There are also glass skyscrapers and UNESCO-listed temples, cobblestone streets and wide avenues, wine in plastic bottles and cheap burgers, second-hand shops and casinos on every corner, and traffic jams where new Mercedes cars stand next to Soviet Ladas. This is all about the capital of Bulgaria.
Sofia has preserved different epochs and cultures within itself – Roman, Thracian, Bulgarian, Turkish, socialist. During World War II, Sofia was partially destroyed by Allied forces. Therefore, the architecture of the center is somewhat chaotic: next to old pre-war buildings are Soviet-era houses and modern glass towers. In the city center, mosques, Orthodox temples, and a synagogue coexist. Next to the ruins of an ancient fortress, you can stumble upon monumental Soviet-era buildings, and even further – a museum of contemporary art. This is what makes the Bulgarian capital interesting.
It’s also convenient to base yourself here and travel around the vicinity – the Seven Rila Lakes and the Borovets ski resort, the city of Petrich where the clairvoyant Vanga lived, and pastoral villages.
In the 1st century, Sofia was the Roman fortress of Serdica. From this period, some landmarks have remained — ruins in the city center next to the metro station of the same name. Only in the early 9th century did Sofia become part of the Bulgarian Kingdom — at that time it was called Sredets.
In the late 14th century, the country was conquered by the Ottomans. Sofia was a small provincial town on the edge of the Ottoman Empire. There were a mosque, a Turkish market, Turkish baths, and Jewish quarters. The Ottoman yoke lasted almost 500 years and fell in the late 19th century.
After liberation, Sofia became the capital of Bulgaria. It was chosen by a popular vote with the consideration that it is located in the center of Bulgaria and would reclaim all the neighboring lands that were previously Bulgarian. For instance, Northern Macedonia, parts of Greece, Turkey, and Serbia were once part of Bulgaria. Indeed, at the beginning of World War II, the Bulgarians reclaimed almost all these lands. However, they lost them again in 1944.
After the war and until the collapse of the USSR, Bulgaria was part of the Eastern Bloc. This greatly changed the appearance of Sofia. The country’s population became noticeably urbanized. Rural residents massively moved to cities, where communist authorities built factories and created jobs. Over the last century, the capital of Bulgaria has grown almost tenfold: a century ago, Sofia had a population of 150,000, now it’s 1.4 million.
What to see
Sofia isn’t as much of a tourist city as, for example, the coastal towns of Sozopol and Nesebar or the ancient cities of Veliko Tarnovo and Plovdiv with their cozy historic centers. But that’s what makes Sofia interesting — it’s a lively, authentic, unembellished Balkan city for tourists. Most of the attractions are located in the center, and they can all be visited in a couple of days. The exceptions are Vrana Palace, Boyana Church, and some museums: they are located on the outskirts.
Fortresses and palaces
In the city center are the ruins of the ancient fortress of Serdica. They were discovered by accident when the metro was being built — the station was eventually named after the fortress. Fragments of the ancient city are preserved on the surface and in the station’s passageways. This place is right in the center of Sofia and can be visited for free. The fortress ruins are located in a square. It consists of several small streets, which are conditionally marked by remnants of stone masonry from houses and public buildings. The fortress was founded by Thracian tribes in the second millennium BC. It was then captured by the Romans. Archaeologists also found ceramics at this site, which is now on display at the entrance to the metro.
At the “Serdika” metro station is the Presidential Palace. You can’t enter it, but near the palace, you can watch the changing of the guard ceremony. Every hour it happens in a simplified form, on holidays and weekends at noon—longer and more grandly.
But the most curious of the palaces is the Vrana Palace of the Bulgarian kings. It is located on the outskirts of Sofia, and can be reached by the Tsarigradsko Shose highway on bus 505. The palace and the park next to it still belong to the last Bulgarian Tsar, Simeon II. He later also became the country’s Prime Minister, ran a business in Spain, and contributed to Bulgaria’s accession to the European Union. The king still lives nearby—in a two-story hunting lodge on the park grounds.
The Vrana Palace itself was built in the early 20th century in Art Nouveau style with Venetian-Dalmatian motifs. You can visit it on a guided tour and see the interior. For example, in one of the halls, all the paneling and furniture are made of Karelian birch—a gift from the Russian Tsar. The park has over 800 species of trees and plants, and a charming lake with lilies. The park and palace are open only on weekends, mostly in the summer—but not always. It’s best to check the information on the website or by phone at 0889 362 282.
Quarter of the Four Religions
Not far from the “Serdika” metro station are two ancient small temples — St. Petka and St. George. The Orthodox Church of St. Petka is a stone building, partially embedded in the ground, like many other temples built in Bulgaria during the times of the Ottoman yoke. The church is situated below the avenue level, and thus during the Ottoman period, it was lower than a Turkish horseman. Currently, one needs to descend to it relative to the neighboring buildings. Inside, one can see valuable paintings, mosaics, and frescoes from the 14th to the 17th centuries.
The Rotunda of St. George is the oldest church in the city. This two-story brick building was constructed in the 4th century. Inside, large two-meter frescoes from the 10th century were discovered. Both churches are active; services are held, and one can enter them for free. The Rotunda of St. George is located in the courtyard of the Presidential Palace.
This place is also referred to as the “Quarter of the Four Religions.” A few minutes walk away is the Banya Bashi Mosque. It is the only functioning mosque in the city and one of the oldest active mosques in Europe. It has been preserved from the times when Sofia was part of the Ottoman Empire, presumably constructed in 1566–1567. You can look at the historical photos of the mosque and Bansko square next to it in the article on the “Stara Sofia” website. Anyone, regardless of gender or faith, can enter the mosque.
Across the road from the mosque is the cathedral of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church — the St. Nedelya Church. It is built in the Neo-Byzantine style, typical for many churches in Bulgaria. This place holds significant importance for the country because in 1925, a group of left-wing communists committed a terrorist act here, resulting in the death of 160 people, including many representatives of the Bulgarian elite. Entrance is free. Inside, you can see vibrant colored stained glass, an ancient gilded iconostasis, and a reliquary containing the remains of Serbian King Stefan.
Opposite the mosque there is also the Sofia Synagogue. It is the largest synagogue in Southeast Europe and the third-largest in all of Europe. The Sofia Synagogue was built in the early 20th century for the Sephardic Jewish community. The building’s architecture combines Moorish and Venetian styles.
A five-minute walk from the synagogue is the Polish Catholic Cathedral of St. Joseph. It’s one of the largest temples in Bulgaria and belongs to the Capuchin monastic order. On Sundays, masses are held in Polish, Bulgarian, and English.
Between these four religious sites of different denominations stands the statue of Saint Sofia — the symbol and religious patron of the city. Ironically, during Soviet times, a statue of Lenin stood in this place.
Another significant historical, religious, cultural, and architectural site in Sofia is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral of the 20th century. Its architectural style is reminiscent of the Saint Nedelya Cathedral in terms of building shape, domes, and interior decor. It was designed by the Russian architect Alexander Pomerantsev in honor of the liberation of Bulgaria from Ottoman rule. The cathedral houses the relics of Alexander Nevsky, and several icons were painted by the artist Vasnetsov.
Adjacent to the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is the ancient Cathedral of Saint Sofia, which is believed to have been built in the 6th century. During the Ottoman period, it was converted into a mosque. It is believed that this cathedral gave the city its name, and its image is depicted on Sofia’s coat of arms. A notable feature is its large crypt, an underground space beneath the cathedral, which can be entered. Ancient Roman catacombs were discovered there.
In Sofia, there is also what’s called the Russian Church — the Church of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, which belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church. It’s small, but it also has a crypt where the relics of St. Seraphim are located. People constantly come to him and leave notes with requests and prayers.
The National Archaeological Museum is located downtown, close to the Rotunda of St. George, in the building of a former mosque. Right at the entrance, one can see exhibits — ancient slabs with depictions of rulers, warriors, as well as small sculptures, everyday objects made from precious metals. Through these exhibits, you can get an idea of the cultures of various peoples who lived in the Balkans for centuries — Thracians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Turks, and Bulgarians. The permanent exhibition features findings from the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras. It also houses a replica of the Madara Rider — one of Bulgaria’s national symbols. Entry costs ten leva (5.12 euros), and a tour in English is 20 leva (10.23 euros).
The Historical Museum is located on the outskirts, but near the scenic Vitosha mountain, in the prestigious Boyana district. It can be reached by buses 63, 111, and 304. The museum houses Bulgarian gold, ancient coins, furniture, maps, heraldic symbols, rare historical photographs, church utensils, traditional Bulgarian clothing and military uniforms, seals, and the first Bulgarian alphabet — the Glagolitic script. Entry is ten leva (5.12 euros), and a tour in a foreign language is 30 leva (15.35 euros).
In the Boyana Church, one can see rare Orthodox frescoes from different eras, ranging from the 11th to the 16th centuries. It is considered a part of the Historical Museum, and at the same time, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. The entrance fee to the museum is ten leva (5.12 euros), and a guided tour costs another ten leva (5.12 euros).
Previously in Sofia, there were two main art galleries: The National Gallery for Foreign Art and the National Art Gallery of Bulgaria. A few years ago, they were merged into one. The exhibition is housed in the Bulgarian Tsars’ Palace, which was built right after the liberation from Ottoman rule in the late 19th century. It contains works of local artists, ranging from icons and paintings from the Renaissance era to contemporary pieces. It’s the largest collection of Bulgarian art from the past century, with about 30,000 art pieces, including not just graphics but also sculpture and decorative arts (glass, ceramics, posters). An adult ticket costs six leva (3.07 euros), and a guided tour is 30 leva (15.35 euros).
The building that formerly housed the National Art Gallery now occupies the “Square 500” gallery. Its collections include works by Dürer, Picasso, Chagall, Rembrandt, and Rodin. There are also interesting exhibits of Eastern art: Indian miniatures, Japanese engravings, Indian sculptures and temple music, a collection from Goa, and a Rerikh hall.
The Sofia History Museum is primarily interesting because it is located in the former building of the Central Mineral Bath. It operated up until the mid of the last century. Previously, an old Turkish bath stood on this site, which was later demolished. The new building was constructed in the early 20th century in the style of Viennese Secession with Bulgarian and Byzantine elements. While there are no longer any baths there, there is a source of hot mineral water in the wall from which one can collect water for free. The museum displays historical photographs of the city, old maps, furniture, and clothing from Sofia’s past centuries. The entrance fee is six leva (3.07 euros).
In the arsenal building is the Museum of Contemporary Art, which is located not in the very center but in the Lozenets district. It’s most convenient to get there by metro from the center. Sofia also has other contemporary art galleries: Art Vibes, ONE, [a]cube Contemporary.
Another interesting place is the creative space called Swimming Pool. Its main highlight is a rooftop terrace with a swimming pool, offering a view over the entire city center. Exhibitions, performances, and parties are held here. The art space is only open during events, so it’s best to check the schedule in advance on the website or Instagram.
A stark contrast to these modern galleries is the Museum of Socialist Art. It opened relatively recently – in 2011. In the park in front of the museum, about 80 sculptures are displayed – statues and busts of communist leaders and heroes of the era – workers, collective farmers, partisans, Bulgarian revolutionaries, and of course, Lenin. The museum itself is an art gallery and a cinema hall where you can watch documentary films from that era.
Socialist Era Architecture
Sofia grew several times during the socialist period, from 1946 to 1990. After World War II, Bulgaria was among the countries that signed the Warsaw Pact. The cooperation between these countries was quite close. For instance, where homes destroyed during the war once stood, now there are panel buildings very similar to those in which the majority of Russians live. Closer to the center, districts appeared for the nomenklatura, university staff, and research institute employees: Geo Milev, Iztock, Izgrev, Lozenetz. On the outskirts, areas were built for industrial workers: Lyulin, Mladost, Druzhbu. Essentially, a large part of Sofia consists of typical panel block districts.
One of the iconic buildings of this period is the National Palace of Culture, designed in the brutalist style. The building has eight floors and three underground levels. Cultural events are still held there today: screenings of rare films, theater productions, concerts, festivals, exhibitions. You can view the schedule and buy tickets on the NDK website. The building itself is surrounded by a charming park with fountains, a flower alley, where street musicians play.
Another monumental building in Sofia is TSUM. Inside, there’s nothing unusual, many shopping areas are vacant, but there’s a covered internal courtyard five stories high. Another interesting architectural monument from the socialist era is the Bells Park (Kambanite), where bells from various countries of the world are collected. In 1979, the UN declared it the International Year of the Child, and Sofia hosted the Children’s Assembly. Delegations from a hundred countries brought bells with them, symbolizing their countries. These bells were placed on concrete pedestals, and thus the Bells Park (Kambanite) was created. According to the park’s rules, only children are allowed to ring the bells. The Kambanite complex is located in the south of Sofia, and it can be reached from the “Business Park” metro station in 20 minutes on foot or by buses 111 and 413.
You can learn more about the architecture of the socialist period on one of the tours in Sofia. It’s conducted in English, lasts three hours, and costs 11 euros.
In Sofia, as in many other Bulgarian and Balkan cities, there are Roma quarters. They are perceived differently: for some, they evoke the romanticism of Kusturica’s films or the impoverished neighborhoods of East Asia, while others only notice there the dense clustering of Roma makeshift buildings, loud national music, piles of garbage, and the unpleasant smell of burning.
In total, about 750,000 Roma live in Bulgaria. Bulgarians call Roma districts “mahallya”, like quarters in Muslim countries. Meanwhile, many Roma are Christians and attend Protestant churches. In Sofia, there are several well-known Roma quarters, such as Fakulteta, Sugar Factory, Hristo Botev, with a total of about 20 such districts.
You can encounter Roma outside of their districts as well. For instance, you might wander into a remote corner of a park near the center and suddenly see horses and tents – a common sight. Roma often settle in abandoned houses, wastelands, and the territories of collapsing factories – they were squatters before it became mainstream. If you want to take a walk through the Roma districts, it’s better to do it with a guide.
Culture and Leisure
Close to the Russian Church is the Ivan Vazov National Theater, fragments of which are depicted on the 50 lev banknote. It is the most famous theater in the country. Performances are in Bulgarian, but Russian speakers can easily understand the content of the plays because they mostly stage works by well-known European authors. For instance, “Don Juan”, “Cyrano de Bergerac,” and others. You can check the schedule and buy tickets on their website. Prices range from 15–30 levs (7.68 – 15.35 euros). On Sunday evenings in front of the theater, people dance the national Bulgarian dance, “horo”. This dance is a must at all celebrations: birthdays, weddings, and major cultural events. Ordinary people participate, and anyone can join if they wish.
Another iconic place in the city is Borisova Gradina Park. It’s the most famous park in Sofia. Located not far from the center, it’s a short walk from the Russian Church along Tsarigradsko Shose. In the park, you can ride pedal boats on a small lake or dine in a fish restaurant on a boat. The park also has an open-air theater stage, offering free performances and concerts. In the summer evenings, there’s also a free cinema. The park houses an Astronomical Observatory where lectures are held, and you can stargaze. Tickets cost five to seven levs (2.56 – 3.58 euros).
An alternative to the popular Borisova Gradina among Sofia residents and tourists is the small, romantic, almost intimate Botanical Garden at Sofia University. Despite its small size, it houses about 1,500 plants. Orchids, citrus trees, cacti, and palms grow in the greenhouses. There is a separate Mediterranean garden with myrtle and olive trees. The rose garden has over 40 varieties of roses. Admission costs three levs (1.54 euros).
On the outskirts of the city, in the Simeonovo district, there is a colorful five-story building in the shape of a snail — a school for gifted children, but tourists are allowed. The snail has a head and even eyes, and the building itself lacks right angles. Designed by architect Simeon Simeonov, the building’s facade expresses a commitment to a green lifestyle.
In Sofia, you can also go to the cinema. Films are shown in the original language but with Bulgarian subtitles. Theatres are usually located in shopping centers, such as “Kinoarena” in The Mall. Tickets cost on average seven to ten levs (3.58 – 5.12 euros). There are also unique cinemas that screen rare films. For example, one of the oldest cinemas in Sofia is “Vlaikova”, “Eurocinema” or the Bulgarian National Film Archive.
In Sofia and its vicinity, there are natural sources of mineral water. Hot water flows from taps directly on the city streets, for example, near the “Serdika” metro station. You can drink the water directly or fill up your container for free — locals even bring many large empty plastic bottles in their cars. You can also get mineral water in the Gorna Banya area and in the suburb of Bankya. Bankya is a full-fledged balneological resort with large hotels that operate year-round where you can go for water treatments and spa sessions.
For instance, the four-star Bankya Palace has its own source of mineral water and a wellness center. You can opt for classic amenities like a sauna, bathhouse, massage, or you can choose special procedures that are offered only at this resort: jacuzzi, baths, hydro-massage, paraffin masks with mineral water. Each procedure costs between 15 to 50 levs (7.68 – 25.59 euros). You can also swim in the open mineral pool — 10–15 levs (5.12 – 7.68 euros) depending on the day of the week. If you want to stay at the resort for several days, it’s advisable to take a spa program. It lasts three days and includes accommodation, three meals a day, and 13 procedures. They offer several such programs: toning, anti-cellulite, detox, anti-stress, Ayurveda. The price is about 410 levs (209.80 euros) for one person or 640 levs (327.50 euros) for two.
A more budget-friendly option is the “Zdrave” rehabilitation hospital. Essentially, it is a sanatorium. Here, they also offer therapeutic procedures with mineral water. For foreigners, prices start from 80 levs (40.94 euros), which includes a doctor’s examination, three treatments, and free access to pools with mineral water.
Vacation with children
Bulgaria loves children: they are charmed by them, they are complimented, and sometimes they even unabashedly pinch the cheek or leg of someone else’s baby. In practical terms for tourists, this means that children’s pranks and whims in restaurants, shops, and public transport are met with understanding. And there are many places in Sofia that will be interesting for kids. The only thing to keep in mind is that taxis often don’t have child car seats.
“Kokolandia” is a rope attraction at the edge of Borisova Gradina Park. They have built routes of varying difficulty levels here: from basic for three-to-four-year-old children to challenging attractions located high in the trees for teenagers. Everything is safe: children are fastened with safety ropes that will support them in case of a fall. The price for each route is six levs (3.07 euros).
“Muzeyko” is a children’s science and entertainment center where everything can be touched, turned, built, and broken. The exhibits are presented in a playful manner. For instance, children learn the laws of physics when playing with a specially designed elevator and study history when searching for missing pieces of a map. It’s especially interesting for primary school-age children. In “Muzeyko”, there are three floors dedicated to the past, present, and future. The roof has a small park set up. Tickets for both children and adults cost 12 levs (6.14 euros), children under two years of age enter for free.
The zoo is the oldest in the country, being 130 years old. It’s not as large as, for example, the Moscow zoo – one can leisurely walk around with breaks for popcorn and sausage rolls from a local stall in a couple of hours. The Sofia zoo houses over two thousand animals, including bears, elephants, big cats, primates, and birds. There are separate terrarium and aquarium sections. The predator enclosures are designed so you can get quite close. Children’s tickets are two levs (1.02 euros), adult tickets are four levs (2.05 euros), and entrance is free for children under three years.
Surroundings of Sofia
The ski resort season starts around mid-December — that’s also when the ski lifts begin operating. It ends around April.
Near Sofia is Mount Vitosha (2,290 meters) and the park of the same name. Ski slopes are also located here. You can go up by cable car. It is called the “Simeonovo lift” because it is located in the Simeonovo district. The price is 12 levs (6.14 euros) one way and 17 levs (8.70 euros) for a round trip. Check the actual working hours and prices on the ski resort’s website. From the “Geo Milev” bus station in Sofia, electric bus number 123 goes to the resort.
On Mount Vitosha, you can stay overnight, for instance, at the “Aleko” hut located at an altitude of 1,840 meters. A bunk costs 18-20 levs (9.21 – 10.23 euros) per person, and an apartment for two to four people costs 80-120 levs (40.94 – 61.41 euros).
Close to Sofia are two more ski resorts – Borovets and Bansko. If Vitosha is a relatively small resort and primarily popular among Sofia residents, then Bansko and Borovets are ski resorts frequented by Europeans. Prices here are lower than in the Alpine ski resorts, but the service is comparable: tracks of varying difficulty, a vibrant nightlife – après-ski, many modern hotels, cozy restaurants, and chalets.
The journey from Sofia to Borovets takes about two hours on two buses. First, you need to get from Sofia to the town of Samokov (about an hour). The bus departs from the South Station in the Istok area. Then, from Samokov, it’s approximately 40 minutes by bus to Borovets itself. The ticket costs up to ten levs (5.12 euros).
A ski pass for a day costs 71 levs (36.33 euros), for three days — 190 levs (97.23 euros), and for a week — 380 levs (194.45 euros). There are also tickets for night skiing, skiing only before or after lunch – they are cheaper than the full-day pass. All prices can be found on the ski resort’s website. There are also many decent hotels, for example, Villa Park – a room for two costs about 50 levs (25.59 euros) per night – or Borovets Gardens – 120 levs (61.41 euros) per night per person.
To get to Bansko from Sofia’s Central Bus Station, the bus ride takes about three hours, and the ticket costs 16 levs (8.19 euros). The prices here are slightly higher than in Borovets. A day ski pass costs 79 levs (40.43 euros), a three-day pass is 299 levs (153.00 euros), and a six-day pass is 452 levs (231.30 euros). Check the current prices on the resort’s website.
For accommodations, you can stay, for example, at the Cornelia Deluxe Residence for 150 levs (76.76 euros) per night for two people or at the Saint George Palace Apart Hotel for 202 levs (103.37 euros). In general, there’s no shortage of hotels in Bansko – “Booking.com” offers over 500 accommodation options.
15 kilometers from Sofia
Pancharevo is a picturesque lake surrounded by mountains. It’s a man-made lake, created in 1954 when a reservoir was built on the Iskar River. You can swim in the lake or rent a pedal boat – the rental costs five levs (2.56 euros) for half an hour. The lake always attracts many fishermen, as it is home to fish species like perch, carp, bream, pike, roach, mullet, catfish, and crucian carp. You can also spot birds, including swans, ducks, storks, and the Bulgarian silver gulls.
Along the lake, there is a pedestrian path—a comfortable asphalted road suitable for strolling with a stroller or riding a bicycle. The “Lebed” restaurant is a great place for a snack. The menu features European cuisine, but it’s worth trying the fish, especially sea bass and bream.
Pancharevo is also known for its hot mineral springs. You can swim in the pools with mineral water at the “Korali” sports and entertainment complex or the “Infinity” spa center. A four-hour relaxation session at “Infinity” costs 60 levs (30.70 euros). The price includes a mineral pool, jacuzzi, sauna, and steam bath. They also provide a key for a personal locker and a bathrobe, offer fruits, tea, coffee, and mineral water.
How to get there: From the “Geo Milev” bus station, take buses 1, 3, or 6.
50 kilometers from Sofia
Vitosha is not only a ski resort but also a namesake natural park where one can go trekking. Several routes have been established in the park: sports, tourist, and thematic ones. It’s worth checking out a peculiar phenomenon: stone rivers—mountain streams filled with heaps of stones. They are called Zlatni Mostove, or Golden Bridges. The park also features a dendrarium spanning 140 hectares.
On Vitosha, one can stay in hotels or small wooden bungalows. For instance, a night at the Moreni hotel starts from 240 levs (122.81 euros) for two per night.
How to get there: Take bus 63 to the “Aleko” hut or bus 64 to “Zlatni Mostove”.
Tsari Mali Grad Fortress
60 kilometers from Sofia
Tsari Mali Grad is an ancient fortress in the village of Belchin, an hour and a half drive from Sofia. The fortification walls were built by the Romans in the 3rd century, but before that, there was a pagan sanctuary on its territory. Over the years, the fortress and its towers were almost completely destroyed, but in 2013, after archaeological excavations, they were restored. Now, the towers house museums displaying Thracian household items and artifacts from the ancient era. Several small museums are located in the towers across multiple floors. The fortress also has a restored early Christian temple, remnants of a sanctuary, fragments of an old granary, and other structures dating back two millennia.
A single ticket to the fortress and museums costs seven levs (3.58 euros). Please note that Tsari Mali Grad is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. It is better to check the current schedule on the fortress’s website before visiting.
The fortress is located on a hill, and you can get there by cable car. An adult ticket costs four levs (2.05 euros). An alternative route is through an eco-trail that goes through the forest. The climb is slightly less than a kilometer, with benches and pavilions along the way, making the route suitable for children.
If you want to delve deeper into ethnography, near the lower cable car station is a museum-house of Bulgarian daily life. It is small, consisting only of a few rooms. There you can find traditional Bulgarian wooden furniture, with carpets on the walls. Overall, the exhibit depicts how the Bulgarians managed their households.
How to get there: Take a bus from the “Yug” bus station to the town of Samokov. Not all buses pass through Belchin – it’s necessary to check with the driver.
Chavdar – a quintessential Bulgarian village
70 kilometers from Sofia
The village of Chavdar is located in the Stara Planina mountains. It epitomizes the typical Bulgarian village: two-story houses, red tiled roofs, a church, and all buildings facing the street with their sides. Beyond them are fields.
The village isn’t very large — from the central square, only a few streets branch out, and officially just over a thousand people live here. The infrastructure includes a hotel, a town administration, and several restaurants. All of them are decorated in the style of mehanas – traditional Bulgarian restaurants: stone walls, solid wooden furniture, red tablecloths with national patterns. Here you can try dishes from the national Bulgarian cuisine: shkembe chorba, Shopska salad, mish-mash. The prices are affordable — soup and salad will cost three levs (1.54 euros), while a hearty lunch of three to four dishes and a drink won’t exceed ten levs (5.12 euros).
But the primary reason to visit Chavdar is its Folklore Center. It immerses visitors in the traditions and lifestyle of a Bulgarian village – but it’s not a dull ethnographic museum. Instead, it’s an interactive center where they reconstruct traditional folk festivals and set up installations. Chavdar is particularly interesting for children – for them, for example, a computer game has been developed based on the village’s legends.
Tickets for adults cost three levs (1.54 euros), and for children, students, and seniors, it’s two levs (1.02 euros).
How to get there: Buses to Chavdar depart from the “Serdika” bus station.
80 kilometers from Sofia
The Seven Rila Lakes are glacial lakes located in the Rila mountain range at an altitude of 2,100–2,500 meters. The highest lake is called Salzata (“tear” in Bulgarian). It is incredibly clear, and it seems as if you can look deep into it and see the bottom. The lake Bybreka (“kidney” in Bulgarian) has the steepest shores.
You can take a cable car to the top — a one-way ticket costs 15 levs (7.68 euros), and a round-trip ticket is 25 levs (12.79 euros). It can be cold in the mountains even in the summer, so it’s a good idea to bring warm clothes. Also, pack sunscreen and sunglasses — you can get sunburned quickly. It’s also better to bring snacks because there are hardly any cafes around, and a walk around the lakes can take four to five hours.
At the Rila Lakes, you can stay overnight at the “Rila Lakes” hut. Prices vary: from 30 levs (15.35 euros) for a bed in a shared room, 80 levs (40.94 euros) for a standard room for two, and up to 200 levs (102.34 euros) for premium apartments.
How to get there: Buses run from the Central Bus Station to the Panichishte resort.
Koprivshtitsa — a memory of the Turkish occupation
110 kilometers from Sofia
Koprivshtitsa is a museum town where most attractions are related to the history of Bulgaria and its struggle against Turkish slavery. For instance, the town has house-museums of Bulgarian revolutionaries such as Todor Kableshkov, Georgi Benkovski, and others — a total of six museums where the daily life and personal belongings of the owners have been preserved. It’s most convenient to buy a combined ticket, which costs six levs (3.07 euros) and allows access to all museums. Entry to each museum individually costs four levs (2.05 euros). More details about the prices and opening hours of the museums can be found on the Koprivshtitsa website.
It’s also enjoyable just to wander the town’s streets, with numerous churches and homes in the Bulgarian Revival style — with tiled roofs, bright walls, and overhanging second floors above the streets.
How to get there: Buses depart from the “Serdika” bus station.
120 kilometers from Sofia
In the same Rila mountain range is the 10th-century Rila Monastery. It is located at an altitude of 1147 meters above sea level. It was named after Saint John of Rila, the patron saint of the Bulgarian people. The monastery is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Architecturally, the monastery resembles the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and the Holy Week Cathedral in Sofia. The complex includes the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, a dining room, a library with handwritten books from the 11th-19th centuries, sheet music and engravings, and a six-story tower. In summer, you can climb the tower, which offers a view of the monastery courtyard surrounded by mountains.
The church houses frescoes by famous iconographers, including Zacharias and Dimitar Zograf. Particularly famous is the handmade icon of the Virgin Mary “Odigitria,” which translates as “Guide.” The monastery also has a museum with icons and church items. The relics of John of Rila are also kept in the monastery. Four kilometers from the monastery is a cave with the tomb of John of Rila, signposts lead to it through the forest.
If desired, you can stay overnight at the monastery — in addition to the cells for monks, there are rooms for pilgrims. For these, you need to pay a symbolic sum: five to ten levs (2.56 – 5.12 euros), but it’s better to check in advance for availability at the monastery. It’s essential to remember the rules of behavior — this is an active monastery, not a hotel.
How to get there: direct buses run from the “Ovcha Kupel” bus station. Check the current schedule on the monastery’s website.
Melnik — Bulgarian ethnography and architecture
180 kilometers from Sofia
This is the smallest and one of the southernmost cities in Bulgaria. Just over 200 people live here. Melnik is a concentrate of Bulgarian ethnography and architecture. Here, the homes of wealthy Bulgarians from the Bulgarian Revival period — 18th-19th centuries — are well-preserved. Many of them have now become museums. For example, the Kordopulov’s house, Boyar’s house, which belonged to wealthy merchants, winemakers, and craftsmen. The buildings look impressive: located on a hill, two to three stories high, built of natural stone, with wooden casings that overhang the streets.
The Kordopulov House belonged to a renowned winemaker, and a wine cellar has even been preserved inside — now there’s a local wine shop there. Prices range from three and a half to ten euros per bottle, and you can taste each wine.
How to get there: From the Central Bus Station, a ticket costs 20 levs (10.23 euros), with one departure daily at 14:00.
Petrich – the homeland of Vanga
180 kilometers from Sofia
Petrich was home to the famous Bulgarian clairvoyant, Baba Vanga. Her house-museum is located there, where stories of Vanga’s predictions are shared and gifts she received from visitors are preserved. Among her visitors were well-known politicians and celebrities, like Philipp Kirkorov. A ticket to the museum costs a symbolic two levs (1.02 euros). Also in Petrich is the Monastery of Saint Petka with unique depictions of saints, resembling modern paintings. This monastery was built with funds provided by Vanga.
How to get there: Petrich is approximately two and a half hours drive from Sofia, near the border with Greece. Buses depart from the Central Bus Station and take about three hours, with a ticket costing 19 levs (9.72 euros). There are six to seven departures daily.
Food and Drinks
Cafes and Restaurants
Bulgarian cuisine features many spicy dishes, vegetable salads, and dishes made of meat, eggs, and vegetables. There are few soups, but those that exist are hearty soups with meat and fish. Many dishes are prepared in the style of “gyuvech” or “mandzha” – stewed pieces of meat mixed with vegetables, peas, beans, or rice. Bulgarian cuisine shares dishes with Turkish and Balkan cuisines.
Most popular national dishes:
- Shkembe chorba: A soup made from lamb innards, served with spicy seasonings.
- Tarator: A cold soup made from sour milk or yogurt and cucumbers, which may be served with ice. It resembles the Russian “okroshka” made with kefir but has a more sour taste.
- Sirene po-shopski and sirene po-thracian: Bulgarian cheese, similar to feta, baked with eggs, Bulgarian pepper, and tomatoes. Served in clay pots. In sirene po-thracian, sausage or ham is also added.
- Eggs po-panagyur: A dish that tastes similar to sirene po-shopski, but is served not in pots, but in a skillet.
- Mish-mash: Stewed vegetables mixed with eggs, something like a thick vegetable omelet. Unlike the previous dish, it’s a scrambled egg dish.
- Kepolu: A mix of stewed vegetables, tomatoes, and peppers, which can be served as a salad or a side dish.
Fish dishes in restaurants cost from ten levs (0.51 euros). These mainly include pike-perch, catfish, mackerel, bream, carp, salmon, and trout. In restaurants or fish stores, you can also get dorada (gilthead bream) and sea bass. Locals also enjoy fried sprat or tsatsu with their beer.
In Sofia, there’s a popular pedestrian street – Vitosha Boulevard. Locals call it “Vitoshka”. It’s a typical tourist restaurant street. Here and on neighboring streets, for example, Angel Kanchev Street or William Gladstone Street, are establishments frequented by locals: the “Halbite” beer chain, “Annette” Moroccan restaurant, the “Raffy” bar chain, and the “Divaka” Bulgarian cuisine restaurant chain. There are also Italian restaurants, such as “Franco’s Pizza”, and Chinese fast-food places, like “Wok to Walk“. Some places may have slightly above-average prices, but in most, you can have a hearty meal for 15-25 levs (7.68 – 12.79 euros) per person.
In Sofia, there are typical Bulgarian national establishments called “mehana” – similar to a Ukrainian tavern or an Italian tavern. In mehanas, the menu consists of traditional dishes, and the interior is designed in traditional Bulgarian style: colorful tablecloths embroidered with red, black, and white stripes, rough wooden chairs and tables, and rural household items as wall decorations. In tourist-oriented mehanas, the menu often comes with pictures of the dishes.
In many touristy eateries, there is a set lunch menu, akin to a business lunch. A full meal, for example, tarator soup, moussaka, and watermelon for dessert, will cost between five to seven levs (2.56 – 3.58 euros) per person. Outside of lunch hours, a similar order would cost about twice as much.
Fast food: Local fast food is not just about burger joints and döner kebab places, although there are plenty of them. On the streets of Sofia, you can find Serbian street food, for example, a place called “Srpska Skara”. Such establishments can be found not only in the city center but also in regular residential areas. They serve national Serbian food – various types of meat with vegetables, with potatoes, patties, sausages, all grilled.
In the city center, there are small shops offering Chinese take-out food, pizzerias selling individual slices of pizza. A large portion of meat in a Chinese restaurant costs around ten levs (5.12 euros), soup – about three levs (1.54 euros), salads – from four levs (2.05 euros). One slice of pizza is about two to three levs (1.02 – 1.54 euros), and döners start from three levs (1.54 euros).
Approximately the same food that is served in restaurants can be purchased in supermarkets, but at one and a half times cheaper. Major supermarket chains in Sofia include Lidl, “Fantastico”, Billa, and Kaufland.
In supermarkets, pay attention to typically Bulgarian products:
- Lutenitsa: A sauce similar to strained ketchup. There are many types of Lutenitsa in Bulgaria, and they can occupy entire sections.
- Lukanka: A sausage with a lot of meat and little fat.
- Sour milk: A pride of the country, as it is believed that the ferment for sour milk was invented by the Bulgarians. In reality, it’s something similar to plain yogurt – it’s the exact type used to prepare tarator soup.
- Boza: A low-alcohol sweet drink made from grains.
For those who miss home, you can easily find Russian products in Bulgarian supermarkets. Especially numerous in the “Berezka” chain: for instance, buckwheat costs from four and a half leva (23.03 euros), and homemade dumplings are from 14 leva (7.16 euros) per kilogram.
When it comes to alcohol in Sofia, you can try Bulgarian rakia and local beers, brands like “Zagorka” and “Kamenitsa”. They also have their wines produced from local grapes, for example, “Villa Yambol”. Alcohol is sold in specialized stores as well as regular supermarkets. A can of beer in shops costs around two leva (1.02 euros), rakia starts from 20 leva (10.23 euros), and a bottle of wine is from six leva (3.07 euros). Bulk wine in plastic bottles, sold in vegetable shops, may be even cheaper — from four leva (2.05 euros) per liter.
What to bring home
The standard set of souvenirs from Bulgaria includes local wine, rakia, and anything made from roses: rose oil, which is produced from rose petals at a factory in the town of Kazanlak, rose jam, and soap. Embroidered tablecloths, napkins, and towels in the national style fit perfectly into an eclectic interior. For baking dishes like “moussaka” and “gyuvech” in the oven, you can get hand-painted clay pots.
Near the Banya Bashi Mosque and the “Serdika” metro station is the Central Halite Market. This is a covered market built in the early 20th century in the neo-renaissance style. Inside, it is a typical two-story market and not the cheapest one. An exception is the large, affordable “Elitis” cosmetics store, a local equivalent to “Ruble Boom”. It is located on the second floor, where you can buy the famed rose petal cosmetics.
A five-minute walk from there is the Women’s Bazaar. This is the largest and oldest market in the city, opened in the 19th century. Once, only women traded here, which is how it got its name. Here you can buy fresh fruits and vegetables priced from two levs (1.02 euros) per kilogram, as well as inexpensive clothing. There are also stores selling traditional Bulgarian clothing, footwear, and utensils. They sell everything: embroidered white tablecloths, woolen home slippers, leather shearling coats. At the Women’s Bazaar, they also sell loose black tea – a rarity in Bulgaria, as Bulgarians usually drink coffee.
Near the Women’s Bazaar is Tsar Simeon’s Arabian Street. It is lined with various Eastern shops selling Chinese teacups and loose tea, Arabic spices, Iraqi flatbreads, Lebanese falafels, Dubai hookahs, Turkish nuts, and dark rice from India and Pakistan.
For those who advocate conscious consumption and quality branded clothing, they can take a tour of Sofia’s second-hand shops. Especially many of them are located in the Women’s Bazaar area. Here you can buy inexpensive items from Europe: such as no-name clothing or genuine cashmere for five to six levs (2.56 – 3.07 euros), as well as skirts, sweaters, and jeans from famous brands. Besides clothing, some small shops and stalls offer antiques or services, beads, interior items from post-war Germany. Some second-hand shops, like Sedwick Shop, have their online stores. A full list of second-hand shops. In the English vintage Elephant Bookstore, new and antique books are sold, including in English, and accessories.
Sofia is quite a large city. Its area covers 492 km², with a population of 1.3 million people. By these parameters, Sofia can be compared to Yekaterinburg, Kazan, or Novosibirsk.
Sofia has over 20 districts. Here are the main ones:
The Center is the most convenient district for accommodation. All the main attractions and trendy establishments are located here. While housing prices might be higher, you won’t need to spend money on transportation or waste time commuting. However, the center can be too noisy and crowded: it’s surrounded by tourist streets with restaurants, street food spots, and the houses are closely packed together.
Oborishte, Lozenets, Istok, Geo Milev are good districts neighboring the center. Here, you’ll find architecture from the socialist era intermixed with modern buildings, and many luxury cars can be spotted. Pay special attention to the Oborishte district—it’s considered prestigious, located closest to the center, and many interesting places are within walking distance. For instance, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and the Church of Saint Petka are in this district.
Lyulin, Mladost, Druzhba are typical residential blocks located in the outskirts. However, more and more contemporary low-rise buildings and charming shops are emerging here. Locals do not consider these districts as the most prosperous, but they are more affordable in terms of rent. Plus, they are connected to the metro—it takes about half an hour to reach the center.
Boyana, Dragalevtsi, Simeonovo are the most prestigious districts in Sofia, located far from the center but in scenic areas, at the foothills of Vitosha. This area is populated with low-rise homes and luxurious villas.
Accommodation can be traditionally found on platforms like Booking.com and Airbnb. There are also numerous offers on the local housing search site pochivka.bg, which also has an English version. In general, prices in the center and other districts don’t vary much—it all depends on the area and quality of the accommodation. A bed in a hostel or a room in an apartment with shared amenities costs from 60 to 120 leva (30.70 – 61.41 euros). A pleasant studio or apartment can be rented for 25-60 euros. Hotel rooms range from 56 euros for a modest room with early 2000s decor to 700 euros for a suite in the “Hilton”.
How to get to Sofia
Reaching Sofia from major European centers is both easy and convenient, thanks to several airlines that operate frequent flights to the Bulgarian capital. From London, both British Airways and Wizz Air offer direct services to Sofia. If you’re departing from Paris, Air France and Bulgaria Air operate direct routes. From the German hubs of Berlin and Frankfurt, Lufthansa provides frequent flights, while those in Madrid can rely on Iberia for a seamless journey to Sofia. Furthermore, travelers from Rome can opt for flights with Alitalia or Ryanair. With this range of options, getting to Sofia from major European cities is just a matter of booking a ticket and hopping on a flight. It is also possible to travel from Istanbul to Sofia by bus or train. A ticket costs approximately 30 euros.
Within the country
Trains. Bulgaria has an extensive railway network. From Sofia by train, one can reach cities like Plovdiv, Veliko Tarnovo, Burgas, and other Bulgarian cities, as well as Serbia, Turkey, Romania.
There are different classes of carriages – from first to third. The first class is equivalent to Russia’s “Sapsan”. The second class is older and of lesser quality. The third class is similar to an open carriage where everyone sits. Some trains also have sleeper carriages. Train tickets are purchased at stations using a passport. Tickets can be reserved online on the Bulgarian Railways website, but they still need to be collected in person. International train tickets can only be bought at the station at specific times – from 6:00 am to 10:00 pm.
The train to Plovdiv takes two and a half hours, and the ticket costs about ten leva (5.12 euros). It takes about five hours to Veliko Tarnovo, and the ticket costs around 20 leva (10.23 euros). The journey to Burgas on the Black Sea takes a minimum of seven and a half hours, with a sleeping spot costing about 25 leva (12.79 euros).
All announcements at stations are only in Bulgarian. Therefore, figuring out the exact platform and carriage you need without understanding Bulgarian is challenging. Also, discerning how much your train is delayed by ear is tough. And trains in Bulgaria often run late.
It’s important to remember the translations of some words:
- “vlak” — train;
- “zakasnenie” — delay;
- “pristigashchi” — arriving;
- “zaminavashchi” — departing.
Bus. Intercity buses are more convenient than trains: they travel faster and cost about the same. Sofia has several bus stations. The majority of routes are served by the Central bus station (located near the railway station). Buses traveling around the Sofia region depart from the suburban bus stations. For example, to Samokov and Belchin, where the Tsari Mali Grad fortress is located, you depart from the “South” bus station. It is located in the Istok district, at the “G. M. Dimitrov” metro station. The “Serdika” bus station is located downtown, at the metro station with the same name — from here, you can go to Koprivshtitsa and the village of Chavdar. Tickets are sold at the station itself; to find the right ticket office (there are about 40), you should ask at the information desk. For buses departing from the Central bus station, tickets can be purchased online.
Car. For trips around the suburbs of Sofia and to other cities, you can rent a car. However, moving around the city by car is not very convenient: in Sofia, especially in the center, there are few free parking spaces, and even paid parking lots are not easy to find. A list of available parking spots can be found on the Urban Mobility Center website.
In Sofia, local rental agencies, such as Easy Rent Bulgaria, are more common, although many international companies like Hertz, Avis, Europcar, Sixt, Goldcar also operate in Bulgaria. Prices start from eight euros (4.09 euros) per day for an economy class car, such as an Opel Corsa or Renault Logan.
Taxis between cities for long distances are expensive and not profitable. For example, a trip from Sofia to Burgas (about 400 kilometers) will cost at least 175 euros (89.55 euros). However, it’s useful to know that such an option exists.
In the city
Public transport. Sofia has a well-developed public transport system: there’s a metro, buses, trolleybuses, and trams in the city. A lot depends on the district: somewhere there’s a metro and many buses (for example, in the Mladost and Lozenets areas), while somewhere only two trams operate (for instance, in some parts of Geo Milev). If you’re traveling from one residential district to another, you’ll probably have to transfer. The best way to plan your route is on Google Maps, but you can also use the public transport map on the City Mobility Center website.
The most convenient and fastest way to get around is by metro. However, it doesn’t cover all parts of the city. Currently, there are three lines with about 40 stations. The fare is the same as for all urban transport in Sofia – 1.6 leva (0.82 euros). Tickets can be purchased either from machines near the stations or at the ticket counter. The Sofia Metro operates from seven in the morning until eleven at night.
For trips on surface transport, it’s most economical to buy a special booklet of ten paper tickets for 12 leva (6.14 euros). These are sold at special ticket sales counters. Alternatively, you can also purchase a daily ticket for 7 leva (3.58 euros).
Taxis. Official taxis in Sofia are “OK” and “Yellow”, which can be ordered via an app or by phone. Their prices are the same: daytime rate from 06:00 to 22:00 — 2.19 leva (1.12 euros) for a call-out and 1.07 leva (0.55 euros) per kilometer; nighttime rate — 2.49 leva (1.27 euros) for a call-out and 1.24 leva (0.63 euros) per kilometer. For instance, a daytime taxi ride from the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral to Kambanite Park costs approximately 14 leva (7.16 euros).
You can also find private taxi drivers — typical yellow cars often stand near major shopping centers and hotels. However, some among them might charge two or three times the usual rate or intentionally take longer routes, running up the meter.
A problem might arise when some taxi drivers refuse to drive short distances where the total is less than five leva (2.56 euros) because it’s not profitable for them. In this case, you can specify in the app that you’ll pay five leva (2.56 euros), even if the actual price turns out to be less.
There’s no car-sharing in Sofia.
Bicycle. Renting a bicycle costs around 20 leva (10.23 euros) per day, and there are plenty of rental shops in the city, especially in the center. One of the most popular companies is Sofia Bike Rental, where you can pre-book a bicycle on their website. However, it’s essential to note that Sofia is not Amsterdam, and the infrastructure here isn’t the most bike-friendly: cycling paths are only in the center, and the asphalt can be uneven even in parks.
When to visit
Sofia is surrounded by mountains, with the city center located at an altitude of 595 meters. It’s usually a bit colder here than in the southern regions of the country, but not as windy as it can be in the coastal cities during winter. The average winter temperature ranges from +6 to -5 degrees Celsius, while in summer it’s around +19 to +22 degrees. But it’s not uncommon for temperatures to soar up to +30 degrees during the summer. Snow falls a few times each winter season, but it typically lasts for about three days, a week at most.
The ideal time to travel around the country and Sofia is during autumn and spring. From late March, the nights are relatively warm, maintaining positive temperatures. Snowfall in autumn typically only begins towards the end of November. During the transitional seasons, bringing a light jacket and comfortable shoes should suffice. Although, Bulgarians themselves often wear jackets even in summer if the temperature drops below +20 degrees.
- Visa: For citizens of European Union (EU) and European Economic Area (EEA) countries, entering Bulgaria for short stays of up to 90 days within a 180-day period does not require a visa. They can freely enter and exit Bulgaria with a valid passport or a national ID card. However, for longer stays or specific purposes such as work or study, additional documentation or permits might be necessary. You can apply for a visa or schedule an appointment on the visa center’s website, where you can also find the list of required documents. Applications are processed within 10 to 30 days. The consular fee is 80 euros (40.94 euros), and the visa center’s service charge is an additional 14 euros (7.16 euros).
- COVID: It’s advisable to check the current COVID-19 status of the country on the Bulgarian Ministry of Tourism’s website before traveling. As of November 2023, all COVID-related restrictions have been lifted.
- Money: The currency is the lev. It’s more advantageous to bring cash in dollars or euros and exchange them for leva in banks. Currency exchange offices are available, but the rates are not as favorable.
- Communication: If you are staying in Bulgaria for a more extended period, it’s a good idea to get a prepaid tourist SIM card, which costs from six leva (3.07 euros). The main operators are Vivacom, Telenor, and A1. Their offices can be found in many major shopping centers and on Vitosha Boulevard.