Although Bulgaria’s Black Sea resorts are perhaps the best-known tourist attraction in the country, the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, also has a wealth of experiences to offer. Sofia is one of the least expensive European capitals to visit (plus the Bulgarian lev is almost two to the dollar), but besides being a well priced get away, it also offers history, culture, and excitement to its guests.
How Did Sofia Get to the 21st Century?
Sofia is actually one of the oldest cities in Europe: ancient Thracians, Celts, Romans, and Byzantines have settled it, among many others. As the city of Serdica, Sofia was a leading city in the Roman Empire during the 3rd and 4th centuries. Although it was sacked by the Huns in the mid-5th century, the city was later rebuilt under Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565). Its fortunes varied over the following centuries, but it became the seat of the Bulgarian patriarchate and was later used as a provincial capital by the Ottoman Empire.
In 1879, with a population of only around 10,000, Sofia was declared the capital of the budding Principality of Bulgaria. It has retained this position ever since, blossoming into a modern metropolis while still retaining examples of its millennia long history. Over 1.5 million people live in the metropolitan area today, making it Bulgaria’s largest city.
How to Get There and Get Around
Sofia is easy to get to from Europe. Flights from major cities such as London, Rome, and Frankfurt fly in daily. You can also take a bus from Istanbul for only 25 Euros.
Once you are in Sofia, the city has a fairly comprehensive public transportation system.
Sofia’s Top Hits
The main tourist attractions in Sofia can roughly be broken into two groups: churches and museums.
Out of churches, the biggest attraction is no doubt the Neo-Byzantine Aleksander Nevski Cathedral. It is named after the 13th century Russian prince because it was built to honor the Russian soldiers who died fighting for Bulgarian independence during the Russo-Turkish War (1877-78). The name was actually briefly changed to honor Saints Cyril and Methodius during World War I (since Russia and Bulgaria were on opposing sides), but after the war the name was changed back. It is the headquarters of the Bulgarian Patriarchate and can hold a crowd of 10,000 people (the second largest church in the Balkans).
Other popular churches to visit include Boyana Church, Sveti Georgi Rotunda, and Sveta Sofia Church. Boyana has one of the best collections of medieval Bulgarian murals and is a UNESCO world heritage site. Sveti Georgi was built in the 4th century and also houses a collection of centuries-old murals. Sveta Sofia has the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (honoring the Bulgarian dead from World War I) and also houses an underground necropolis museum in its basement, with artifacts dating back to Roman times.
If you wish to visit Sofia’s only active mosque, it is the Banya Bashi Mosque, complete with its red brick minaret. Just make sure to go when it’s not prayer time.
On the ancient side of things, the National Archaeological Museum (located inside a mosque that was built at the end of the 15th century) houses artifacts from the ancient Thracians through medieval times. If you want to get a taste of all of Bulgarian history, from B.C. times to the present, visit the National History Museum. Although it is at the edge of the city, you get a view of the whole city. If you want to stay downtown, close to the center is the Sofia History Museum, featuring history from the 6th century B.C. through the 1940s, all inside a former Ottoman-era bathhouse.
If you go to the Serdica metro stop, right next to it is the Serdica Archaeological Complex, an open-air museum that recently opened and showcases eight streets of ancient Serdica.
Other museum attractions include the National Museum of Natural History (oldest museum in Bulgaria), the National Gallery Kvadrat 500 (Sofia’s main art museum since 2015), the Ethnographical Museum (housed in the former royal palace), and the Museum of Socialist Art.
What Else to See and Do
Besides its museums and monuments, Sofia also has other aspects to enjoy.
A number of parks and green spaces dot the city. The Borisova gradina (Boris’ garden, for modern Bulgarian king Boris III) is the oldest park in the city (construction began in 1884). The Vitosha Nature Park lies on the outskirts of Sofia. In addition to being the oldest national park in the Balkans, it is a massive green space that is popular for hiking and easy to access via car or public transportation. During the winter months you can even ski there!
For food, tavern style restaurants with traditional fare are a must. One example is Manastirska Magernitsa. But some restaurants are taking a modern twist on traditional Bulgarian cuisine. If it sounds interesting, try Moma.
If you are in the mood for shopping, downtown there is the Tsentralni Hali (Central Market Hall), which is a large covered market. Near the Aleksander Nevski Church, there is an informal antiques market where peddlers sell all sorts of items on whose prices you can haggle.
Although Sofia may be much smaller than Paris or Istanbul, this millennia-old city has much to offer – history, culture, nature, and food. From its ancient streets to its modern metro, Sofia can be a unique and exciting place to visit for tourists from all walks of life.