to the Aleko ski area too, but it’s also open only on weekends and holidays, unfortunately. It can be reached via the 122 bus from Vitosha Metro or a longer ride on the 123 bus from G. M. Dimitrov Metro.
The Boyana neighbourhood, home to the Boyana Church and the trailhead for your waterfall hike, is connected to central Sofia by the 63, 107 and 163 buses from Tsar Boris III Boulevard and the 64 bus from Vitosha Metro. On weekends, 63 and 163 go up to the Golden Bridges.
To reach the Knyazhevo trailhead for the Kopitoto hike, take tram number 5 from central Sofia (terminus behind the Chamber of Justice) or at any point on Tsar Boris III Boulevard.
The 98 bus from Vitosha Metro goes to the southern villages of Bistritsa and Zheleznitsa, though it takes a while to get there. Alternative, though not shorter, are the 69 and 70 bus routes from G. M. Dimitrov Metro, which also extend to both villages (the 70 continuing to Plana).
Kladnitsa has bus transport only from the closer town of Pernik. However, marshrutka minibuses from the Russian Monument in central Sofia go there every hour too.