“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
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.Continue reading