There is nothing I love more than arriving in a new city and discovering its treasures and secrets. And for my birthday last November, I arrived in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, for a weekend break to celebrate the gems of this city.
Sofia is the Bulgarian capital and the largest city. Located at the foot of the picturesque Vitosha Mountain, it is a charming city in the centre of the Balkan Peninsula.
I truly fell in love with this special, laid-back city with a plethora of diverse architectural styles from onion-domed churches to stunning neo-classical features.
If you’re looking for a new European city to explore, I hope this post will inspire you to add Sofia to your bucketlist!
It was a short taxi drive to our hotel, the Intercontinental Sofia, which is the perfect location on Narodno Sabranie Square and right opposite the Bulgarian Parliament.
Sofia City Tour
As always I start with a city tour. That way you get to know the history of the city and see all the main sites and can decide which to go back to.
I chose the Sofia bus tour which goes three times a day with a good English commentary that starts at the breathtaking Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.
There are of course numerous walking tours to be found, as well as the bus tour I picked, but in the winter with my health, I have to be careful!
On first glance, Sofia seems an ordinary European city with its share of beautiful buildings until you realise this is the second oldest city in Europe.
Founded 7000 years ago the motto of Sofia is rather apt: “Growing without ageing!”
Although Roman remains can be seen nearly all over the city, its important buildings are less than 150 years old and there are many reminders of its Soviet-era.
Sofia is a relatively compact city so I returned to explore most of it again on foot. However, it will take you to some outlying places such as driving over Eagle’s Bridge to see the Vasil Levski National Stadium.
The tour ended very conveniently outside its most iconic building St. Alexander Nevski Cathedral which happened to be right opposite our hotel.
A quick word of advice about working out the best way to cover the city. There are three distinct areas; Modern Sofia, Byzantine and Ottoman Sofia and the one I started with Imperial Sofia.
As I was in the centre it was easy to walk everywhere but the metro is very convenient and like everything else here incredibly cheap. This really is the place to come to if you are on a tight budget!
The Orthodox Alexander Nevski Cathedral with its golden domes dominates the city and is a symbol of Sofia. Started in 1882 it was finished in 1912 and named after the patron saint of the Russian Tsar Alexander II who was in power at the time.
The peal of its 12 bells can be heard from 30km away and it is considered to be the largest operating Eastern Orthodox church in the Balkans. Inside you can see wonderful icons, huge chandeliers and the royal thrones.
Don’t leave without a visit to the crypt where you will find one of the best collections of icons to be found anywhere in the world. It houses over 3000 unique icons, murals, manuscripts and altar doors.
In front of the cathedral is the oldest church in Sofia, the Basilica of St Sofia which gives the city its name. It was built in the late 5th to early 6th century on the foundations of older churches from Roman times.
During its long history, it has been destroyed and rebuilt. The Ottoman conquerors converted it into a mosque and the present building is from the 19th century.
When you have admired the icons inside take time to walk to the southern side. There you will find the National Monument to the Unknown Soldier with the eternal flame.
Walking around the opposite side of St Sofia you will see the National Academy of Art, the National Library and several University buildings.
You may also spot nearby the statue to Vasil Levski, a Bulgarian martyr killed by the Ottomans for his leadership of the revolutionary movement.
Next day we set off refreshed to explore the Byzantine and Ottoman Sofia. Walking along the main road Tsar Osvoboditel my first stop was the St Nikolai Russian church, one of my favourite churches at least from the outside.
It was built in 1913 for the Russian diplomats and immigrants in a perfect Russian style and houses the body of Bishop Serafin believed to fulfil the wishes of pilgrims. The beautiful gardens surrounding it enhance the building although the interior is rather dark.
Right next to the church is the Ethnographical Museum which houses a collection of traditional Bulgarian items such as costumes, crafts and musical instruments. I thoroughly recommend its gift shop for good value authentic souvenirs. Sofia is not a common tourist city and so the number of souvenir shops is limited. If you want something reasonable and very typical I recommend some of the many items made from rose water which you can smell in so many shops.
Next to this is the National Art Gallery in what was the former Tsar’s Palace. As an art lover, I had to go in and although the exhibition was quite small, it was so enriching to see some of the country’s own art as well of course to view the modest interior of the palace.
Now I suggest a quick detour opposite down Knyaz Alex Batenberg to see the beautiful National Theatre which is the centrepiece of the Alexander Battenberg Square. It once housed the remains of the first Communist leader of Bulgaria, Dimitrov when he died in 1949. However in 1990 his remains were removed and the mausoleum later demolished. There is a lovely atmosphere here and worth taking a rest while enjoying a drink at one of the many cafes.
Back onto Tsar Osvoboditel, you notice the faded yellow cobbles which is why it is sometimes referred to as the Yellow Brick Road. Today it houses many foreign embassies and government offices including the huge former Communist Party Central Committee Building which was topped with the red star during its 50 years.
Opposite to the former Communist Party Central Committee Building is the Archaeological Museum which is Bulgaria’s oldest museum as it was once the Grand Mosque built-in 1494.
Cross the road to view the Presidency with the ceremonial guards outside and get a good tourist picture! While you have your camera ready it’s worth looking further up the road Knjaginja Maria Luiza at the Statue of Sofia erected in 2001.
From here, you’ll also see the old communist-run department store TZUM, now a shopping centre, the Grand Hotel Balkan and most interestingly the only surviving working mosque in Sofia Banya Bashi situated in a small park.
On the other side is the Sofia History Museum, which is housed in the old Sofia Mineral Baths. These beautiful Turkish baths were built in 1913 and used for 70 years. Opposite the baths is the old still used food market called the Halite.
My next visit, between the presidency and the Grand Hotel, was to the city’s oldest building, St George Rotunda. It is not known why it was built in the 4th century but it was declared as a church 2 centuries later although it has also served as a mosque in the 16th century. It is surrounded by Roman ruins and it is thought to stand on the site of a Roman temple, spanning decades of history and surviving heavy air raids in WW2. The magnificent frescoes inside dating back to the 10th century have been restored repeatedly. It is dedicated to the same St George who is the patron saint of England.
You will now have reached the northern end of the Vitosha Boulevard, a famous street that leads from Sveta Nedelya Square through the centre of Sofia to the National Palace of Culture and ends with South Park. Fortunately, this is the ideal place to stop, relax and have something to eat; well deserved after a morning sightseeing. There are numerous pubs, restaurants, benches and shops on this street which makes it a favourite for locals and tourists.
Just before you stop if you have the energy there is one more building on the St Nedelya Square well worth a visit, namely the church of the same name, St Nedelya Cathedral.
This 19th-century church stands on the centre of ancient Serdica (old name for Sofia) and it can only really be appreciated by going inside as it houses some of the finest and most beautiful icons and murals in the country.
Now you have just one more area to explore modern Sofia which I’ve left to last as I think you will have seen the true highlights by now. You’ve now reached the point where Vitosha meets the city’s only pedestrian street, Pirotska.
From here you can see the largest synagogue in the Balkans. Sadly the Jewish population reduced from 50,000 to 5,00 after World War Two. Further up Pirotska is Zhenski Pazar the city’s largest market but I didn’t have time to visit this.
If you turn around and walk in the opposite direction you will see the rest of modern Sofia. You can’t go wrong as you should see the huge National Palace of Culture built-in 1981.
The area in front of it is Yuzhen Park which plays host to large open-air concerts. Much closer to where you are is a road at a 45-degree angle from Vitosha called Graf Ignatiev Boulevard if you want to search for bargains. Along that road is St Sedmochislenitsi Church that has exceptional frescoes.
Much as I would have liked to visit all these places my legs were tired and I wanted to go back to the hotel to get ready for one last Bulgarian treat!
We got a taxi to a very typical Bulgarian restaurant, in fact, I think we were the only tourists! It was called Chevermeto and we ate from a huge menu typical local food, drank their much-underrated wine and enjoyed an evening of entertainment of music, singing and dancing.
In terms of Bulgarian cuisine, something I’d recommend is the ‘Shopska Salad’ which is essentially a tomato salad. It’s a hugely popular dish in Bulgaria. Whilst I couldn’t enjoy it, as I can’t eat dairy, it seems something to try for those who are able to!
And from there it was a lovely end to a magical 48 hours in this ancient capital city of Bulgaria, which was once the most powerful country in Europe.
I so hope you have enjoyed this post about my birthday weekend in Sofia. Has anyone else been? Or is it now on your bucketlist? I’d love to know in the comments below.