Sofia has been home to numerous revolutions, both political and architectural. Once a communist powerhouse in the Balkans, the city was formed into being an idealistic city with wide boulevards, grand public buildings, and infamous prefab soviet concrete apartment blocks. The end of the communist rule has allowed the free market to flourish in Sofia, creating jobs, businesses, and income for many who previously had a difficult time under the hardships of communism. This has also altered the cityscape with modern glass-fronted business districts, luxury shopping streets, and monuments springing up almost overnight. The constant changes in the city by differing ideologies have developed dozens of parks spread throughout the city giving it a very "outdoorsy" feeling. There is even part of a national park with a ski hill, hiking trails, and lakes located within the city itself! Sofia has something for everyone as you will no doubt find out for yourself!
What to do
Ruins at Serdica Subway Station
Just beside the Banya Bashi Mosque is one of the main subway stations in Sofia. You may be thinking why does this top our list? Well when it was being constructed in 2010, one of the
main streets of the Roman capital Serdica was found in incredible condition. These ruins, as well as a number of artifacts found during the construction, are part of an open-air museum at the Serdica Subway Station. As it once was a major street, complete with storefronts, a bathhouse, and many other buildings, it is unique to see an ancient transportation system sitting side by side with a modern one!
Banya Bashi Mosque
For over 4 centuries between the Second and current Bulgarian Empire, the region was under the control of the Ottomans from the east. As such, there were over 70 mosques built in Sofia to serve the growing population. Banya Bashi Mosque is the only one left as all the others were torn down at the start of the Third Bulgarian Empire.
Antique Shopping in the Park
Any tour through Sofia isn't complete without a visit to the Cathedral Saint Aleksandar Nevski. After taking a look around the memorial church, take a stroll through one of Sofia's largest outdoor flea markets in the park next door. Whether you are looking for pins, clothes, WWII or Cold War memorabilia, or even just perusing, checking out what the local vendors have to offer is worth a little bit of time. You never know what you might find!
VR Escape Room
It seems like every city in the world right now has a surplus of escape rooms. While to many it may be enough just to be locked in a room and try to sort your way out, why not try a new experience with a Virtual Reality Escape Room. One of the few in the world, Escape Reality in Sofia is unlike most others. Here, you don state of the art Oculus Rift headsets and complete a series of challenges "unlocking" you from the game. Several different rooms allow a different experience every time with your team up to 6 members all
working together in a virtual space. The couple that run the room are also awesome so go pay them a visit! You will not regret it!
For those who are exploring Sofia for more than a day or two (which we suggest!) it is worth looking into getting the SoFun Card. This discount card is worth more than its weight in gold! Costing only $7CAD, it gives you over 70 discounts including over 50% off hang-gliding or bungee jumping and restaurants. It can be picked up from a number of spots across Sofia. Our Airbnb even gave it to us for free as part of a welcome package so check with your host if they have access!
Covid Conscious Activities
With Covid-19 being such a huge factor in daily life, it is important to take steps towards a safer holiday like trying to limit your daily contact with others. Keep up to date with the latest local advisories and information.
Sofia does not have the most stunning tourism image in the West which is a shame because it should receive much more focus! The city has evolved significantly over the past 100 years of political turmoil leading to a unique patchwork of architectural styles. Because of this, Sofia is one of the best cities in Eastern Europe to wander through and take in the changes in eras. When you are tired of walking, you won't have to go very far to find a relaxing park as the city is covered in green spaces. Lots of the parks also have free Wi-Fi which is perfect for the nomad traveller. As you have had a few days wandering the city without much close contact with others, why not check out Cathedral Saint Aleksander Nevski to get your fill of churches! Try taking a self-guided walking tour or audio tour to learn more about the city while staying socially distant from others.
Where to Stay
As the capital city of Bulgaria, Sofia has a high population that is spread out over a huge area. While the city does have a metro, we found that if you position yourself properly, you won't need to use it on a daily basis as long as you are happy with a bit of walking.
If you look at a map of the city, you will notice there is a series of ring roads that encircle the central city. If you find a place pretty much anywhere within the main circle, you will be well located. We stayed just a block north of Lions Bridge and never used public transport but were happy to make the 20-minute walk to the centre of the city.
Airbnbs, hotels, and hostels are plentiful throughout the city as are cheap supermarkets so take your pick and have an awesome stay! If you have never used Airbnb before using this link will give you $62CAD off on your first booking!
How to get there and around
Sofia is Bulgaria's hub for all transportation. The main train and bus station can take you to all surrounding countries including Turkey. Its international airport is a popular spot for low-cost carriers which is ideal if you are traveling from within Europe but it also has a number of connections for larger airlines for those coming from other areas. Metro line 1 takes you directly to the city centre, while changing to Line 2 at Serdica station allows access to the central train and bus station (costing only $1.25CAD or 1.6 Lev for the journey). Full information including buses can be found on the Sofia Airport Website.
Using the train system is easy taking roughly 2.5 hours to Plovdiv, 6 hours to Burgas, and 4.5 hours to Veliko Tarnovo. Fares are reasonable costing roughly as low as $6CAD for a 2.5-hour train. Purchasing tickets can technically be made online for very limited routes, however, it is probably best to buy them in person at the train station. This online system is still in its pilot stages and can be both unreliable and not user-friendly. Give it some time though and you will surely be able to buy tickets online for Bulgarian trains!
Technically within Sofia city limits, Boyana Church can be reached using public transportation or the many cheap taxi programs in the city (Uber offers $6 off for new users using Derekk353lue). As one of the other UNESCO World Heritage sites around Sofia, it is another must-see during your stay. Originally constructed in the 11th century and added to many times over the years, the church is an example of the strong dedication the Bulgarians had and still have towards religion.
Rila Monastery and National Park
Being located 2 hours away by car and 3 hours by public bus, it is questionable if Rila Monastery should be deemed a day trip or not. Not only the distance but the surrounding area complete with a national park is gorgeous so staying the night is not a bad idea. This 10th-century monastery is the largest and most famous Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria. In addition to a number of artifacts found within the space, it is known for its impressive frescoes and architectural styling. If you want to visit Rila without a guide but still want to learn more, try this audio guide
For anyone who is interested in a bit of outdoor adventure, the national park and mountains that surround the monastery is full of hiking trails that pass mountain tops, quaint villages, and numerous lakes! The Rila 7 Lakes are a series of glacial lakes sitting more than 2,000 meters above sea level and are the most visited lakes in Bulgaria. If you visit in the winter there is also some spectacular skiing in the region.
If you have a car, you could technically make Plovdiv a day trip as it is only about an hour and a half away while the train is 2.5 hours. At over 8,000 years old, Plovdiv is the oldest continually inhabited city in Europe and one of the oldest in the world. Check out its amazing Roman amphitheater and stadium and the archaeological museum which opened in 1882! Find out more about Plovdiv HERE. It is a stunning city with lots of history so we highly suggest spending a couple of days here rather than just a day trip.