This city that’s rich in history is at the heart of The Balkans, is mid-way between the Black Sea and the Adriatic Sea. Sofia is not only the capital of Bulgaria, but also the largest city in the country and the 14th largest in the European Union. This breath-taking capital city has been one of the top ten perfect hubs for start-up businesses in the world. The mountains surrounding Sofia make it the 3rd highest European capital as well.
“The Triangle of Religious Tolerance” is the most recent description of Sofia, due to the fact that three worship places of three major world religions; Judaism, Christianity and Islam, are located within one square. The Sofia Synagogue, the Sveta Nedelya Church and the Banya Bashi Mosque all exist in the same square in the city.
A budget traveler’s paradise, Sofia bustles with rich history, the nicest of people, delicious culinary treats and winding-down venues. The city has warm and sunny summers while winters can be cold and snowy, the autumn and spring seasons are relatively short. In this article, we’ll learn a bit about the history of Sofia, its multicultural growing scene and the various things you can do and enjoy during your stay there.
Brief history of Sofia
The earliest humanitarian existence in Sofia goes back to at least 7,000 BC. Several Neolithic locations in and around the city testify to that. The first documented settlers were the Thracian Tilataei who settled in the city in the 500s BC.
The city became known as Serdica after the Celtic tribe Serdi gave it their name. The city had later fallen under Roman rule and acquired more economic and administrative importance. Serdica was one of the first Roman cities where Christianity was recognized and embraced as an official religion.
The First Bulgarian Empire caused the collapse of the Romans’ rule over Serdica, when the Byzantines failed in besieging the city in 809. The city’s name changed from Serdica to Sredets but it continued to be an important fortress and administrative center. However, Sredets eventually fell into the hands of the Byzantines in 1018. Sredets was a major spiritual, literary and artistic destination in the 13th and 14th centuries, when the city produced multi-colored ceramics, jewelry and ironware.
In 1385 Sredets was overtaken by the Ottoman Empire after a three-month siege. Under Ottoman reign, the city maintained its important role as it became the capital of the beylerbeylik of Rumelia, the province that administered the Ottoman lands in Europe. Sofia’s boom during the Ottoman period went down the slope with the decline of the Empire’s power in the 17th century.
The Ottoman grip over the city was released with the help of the Russian forces in 1878, after which Sofia was proposed and accepted as a capital of the country. The city’s population was regained due to immigration from other regions of the Kingdom of Bulgaria. The current Republic of Bulgaria was established in 1990 following a period of communist Bulgaria after the Second World War.
How to get to Sofia?
This multi-cultural, multi-architectural style city can be reached by plane, by train, by bus or by car.
- Fly in: Sofia Airport (SOF) is located 9 kilometers to the east of the city center. There are over 20 airlines that operate flights to and from the SOF, to and from major European and Middle Eastern cities. All renowned airlines operate such flights like Air France, Air Serbia and Bulgaria Air as well as Turkish Airlines. More affordable airlines include Wizz Air, Ryanair and EasyJet.
An airport free shuttle bus operates between the airport terminals. There are shops, cafés, post offices, ATMs and money exchange offices at the airport. A round-trip ticket through Wizz Air from Paris to Sofia will cost around 302 Euros for a direct flight. The flight from Paris to Sofia will take 2 hours, 45 minutes.
- By train: Sofia Central Station is the largest train station in Bulgaria and is 1 kilometer north of the city center. International trains run directly to and from the station to several European cities such as Belgrade, Istanbul, Bucharest, Niš and Thessaloniki.
Trains run daily from Bucharest to Sofia, the ticket will cost around 11 Euros for a trip time of almost 10 hours. You can take a night train as well that will take you there around the same time for about 12 Euros. The train from Thessaloniki to Sofia takes the ride in around 7 hours and half for a ticket price of 17 Euros.
Taking the train to Sofia is a rather slow option to get to the city. You can check the Sofia Central Station website for available trips and prices.
- By bus: If bus rides are more your favorite than train rides, the Central Bus Station is more likely where you’ll arrive at. Eurolines Bulgaria is the largest operator of international buses to and from Bulgaria. The Bucharest bus will cost you around 27 Euros for the nine hours and a half trip.
- By car: You can always drive to Sofia if you’re a lover of road trips and you enjoy the scenery. There’s a well-developed network of petrol and gas stations around the country to serve you. It is wiser that you make the journey by car if you’re the owner, since then you’d only have to incur the cost of fuel which might amount to 50 Euros.
However, there are several affordable car rental agencies you can look up. For example, Bucharest Downtown offers you a great deal of around 23 Euros per day to set you up with a good car. A good website to check for deals is Rentalcars which offers you a variety of suppliers and deals.
A small point to keep in mind is to check if your driving license complies with international standards. It’s advisable, however, to have an international license. Also, always make sure to check in advance for prices. If you’re still putting together your vacation plans, check online for great deals for whichever means of transportation that will take you to Sofia.
Getting Around Sofia
Since we’ve got you in Sofia, there are several options you can choose from to accommodate the different things you can do in the capital of Bulgaria. The best way to get around Sofia is by buying a day’s pass for 2.05 Euros with unlimited rides on all public transportation. If you like to use the metro, it’s useful to note that the metro ticket – costing about 1 Euro – cannot be used to ride other public transportation.
Riding a bicycle is popular around Sofia, for about 11 Euros you can rent one for a day and get on with the fun things to do in Sofia while soaking in the city. Taking a taxi isn’t always the most budget friendly option as the fare can add up very fast. If you’ve come to Sofia by car, it might be helpful in exploring the region around the city as you might not need it much in the city itself.
This gem of a city is often overlooked by visitors, the city’s landscape alone offers you a gate into several historical eras. There are many things to do in Sofia and in this article we will discover together this history lovers’ heaven, the fun things you can do in Sofia, the unusual things, what you must see if you’re in the city for a weekend and even activities suitable for kids in Sofia.
Sofia, a History Lovers’ Heaven
Sofia is studded with famous churches, museums, theaters and art galleries. The architectural style in the city changed in coherence with the political scene in the country. There are mosques and buildings with the Ottoman style of architecture, one of the largest synagogues in Southeastern Europe and even ruins of Serdica; the name Sofia carried under Roman rule.
So let’s get to it!
Religious Buildings in Sofia
- Cathedral Aleksandar Nevsky:
Paying a visit to this Neo Byzantine style church is one of the top things to do in Sofia. The foundation of Sofia’s symbol and primary tourist attraction began in 1882 when the first stone was laid except that the actual building took place between 1904 and 1912. A team of Bulgarian, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and other European architects, artists and workers are the masters that carried out the building and decoration of the church.
The building of this church is a true European work of cooperation; the marble parts and light fixtures were made in Munich while the metal parts for the gates were made in Berlin. While the gates themselves were made in Vienna and the mosaics were shipped from Venice. These beautiful mosaics of different saints decorate the exterior of the church.
Inside the church crypt there’s a museum of Bulgarian icons, as part of the National Art Gallery. It is claimed that the museum houses the largest collection of Orthodox icons in Europe.
The St. Sofia Church after which the city is named is located nearby that you can walk over to, is another interesting place to visit in Sofia. Another notable locations are the Monument to the Unknown Soldier, along with the Bulgarian Parliament, the Sofia Opera and Ballet and a park with a small flea market where vendors sell handmade textiles and antiques.
One of the most unusual things to do in Sofia, is watch the sunrise at the cathedral. The subtle rays of the biggest star in our solar system warms up the mosaics on the exterior as it inches closer to the heart of the sky. The breathtaking architecture of the cathedral is made more majestic, if that’s even possible. Some might even describe it as one of the romantic things to do in Sofia.
- Church of St. George:
The 4th century building is considered one of the oldest buildings in modern day Sofia. This church was originally built as Roman baths and was later converted into a church as part of Serdica during the Roman Empire and Byzantine Empire rule.
The church is part of a bigger archeological complex. Behind the apse, there are ancient ruins consisting of a Roman street with preserved drainage, foundations of a large basilica probably a public building and some smaller buildings.
Experts consider the church as one of the most beautiful buildings in the so-called Constantine district of Serdika-Sredets.
- Saint Sofia Church:
The church which gave the city its name in the 14th century is the oldest church in the Bulgarian capital Sofia. Many buildings were erected on the same site before the present-day church existed. The building once held the Council of Serdica then it became a theater in the 2nd century and over the following centuries many churches were built on site only to be destroyed by invading forces.
The present-day basilica is said to be the 5th building to be built on site under the reign of Emperor Justinian I in the middle of the 6th century, the basilica is similar in style to the Hagia Sofia church in Constantinople. In the 16th century the church was converted into a mosque under Ottoman rule with minarets replacing the original 12th century frescos.
The building suffered destruction after two earthquakes in the 19th century and reconstruction works began after 1900. The Saint Sofia Church is considered to be one of the most valuable buildings of Early Christian architecture in Southeastern Europe. Many tombs have been unearthed under and near the church and some of these tombs display frescoes.
- Boyana Church:
This church on the outskirts of Sofia, in the Boyana district is home to a wide array of scenes and human images; 89 scene and 240 human images to be exact. Dubbed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, the construction of the Boyana Church began in the late 10th century or early 11th century. Even though construction resumed in the 13th century, the building wasn’t finished until the middle of the 19th century.
Due to the delicate nature of the frescoes housed by the church, air-conditioning was installed inside to keep the temperatures at an average of 17-18 degrees Celsius, with low-heat lighting. Visitors are permitted to stay inside only for 10 minutes after they enter as a group of 8 people only.
- Sveti Sedmochislenitsi Church (Church of the Seven Saints):
Once known as the Black Mosque or Kara Camii, this church was built through the conversion of a mosque between 1901 and 1902. The Black Mosque; due to the dark granite color used in building its minaret, was commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent with the intention of it competing against the city’s beautiful churches. The ruins of two previous buildings were found beneath the mosque, a nunnery and an early Christian temple from the 4th-5th century and a pagan temple of Asclepius from Roman Serdica.
The mosque was part of a complex including a madrasah, a caravanserai and a hammam. The mosque’s minaret collapsed following an earthquake in the 19th century after which the building was abandoned by the Ottomans after the Liberation of Bulgaria in 1878. Until the proposition of converting the mosque into a church, the place was used as a military warehouse and a prison.
The central hall and the dome of the Black Mosque were preserved and an electric clock made by the famous watchmaker Georgi Hadzhinikolov was fit to the western façade in the 1930s. The small garden, where the madrasah once stood, and the square close to the church were also built during the same time period.
- Church of St Paraskeva:
This third largest church in Sofia is dedicated to Saint Paraskeva. Plans to build a church on the site date back to 1910, however, all plans were postponed due to The Balkan Wars and the First World War. New construction plans were announced in 1922 and works were finished in 1930 with works on the porticos finishing by 1940.
- Sveta Nedelya Church:
The Sveta Nedelya Church is most known to have suffered construction and rebuilt several times since its building. The first recorded church at the site was said to have been wooden, other than that the history isn’t quite clear. The church remained made of wood until the middle of the 19th century.
The former building was demolished in 1856 to start the construction of the new church. Due to an earthquake in 1858, construction works only finished in 1863. The new church was officially inaugurated in 1867.
After the church’s renovation in 1898 with the addition of new domes, it was razed following the assault of 1925. Restoration works to the modern-day church took place between 1927 and 1933.
- Church of St Petka of the Saddlers:
This unique looking church is partially dug into the ground located in the center of both the modern and old city of Sofia. This medieval church was constructed on the location of a former Roman religious building. The present-day building is famous for its murals of the 14th, 15th, 17th and 19th centuries. The first mention of the church, though, dates to the 16th century.
- Church of St Nicholas the Miracle-Maker (The Russian Church):
Built on the site of the former Saray mosque which was destroyed after the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman rule by Russia in 1882. The church was built as the official church of the Russian Embassy, which was located beside it and of the Russian community in the city. Construction began in 1907 and the church was consecrated in 1914.
The church remained open even after the Russian Revolution and during the Communist period in Bulgaria. The exterior was recently restored by the Russian Government. Beneath the church’s main floor, the remains of Saint Archbishop Seraphim are located where dozens of people still visit him and leave notes of the wishes they pray get granted.
- Cathedral of St. Joseph:
This relatively new built cathedral was destroyed by the Allied Forces bombing during the Second World War, after which Pope John Paul II laid the foundation stone during his visit to Bulgaria in 2002. Construction works were finished and the church was inaugurated in 2006.
Saint Joseph is the largest Catholic Cathedral in Bulgaria. Mass services is held in several languages such as Bulgarian, Polish and Latin on different days of the week.
- Banya Bashi Mosque:
The currently sole functioning mosque in Sofia was designed by the famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan and completed in 1566. The most outstanding feature of the mosque is that it was built over natural thermal spas, you can even see the steam rising from vents near the mosque walls. Famous for its large dome and minaret, the Banya Bashi mosque is used by Sofia’s Muslim community until this very day.
- Sofia Synagogue:
The Sofia Synagogue is the largest synagogue in Southeastern Europe and is one of two synagogues functioning in Bulgaria, with the other one being in Plovdiv. Built to meet the needs of the mainly Sephardic Jewish community of Sofia, the synagogue’s construction began in 1905. Construction works were finished in 1909 and the synagogue was opened in the same year with the presence of Tsar Ferdinand I of Bulgaria.
The synagogue is distinguished by Moorish Revival architectural style with Venetian architecture in the façade. Carrara marble columns stand inside the building and multicolored Venetian mosaics decorate the interior along with decorative woodcarving.
The synagogue is home to the Jewish Museum of History since 1992. The museum displays the Jewish community in Bulgaria, the Holocaust and the Rescue of the Jews in Bulgaria expositions. A souvenir shop is also at work on the premises.
Historic Buildings and Monuments to see in Sofia
As diverse as the religious building scene in Sofia is, the same goes for the city’s other historical buildings. There are tombs, mausoleums, statues and monuments dotted around the city.
- Monument to the Tsar Liberator:
Built in honor of the Russian Emperor Alexander II, it was to erected to signify the emperor’s role in liberating Bulgaria from Ottoman rule during the Russo-Turkish war of 1877 and 1878. The monument’s foundation stone was laid in 1901 and construction finished in 1903.
The monument is made of black granite from Vitosha and consists of a pedestal, a middle part with figures, a massive Neo-Renaissance cornice topped with the sculpture of the Russian Tsar on a horse while the bronze wreath at the foot was donated by Romania in memory of the Romanian soldiers who died during the war.
The bronze figures in the middle part represent Russian and Bulgarian soldiers led by Victoria; the goddess of victory is Roman mythology. There are featured scenes from the Battle of Stara Zagora and the signing of the Treaty of San Stefano. The monument stands on Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard, facing the National Assembly of Bulgaria and with the InterContinental hotel behind it.
- Monument to Vasil Levski:
Dubbed the Apostle of Freedom, Vasil Levski was a Bulgarian revolutionary who is considered a national hero today. This monument took 17 years to build due to the lack of funds and negligence with which the building was handled. Located in the center of Sofia, it is considered to be one of the first monuments to be built in the newly liberated Principality of Bulgaria.
The 13 meters high grey Balkan granite monument features a bronze bas-relief of Levski’s head. The monument was built to commemorate the hanging of the Bulgarian national hero on the same spot in 18th of February 1873.
- Battenberg Mausoleum (Memorial Tomb of Alexander I of Battenberg):
This eclectic style mausoleum features elements of Neo-Baroque and Neoclassic architectural styles is the final resting place of the First Head of State of the modern Bulgaria; Prince Alexander I of Bulgaria. The prince was initially buried in exile; Austria after his death but his remains were moved into the mausoleum after its building in 1897 in accordance to his wishes.
The mausoleum was closed during the Communist Rule in Bulgaria but was subsequently reopened to the public after 1991. After restoration works done in 2005, the mausoleum also exhibits some of Alexander’s private possessions and papers.
- Russian Monument:
The first monument to be built in the capital of the newly liberated Principality of Bulgaria, was unveiled on June 29th 1882. The funds for the construction of the monument were collected by the Russian people. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the monument turned into a center of the urban planning of this part of Sofia.
The monument is an obelisk, a rectangular pyramid with a truncated top and a three-step pedestal. On the eastern side of the memorial there’s a marble relief of the coat of arms of Russia and the Order of St. George and a text commemorating Alexander II in pre-reform Russian.
- Monument to the Unknown Soldier:
Located near the Saint Sophia Church in the center of Sofia, the monument is dedicated to the thousands of soldiers who gave their lives defending the country. Official ceremonies involving the President of Bulgaria and foreign state presidents are usually performed there. The monument was opened on the 1300th anniversary of the establishment of the State of Bulgaria on September 22nd, 1981.
An eternal flame from the sites of Stara Zagora and Shipka Pass where two of the most important battles took place during the Russo-Turkish War is featured at the monument. A sculpture of the national symbol of Bulgaria; a lion, is also featured in the monument as well as an inscription of a stanza by the Bulgarian poet Ivan Vazov:
Oh Bulgaria, For You They Died
Only One Were You Worth Of Them
And They Of You Worthy, O Mother, Were!
- Monument of The Soviet Army:
This monument in Sofia portrays a solider of the Soviet Army as a freedom fighter surrounded by a Bulgarian woman holding her baby and a Bulgarian man beside her. A sculptural composition of a group of soldiers is located around the main monument. The monument was built in 1954 and the area of the park around it is a special gathering place for skaters, ravers, rasta and other subcultural groups.
- The Yablanski House:
Considered to be one of the city’s architectural achievements in the first decade of the 20th century, Yablanski House was built by order of the former mayor of Sofia; Dimitar Yablanski. The house was built over the course of two years, from 1906 to 1907 in Baroque style with some Renaissance elements and an interior of Rococo style.
The house had many uses and owners over the course of history. During Communist Bulgaria it was used as the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China until 1991. After that the Yablanski heirs to whom the house was returned sold it to First Private Bank which went bankrupt in 1996.
After years of neglect and mismanagement, restoration works on the Yablanski House started in 2009 and starting from 2011 it hosts a private club with a restaurant, bar and music venue.
- Vrana Palace:
This former royal palace is today the official residence of the former royal family of Bulgaria. The land located just outside Sofia was bought by Tsar Ferdinand I in 1898. Two buildings were built with a park in the premises, all were financed by state budget.
The first building is a two-story hunting lodge built in 1904 and was described as an exquisite interpretation of the Plovdiv baroque with Viennese decorative elements. The second building was constructed between 1909 and 1914. The palace combines Byzantine architectural designs with Bulgarian National Revival traditions, Art Nouveau and French Classicism.
The property of the palace was passed down through the royal family, overtaken by the Communists after the abolition of the monarchy. Subsequently, after the fall of communism, the palace went back to the last tsar; Simeon II by the Constitutional Court of Bulgaria in 1998. The former royal family donated the park in the palace in 1999 to the city of Sofia.
Originally arranged by Ferdinand in 1903, the former royal park has been open to the public on weekends since June 2013. The park is rich in plant species and was declared a national monument of landscape architecture. There’s a special public transport bus; no. 505, that only runs on weekends during the park’s working hours and connects the palace with Eagle’s Bridge.
- Eagle’s Bridge:
Built in 1891, Eagle’s Bridge derives its name from the four statues of eagles on it, which symbolize its protectors and patrons. One of the bridge’s columns and bronze eagles are featured on the reverse print of the Bulgarian 20 BGN banknote. The bridge is often a site of protests.
- Lion’s Bridge:
Built between 1889 and 1891, Lion’s Bridge derives its name from the four bronze sculptures of lions around it. The bridge was built from stone at the place of a previous bridge, electric lights were installed in the early 1900s.
One of the bronze lions is depicted on the Bulgarian 20 BGN banknote issued in 1999 and 2007. After reconstruction works in 2014, the bridge is now open only to trams and pedestrians.
- The Amphitheater of Serdica:
A stone plate found in 1919 near what is today the Council of Ministers of Bulgaria sparked the debate that an amphitheater once existed in Sofia. The stone plate displayed an amphitheater’s façade with fights between gladiators and wild animals. The plate showed crocodiles, bears, bulls and wild cats involved in fights.
The amphitheater was accidently discovered in 2004 during the early construction works of what is now the Arena di Serdica Hotel. The discovered part was preserved and included into the hotel’s ground floor, it is accessible to the public for free during the day, except on Mondays. Further parts were discovered in 2006 when digging for building a National Electric Company was taking place.
The amphitheater was built on the ruins of an earlier Roman theater that was originally built in the 2nd or 3rd century AD. The ruins of the theater were discovered 5 meters under the amphitheater ruins and it’s believed to have been in use until it was permanently abandoned after a Gothic raid burned it down.
The amphitheater was constructed in two stages during the late 3rd and early 4th century AD and was in use for less than a century. It’s believed the building was abandoned by the 5th century due to anti-pagan policies of Theodosius I. In the 5th and 6th centuries, barbarians set their homes up within the boundaries of the arena while during the Ottoman period, the place was used as a source for building materials for new housing.
- The Largo:
Designed and built in the 1950s, this architectural ensemble of three Socialist Classicism edifices in the heart of Sofia was intended to become the city’s new representative center. The ensemble consists of the former Party House (the defunct Bulgarian Communist Party) which is now the National Assembly of Bulgaria, the center and side edifices accommodate the TZUM department store and the Council of Ministers of Bulgaria and the President’s Office, the Sofia Hotel Balkan and the Ministry of Education.
The area where the ensemble is built was cleared in 1952 after its bombardment during the Second World War. The Party House building was designed and completed in 1955. The current President’s Office was finished the following year while the TZUM part of the edifice was finished in 1957.
Currently known as Independence Square, the area is being reorganized since 2006 where the lawn and flags in the center to be replaced by glass domes to better showcase the ruins of ancient Thracian and Roman city of Serdica. The symbols of communism have been removed from The Largo after changes to the country’s ruling policy in 1989. Most notably the replacement of the red star from atop the Party House with the Bulgarian flag.
- The Borisova Gradina TV Tower:
Completed in 1959, the tower is located in the garden Borisova Gradina and is best known for the first Bulgarian National Television broadcasts in 1959. Since 1985, the Vitosha Mountain TV Tower has been the main facility for broadcasting television and the programs of the Bulgarian National Radio in and around Sofia. The Old TV Tower broadcasts private radio stations as well as DVB-T terrestrial television.
Things to do with kids in Sofia
Are you away on holiday with the kids? There’s no problem at all, the city of Sofia offers you a variety of places, many of which have free access and will certainly keep the kids busy. From gardens to zoos and even thermal baths, the kids will have all the fun they need and you a few moments of relaxation as well.
One of kids’ favorite places is the zoo and Sofia Zoo is the habitat of hundreds of species. Founded in 1888, the zoo’s exhibition of animals increased greatly over the following years with the addition of deer, pheasants, brown bears and a pair of lions in 1892. The zoo moved from its former location in the former botanical garden to its current location in the center of Sofia in 1982.
The Sofia Zoo official website shows the ticket prices. Free access is granted to children up to 3 years old, 1 Euro (2 BGN) for children after 3 up to 18 years old with 2 Euro (4 BGN) for adults.
- The Bells Monument (Kambanite Park):
This is one interesting spot, it’s basically a park where you can have a picnic and laze around. The park is dedicated to world peace and the world’s children. The central monument of the park is a sculpture of doves and a collection of 70 bells from around the world. You can go up to each bell and ring it, pretty fun for kids, right?
The Bells monument was installed in 1979 when UNESCO declared it International Year of the Child. The bells are hung on pillars marked with a message from children from the respective nation. The seven main bells, one for each continent, occasionally ring along to events or parades taking place by the monument.
This landmark in the center of Sofia was built in the early 20th century near the former and then destroyed Turkish bath. The building was designed in the Vienna Secession style with elements of Bulgarian, Byzantine and Eastern Orthodox.
The building is now a museum of regional history. The garden in front of the baths is a nice place where families like to relax and picnic after filling their bottles with free mineral water from the fountains.
Ticket prices are very affordable to enter the baths. Children up to 7 years old have free access, 1 Euro (2 BGN) for students and PhD candidates and 3 Euros (6 BGN) for adults.
- Crystal Garden:
Named after the Crystal bar and café that doesn’t exist anymore, the garden kept its name and is still associated with the open-air art center that was known until recently as the gathering place for writers, poets, musicians, artists and actors. The garden is located on the opposite corner of the Russian Church in Sofia.
The public garden is perfect for an uneventful afternoon where you can take some time off to cool down after a day of sightseeing or for taking your time to plan the next stop on your trip. The garden is home to a monument dedicated to Stefan Stambolov; a remarkable Bulgarian politician and is surrounded by cafés and restaurants as well.
- Borisova Gradina:
Named after the Bulgarian Tsar Boris III, the gradina is the oldest and best known park in Sofia. The construction of the gradina began in 1884 under the supervision of Swiss gardener Daniel Neff.
He set up a nursery for future trees, shrubs and flowers for the future garden to grow and the nursery met the needs of the city and had more to sell to the citizens. The nursery was then shaped as a garden in 1885 and a large lake was added in 1889.
The Alsatian Joseph Frei planted the two main alleyways in the lower part of the garden. He was responsible for the construction of the now People’s Fountain and he created the Rosarium at the place of the removed agricultural buildings as well as the many modern nursery gardens and hothouses.
Bulgarian gardener Georgi Duhtev extended the rosarium with the addition of 1,400 new cultivated rose species that he planted himself. A Japanese corner was created using plants sent by the Japanese Minster which represented the national flora of Japan and were a gift and symbol of friendship between the Japanese and Bulgarian people.
Several building were added in the following years including the Summer Swimming Bath, the University Observatory, the Open-Air School, the Big Lake, the Yunak and Levski football fields, the tennis club, the diplomatic tennis court, the cycling track and the Yunak Rectifying Station.
The gradina is a massive space where you can spend several hours walking, cycling, discovering and perhaps enjoying a book while the children play around you.
- City Garden:
At a much smaller scale than the Borisova, the City Garden in the historical center of Sofia is the oldest garden in the city; established in 1872. The garden was originally arranged in the last years of the Ottoman rule and underwent major transformation after the Liberation of Bulgaria and the choice of Sofia as the capital of the country. The alley network was reorganized, new plants were added, a low wooden fence, a coffeehouse and a kiosk for musicians.
The garden was reorganized and redeveloped several times until the end of the 19th century. The City Garden is most notable for being a hub for chess players who are regularly seen in groups in the small garden in front of the National Theater.
- Vitosha Mountain and National Park:
The Vitosha Mountain is a symbol of Sofia, located just outside the city it is the closest place for hiking, climbing and skiing. Vitosha is the oldest natural park in the Balkans; set in 1934 by a group of noblemen. In the following year, two reserves were designated within its boundaries; the Bistrishko Branishte and Torfeno Branishte.
The park boundaries might’ve fluctuated over years but today it encompasses the entire mountain. Due to the different of elevations in the mountain, a variety of flora and fauna can be found in different parts of the park. Kids find it interesting to explore the multiple types of plants, fungi, algae and mosses.
The mountain is easily accessible through the several bus routes and rope ways that get you up to the park. The meteorological station – built and still working since 1935 – at the top serves as a resting place for hikers on their way. The station is also the headquarters of the mountain rescue team.
If you feel like spending more time at the mountain rather than a day’s trip, several hotels and inns are dotted around the area so you can enjoy the scenery and relax at the heart of nature.
If you are up for more hiking after a night at one of the hotels around Vitosha or looking for a bit of adventure with the kids after days of sightseeing, you might want to consider getting to the Boyana Waterfall. The waterfall is wonderful to witness during the high tide or frozen during winter season.
A Boyana day trip can be booked where you will first explore the beauty of the Boyana Church then the guide will take you through the mountain to the waterfall. Daily tours are also available through Sofia Green Tours.
- The Presidency Building:
You might wonder what would you could do at the Presidency Building? Well, it’s not much that you can but rather what you can watch. The guards at the building change every hour and the procession of change is most fascinating. Both kids and adults love to watch the guards as they stomp around in the formal walk in front of the building. It’s a nice stop to make through your trip.
Cultural and Artistic Scene in Sofia
The cultural and artistic scene in Sofia is enriched with museums, theaters and art galleries almost at every corner. Children will also love to discover the different exhibitions and artifacts on display. Scenes from several action movies have been shot in Sofia as well, such as Rambo and London Has Fallen.
- The National Archeological Museum:
This museum was officially opened in 1905 occupying the building of the largest and oldest former Ottoman mosque in the city of Sofia. The mosque was built between 1451 and 1474. The mosque previously housed the National Library between 1880 and 1893.
Several additional halls and administrative buildings were added in the following years. The museum has five main exhibition halls:
1)Prehistory Hall: Located at the lower floor of the northern wing, it displays items from between 1,600,000 BC and 1,600 BC. The findings from the different caves around Bulgaria are chronologically displayed.
2)Treasury: Located in the eastern wing, it displays grave inventory and other treasures from the late Bronze Age to late Antiquity.
3)Main Hall: On the first floor of the main building, this hall hosts different items from ancient Thrace, Greece and Rome to the late Middle Ages.
4)Medieval Section: On the second floor of the main building. This section includes medieval books, woodworks, drawings, metal objects and other items pertaining to that era.
5)Temporary exhibitions: On the second floor of the main building.
- National Historical Museum:
Founded in 1973, the National Historical Museum is the largest museum in Sofia. In 2000, the museum was moved into the former residence of the last communist leader Todor Zhivkov in Boyana. The museum showcases over 650,000 objects relating to archeology, fine arts, history and ethnography.
The museum has a cloakroom, café, library and souvenir shop. It carries professional conservation and restoration works of historical monuments, authenticity investigations and expert valuations.
- National Museum of Military History:
As a structure of the Ministry of Defense, the museum has been in operation since 1916. It consists of both indoor and outdoor exhibitions, changing exhibits, a library and computer center. The outdoor exhibition area shows an array of artillery, missiles, military vehicles, tanks and aircrafts.
- Earth and Man National Museum:
Founded in 1985 and opened to the public in 1987, this is one of the biggest mineralogical museums in the world. The building where the museum takes residence was constructed at the end of the 19th century. In addition to permanent exhibitions, the museum often hosts exhibitions related to other various topics as well as concerts of chamber music.
The museum consists of exhibition halls, stock premises, laboratories, a video room and a conference room. It covers over 40% of known and naturally occurring minerals as well as man-made ceramics prepared by Bulgarian scientists.
- National Art Gallery:
Located on Battenberg Square in Sofia, this national gallery occupies most of the historic Ottoman Chelebi Mosque and Ottoman konak which were later converted into the former royal palace of Bulgaria. The gallery was established in 1934 and was moved into the palace in 1946 after the initially planned building was razed in a bombing in the Second World War.
The gallery houses examples of contemporary and National Revival Art, the country’s largest collection of Medieval paintings including more than 4,000 icons.
- National Gallery for Foreign Art:
Located in the former Royal Printing Office, this gallery is essentially Bulgaria’s gallery for non-Bulgarian art. The gallery was established in 1985 and its exhibitions grew over time through donations and the addition of the foreign art section from the National Art Gallery.
Since 2015, collections of the NGFA are displayed along with 19th and 20th century collections from the National Art Gallery resulting in the expansion of the building. The resulting building is currently known as National Gallery Square 500.
The gallery displays works from around the world. Indian Art, Japanese Art, African Art, European Art and Buddhist Art from southeast Asia are on display. The gallery’s collections are so vast, some items are still in storage due to the lack of exhibition space.
- National Museum of Natural History:
Located next to the Russian Church and founded in 1889, this museum is the first and largest Natural History Museum in the Balkans. The museum includes over 400 stuffed mammals, over 1,200 species of birds, thousands of insects and samples of about a quarter of the world’s mineral species. There are four departments in the museum: Palaeontology and Minerology, Botany, Invertebrates and Vertebrates.
- The Ivan Vazov National Theater:
Located at the heart of Sofia, the Ivan Vazov theater is Bulgaria’s national theater. It was founded in 1904 and opened in 1907, making it the oldest theater in the country. The famous play; The Outcasts by Vazov was the first play to take place at the theater.
The theater underwent several restorations after suffering damage due to a fire in 1923 and the bombing in the Second World War. Other reconstruction works took place during the 1970s and 2006. A theatrical school was established as part of the theater in 1925.
- The National Opera and Ballet:
The history of Opera in Bulgaria goes back to 1890 but the emerging institutions didn’t last long. It wasn’t until the establishment of the Bulgarian Opera Society in 1908 that the first full opera was performed in 1909; Pagliacci by Leoncavallo. The first Bulgarian opera works were also performed during the same period, like Kamen i Tsena by Ivan Ivanov.
The institution became a national one in 1922 and changed its name to National Opera. By the time the company had been presenting up to 10 opera and ballet shows a year. World known opera classics were presented by the company as well as new ones conducted by Bulgarian composers. The ballet company was established and gave its first performance in 1928.
- Central Military Club:
The foundation stone of the building was laid in 1895 and was designed in Neo-Renaissance style. The three-story building houses a coffeehouse, an art gallery, different halls and a concert hall. The club serves the Bulgarian Army and is administered by the Executive Agency of Military Clubs and Information.
- The SS. Cyril and Methodius National Library:
The largest public library in Bulgaria was founded in 1878. The current building of the library was built between 1940 and 1953. The library was named after the Saints Cyril and Methodius as they created the Glagolitic alphabet.
The library has several notable collections. Slavonic Scriptures, Greek and other Foreign Scriptures, Eastern Scriptures, Collection of Oriental Archives and the Newer Turkish Archives, Old Print, Rares and Valuables, Old Print Books from the Orient, Bulgarian Historical Archive and Portraits and Photographs.
- Slaveykov Square:
Even though the earliest mention of the square dates back to 1515 where a coffeehouse, a mosque and two Turkish police stations were situated. The current name of the square came from the fact that one of the two-story houses built around the square after the liberation of Bulgaria belonged to Petko Slaveykov.
One of the significant landmarks of the square is the statues of Petko Slaveykov and his son Pencho sitting on one of the benches in the square. The square has become famous among booksellers and book fairs usually take place all year round there.
- The National Palace of Culture (NDK):
The NDK is the largest multifunctional conference and exhibition center in south-eastern Europe. It was opened in 1981 during the 1,300th celebration of the liberation of Bulgaria. In 2005, the palace was named the best congress center in the world for the year by the International Organization of Congress Centers.
The palace is home to 13 halls and 15,000 square meters of exhibition space, a car park and a trade center. It is equipped to host a variety of events including concerts, multilingual conferences, exhibitions and shows. The Sofia International Film Festival takes place at the NDK.
Unusual Things to do in Sofia
One of the most unusual things to do in the Bulgarian capital is watch the growing artistic scene in Sofia through the art of graffiti. This form of free art has helped transform several façades in the city into works of art. These works can be found in many locations around the Sofia.
- The work of Bozhidar Simeonov (Bozko): It took the artist 9 days to paint the big wall of the Sofia Inspectorate next to the National Opera.
- The work of Stanislav Trifonov (Nasimo): Known as one of the pioneers of European street art culture, his works adorn several buildings around Europe, such as in Britain, Germany, Italy even India and almost all of the Balkan countries.
- Arsek & Erase: Responsible for the Serdica-Tulip mural that was initiated by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The 200 square meter mural is located near the Serdica metro station and aims to illustrate the friendly relations between the two countries.
- JahOne: Along with the team of the Visionary Foundation, they symbolized the hope carried by blood cancer patients through graffiti that innovations in the field of treatment of this disease will give them new life.
- Graffiti at Rays Street: In memory of Krastyo Petrov Mirski who was a Bulgarian drama director and professor at the Higher Institute of Theater Arts.
- Another work of Nasimo: This time he painted a Bulgarian girl dressed in a Bulgarian national costume in 2016. Named “God’s Gift”, the mural represents Rada; a Bulgarian bride and the beauty of Bulgarian tradition.
Sofia Festivals and Upcoming Events to attend
There are many year-round festivals taking place in Sofia, from film to dance festivals and even a food festival. There hasn’t been much events available for tourists in the past years due to the language barrier but the country is doing its best to incorporate the English language into its events.
- Sofia Middle East and North African Region Film Festival (14th to 30th January):
The main purpose of this two-week festival is to introduce the Bulgarian people to the traditions and films of the Islamic world. Each year’s festival has a different line-up of new films and themes. Submissions for the MENAR film festivals are currently open for films to be shown during the 2022 session.
- Sofia Science Festival (15th and 16th May):
Organized by the British Council, this science festival is held at the Sofia Tech Park. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic another version of the festival was held virtually on the 17th and 18th of May for students. It is best to keep track of the dates since they may change due to the pandemic. Some events are free to access and some need tickets which can be bought online.
- Sofia Swing Dance Festival (1st to 4th July):
This dance festival is perfect for couples or friends who like to get their dance groove on. Registrations are available through their official website for different dance classes and levels.
- Sofia Biting Docs (First week of October):
This film festival shows documentaries about a variety of interesting topics. Human rights, environmental problems, disrespect of diversity and minorities are among the topic shown at a selected number of cinema houses.
- Sofia International Film Festival – SIFF (14th to 30th September):
The SIFF is held at multiple theaters including the Cinema House; one of the most significant venues in Sofia. The festival is one of the most important film festivals in Europe and was ranked among Variety’s Top 50 Cinema Festivals.
The festival shows some subversive films from around the world and is the perfect event for lovers of alternative cinema.
Sofia’s Shopping Malls
Yes, you’ve read that right. This city is studded with shopping malls with all ranges of brands and styles. Some malls are so grand they’re hard to miss as you walk around Sofia.
- TZUM (Central Department Store): Situated in a monument edifice as part of the Largo complex, TZUM is the go-to mall for all first-line brands such as Fila, Adidas and Timberland.
- Mall of Sofia: Located at the intersection of Aleksandar Stamboliyski Boulevard and Opalchenska Street in the centrer of the city. This mall offers a variety of shops, a supermarket, pharmacies, a beauty salon, an internet café and a number of fast-food restaurants such as KFC and Subway.
- Park Center Sofia: Located south of the National Palace of Culture, the mall has six stories including two underground. It houses more than a 100 stores, cafés, pharmacies, beauty parlors and bank offices.
- The Mall, Sofia: It is the largest shopping mall in the Balkans, it is located at 115 Tsarigradsko Shose. The mall has more than 240 stores, restaurants, recreation centers, bars and cafés including Bulgaria’s largest Carrefour hypermarket.
- Sofia Outlet Center: Located on an established retail development, it’s only a 15 minutes drive away from the center of Sofia.
- Bulgaria Mall: Located at the intersection of Bulgaria boulevard and Todor Kableshkov boulevard, the mall has one of the biggest skylights in Central and Eastern Europe.
- Sofia Christmas Market: Set up on the 23rd of November each year, this Christmas market is certain to put you in the holiday spirit. Located in Borisova Gradina, it is small but charming.
Bulgarian Cuisine in Sofia – Where and What to Eat!
You can’t be in the Bulgarian capital soaking up the atmosphere and history of the city without giving the traditional dishes of the country a try. Tired after a shopping spree through they city’s malls? These Bulgarian dishes are a variety of heart-filling meals that are perfect no matter the season.
- Shopska Salata: This simple fresh salad is perfect for summer days and can be found at any restaurant in Sofia. The salad is made from traditional salad ingredients; tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and onions and the secret to this special salad is the white Bulgarian cheese called Sirene. This special cheese is made from special bacteria found only in Bulgaria which make the making of this salad a Bulgarian specialty.
- Tarator: You wouldn’t think that ingredients as simple as yogurt, water, cucumbers, wallnuts, garlic and dill would make for a delicious soup, would you? Well, Tarator has different versions through the Balkans but these are the makings of the Bulgarian variation which can be found at the nearest restaurant.
- Shkembe Chorba: Said to be the best cure for hangover, Bulgarians are divided over the love of Shkembe Chorba or tripe soup. It’s not a dish for anyone but it’s definitely a native to the Balkans. The soup is spiced with lots of garlic, red paprika and some milk.
- Banitsa or Banichka: This queen of Bulgarian cuisine is traditionally made from pastry sheets filled with cheese, eggs and yogurt. Although other variations are filled with pumpkin or spinach, the tradition version is made with white cheese. You can find this delicious pastry in every local bakery in Sofia.
- Meshana Skara: This combination of grilled meat in different forms will surely make your mouth water. It usually consists of meatballs (kyufte), grilled minced meat (kebabche), pork steak, skewer (shishche) and Italian sausage (karnache).
- Bulgarian version of Moussaka: You must’ve heard of moussaka before, as a native to the Middle Eastern cuisine. The Bulgarian version is based on potatoes, ground meat and a layer of yogurt on top.
- Sarmi: This is another Bulgarian specialty which is cabbage or vine leaves that are filled with minced meat and rice. Sarmi is also popular in other countries in the Balkans and the Middle East as well. A meatless version of Sarmi can be found at every table in Bulgaria during Christmas.
- Stuffed Peppers of Byurek Peppers: This time it’s peppers that are filled with rice and ground meat. The peppers are filled with cheese as well and then fried. Again, a meatless version is available at Christmas.
- Cheese and Yogurt: The Bulgarian white cheese is so delicious on its own, you can buy it at any supermarket to munch on back at your hotel.
Where can you find these delicacies and more?
- Hadjidraganov’s House: The most traditional restaurant in Sofia, it’s located just near the Lion’s Bridge north of Sofia. Comprising of four old rehabilitated houses from 1886 with each house being a restaurant dining room. Each room represents a different town in Bulgaria and a live music band plays music native to that town.
Main dishes range from 5 Euro (10 BGN) to 13 Euro (25 BGN). If you’re traveling in a group, prior reservation is a must since it can get very crowded.
- SkaraBar – Barbeque Restaurant: Located on a side street behind the National Art Gallery. The restaurant invites you in with a simple and modern décor surrounding the large blackboard describing the day’s specials. The main dishes, with a focus on grilled Bulgarian meat, range from 5 Euro (10 BGN) and 12 Euro (22 BGN).
- Bistro Lubimoto: This hidden restaurant is tucked away between residential buildings not far away from Sofia University. The restaurant opens up into a small courtyard with trees with rustic furniture and red brick walls. Serving traditional Bulgarian food, bistro style, the meals range from 3 Euro (6 BGN) and 8 Euro (15 BGN).
- The Women’s Market – The Oldest Market in Sofia: The local farmer’s market or the Zhenski Pazar Market is located on the northwest side of the city center. Besides offering the freshest of fruit and vegetables, the eatery serves traditional Bulgarian comfort food. Main dishes range from 3 Euro (5 BGN) to 4 Euro (8 BGN).
- Bagri Restuarnat – Slow Food Restaurant: This restaurant is located on a small street to the south from the Saint Aleksandar Nevski Cathedral. With a peaceful and comfy atmosphere, the menu changes every month and a half using the local and seasonal produce. The modern and creative Bulgarian dishes served range from 5 Euro (10 BGN) and 13 Euro (25 BGN).
- The Little Things: This restaurant is tucked between other restaurants at the back of a courtyard, you should look for the sign carefully. The different rooms in the restaurant have unique décor and is perfect for lunch or a casual dinner. The contemporary Bulgarian food with a Mediterranean focus served in the restaurant range from 3 Euro (5 BGN) and 8 Euro (15 BGN).
- Cosmos – Gastronomy Bulgarian Cuisine: Considered by many as one of the best restaurants in Sofia, Cosmos offers traditional Bulgarian dishes with a creative twist. It is located at the heart of the city, behind the Sofia Court House. The minimalist design of the place is very appealing and it offers a tasting menu per person which costs about 44 Euro (85 BGN).
The city of Sofia is full of everything you can think of doing during your vacation, so what’s stopping you? Sofia awaits!
Do you feel like going on a breathtaking hike? How about booking a day trip from Sofia to the beautiful Seven Rila lakes?