Bulgaria’s capital is a multilayered blend of history, culture and attitude. Its peculiar Balkan, Russian and Oriental essence make it an intriguing (and cheap) destination where one can indulge in local gaustronomy, history and culture.
Sofia has been often neglected by tourists, due to its use as a transit zone for the famous ski resorts or the black sea destinations. The city is blessed with a solid four season climate meaning that summers are hot, winters are snowy (but sunny), while autumns and springs catch their chance to pageant their delicate beauty.
Summers are very easy to enjoy although during August the city gets empty as everyone heads towards the seaside. Nevertheless you can always walk up the Vitosha mountain (once a Volcano!) for a heat escape or visit some of the lakes on the outskirts of the city.
Winters are perfect for skiing as Sofia is the only European capital that can offer a ski pista only 20 minutes away by car! The Vitosha mountain has everything that a ski resort can offer.
Springs and Autumns are filled with various events, flea markets, concerts and city-like activities.
The Balkan Capital of Parks
During the summer the city’s parks become a social hub. Groups of young people gather in the parks, play music, do acrobatics, eat and drink until the morning hours. You can encounter such intresting events in places like the park of the National Theater, the Crystal Garden or the Zaimov Park. The oldest park called the Borisova Gradina, spreads over a huge urban territory and has to offer all kinds of activities, from horse-riding to sailing a boat in Ariana lake. Borisova is often used as a film location for scenes that are supposed to be set in New York’s Central Park, so one can find a slight similarity between the two, although the Bulgarian park has some communist aesthetics to offer as well.
Sofia City of Film
Sofia is a film city, since a great number of international productions are being filmed in its legendary NU Boyana Film Studios. It is not very unlikely that while walking, on its eternally-under-constraction streets, you meet Salma Hayek or Antonio Banderas casually buying ice-cream from a local patisserie. The film studios are located in the outskirts and are a very glamorous place to visit. There you will encounter the diverse film decors that can offer you walks around the streets of New York, London, New Mexico, Ancient Rome and many more… If you are a genuine film fan, then March is the right time to visit the capital, as that is when the Sofia International Film Festival takes place and lasts for at least a whole month.
The centre of the capital is relatively small but has a lot to offer. Once taking over the streets you will inevitably walk through the layered history of the place. From Thracian remains, to Ancient Roman walls and ruins, through the monuments of the national heroes and writers from monarchy times, to the grandeause monuments of the Red Army that reflect the country’s communist regime from last century. Sofia was built in a similar way to many Russian cities; it particularly kind of reminds us of a mini-Moscow. Even the metro carriages are exactly the same. The center has its Russian scent with the magnificent Alexander Nevsky Church as the city’s foremost symbol. The church was built by Alexander Pomerantsev in a Neo-Byzantine style and is definitely one of the largest and most astonishigly beautiful Orthodox churches of the world. Next to the church is the old flea market where you can find all kinds of antiquities from jewellery to paintings and machinery from one or two or more centuries ago.
Nearby is the Russian church which represents another architectural gorgeousness and is situated between two parks- one right infront and one hidden right behind- the Royal Palace’s Garden. The latter one, as the name suggests, is a royal-like park right next to the Palace (which now houses the National Art Gallery) and some of the most beautifully built and still preserved city streets (like Moskovska). If you’re passing by on a sunny day, do not forget to stop by and have a cocktail (or a coffee at least) at the Tobacco Garden Bar. The bar is a charming city treasure where you can escape during the summer and be transfered some decades back in this old bohemian Central European elegance.
When continuing your city tour, you will head towards Serdica- the very centre of Sofia which is the Ancient Roman name for the place. There you can explore history as a microcosmos. On one side you have the marvellous Tzum and Sofia Hotel Balkan buildings identical to the Moscovian Gum department store. On the other side you have the part of the Roman amphitheatre, the archaeological level under the St Sophia Basilica, the archaeological remains of the vicinity of St George Rotunda Church and the Eastern Gate and the Decumanus Maximus of Serdica. On top of all these, you have the religious centre of the capital- the Banya Bashi Mosque, the St. Nedelya Church and the Sofia Synagogue (being the largest one in the Balkans). All religious settlements are within a small perimeter and are effectively and peacefully functioning and coexisting. Right behind the Mosque is the Central Mineral Bath. Its architectural style blends the Vienna Secession style, the traditional Bulgarian, the Byzantine and the Eastern Orthodox ornamental elements. Its building is a landmark of the centre of Sofia but unfortunately has lost its Bath functioning and the Municipality decided to turn it into a City Museum dedicated to the history of the capital.
On the side of the main building you will spot the locals queing everyday to pour the warm mineral water into bottles from the tapped springs. There is situated another park offering benches, a nice and relaxing atmosphere. Some days you can spot a mini-flea market where people sell jewellery and antiques. While underground, near the Serdica metro station you can enter into one of the shops offering rose-water products- the ultimate traditional fine product of the country. Next to this you will find a jewellery store that has exceptional and very cheap jewels of thracian style. You will recognise it by its dense vitrine. If hungry, nearby is the Rainbow Factory which is a bistro-like place offering coffee, gourmet street food and an excellent selection of local beers.
Following the Vitosha mountain
From the bellybutton of the city you can head south towards the sight of the Vitosha mountain. The street that looks like its leading towards the mountain is called Vitoshka meaning the small Vitosha. The long street has been transformed into a pedestrian zone and is home for numerous cafes, restaurants, bars and shops of all kinds. There you can find everything!
At some point you will reach a gigantic square that is also a skate park and has a large building in placed the middle.The building is the NDK (National Palace of Culture) which represents the largest, multifunctional conference and exhibition centre in the Balkans. Architecturaly the building represents communist aesthetics, exhibiting an octagonal motif of heavy, dark colours and large bright murals that depict historical figures and communist art. To me the building is so ugly that it becomes strikingly charming.
Graf Ignatiev and the Tiny Streets
When leaving NDK you can head back north and roam around the small streets of the center until you reach the long tram street Graf Ignatiev. There you will find numerous shops bars and cafes. Here I will introduce you to some amazing and also hidden places of the city:
A bourgeois apartment turned into an art café/bar that has to offer alternative food and beverages (lots of vegan things) for everyone. Do not miss to try the Raspberry wine!
Mekitsa & Coffe:
The two-floored tiny space that has to offer typical Bulgarian breakfast within a tiny chic interior.
The Cocktail Bar:
An ex-public toilette building transformed into a super cool and chic bar situated within another park. The place has to offer a 360 degrees view and sensory experience from some of the most skilled mixologists of the city.
Hambara is undoubtedly the most unique bar I have ever been to. It is located in the depth of a dark alley between two buildings on “6 septemvri” number 22. The place is an absolute cult providing the most atmospheric experience. Hambara is a bar with no electricity just lit candles, good whiskey and if lucky enough to spot one- amazing live jazz. Someone told me this is the oldest bar of Sofia.
The restaurants are many… but I will mention just one because it epitomizes not only good food but also some literatural history. “Pod Lipite” is located on the “artist’s street”. Many famous writers, poets, actors etc lived on the street called Elin Pelin, which got its name by the legendary national writer, who on his turn gave the name to the restaurant which translates into “Under the Linden”. Pod Lipite is an old restaurant, it gathered its numerous Bulgarian inteligency in the past and it kept its traditional, bohemian character in the present. The interior is like an old wooden village restaurant, the waitors are dressed in traditional clothing and during the weekends you can enjoy traditional live music accompanied by gaida and the one-of-a-kind voice of the female Rhodope singers.
Sofia is a small and easy to reach destination. It may seem as if it doesn’t have much to offer but once you combine the obvious with the places mentioned above, I can assure that you will never look at it the same way. Whether you decide to visit it exclusively or to combine it with your trip to the Black Sea, or the Bulgarian countryside just do not hesitate to pause your time and roam around its tiny little streets, its grandiose boulevards, endless parks and experience the blend of history.
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