We are accustomed to thinking of churches as great works of architecture. But many of them also have magnificent interiors. I was surprised at how many of the churches of Sofia were like mini-art galleries, packed with frescoes and other artworks, a reflection of the city’s Byzantine heritage. I’ve listed some of the most important below, but there are many more – if you pass a church in Sofia, it is worth stopping to look inside!
Saint Nedelya Church
Saint Nedelya Church (also known as St Kyriaki Cathedral Church) is the building you see ahead of you as you approach the town centre from Vitosha Boulevard. The original building dates from the 10th century, but it suffered substantial earthquake damage in 1858. It was rebuilt, but was further damaged by a politically-motivated bomb attack in 1925.
What you see today is mostly from the 20th century. The church is built in a neo-Byzantine style, with a massive 31m dome. The magnificent interior is full of icons and Byzantine influenced wall paintings.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was built between 1882 and 1912. It was dedicated to Saint Alexander Nevsky, a 13th century Russian prince who successfully fought off invaders from the west. Today it is the seat of the Bulgarian Patriarch, and one of the largest Orthodox cathedrals in the world.
The cathedral is in the neo-Byzantine style, cross-shaped with a large central dome. The interior is sumptuous, with walls of Italian marble, and columns of onyx and alabaster. The dome is lined with gold-leaf, and there are mosaics, murals and stained glass. Don’t miss the museum of Bulgarian religious art in the crypt.
Saint George Rotunda
The Saint George Rotunda is the oldest church in Sofia (and the oldest remaining building of any kind). It was built in the reign of the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, possibly on the site of an earlier pagan temple. The church was later extended, and it was converted into a mosque during the Ottoman era. It was restored and became a church again in the 20th century.
Apart from its age, the most remarkable thing about the Saint George Rotunda is its medieval frescoes, which were uncovered during the restoration. These were in three layers, the earliest dating to the 10th century. Beside the church are the ruins of various Roman buildings.
Saint Petka of the Saddlers
Saint Petka of the Saddlers is a very small church of brick and stone. The present building dates from the 11th century, but it is on the site of an earlier Roman church. Because it is so old, it sits below street level, in a subway beside the most recent excavations of the Serdica Roman site.
St Petka is most famous for its frescoes of biblical scenes. These were added at different times, from the 14th to 19th centuries. (However, the church was in use when I visited, so I couldn’t see for myself!)
Saint Sofia Church
Saint Sofia is the city’s second oldest church. The building dates from the 6th century, but it was built on top of an earlier Roman church from the 4th century. It was turned into a mosque during the Ottoman era but abandoned after a series of earthquakes. The building was restored and reopened as a church in the 20th century.
The church was built in the Byzantine style, and retains its original red brick, cross-shaped exterior. And the interior has all of the paintings and sculptures that you would expect in a Bulgarian church. But the real attraction of Saint Sofia Church for tourists is the archaeological museum in the basement. Here you can explore the remains of the original Roman church, and of the necropolis beneath it.
Russian Church of Sofia
The Russian Church – more correctly known as the Church of St Nicholas the Miracle-Maker – is a Russian Orthodox church. Built between 1907 and 1914 on the site of an earlier mosque, it was originally a private chapel for the Russian embassy. Part of the popularity of the church is the grave of the Russian archbishop Seraphim Sebolev, who died in 1950. He is reputed to be a miracle worker, and his tomb in the crypt is regularly visited by people who leave letters or pray for a miracle.
There are some frescoes inside the church, but the main artwork is on the outside. It was built in the Russian style, with gold domes and coloured tiles on the exterior. The church is in the Pushkin Park, one of many green spaces in the centre of Sofia. Outside the church, on the Bulevard Tsar Osvoboditel, the road is lined with the yellow bricks for which Sofia is famous.
The Boyana Church is a small medieval church on the outskirts of Sofia. Even by local standards its frescoes are special, and the church is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Read more about the Boyana Church…
Visiting the Churches of Sofia
Despite Soviet attempts to suppress religion in the 20th century, Orthodox Christianity is flourishing in Sofia. The churches are very much places to worship, and you may occasionally find yourself unable to enter if services are taking place. Some churches do not allow photography; others require you to purchase a permit before taking pictures.
And, when you’ve visited the churches, check out some more things to do in Sofia.
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