Sofia is a complicated place. At first sight, it reminded me of a typical Eastern Bloc city with suburbs filled with bleak architecture, uninviting blocks of apartments, gigantic public Stalin-style buildings, and a slightly desolate atmosphere. But as I spent time there, the amazing history that has shaped Sofia revealed itself.
The capital of Bulgaria has seen it all: From the Romans to the Ottomans and from the Russians to the Balkan tribes, everyone wanted a piece of Sofia, and, as often happens, they all left some of their culture, traditions, and architecture behind.
While there is no discernible medieval city center in Sofia -- quite unusual for a European capital city -- there is still a central area roughly defined on the southeastern side by the trickle of the Perlovska River and on the western side by the Boulevard Hristo Botev. The best way to determine whether you’re in the center is to look at the bricks on the streets: If they are a golden yellow, you are not far from someplace interesting.
Around the main pedestrianized shopping drag, Vitosha Boulevard, you’ll find beautiful churches, Roman ruins, museums, and lovely residential areas full of good restaurants, where an evening of food and drink is available for a song.
Small and walkable, Sofia is well worth exploring, and since most visitors to Bulgaria don’t stop here long on their way to the beautiful countryside or amazing Plovdiv, it’s not very crowded. So if you want to explore a place that’s still quite off the beaten track -- somewhere where you can peel back the rough outer petals and discover the hidden beauty within -- then consider planning a trip to Sofia.
Here’s what to do on a visit to this underrated European capital.
1. Find The Well-Hidden Saint George Rotunda
Built by the Romans in the fourth century, the little Church of Saint George Rotunda is thought to be the oldest building in Sofia. I had read about the church, but found it by pure chance when peeking out the window of the Sofia Hotel Balkan. Hidden in the courtyard behind the hotel and nearly completely surrounded by the buildings of the Presidency, this truly is a hidden gem. The small, cylindrical building with its pointed roof is part of a Roman archaeological complex that continues in front of the hotel.
Inside, the murals and frescoes are amazing, and some date back to the 10th century. The walls are plain exposed brick, but it is exactly that simplicity that oozes age (and a bit of dampness) and makes this old church so special.
2. Marvel At The Gleaming Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
The Eastern Orthodox Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is a marvel of the neo-Byzantine architectural style, and while its domes and arches are beautiful, it is nowhere near as old as the Church of Saint George Rotunda: Construction started in 1882 and finished in 1912.
The church is as captivating inside as it is outside. The vast hall, separated by countless columns and vestibules, lit by candles, and filled with religious paintings and mosaics, is simply stunning. The church reportedly holds 10,000 people, but that must be a snug fit.
Try to visit during a service -- I happened upon a priest chanting, and stood there rooted to the ground for what seemed like an eternity. It was magical.
3. Go Underground To Ancient Rome
It was when I was attempting to jaywalk and got told off by a policeman who pointed to an entrance to a subway that I found Roman Sofia, once called Serdica. The archaeological digs around my hotel should have given me a clue!
There, underneath a busy traffic junction and an entrance to a metro stop -- called Serdica, just to drive the point home -- was ancient Rome. A vast complex of arches, building remains, the ubiquitous amphitheater, a chapel, and walls and ruins of a former city, stretching into the distance, some hidden under the street, other parts covered in a vast glass roof, and yet other areas outside. In total, there are almost 100,000 square feet to explore.
4. See Sofia Through The Eyes Of Local Artists
Sofia has many museums, from the lovely National Gallery to the Museum of Contemporary Art, but my favorite was the perfectly sized and centrally located Sofia City Art Gallery, which exhibits works by local artists, with most of the works featuring Sofia. Looking at the city through the perspective of local artists is an eye-opener, since their art deals with history, politics, or society -- or simply takes a fun approach. The museum is the perfect size for a leisurely look without being too overwhelming.
5. Explore Four Religions On One Corner
If you need further proof that Sofia is a melting pot of cultures, religions, and influences from across Europe and beyond, look no further than the small quarter by the Central Sofia Market Hall, a lovely covered market just across from the Serdica site.
The market hall is flanked by the Ottoman-style Banya Bashi Mosque, which dates to 1566. Banya bashi means “many baths” -- the mosque was actually built on top of thermal springs. Just behind the market hall, you’ll find the Sofia Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Eastern Europe. Visitors are welcome to enter and have a look at the stunning interior with its 1.7-ton chandelier. Next door, you’ll find the Cathedral of Saint Joseph, a modern Catholic church, but only a stone’s throw from that is the ancient little Orthodox Church of Saint George Rotunda.
These four religious sites all sit quite peacefully next to each other.
6. Discover Unusual Trinkets At The Antique Market
The open-air market near the front of Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is a cross between a flea market and an antique market, with many odd items on sale. Whether you are looking for old Soviet souvenirs, from medals to uniforms; local arts and crafts; or enameled street signs or car registration plates, it’s all there.
Haggling is a must, with most vendors speaking enough English to know the prices, and browsing is fun. You’ll find better and more unusual souvenirs here than you would at the typical souvenir shops.
Eating In Sofia
Sofia’s rich history and many influences are also reflected in its cuisine. Part Turkish and very meat-heavy, part Greek with hummus and wine leaves, but also with a strong modern Western flair, Sofia offers a little of everything. Don’t shy away from the small kebab shops -- they often serve the freshest (and certainly cheapest) meaty snacks around.
Old Is New
Old Is New is a small restaurant showcasing the mixture that is Sofia’s cuisine in a lovely artsy setting. Occupying a residential corner building off the bustling Angel Kanchev, the restaurant has fun decor, friendly staff, and superb food. You’ll sit at a wooden table surrounded by locals and feast on a seasonal menu offering a variety of small plates and hearty stews. Everything down to the bread was delicious.
If you are like me and hate to pay for a mediocre but overpriced hotel breakfast, then wait until midday to head to Boho. This trendy eatery specializes in weekend brunch and is very popular with locals, who patiently line up for tables, since the restaurant does not take reservations. You can choose from a range of breakfast dishes, from eggs in many styles to seasonal fresh mushrooms to crepes and waffles. It’s a leisurely way to fortify yourself for an afternoon of sightseeing.
Cafe And Bakery
For the perfect cup of tea and a slice of home-baked cake, look no further than the tiny cafe next to the Crystal Garden near Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. A small counter offers a few cakes and cookies, all labeled in Bulgarian, and the staff members do not speak English. Just point at the treat you want to try -- they all taste just as good as they look!
Where To Stay In Sofia
Sofia isn’t huge, though it's home to 1.2 million inhabitants. Wherever you stay, you’re guaranteed to be within walking distance of the city’s major sites. The inner city is split into various districts such as Central, Vitosha, and the Cathedral of Saint Alexander Nevsky area, but they are all just a short walk from each other, so I would suggest you choose your hotel based on which accommodation suits you best, rather than the area it’s in.
Sofia Hotel Balkan
Sofia Hotel Balkan, part of Marriott’s Luxury Collection, looks like an old hotel, but it actually dates only to 1956. However, it still oozes old-fashioned style. Aside from gorgeous architecture, a delightful in-house restaurant and bar, and spacious rooms, the hotel stands out for its great location steps away from the main shopping areas, with a beautiful church at the front and back and surrounded by archaeological digs. You could not get closer to the city’s attractions if you tried.
Best Western Art Plaza Hotel
A quirky, small hotel just off the main shopping street in a lovely residential area full of small cafes and restaurants, Best Western Art Plaza Hotel is an excellent budget choice.
Hyper-modern and very glitzy with impressive spa and gym facilities, these apartments are equipped with kitchenettes and plenty of space. They’re close to the museums and cathedral and are perfect for larger groups of family or friends.