Briefly, about the capital: Located at an altitude of 600m (above sea level) in a valley at the foot of Vitosha Mountain. The ancient name of city was Serdica, and the first inhabitants were Thracians. Sofia became the capital of Bulgaria in 1878, after the country’s liberation from Ottoman rule. It’s quite a large town with a bit more than 1mln inhabitants. It features a great combination of ancient, Bulgarian, Ottoman, and communist influences with a lot of green areas.
How to get there? Take a train from Skopje to Nis. The ride will last about 4-5h, and a ticket will cost 9eur. In Nis you will change trains to reach Sofia. The train usually goes once per day. The ride will take around 5h, and a ticket will cost around 12euros. Between Serbia and Bulgaria you will enjoy a beautiful landscape consisting of pine forests, rocks, and canyons.
Where to head? Let’s take a tour first through the city center and the main sightseeing spots.
Prince Alexander I Square: It’s the main city square, surrounded by interesting and important buildings. The Square was named in honor of modern Bulgaria’s first ruler, Alexander I. Most of square is shaded by trees and lighted by beautiful street lamps. On one side there is the former European-style royal palace, built at the end of the XIX century. Today this building is the National Art Gallery and Ethnographic Museum. The Art Gallery has more than 50 000 paintings and other works of art that belong to various periods since the Middle Ages. The entrance fee is only 5eur and only 2.50euros for students. You should not miss it. Also the Ethnographic Museum is a must-see as tickets cost only 1.50euros. There are many artifacts dating from various periods in Bulgarian history. Nearby is the National Museum of Natural History. Visiting it is more than worthwhile as there is a collection of more than 1mln and half specimens of animals and plants. Entrance tickets are more than cheap at only 2eur for adults and 1eur for students, so take a chance and visit it. It’s the richest natural history museum in the Balkans, notable for its immense collection of stuffed animals including leopards, crocodiles, eagles, and penguins. Another important sight next to the square is Ivan Vazov National Theatre, a beautiful neoclassic building erected at the beginning of the XX century. It was designed by an Austrian architect and named in honor of the Bulgarian playwright, novelist, and poet Ivan Vazov. After visiting this area, enjoy an ice cream in the nearest confectionery (cca 60ccents) and rest on one of the benches next to the fountain in the square’s park. After you have rested, you can continue.
Monument to Emperor the Liberator: Not far from the previously mentioned locations there is an interesting equestrian monument to Russian Emperor Alexander II. Bulgaria erected the monument as a gesture of gratitude to Alexander II, who initiated the 1877-78 war to liberate Bulgaria from Ottoman rule. I suggest that you take a picture with the monument behind you. The monument is situated in front of the National Assembly building, and its location affirms the significance of Alexander II for Bulgarian statehood. After looking at the monument check out also the white National Assembly building and its unique design.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral: Only a few minutes by foot from the above-mentioned monuments there is the glorious building of the Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky. It is the second largest Orthodox Cathedral in world. The Cathedral was finished in 1912 and named after the Russian 13th century hero to honor the 200 000 Russian soldiers who lost their lives in the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish War. It is one of the most beautiful cathedrals that I have ever seen. Especially beautiful are its gold-plated dome (45m high) and tower (53m high). The Cathedral can accommodate 10 000 visitors at a time. It is especially beautiful on clear days when the sunlight shines on the beautiful golden tower and dome. If you come at night you will see the Cathedral shining under golden lights.
The Remains of Serdica: In the northeastern part of the city center there is an archaeological site composed of walls and other ruins of the ancient town of Serdica, dating from the Roman period. Serdica was a wealthy, important city on the old Roman trade route to the Near East. The Romans built here extensive fortifications that had the purpose of securing Roman lines of communication. Most of the ruins have been excavated in the last 10 years. Around 70% of the ruins are still under the surface but are partly visible where soil was removed during the excavation. So often, while walking along the streets around large governmental buildings you can spot excavations revealing the ruins of ancient walls. Also there are underground passages which you can enter and get very close to old ruins. Among the ruins of Serdica there are remains of an ancient amphitheater and also the 4th century Roman St. George Church, an old brick building which lies within an archaeological zone and is on the surface. This is probably the oldest preserved building in Sofia. If you are a fan of archaeological sites, this is more than a perfect place for you.
St. Nedelya Church: This is one of the more interesting churches in Sofia, built initially in the 10th century and rebuilt many times. The most notable renovations were in 1867 and 1933. Aside from the multiple renovations, it is the relics of King Milutin (a successful Serbian King who ruled from 1282 until 1321) that make St. Nedlya unique.
Banya Bashi Mosque: This is the only mosque in Sofia, and it is located on a beautiful square in the center of the city. The mosque dates from the 16th century and is very big and beautiful. Banya Bashi is largest mosque that I have visited. The nearby park and restaurants are where Sofia’s Muslim community gathers. You can enter it for free and enjoy the interesting interior decoration.
Borisova gradina: It is the biggest park in Sofia. Borisova Gradina is like a small forest in the city. There are many paths for walking and cycling. If you wish, you can also sit on a bench next to a fountain and enjoy the surrounding scenery, or you can sit on the grass and relax. Within the park there is also a children’s playground. Borisova gradina is the most popular park in Sofia.
When you get hungry: Long walks and sightseeing can be exhausting and call for proper food. Bulgarian cuisine is for real gourmands, mostly grill-based and quite cheap or simply wonderful as is customary in the Balkans. Before you start with a main dish try a beef soup, or tarator. Tarator is a typical Bulgarian soup that is eaten cold and made of yoghurt, minced cucumber, garlic, and olive oil. After that, order a portion of kebapi. Kebapi are grilled minced meat dishes similar to Serbian and Bosnian cevapi, typically served with onion and fries. You should also order Shopska salad – a typical salad in Western Bulgaria, Southern Serbia, and Northern Macedonia. It is made from cucumber, tomato, and onion with white cheese added to it. While eating, drink a bottle of Bulgarian beer – Shumensko for example. This combination will make you more than full, and it won’t cost more than 10euros. I suggest the Hajidraganovite Kashti, Raketa Rakia Bar, Pod Lipite, Mehana Karajata, Happy Bar and Grill, and Godzila restaurants. If you want cheaper options there are plenty of fast food places, most of which sell gyros, a Greek dish that is very popular here. One gyros will cost 2euros at most.
When dark comes: Sofia has many opportunities for nightlife. If you like walking from pub to pub there are plenty of options. You can take a walk down Vitosha street, which is the main pedestrian and shopping street in Sofia, where many young people walk in the cool of the evening and hang out in pubs. Many of the pubs are open to the sidewalk during the summer. In autumn and winter they are indoors. Any pub you choose in Vitosha street will be a good choice. One draught local beer will cost at most 1.50eur. The best local beers are Zagora, Shumensko, and Kamenitza. Foreign beers cost slightly more. A glass of wine is around 2eur, and shots are also around 1.5-2.5eur. Siting in a pub is more than a great opportunity for meeting locals. If you prefer clubbing in downtown there is a large choice of clubs that stay open until 5am. Prices are a bit higher there, and beer can cost 3eur. Cocktail prices range from 4.5eur up to 9eur.
Time for sleeping: In Sofia there are plenty of hostels and cheap hotels. Among the most popular are youth hostels, which are good spots for socializing. Prices usually range between 7 and 30euros per night.
Tip: Vitosha mountain – don’t skip a chance to visit it. It is the real natural treasure of Sofia. At every time of year, citizens of Sofia enjoy spending weekends surrounded by Vitosha’s mountain scenery and breathing in the fresh mountain air. The mountain looms above Sofia with a highest peak at 2300m. Vitosha is also a popular ski resort during the wintertime. You can take bus number 66 and arrive at the nearest mountain stop in 50min. The ticket will cost 2eur. From that point you need around 30min to walk to the peak. If you take bus 64 (ticket 80cents) you can reach the lower slopes of the mountain in 30min and hike to the peak in about 3h. The scenery is stunning, with valleys, streams, and waterfalls. These are also distinctive rock formations that look like streams flowing downhill. If you like a bit of risk, you can hike over the rocks. The rock “streams” remind me of scenes out of a fairytale mountain since they appear so unreal. From Vitosha peak there is view across all of Sofia. On some parts of the mountain there are stone rivers.