Sofia, which is the capital of the Bulgaria, a fascinating and little known city. Before leaving, I hadn't realized at all that Bulgaria borders, among others, with Macedonia, Greece and Turkey and, on closer inspection, its geographical position justifies that atmosphere from crossroads between East and West that you can breathe everywhere. I spent a long weekend in Bulgaria (3 full days) between Sofia, Plovdiv and the surroundings, doing and seeing many beautiful things. During this trip I also discovered that theBulgaria is by far one of the cheapest countries in Europe! Here you can indulge in every luxury (or almost) and still spend little.
Sofia it is not a beautiful city from an architectural level, it is not comparable to other European capitals such as Paris, London or Madrid, but it is a fascinating, young and dynamic city. It was heavily damaged during the bombings in World War II, but it is also one of the very few European cities where, in the same square, you can find a mosque, a synagogue and an Orthodox church! I have wanted to visit it for a long time and I loved it. During the same weekend I was able to see the surroundings and, above all, to visit Plovdiv, the second most important city in Bulgaria, which I literally fell in love with (but I'll tell you about Plovdiv in a dedicated article). Having more days it is definitely worth going to visit as well 7 Rila lakes and the monastery of the same name, with a one day hike / trek (see below).
How to reach Sofia
Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, is easily accessible with direct flights operated by various low cost airlines (Ryanair, Wizzair, etc.) from the main cities. Among other things, flights are really cheap, especially if you buy them with a minimum of advance. From the airport then, the simplest and fastest way to reach the center of Sofia is by taxi, they cost between 10 and 12 euros.
When to go to Sofia
Bulgaria has a Continental climate, with hot summers and very cold winters (snow is not rare at all!). The best time to go to Sofia is spring and early summer. I was there in May and there were some incredible days, warmer and sunnier than in Spain. March, April and autumn can be very rainy, while winter is perfect if you want to experience skiing in Bulgaria. The ski slopes are truly a stone's throw from Sofia!
Where to sleep in Sofia
- 5 Vintage Guest House: a very nice guest house in the center of Sofia, with several common areas with coffee, tea and snacks always available to guests. The rooms are truly a little gem.
- Art'Otel: hotel housed in a renovated historic building dating back to the XNUMXs, with a nice terrace and an excellent breakfast included.
- Hotel Balkan: historic 5-star hotel that is part of the Sheraton chain. If you want to experience the thrill of low-cost luxury, you can do it here (you spend less than 100 euros per night for a double!).
- Light hotel. A modern and comfortable hotel within walking distance of the center, with very large and recently renovated rooms. The staff is super nice and helpful for organizing trips or transfers. The double with (rich breakfast included) costs less than 50 euros
Health insurance is recommended
Being in Europe, as Spanish citizens we have the right to health care, but there are specific conditions and ceilings. My advice is to still take a classic medical-luggage insurance that can cover you during the trip, even for Covid-19. I am very happy with many insurance companies, a site that compares the policies of different companies and proposes the most convenient policy for that particular trip. To do this you will have to enter the data relating to your trip and they will send you an email with the best proposal that you can then buy directly online (!!!). All travel insurances also cover medical assistance in the event of a coronavirus infection, including testing if necessary. There is also coverage for the extension of the stay in the hotel due to the quarantine. Likewise, the trip cancellation guarantee includes coverage for illness or death of the traveler or a family member due to COVID-19.
Free tours of Sofia
As in many other cities, local young people in Sofia also offer guided walks in the center to discover the attractions of the city. They are free tours in English (usually tip); you do not have to book, but go directly to the meeting point in front of the Palace of Justice. On the site "Free Sofia Tour”Find the types of tours and timetables.
Sofia (Bulgaria): all the things to see
Sofia it is a fairly small city and the center can be explored on foot. It is a modern city, where golden domes, Ottoman mosques and the classic gray Soviet-style apartment blocks emerge here and there. Most of the things to see are located along Tsar Liberator e Vitosha and around the Alexander Nevsky cathedral: in one day you go all the way around, managing to see even one or two museums.
Sofia is also a city full of greenery, with many well-kept parks and, above all, with mountains and woods just a few kilometers from the center. The inhabitants of the city do not miss the opportunity to relax by drinking in the open-air bars on the streets of the center and strolling in one of the many green spaces. I was very impressed by Sofia's lively and cheerful mood, probably thanks to the summer sun, everyone was out drinking, chatting and eating; people of all ages (including the elderly) who never miss an opportunity to be together and have fun.
Among the things not to be missed in Sofia there are certainly:
- Alexandar Nevsky Cathedral: with its golden domes, the cathedral is the largest Orthodox church in the country (it can hold up to 5000 people!). This church was built in the early 900s to commemorate the Russian soldiers who lost their lives fighting for Bulgarian independence. The style is neo-Byzantine and inside there are beautiful mosaics. In the green part surrounding the cathedral there is a very nice little market with stalls selling icons and old Soviet relics.
- Sveta Sofia church: a few steps from the cathedral, is the church from which the city took its name and is the oldest in the city. Outside there is the monument to the unknown soldier and the tomb of Ivan Vazov, the most beloved Bulgarian writer.
- Ivan Vasov National Theater: a beautiful neoclassical style theater in a garden with a large fountain. The whole area is very popular with the inhabitants of Sofia who come here to walk or eat an ice cream.
- National Gallery "Quadrato 500": inaugurated in 2015, it is located in a beautiful location and the paintings are well set up.
- Pl Nazavisimost: in this huge Soviet-style square there is the Presidency of the Republic, the Party House (which was once the headquarters of the Bulgarian Communist Party), and the Rotonda di Sveti Georgi, a tiny church hidden in the courtyard of the Presidency. A few meters from there are also the cathedral of Sveta Nedeleya.
- Sofia Historical Museum: set up in the (very beautiful) structure that once housed the central thermal baths of the city. In the same square there is also the Banya Bashi Mosque and, opposite, the covered market (great for a street food stop) and the synagogue.
- Vitosha: the main street of Sofia, is closed to traffic in the central part and is full of bars and restaurants packed with people. The right place for a Saturday afternoon rub.
- the streets around Han Krum: this is the hipster area of Sofia, here you will find nice shops (vintage and otherwise), nice bars, restaurants and clubs. Above all, do not miss The Apartment (a house / club where you can go to drink and eat in a very nice and colorful apartment) and Hambara, a place lit only by candles.
What to see around Sofia
Boyana Church and Vitosha Natural Park
Sofia is one of the few capitals in the world located at the foot of a mountain that exceeds 2000 meters (think that here you can go skiing by taking the tram!). In fact, from the center of Sofia you can see the snow-capped peaks of Cherni Vrah (2290 m) and other mountains that are part of the Vitosha Natural Park (the oldest natural park in the Balkans). This mountain range is 23km long, is often called the "lung of Sofia", and is a popular ski resort in winter. In the other seasons it is very popular with hikers and tourists who come here for walks and picnics. There are many well-marked trails, some chalets, huts and restaurants. Taking a taxi (for 10 euros) or tram N.5 from the center of Sofia and then changing to bus N.107 to the terminus, you will arrive at one of the starting points of many paths and, above all, the very ancient Boyana church. It is a tiny church that can be entered in small groups (max 10 people) and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Inside there are 90 incredible 2th century frescoes that have never been restored; the frescoes have been preserved very well and the colors are still brilliant. Absolutely worth a visit! To visit it you have to buy the ticket at the ticket office and then queue in front of the entrance, there is no real line and it creates a bit of confusion. From there you can continue to climb on foot by taking one of the several paths that lead to waterfalls (Boyana Falls) or to a lake. There are rings of 4 or 5 / XNUMXh. We did it independently, but you can also take advantage of a tour that includes multiple places, such as this one that includes, in addition to the Boyana church, also the Rila monastery.
7 Rila lakes
Among the most beautiful day trips from Sofia there is certainly the one to 7 Rila lakes, which are located about 100 km from Sofia (2h by car or bus). The altitude of these 7 lakes varies between 2.100 and 2.500 meters above sea level and they are one of the main attractions of all Bulgaria. Each lake has a name associated with its most evident feature: the highest, for example, is called Salzata (“La Lacrima”) for its clear waters. The one immediately below is Okoto ("The Eye") for its almost perfectly oval shape, and so on. You can visit them by participating in a tour that also includes the Rila Monastery, or by doing a trekking (always organized, departing from Sofia).
Plovdiv: the oldest city in Europe
Plovdiv is the second largest city in Bulgaria and is located 150 km from Sofia, in the direction of the Black Sea. It is a university city and has very ancient origins, some say it is even the oldest city in Europe, built before Rome and Athens! It is a very beautiful city that I absolutely recommend you to see, either in the day (it's very feasible) or by staying for 1 night. Find all the info about Plovdiv in the article "Plovdiv (Bulgaria): what to see". The simplest and most painless thing is certainly to participate in an organized excursion. The tour lasts about 8h and you will have a guide who explains everything in Spanish as you go. The cost is very low (about 30 euros) and it is an excellent solution to visit the city and appreciate its history and the most important monuments.
Where to eat in Sofia
Bulgarian cuisine is very similar to Greek cuisine, with some Turkish influences. We eat a lot of meat (lamb but not only), kebabs, salads, goat cheeses and honey desserts. In Sofia there are many very nice and good restaurants and bars, you will really be spoiled for choice!
- Checkpoint Charlie: very nice restaurant located behind the National Theater. It has a very nice and well-kept outdoor courtyard. The menu is large and the portions really generous. For a good dinner with wine you spend less than 20 euros each.
- MOMA: a modern Bulgarian cuisine restaurant a stone's throw from the Vitosha pedestrian street. The environment is tastefully decorated and the dishes are very good. The menu is extensive as is the wine list. It costs about 20 euros each. Book at least 2 days in advance because it is very popular.
- Made in Home: classic hipster restaurant decorated with taste and in one of the liveliest streets in Sofia. Here, too, very generous portions. Around € 20 per person with main course, dessert and wine. Excellent homemade ice cream at dulce de leche!
- The Apartment: a private house transformed into a kind of club-café-coworking. There are several rooms all decorated in a different style; you can stay here to work with the computer drinking tea or eating cold dishes or cakes (the service is self-service). Really cute!
- Hambara: a kind of speakeasy a few steps from The Apartment. There is no sign, you enter an alleyway and open a door without a sign to find yourself in a room lit only by candles. Suggestive.