Sofia Destination Guide
While many visitors pass through Sofia on their way to the ski slopes and hiking trails of nearby Mount Vitosha, those who stay a while to explore Bulgaria’s capital are pleasantly surprised by what they find.
Wide boulevards, charming parks and gardens, excellent museums and galleries and a handful of architectural gems mix with a modern culture and a vibrant, youthful nightlife scene. With more than 2,500 years of history here, there is much to uncover before journeying out to enjoy the beauty of the Bulgarian hinterland.
Get your bearings at Vitosha Boulevard, the city’s main commercial artery where locals and visitors alike go to stroll, shop at the high-end stores, and socialise at the restaurants, bars and cafés. Once familiar with the main strip, branch out to visit a number of stunning historic churches throughout the city, the most iconic being the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral with its Neo-Byzantine architecture, cascading domes and striking interiors.
Other must-visits include the nearby Saint Sofia Church with its fascinating crypts and archaeological tour, and the World Heritage-listed medieval Boyana Church. Other architectural and cultural highlights include the Royal Palace, which now houses the National Art Gallery, and the National Archaeological Museum, which resides in a gorgeous Ottoman mosque that dates back to 1474. The gardens and parks of Sofia offer a delightful respite from the city streets, with Borisova Gradina being one of the more beautiful green spaces to explore and enjoy.
Restaurants and eateries can be found along the main strip of Vitosha Boulevard and even in the city’s public gardens. For a unique culinary experience (at a good price) visit the Central Sofia Market Hall on Marie Louise Boulevard. On the upper level you’ll find authentic Bulgarian cuisine being served up at several little eateries.
Local specialties to try include shopska salata, a salad of fresh tomato, cucumber, onion, peppers, white brine cheese and parsley, and sofiyska banitsa, a golden baked pastry stuffed with cheese and/or spinach, which is a popular breakfast item.
When it comes to wine, opt for the Bulgarian varieties on offer, especially Mavrud and Shiroka Melnishka loza, which are only grown in Bulgaria. Nightclubs are continuing to pop up around town to cater to the local and visiting night owls, but if a low-key affair is more your style take a seat at one of the bars, cafés, pubs and cocktail lounges in downtown Sofia.
Where to Stay
The ideal place to stay in Sofia is the city centre, or within short walking distance, to ensure you have easy access to transport, restaurants, shopping and sightseeing activities. There are plenty of plush accommodation options available, from stylish boutique hotels to big-name 5-star chains.
Vitosha Boulevard, with its charming strip of boutiques, is the place to splurge on high-end goods, while Hristo Botev Street (parallel to Vitosha) offers more affordable stores. A smaller yet ever-popular shopping street is Pirotska, which offers a lovely atmosphere for a casual stroll and an afternoon of window shopping.
Pop into the upscale TZUM department store complex for a Sofia-style shopping centre experience. When it’s time to buy unique souvenirs and treasures, head to the Alexander Nevsky Square Flea Market. Set in front of its namesake church, this is the place to buy Russian hats, antiques, lace, embroidery and handmade crafts and dolls.
Sofia Like a Local
Until 1986 the Sofia Public Mineral Baths, which are set inside a beautiful early 20th-century building, served as a bathhouse for locals to soak in the region’s natural mineral water. The baths are now closed, but locals still congregate at the public taps to fill up plastic containers of the warm mineral water, which is said to promote health and wellbeing. Bring a bottle to fill up and see for yourself, or simply sit in the quaint garden and enjoy the atmosphere.