Visitors to Bulgaria tend to head for the mountains or the Black Sea beach resorts. But there are lots of reasons to visit Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital city. Starting with the fact that it is surprisingly affordable, and that it is jam-packed with historic churches, museums and green space. Here is my list of the top things to do in Sofia.
Discover Roman Sofia
Sofia was conquered by the Romans around 29 BC, and later became an important administrative centre. The town, known as Serdica, was destroyed by the Huns in the 5th century, but later rebuilt by the Emperor Justinian. Many of the new buildings were built on top of earlier Roman structures.
There are lots of Roman sites around Sofia (I’ll be writing more about them in a later post). Many have been discovered relatively recently, and others are still in the course of excavation. Probably the more impressive site so far is the Roman road and ruins in the subway of the Serdika metro station.
Explore the Churches and Other Religious Buildings
Sofia is full of churches. Some of them are very old, like St Sofia, built on top of a 4th century Roman church, itself on the site of a necropolis. Others, like the 19th century Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, are more modern. What they all have in common is an abundance of artwork. Several have medieval painted walls, the most spectacular being the UNESCO listed Boyana Church, on the outskirts of Sofia. (Read more about the churches of Sofia…)
The main religion is Bulgarian Orthodox, but there are some small religious minorities. Bulgaria was ruled by the Ottomans for many centuries, but the number of Muslims later declined, and now there is only one mosque still in use, the 16th century Banya Bashi. There is also a synagogue, which houses the Jewish Museum of History (although it was closed for restoration when I visited).
Explore the Museums
Sofia is full of museums, with many more than you could visit in a few days. There are musuems of history and archaeology, including the Archaeological Museum and the Ethnographic Museum (housed in the National Art Gallery, this showcases Bulgarian folklore and traditions). And more specialist small museums, like the Museum of Bulgarian Sport, or the House of Pancho Vladigerov, an important Bulgarian composer.
The main art gallery is the National Art Gallery, housed in a former royal palace. However, there are several others, including the Museum of Socialist Art, which features an outdoor sculpture park. The city also boasts a number of private art galleries.
National History Museum
The National History Museum is Bulgaria’s largest museum. The exhibitions include art, jewellery and other items from the earliest times to the present day. In particular,there is an extensive collection of Roman artefacts and information about the Romans in Bulgaria.
For me, the building was as interesting as the contents. At the foot of the Vitosha Mountain, it is the former residence of Todor Zhivkov, the last communist dictator of Bulgaria. It was built in the 1970s and the interior is richly ornamented. The museum looks out onto the formal gardens, where visitors can walk on a fine day.
Regional History Museum
The Regional History Museum concentrates on the history of Sofia and its surroundings. The exhibition areas are thematic, with rooms such as A Sofia Street and “Cultural Life and Entertainment”. The collections also include icons and religious art.
Again, the building itself is interesting. Built in 1913 above natural hot springs, it was originally the Central Mineral Baths. It functioned as the city’s main public bath until the 1980s. The building was later renovated and reopened as the Regional History Museum in 2015.
Walk Through the Streets
The centre of Sofia is compact, and most places are within walking distance. The main street is Vitosha Boulevard. It is lined with shops and restaurants, and has views of St Nedelya Church at one end, and of the Vitosha Mountain at the other. But I recommend walking around the side streets, where you are likely to spot things not mentioned in the guidebooks, such as tiny churches, or recently discovered Roman sites. (However be warned – the pavements are not well maintained, and can sometimes present a trip hazard.)
As you walk around you may notice that some of the roads are paved with yellow bricks. These were given to Prince Ferdinand of Bulgaria on the occasion of his wedding in 1893, in an attempt to make the city rival its grander European neighbours. You can take a self-guided walking tour of the Yellow Paves, or of other areas of the city, with GPSMyCity.
Drink the Water
Yes, really… Sofia has been known for its abundant mineral springs since the 6th century BC when the first settlement was established around the health-giving water. When the Romans arrived they built a thermal bath here, establishing a tradition that continued until the 1980s.
Although it is no longer possible to bathe in Sofia’s springs, people can – and do – drink the water. Every day people descend on the Central Mineral Springs (close to the Regional History Museum) to fill up their bottles with water. You can even try it yourself, but be warned – the water comes out of the ground at around 33°C!
Eat Traditional Bulgarian Cuisine
Bulgarian cuisine is a bit like a mixture between Turkish and Greek food. It is traditionally meat based, most commonly with pork or chicken. Fish is less common, but most restaurants offer vegetarian options. The Bulgarians claim to have invented yoghurt, and you will find it in both sweet and savoury dishes. Drinks may include Bulgarian wines, or the local raki (fruit brandy).
There are lots of places to eat on Vitosha Boulevard, but you will find more traditional restaurants on the side streets. My favourite was the Hadjidragana Tavern, where we enjoyed classic Bulgarian food to the accompaniment of live music. You can also eat all types of international cuisine in Sofia.
Sofia: Some Practical Information
Bulgaria is currently the cheapest country in Europe for tourists. I found that meals typically cost around half of what I would expect to pay in the UK. Hotel accommodation is also cheap, and I took the opportunity to stay in a more luxurious hotel than usual. The Art ‘Otel was friendly, with spacious rooms and a free Happy Hour every evening.
Most places are walkable, so you may not need to use public transport unless you are going to the airport or visiting the outskirts of the city. Buses and trams are very cheap, but make sure you have cash to pay for your ticket.
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