I had no expectations of Sofia. We had booked a visit there on a whim, and knew very little about the Bulgarian capital. However, as our plane flew low over the landscape, I felt those excited butterflies. You know, the ones you get at the start of an adventure. The mountains, sprinkled with their dusting of icing sugar snow, had me captivated. Muted blue skies provided the backdrop to the graphite shapes below. It was totally not what I expected Bulgaria to look like. I was so pleasantly surprised. Well, Sofia kept up with the surprises. Our 3 days in Sofia felt like a warm hug. From both the City and its people. Let me take you on a little jaunt around this wonderful City.
We had three nights in Sofia. The flight times meant this gave us three full days, plus a morning to just relax. Perfect! We had wanted to do a day trip up to the mountains on day three. Unfortunately, Mother Nature had other plans and the mountain lift had been shut for a few days because of the snow. Not to be deterred, we got our marching feet on and explored the city in full….as this mahoosive post, (the first of 3), will show you….you ready??
Worth noting – The following ideas are for 3 days in Sofia, at a relaxed pace. I would suggest that if time allows, a day trip out from Sofia be scheduled in. I will give you some ideas for that.
3 Days in Sofia
So, where is Sofia?
I was surprised at the amount of people who asked “where’s that” when I told them we were off to Sofia. It seems that it has not reached peoples radar yet. I suppose so many of us “follow the crowd” and head to the better known Cities like Budapest, Prague and Bucharest. We were the same to be fair! I think many of us have the impression of Sofia being a little grey, post communist and harsh. There is a little of that, I cant deny it. But, like spring bulbs pushing up through the earth to flower, Sofia is doing the same. You can see the mix of the old and new, traditional and modern. Evidence of money being spent on the City means it is beginning to bloom. I really hope I can show you this.
Sofia is the capital, (and largest) city of Bulgaria. This Eastern European country has been overlooked as a destination to travel to for some reason. The ski resorts of Bansko and Borovets are slowly pushing up through the ranks, and Sofia tourism is slowly climbing. Sofia itself, although thought of as a small city, is actually the 13th largest in the European Union. The city nestles at the foot of the Vitosha mountains, with the Balkan mountains to its North. I loved that fact as it meant wherever I looked, I could see the outlines of the mountains.
Getting there from the UK
Southend Airport has become our airport of choice lately. It is just so easy! We can drive there in about 25 minutes, park the car and boom, we are in! There is just one, small duty free shop, so the temptation to buy allllll of the perfume and allll of the travel size toiletries, is avoided…
Worth noting – Easy Jet often have some great prices on flights to Sofia from all the major airports. As is normal, the further in advance you can book, the better deal you get.
Rather than have to ask anyone to take us and drop us off, we drove. It cost us £35 to park the car from Sunday to Wednesday, and the car parking is a 2 minute walk from the terminal. Just so pain free. Obviously, you don’t have to trek to Essex to get to Bulgaria. You can fly to Sofia from all the main Uk airports, and the flight is around 2.5 hours. We got the first flight out of Southend, so was in Sofia by 11.30 local time.
Getting from Sofia airport to the town is simple enough. It is about a 20 minute drive away, and you have a few options;
Taxi – A taxi from the airport will cost you around 15-20 Bulgarian Leva (about £7-10). Taxi’s are fairly inexpensive in Bulgaria. You can get one straight out the front of the airport
Metro – Sofia airport has a metro station inside terminal 2. If you arrive at terminal 1, there is a free shuttle bus to terminal 2. Line 1 of the Metro will take you straight into City centre. The journey takes around 18 minutes, and will cost around 3 leva. You can purchase a ticket inside the airport metro station.
Trams – There is a tram system in Sofia, but it does not go out to the airport. You could get a bus or metro into city centre, then a tram to where you are staying. The trams run frequently and all day.
Bus – The bus routes 84 and 184 travel from the airport to the City centre on an all day timetable. The bus terminal is right outside of either terminal 1 or 2. You can purchase tickets from the ticket machines at the airport, or the kiosk of the Urban Mobility centre. They will cost you around 2 leva (£1) per person. If you have a large suitcase, (bigger than 60x40x40) you may have to purchase a ticket for that also!
Worth noting – The ticket machines do not take card. They are Bulgarian currency only. You can purchase a ticket from the bus driver if choosing the bus option, but you must not have large notes.
City Breaks in Sofia – Navigating the City
Sofia is a pretty easy City to find your way round. It is not huge, and Nik had mastered the lay out of the City that first day. Not me, I can get lost on a roundabout….. We walked EVERYWHERE. Yes, you have the fabulous tram system and busses etc, but I would recommend you go get lost in the city! It is pretty easy to navigate and you see so much more walking. To give you some idea, we literally walked the length and breath of the City centre many times. In our 3 days in Sofia, we walked around 22 miles. Get your comfy shoes on and go explore, you never know what you will come across.
Getting lost in Sofia’s streets meant we got to enjoy the talent of the street artist’s
Sofia Itinerary – Some Ideas
Once we had checked in to our hotel, (and the HUGGGEEE room that I will tell you about in my hotel review post), we were keen to explore. I have told you before about our holiday habits when we have a city break. I like to get there as early as possible, so that the first day is not wasted. This is the day we get our bearings and find our feet.
So, with my comfiest-shoes-ever (I have these Sketchers ok, don’t judge me, they are like walking on clouds), ready to pound the pavements, we set off. You will be pleased to know that there are lots of free, and inexpensive things to do in Sofia, (Bulgaria is in fact, one of the least expensive European countries to visit). Let’s start with the free things.
Free things to do in Sofia
Sofia’s Beautiful Religious Buildings
Sofia is known as the City that has the “triangle of religious tolerance” This is because it has three large temples, each dedicated to one of the three main religions of the world. The temples of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, are all within a short distance of each other.
I have covered the gorgeous churches and cathedrals of Sofia in a separate post, (Churches in Sofia). You would have been here all day if I had included them in this one! Bulgaria is a religious country, meaning Sofia has so many beautiful religious buildings! I fully recommend scheduling in seeing at least some of them. Many play an integral part in Sofia’s rich history.
Free Walking tour of Sofia
These tours are amazing, and I would recommend doing one in your 3 days in Sofia. Your tour guide will take you on a walking tour of the city, lasting about 2-2.5 hours. They are run several times a day, usually 11am, 2pm and 6pm. Starting at The Palace of Justice, your English speaking guide will regal you with stories, facts and lots of history. The guides are usually writers, artists and poets, so you can assure their talk will be far from a boring history lesson.
Top tip – Although these tours are free, the guides are more than grateful for a tip at the end. Five to ten leva seems to be the going rate. You can just turn up for these tours at The Palace of Justice.
I love people that are a bit quirky. I am absolutely the person that chats to the slightly off the norm characters. Well, Sofia has ‘characters” in abundance. If you stroll around the City, you will encounter all sorts. There was the man dressed head to toe in red, riding a red bike, blowing a red whistle. The happy man making music wherever he went with his own version of a one man band. Or, my particular favourite, the elderly lady that covered herself in pigeons and chatted with her feathered friends all day long. I loved wandering the streets of Sofia.
City Garden Park
We loved this little park, the oldest in Sofia. It was out the front of our hotel, and our room looked out over it. It was such a happy place! There was often a little band playing, made up of retired gentlemen. They played traditional Bulgarian music, and people would be dancing and just enjoying themselves. There is a water fountain (not filled back up until April) that is the hub of this little park. City Garden Park is a great place to sit and observe Sofia life. There are little cafe’s in the park if you fancy a bit of people watching with a latte.
There are also chess tables set up along the edge of the park. The locals take their chess very seriously! If you fancy your chances, you can challenge whoever is sitting by the tables to a match. These matches go on all day. Crowds gather round the pairs, beers are being drunk and friendly competition is rife. It is a serious, but very good natured business! Nik and I immersed ourselves into Bulgarian life in this park a couple of times. With 3 days in Sofia, we had the time. It was a great insight to how families, teenagers, the elderly and friends spent their time. We loved it.
Ivan Vazov National Theatre
Sitting proudly at the side of City Garden Park, you have Ivan Vazov Theatre. The oldest and biggest theatre in Bulgaria, it really is a beauty. Built in 1904, the theatre opened it doors for the first time in 1907. Named after Bulgaria’s famous play-write Ivan Vazov, the theatre attracts the elite of Bulgarian actors to its stage. The plays are all of course in Bulgarian, so we did not get to see anyone tread the boards. However, the building is ornate and beautiful, so worth a walk round.
Walk down Vitosha Boulevard
Ok people, time to get your retail therapy in if thats your thing. Vitosha Boulevard is Sofia’s man commercial street. If you like your designer brands, Sofia has you covered. Many of the big brands, (Versace, Armani, etc) have outlets on Vitosha, or just off of it. It is the main tourist street in Sofia, but bare in mind, Sofia is very chilled out. At times, we felt like we had the City to ourselves! Vitosha has cafes all the way along each side of it, so plenty of places to stop for a breather.
Worth noting – Bulgaria does allow smoking in some of its cafes and bars. It was for this reason that we did not eat or drink in any of the cafe’s along Vitosha. Nik and I are ex-smokers (of 23 years), so the worst kind of non-smoker….lol
You can walk all the way up Vitosha Boulevard to the National Palace of Culture. It is a nice walk and with a view of the beautiful Vitosha mountain accompanying you all the way. If you get good weather in your 3 days in Sofia, I’d recommend it.
Roman Ruins at The Largo
Sofia is very proud and protective of its abundance of roman ruins. The city was known as Serdica in Roman rule, and was a very large town. You will see the ruins of Serdica throughout the City. The Largo, is an area in downtown Sofia. It is a collection of three govenment buildings, erected in the early years of the communist regime, (1950’s). Built on the top of the heart of the ancient city of Serdica. They intended for it to become the City Centre, and be a shout out to the communist rise to power. Three glass domes now rise up from the colourful cobbled square (Independence Square), in the centre of the Largo.
Underneath the glass domes, the remains of Serdica can be seen. What you are actually looking down onto, is the 2000 year old, almost perfect main Roman road of Serdica. The ruins are now part of the large open air museum, and you can get up close and personal with them. They are fascinating and if you like history, you will love this, and the ruins close by. Access is via the underpass.
Visit Central Market Hall
If you like to try the local cuisine and street food, then this is the place for you. The Market Hall is where the locals go. Early morning you will see them pouring in through the doors to shop. Opened in 1911, this under cover market is the main trade centre in the city for the locals. You will find food located on the ground floor, jewellery, clothing and accessories on the upper floor.
Roman Apitheatre Ruins in Hotel
The gorgeous Arena di Serdica Boutique hotel has a little secret. Well, actually a 2nd/3rd Century, rather large secret…. When building work started on this 5 star hotel, part of a Roman wall was discovered. Archaeological excavations started, and the ruins of the Ampitheatre Serdica were discovered! The Hotel then built around the theatre, incorporating this important part of history into the hotels design. It is worth popping into the hotel to have a look at this Roman entertainment venue!
worth noting – The hotel Arena di Serdica is a beauty. I would fully recommend looking at it as an option for a stay in Sofia.
Crypt Under St Sofia Church
The unassuming facade of St Sofia church, in all honesty, does not wow you. It is why this church gets overlooked for its prettier, more fancy religious neighbours. However, what lies beneath it does! It catapults St Sofia into having the accolade of a must see. The church was built on the site of the original 4th century necropolis of Serdica. Excavations of the site have found around 50 tombs, beautiful mosaic floors almost perfect in some areas, and fresco wall decoration. Again, probably more a must see if you like your history/culture, but it was fascinating.
Worth noting – We did not have to pay an entrance fee to go into the tombs, but this is not always the case. The entry price is 6 – 10 leva, but some days are free entrance.
The Sofia History Museum and Mineral Baths
Public baths have been in use in Sofia since the 16th century. The mineral springs are abundant in the area. The Central Mineral Baths are now closed to the public, but were in use until 1986. Now the Museum of Sofia, it is dedicated to the history of the City of Sofia. There are still drinking water fountains, that have the rich mineral water bubbling out. You can fill your water bottles here for free, and the locals are often queuing here to do exactly that. We of course tried it. It was a strange taste, and warm, but I quite liked it! Nik on the other hand………not so keen so I made him drink more…
See A Sunrise
Of course, a city break in Sofia would not be completed by Nik and I, without seeing a sunrise. As I have told you before in my Budapest post, its our thing! We have got up to see a sunrise in every new place that we have visited for 28 years! I would have loved to have gotten up in the mountains to see the Bulgarian sunrise, but that was not to be.
Instead, we headed to the beautiful, and most famous land mark of Sofia. The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is picturesque at any time of day. Sunrise even more so. We walked through the sleeping streets of Sofia, the birds dawn chorus accompanying our short journey. Reaching the cathedral, we sat on a nearby bench, waiting for Mother Nature to start her show.
It was a beautiful morning. Totally still, with the pre-dawn chill feeling fresh rather than cold. As the birds sang their little hearts out, the sky behind the cathedral began to marble. Pale blue lines began to slice through the early morning cloud. As the sun climbed up the sky, the blue deepened and changed, first to purple, then pink. This pink deepened and became more vivid. It was the most beautiful sunrise, and left me with the feeling that sunrises always do. I feel privileged to witness it. In awe of what nature does, and so very grateful that I got to see this sunrise in Sofia.
Sofia for Book Lovers
If you have been with me a while, you know my absolute and total, love affair with books. I love nothing more than finding independent book shops where ever I travel. Well, Sofia has a most wonderful area called Slaveykov Square. This area, right near Vitosha Boulevard, is a book lovers dream. It has book shops full of new and secondhand books, in many languages. The square, named after Bulgarian writer Pencho Slaveikov, also has book stalls piled high with bookish delights. You will know you are in the right place if looking for the square. There is a bench with a statue of Pencho and his father, which you just feel compelled to sit at with them..
Nik listening to Pencho’s stories….
There are little reading rooms throughout Sofia. Small, dinky little buildings, full floor to ceiling with books. There are bean bags and a couple of seats, where you can go in, pick up a book and loose yourself for a while. City Garden Park has one, and I fell in love with it. Most of the books are Bulgarian, but some are translated into English. The reading rooms encourage you to just come in, pick up a book to read and find an hour of calm. What a beautiful idea. I would love that local to me.
The Reading Room. Borrow a book to lose yourself in for a little while
One last thing I would suggest you look out for as you wander round, is the kneeling boutiques of Sofia. Blink, or never look down, and you will miss them. The “klek” shops, (meaning kneel) are fairly common place, (although getting less), but you have to look for them. The shops were born at the end of communist rule. All of a sudden, people were allowed to own their own shops! However, the rents on commercial premises were high, so people got inventive! Little shops were set up in the basements of old buildings, with the “shop front” being a below knee height window. Customers would kneel down at the window, and make their purchase. Voila! The first Sofia entrepreneurs, post communism, were born. Isn’t it fabulous? I loved spotting the klek shops.
If you have got to the end of this section, well done! There is a lot to get through. All of these suggestions are all pretty close to each other though. You can see lots of them in the same sight seeing stint. As I mentioned, Sofia is a city that is easy to navigate, and not a vast, sprawling area. You would easily get round them all, (and the churches in the separate post), with 3 days in Sofia.
This concludes my free things to do in Sofia recommendations. Obviously, you have the beautiful churches to, that are in the separate post. I also have a post full of amazing day trips you can take from Sofia. So, just a couple of things left for me to tell you in this post. I wanted to mention these suggestions of things I would recommend you do if you have time, then we are there. Home straight people, home straight!
Your Sofia Itinerary Extras – (If time permits)
Sofia Street Art Tour;
Sofia is proud of its grafitti artists. Their street art scene is thriving, and many of the artisits are becoming well known. The beauty with this tour, is that you get the added bonus of exploring other neighbourhoods. The street art tour starts at the Statue of Sofia, but takes you away from the main tourist hubs. You will be able to step into the “real Sofia”. It is a fab experience and your Sofia street art tour guides are always so full of knowledge. Allow 2 – 2.5 hours
Price for Sofia Street Art Tour – Free – but a tip to the guide is very much appreciated. The going rate tends to be about 10 leva.
Foodie and Cultural Tour
If you like to try the traditional cuisine of where you visit, this 3 hour tour is a must. Accompanied by a passionate local foodie, you will get to try Babek and lukanka, amongst other traditional dishes. A beautiful restaurant set in converted houses will also be a stop off to host you, for wine tasting and mezze. Amongst the sites you will see are the food market and National Theatre. A little bit of culture, a whole lot of food, all washed down with wonderful Bulgarian wine.
Price for the Food and Culture Tour – around £37
Bulgarian Wine Tasting
Nik and I fell in love with the Bulgarian wine, which surprised me! Despite Bulgaria producing wine for over 5000 years, it has kept its secret pretty close to its chest! The red wine in particular was delicious. Bowl of olives, glass of Bulgarian red and you can just leave me there! This tasting tour is informative, and held in one of the best wine shops in Sofia. Beautiful cheeses and artisan breads will accompany your 5 different wines, along with a whole lot of knowledge! Allow around 2 hours.
Price for the Bulgarian Wine Tasting – around £22
The delicious Bulgarian red wine’s were a favourite of ours…..
In Conclusion of our 3 days in Sofia..
Well what an absolute delight Sofia was. We felt that we got a real feel for the City, and that feeling was a good one! The people of Sofia were warm, welcoming and very friendly. The City was vibrant, with a real feeling of a City finding its feet, and liking that feeling! We found the City to have a real family friendly, community feel to it. People were using the parks and cafe’s to catch up with friends. Families were out with their children and often, family dog (yayyyy). The older residents of Sofia seemed to love socialising in the parks. Whether it was to play a game of chess, do a little people watching or even having a little dance to the music being played in the park. It was a real pleasure to see. We never encountered anything but warmth and friendliness. I would absolutely love to go back to Sofia and explore some of the surrounding areas. In fact, being as it is such a reasonably priced City, why not…….?
I would love to hear what you think. Has my introduction to Sofia surprised you at all? Is it like you thought it would be? Did you too have an impression of this Eastern European City that I have changed a little? I would love to hear your thoughts x