There seems to be a theme in my recent travel adventures for places rich in history, culture and religion – just think Jerusalem, Vietnam and Sarajevo in the last few years and Singapore and Malaysia next. Sofia is probably not at the top of everyone’s list when it comes to holiday destinations – most people think about the beach/ski options in Bulgaria. But for those wishing to indulge in a bit of history and to visit a city with so much cultural diversity, then Sofia definitely should be on top. I thought Sarajevo and Jerusalem was pretty diverse with relative peace between the local Jewish, Islamic and Christian communities. But in Sofia you have to add in the Orthodox community too. In fact there is a spot in Sofia, where you can see the Synagogue, the Mosque and both Churches all at once.
Something unique about Sofia is that you can see how the city has developed over time, with each phase being built on top of each other. Originally a Thracian settlement in the 4th century BC, the city was conquered by the Romans (29BC) and became the centre of the administrative region known as Serdica. It became part of the First Bulgarian Empire in 809 but fell to the Byzantine Empire in 1018. Then came the Ottomans from 1385 until it was liberated. The city has gone through a lot and it can be seen in the architecture and social livings. It is just an incredibly rich city to see! With that in mind, here is my list of awesome places to emerge yourself into!
Banya Bashi Mosque
Not far from my Airbnb is the Banya Bashi Mosque, sitting just on the edge of town. It is a peacful Mosque with some very friendly people who are very open for tourists to enter to have a look. This Mosque was completed in around 1566 and the name translates to ‘Many Baths‘, since it was built over some natural thermal spas. Make sure you check out the incredible ceiling.
St George Church.
Not far from the mosque and hidden between some buildings and in the courtyard is Rotunda Of St George. This brick rotunda is one of the oldest buildings in Sofia, built all the way back in the 4th century. There is something strange about this Church being surrounded by some commerical buildings and the Sheraton! It goes to show how the city has tried to keep the heritage and history intact by building around it.
If you head inside, you will see a very rich and decorative church. Look around the building and you will see some paintings inside the dome dating back to the 12th/13th and 14th century.
Largo Squre Ruins
Just outside Serdiak II metro station, you will see a very large exvacated area of Roman ruins. These ruins were found during the consturction of the metro station and it shows around 8 ancient streets, large buildings, public toilets and even sewage systems and courtyards. Go for a wonder around the ruins and really get a feel of how it used to be and how the city of Sofia has been built on top of it all.
Near the roman ruins is this small and medieval Bulgarian Orthodox church, Church of St Petka. It is a tiny little building and has many biblical mural paintings from the 14th, 15th, 17th and 19th century.
If you go on the Sofia Free Walking Tour, you will get taken around the central district of Sofia. There are plenty of large mighty looking buildings, all very Soviet like! They are large and kind of scary with its looming height.
The central office of the Prime Minster is also located around there with some fancy looking guards!
St Alexander Nevski Cathedral
Probably the first thing that comes up on Google when you type in Sofia. This orthodox Cathedral is the capital’s icon and was completed in 1912. It has this Neo-Byzantine style and is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox Catehdrals in the world. It is massive, covering over 3000 square meters and can hold up to 10,000 people inside!
The City Tour was actually quite informative and takes you to other impressive buidlings such as the Sofia Synagogue, National Theatre Ivan Vazov and the Statute of Sofia. It also gives a pretty good explaination to the meaning of the Coats of Arms of Sofia. Try catch the morning tour though, as the evening ones gets a bit cold in the dark!
Hike Up Vitosha
Mount Vitosha is literally only a short cab away from the centre of Sofia. This is what makes the capital such a special and unique city. In fact, every time I looked up into the skyline, I saw a mountain somewhere! It was incredible how much greenery there was in this country. I took a tour with a small group and we attempted the full day hike up the mountain. The cab drops you off at the Boyana Church where you start the little walk up. This is not an easy hike and requires a lot of small paths and balancing. In the winter it also gets a bit cold. You will see mini rivers and little waterfalls, with some parts of it even frozen over.
The reward for the hike is the incredible views at the top. You can see the whole of Sofia sprawling into the whole land. It is gorgeous! Such a nice view especially on a clear day. Well worth it!
Where to Eat
My adventure to Bulgaria started with a hearty meal with my super friendly Airbnb host and his friends. They made a homecooked meal with soups, fresh bread and pastas. It was the nicest meal I have had in a long while and the best welcome by an Airbnb host! They introduced me to this local vegtable dish, which essentially was pickled vegtabales. What was suprising was that they stored it in a plastic tub! This dish was essentially something most people grew up eating in the winter, when fresh vegtables were less available in the days. They would prepare this during the warmer months and ration it over the winter. It was delcious and something you just wanted to keep coming back more for.
Another local speciality was rakia, a fruit brandy with around 40% alcohol but tasted so warming in the cold. It was delicious and so fruity. Just like the pickled vegtables, it is better to try the homemade ones. Especially the ones made by the grandmas!
The Hadjidragana Tavern
For a more substantial and ‘cultural’ meal, head to this mini chain. As you walk in, you will notice the change in tone and the customary restaurant designs and feel to the interior. You get a complementary raika while you digest the menu. For some reason, pretty much in every restaurant I went to in Bulgaria there was an extensive salad section. I am talking around 10 different types of salad! It was all delicious though and the one here had a bit of everything. Cheese also featured heavily in their salads. I tried some sort of meat platter which was quite protein heavy but was pretty good. Most meals tend to come with quite a lot of meat too.
All in All
Sofia was alot of fun and the perfect start to my Bulgarian adventure. Its history and culture speaks for itself, the food was incredible and don’t get me started on the wine! Most of all, the people were all so lovely and nice. It is a perfect spot for those looking for a weekend getaway to somewhere different. Why not try it as a solo travel destination if you havent tried it before!
Also published on Medium.