Sofia city guide
Bulgaria has always had a reputation for cheap holidays. Now, with Brexit finally becoming reality, and the Euro exchange rate poor, it may be time to think cheap. For most Brits the go-to Bulgarian destination is Sunny Beach, but Sofia has much to offer in the way of food, drink, culture, and history.
Sofia is the capital and largest city of Bulgaria. It’s located at the foot of Vitosha Mountain and in between the Black Sea and the Adriatic, slap-bang in the middle of the Balkans. The city is home to temples of the three major religions of the world: Sveta Nedelya Church, Banya Bashi Mosque and Sofia Synagogue.
Sofia’s original name was Serdica, derived from the Thracian name for the Serdi tribe who resided here. Variants of this name continued until the 14th Century when the city began to be known as Sofia, the name coming from the Saint Sofia Church. Today you will find a statue of Saint Sofia standing proudly on a 48 foot pedestal where Lenin once stood above Serdika underground station on Todor Alexandrov boulevard. The city is heavily influenced by the Romans, who have left remains throughout the city. As is usual throughout Europe, Sofia changed hands regularly, with Byzantium control, Magyars, Serbs and Crusaders and finally the Turks in 1382, who ruled for the next 500 years.
The collapse of the Ottoman Empire meant freedom but also economic depression. In 1878, Sofia was made the capital of Bulgaria and the city progressed with modern infrastructure such as electricity and new water systems. Fast forward to the second world war and Bulgaria sided with Germany, declaring war on the US and UK. This caused bombings in the city with the loss of thousands of buildings. The Soviet Army invaded in 1944 and Bulgaria became the People’s Republic of Bulgaria, which was Communist-controlled until the creation of the Republic of Bulgaria in 1990.
There are the standard shopping malls such as the Mall of Sofia, Serdika Center, City Center Sofia, and Paradise Center, with the usual restaurants and fashionable clothing shops. Vitosha Boulevard is where the high-end shopping of Sofia takes place. Here you will find Dolce & Gabbana and Gucci as well as a smattering of cafes and bars to pose in. For something a little more individual, Vintage Sofia (Tzar Asen Str) is a small shop which designs their own clothing, inspired by 1940s and 1950s styles.
If you are hungry and love cheese, then a visit to Dobrev’s is a must. It’s a chain of dairies dotted around the city, with piles of Bulgarian-produced cheese for you to buy for later or have in a sandwich on the premises.
Book lovers are covered (or not!) with the open-air book market (Ploshtad Slaveykov). This is a place for bibliophiles even if you can’t speak Bulgarian. Every type of book can be found here, from rarities to art and design books.
Also look out for the tiny shops under street level dotted around the city. These are kiosks with all the drinks and snacks for sale clearly visible from the window display but where you need to bend down to see the cashier and pay for your goods.
Rakia is the famous Balkan brandy; if you haven’t tried it then you must. Raketa Rakia Bar (ul Yanko Sakazov 17) is not only full of the stuff, it is also filled with Soviet memorabilia. You can buy Rakia pretty much everywhere, however, the quality can vary a lot so remember to line your stomach with some food first. Hambara Bar (6 Septemvri Str) is tucked away in a side alley and you have to seek out the correct door to gain access. This unique bar is not only underground but is lit only by candlelight. If beer is your tipple, and you like to discover as many different kinds as you can, then head to Vitamin B (Angel Kanchev St). It’s not the cheapest of places, quite expensive in fact by Bulgarian standards, but that’s what it is like the world over, it seems, as far as craft beer goes. Here we drank through many a glass of Mikkeller and To Ol. There are around 150 different bottled beers on sale here.
Budget food is popular in Sofia, and one thing we spotted often was soup cafes. Supa Star (Ul. Tsar Ivan Shishman) has a menu which changes daily, and there are around 15 soups to choose from, should you want 3 courses of a liquid diet! Gluten-free and vegan foods are on offer as well. Edgy Veggy (18 William Gladstone) is a fully vegan fast food cafe with everything from burgers, burritos, soups and shakes. Gluten-free is also catered for here. For traditional Bulgarian food then Hadjidraganovite Kashti (ul.Kozlodui 75) could be a better bet. With an open fireplace, courtyard and live music, it’s friendly and rustic. If you are thinking of splashing out on some fine dining, then we’ve heard that Secret by Chef Petrov (12 King Liberator Blvd.) is where to go. The restaurant is influenced by the foods of Bulgaria’s past, and focuses on bringing them up to date. There’s a 23-course tasting menu on offer, costing around £49.
Sofia is a balance of Roman history with a heavy slice of Communist Architecture. Serdika is not only the name of a neighbourhood in Sofia; it is also the name of the remains of an ancient fortress. These can be found in the underpass between the Presidency and the Council of Ministers. The Roman streets which lead to the city forum lie underneath what is now Sveta Nedelya.
You can’t miss the churches. Not only are they seemingly everywhere, they are stunning. St Aleksandar Nevski Cathedral is astounding, both inside and out. The cathedral occupies an area of 3,170 square metres (34,100 sq ft) and can hold 5,000 people inside. It’s so big that it is the centre of a roundabout! Other churches to look out for are Church of St George and Cathedral Church Sveta Nedelya.
On the opposite end of the architectural spectrum is the National Palace of Culture, known as NDK. This was built in 1981 to house concert halls, exhibition space, offices, cafes, restaurants and more. It is huge, covering 11 floors, and is said to have more steel used in its construction than the Eiffel Tower. The Museum of Socialist Art is a collection of large and small statues, busts, and paintings from the period from 1944 to 1989. It isn’t as impressive as the park in Budapest (see issue 3 of SNACK) but still worth a visit.
Like most former communist countries, Sofia is full of military statues. Look out for the Monument to the Soviet Army, which was famously vandalised in 2011 with the soldiers painted to look like comic book characters. This paint job was attributed to the ‘Banksy of Bulgaria’ and since then the soldiers have been seen wearing the Anonymous masks of Guy Fawkes and were also painted pink in support of Pussy Riot being arrested in 2012. When we visited, most of the paint was gone, but the word ‘Future’ had been sprayed onto the foreground figures.
Sofia Hotel Balkan looks like it has been part of the landscape of Sofia for centuries. However, it was built in 1956 as part of the President’s Palace complex and beneath its foundations lies a historical Roman fortress, the remains of which can be seen all around the hotel. The hotel is right in the centre of all things historic, with St Kyriaki Cathedral and Serdika nearby.
Budget-friendly accommodation can be found at Hostel Liulin. The hostel is near to the Sofia Central Market and Serdika, and is located in a thriving residential and commercial area. The hostel is within walking distance of Sofia Bus Station and Railway Station for travelling further afield.
Fly to Sofia with Ryanair all year round from Edinburgh, or until the end of March with Easyjet.