8 signature Sofia streets revealing the Bulgarian capital’s charm

8 signature Sofia streets revealing the Bulgarian capital’s charm

“People and streets, a town like any other”, starts a famous Bulgarian popular song from the 1970s. But of course, not quite. Urban spaces define the vibe of a city, and the animated Bulgarian capital Sofia is no exception. In Antiquity reportedly cherished by Roman emperor Constantine as “my Rome”, then described as a “little Vienna” at the turn of the 20th century, and finally hailed as “my little London” by the legendary singer Todor Kolev, modern Sofia is its very own living and breathing Balkan metropolis. Admittedly, its effortless and at times somewhat rough charm has been often misunderstood and neglected – but there is no better way to rediscover it than to get to know its iconic streets!

The foundations of Sofia’s street network date to Ancient Roman times – and the contemporary city centre is still exactly where Roman Serdica used to stand. The city’s urban plan was then shaped by the medieval Bulgarians, before the Ottoman conquest gave Sofia a decidedly oriental character. As it became the capital of an independent Bulgaria in the late 19th century, the sleepy Ottoman provincial town was transformed into a dignified European capital with an Austro-Hungarian twist. Finally, the socialist period brought the world’s “favourite” Soviet-style panel apartment buildings, and the last couple of decades have seen a hit-and-miss influx of modern architecture.

Be it the Bulgarian Broadway, Sofia’s own Little Beirut, the capital’s up and coming arts and crafts district or its aristocratic thoroughfares, kashkaval tourist presents 8 signature Sofia streets revealing the Bulgarian capital’s charm.

1. Little Beirut in the former Jewish district: Tsar Simeon Street

Little Beirut in the former Jewish district: Tsar Simeon Street
Little Beirut in the former Jewish district: Tsar Simeon Street

Stretching for four kilometres through the northern part of the city centre, Tsar Simeon is by some definitions Sofia’s longest street (and not a boulevard, that is). And though for most of its length it’s just a neighbourhood thoroughfare with a notable number of car parts shops, its middle section between the Hristo Botev and Maria Luiza Boulevards is incredibly lively and like no other street in Sofia.

Simeon carries a scent of Middle Eastern spices and moves to the beat of oriental music as it crosses the famous Women’s Market (and no, women aren’t literally sold there). It’s the main street of Sofia’s Little Beirut, an unfavoured but incredibly curious area, a harbour for refugees, Middle Eastern migrants and local Roma. In this part of Simeon, you’ll find dozens of little spice shops, hookah stores, oriental bakeries, halal butchers and especially barbershops, where the old craft of shaving with a straight razor is still masterfully practiced.

This Little Beirut, now populated by many Arabs, was once curiously the Bulgarian capital’s Jewish ghetto. Unlike the rest of Europe, the Bulgarian Jewish community survived World War II, only to move en masse to Israel in the 1940s, leaving this part of the city deserted. Nowadays, the influx of Middle Easterners has breathed new life into the Tsar Simeon area and the beautiful turn-of-the-century townhouses are beginning to regain their grandeur. And fittingly, the synagogue and the mosque are just a block away from Simeon, almost facing each other, with the Market Hall in between.

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The Red Flat: an immersive museum of day-to-day life in socialist Bulgaria

The Red Flat: an immersive experience of day-to-day life in socialist Bulgaria

Ever wondered what life was like for an average Bulgarian family during communism? In The Red Flat, an interactive and immersive exhibition in an authentic socialist-era apartment in central Sofia, you can do just that.

The kitchen: curiously, Bulgaria was the first Eastern Bloc country to produce Coca-Cola
The kitchen: curiously, Bulgaria was the first Eastern Bloc country to produce Coca-Cola

The Red Flat’s front door might just as well be a time portal to the 1980s. As you enter the apartment, you’re instantly teleported to the private world of the Petrovi family for an audio-guided, true-to-life journey back in time.

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7 scenic hikes in Vitosha, Sofia’s own mountain

7 scenic hikes in Vitosha, Sofia’s own mountain

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

Sofia summit galore: Cherni Vrah

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

Stone rivers from the Ice Age: the Golden Bridges

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.

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8 tourist activities to make the most of the capital Sofia

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 pace with the times

In pace with the times. Photo credit: Ignat Ignev, Wikipedia

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 lined with boutique shops and stylish cafés

Vitosha Boulevard is lined with boutique shops and stylish cafés

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.

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