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‘Raste no ne staree’, or ‘Ever growing, never aging’: the Bulgarian capital’s motto couldn’t ring truer more than a century after it was added to the city’s coat of arms. Full of life, culture, events and remnants of a chequered history, Sofia certainly warrants a flight and a bucket list of its own. The cityscape, more of an eclectic montage than postcard image, is framed by 2,000-year-old Roman and Thracian ruins, Soviet landmarks and Ottoman mosques. Named after its oldest and highest churches, it’s the only place on the continent where members of three world religions, Christians, Muslims and Jews, live and worship right next to each other. Best discovered by foot, the heart of the Balkans is packed with enough attractions to keep you busy for days. Also, how many capitals can you name that are surrounded by something as majestic as the Vitosha Mountain?
The Stalinist era might have left its mark on the Bulgarian capital, but wandering along its yellow pavements, you’ll soon find that it has many other features to muse over. Small wonder: Bulgaria is actually the third richest country in Europe in terms of archaeological heritage, only beaten by Italy and Greece. Once known as Serdica under Thracian and later Roman rule, Sofia’s history spans some 7,000 years as a buzzing commercial, industrial and cultural centre in the Balkans. A symbol of interreligious harmony and acceptance, Sofia is home to Sveta Nedelya Church, Banya Bashi Mosque and Sofia Synagogue, all found just metres from each other in an embrace of the Triangle of Religious Tolerance.
With a rich past stretching back thousands of years, get ready for an intense experience discovering Sofia’s most famous spots and hidden gems. Start your adventure with the city's treasured centrepiece, the Aleksandâr Nevsky Cathedral at Aleksandâr Nevsky Square. Built to commemorate the 200,000 Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian and Bulgarian soldiers who died in the 1877–78 War of Liberation, the gold-domed, Neo-Byzantine church is famed for being one of the world’s largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals. Make sure to stop at the Serdika metro underpass to marvel at the recently unearthed relics of ancient Sofia. To tick off as many things as possible on your Sofia must-see list, simply follow the yellow brick road. Soak up the colourful history of the city at the Church of St George (Rotonda Sveti Georgi), the oldest monument in Sofia with frescoes dating back to the 6th century. Listen to melodies while strolling in the City Garden and marvel at the beautifully ornate Ivan Vazov National Theatre. History buffs shouldn’t miss the National Archaeological Museum around the corner, while art aficionados had better head to the National Art Gallery, home to over 50,000 pieces of Bulgarian art. Had your museum and gallery fix? Continue touring Sofia for the most Insta-worthy street art spots on Tsar Ivan Shishman Street. Catch up with Bulgaria’s Communist past in the Museum of Socialist Art, complete with a sculpture park, paying homage to the most notable figures of the movement, in and outside of Bulgaria.
Bulgarian cuisine, much like the country’s history, is a mixture of flavours and influences from across the region and beyond. Sofia is truly a foodie paradise: dishes are cheap and simple, made only from quality ingredients and earthy seasoning. For a hearty breakfast, give banitsa a try. This white cheese, yoghurt and egg pie has a special place on Bulgarian breakfast tables, along with mekitsa, Bulgarians’ deep-fried doughnut. Ready for the next course? Drop by Made in Home, a quirky little restaurant loved by locals and foreigners alike. Don’t get fooled by the playful interior, Made in Home takes food seriously and offers its own take on traditional Bulgarian, Mediterranean and Oriental fare. If you’re in the mood for something lighter, descend to the epicentre of Sofia’s soup revolution, Supa Star, for delicious soups and sandwiches, prepared daily from seasonal ingredients. Need some digestive aid on your foodscapade? Get yourself a glass of rakia. Drink it ice cold and with caution: South Slavs’ favourite fruit brandy typically contains 50-80% alcohol. Combine it with shopska salad and you’re in for a perfect Bulgarian culinary experience. Embark on a real gastro-adventure at SkaraBar and ask for a meshana skara platter, a staple of Bulgarian’s meat-loving cuisine, with grilled lamb and sausages, and pork kebapcheta.
There’s no reason to keep your new-found love for Bulgarian delicacies to yourself. Hit the Central Market Hall on Maria Louise Boulevard early in the day to snatch some cured meat, cheese, olives, nuts and sweets for your loved ones. While you’re there, feast your eyes on the building’s Neo-Renaissance, Neo-Byzantine and Neo-Baroque architecture. Stock up on beauty products made with rose oil at Bulgarian Rose Karlovo and learn about the history of the country’s most well-loved export in the museum section. Find your favourite brands on Vitosha Boulevard, Sofia’s main shopping artery or browse the best in traditional crafts, such as hand-woven rugs, pottery, jewellery and wood carvings, for souvenirs at the Centre of Folk Arts and Crafts. Up for getting down with the locals? Make the most of your stay in Sofia and head to NDK, short for the National Palace of Culture, on the southern end of Vitosha Boulevard. The 123,000-square metre, 8-storey, Communist-era complex might not look the most welcoming on the outside, but there’s plenty going on within these massive walls. An unmissable landmark, it houses countless concert halls, exhibition areas, shops, restaurants, bars and clubs, not to mention some remarkable pieces of modern and contemporary art. Catering to all tastes, ages and pockets, NDK is packed with film festivals, exhibitions, fashion shows and trade fairs all year round.
Lace up your boots and walk up to the Vitosha mountain massif, just outside Sofia. With ten peaks stretching well over 2,000 metres, the mountain is a perfect spot for hiking, skiing or an afternoon picnic, and is easily accessible via public transport and rope ways. In the winter months, take the Simeonovo gondola lift to reach Aleko, one of Bulgaria’s highest ski resorts with plenty of exciting winter sports options, such as skiing, snowboarding and cross-country skiing. Visiting in warmer weather? Head there for the lush greenery and picturesque treks, with spectacular views over Sofia, lush meadows and 2000-metre-plus peaks. In the hottest months, there’s no better place to beat the heat. Just make sure to greet fellow hikers with a cheerful “Dobar den”, no matter how crowded it gets up there!
Bulgaria’s main international airport, Sofia Airport lies 10 kilometres from Sofia’s city centre. From the airport, Sofia metro line no. 1 takes you on a 20-minute trip into the city centre, while taxis and car hire are also available. Shops offer duty-free items, travel necessities as well as Bulgarian delicacies, spices, honey, herbal teas and organic cosmetics. Food options include cafés and delis offering snacks, sandwiches, wine and beer.
Sofia has a classic continental climate with fairly cold winters and hot, sunny summers. The annual average temperature is slightly above 10°C. Extremes are rare but not unheard of: temperatures sometimes drop below −15°C in January and increase above 35°C in July and August. Due to its altitude, however, the city mostly remains cooler than other parts of Bulgaria. To make the most of your Sofia city break, visit between mid-May and late September.