Bulgaria’s dynamic capital is on the hot list. With beautiful scenery, broad avenues and grand buildings, word is finally getting out about this surprising Eastern European city. Add to the draw cards the affordable skiing nearby and you’ll quickly realise why there’s so much to love about this emerging city of 1.4 million.
With many remarkable streets, the best way to explore Sofia is definitely on foot. Built on Roman foundations, 16th-century Sveto Petka Smardzhiska is a good place to start your journey. Next visit nearby Sveta Nedelya Cathedral or Aleksander Nevski Cathedral. So rich in religious heritage is Sofia that Sofia Synagogue and Banya Bashi Mosque are two of the city’s other star attractions. Art lovers can’t miss the National Art Gallery, home to over 50,000 pieces of Bulgarian art, while the 24 metre high Sofia Monument remains a photographers favourite. Of-course many visitors to Sofia come for the slopes and snow lovers will rejoice that Mt Vitosha is located a mere 10km from town.
Sofia has many places to dine and you’ll find most menus are very affordable if you earn a Western pay packet. Either side of Vitosha Boulevard is where the main concentration of Sofia’s bars and restaurants are and the street’s open-air cafeterias are especially lively in summer when drinking and conversation goes on well into the night. Those wanting to sample the Central Asian and Eastern European influence that makes traditional Bulgarian fare so unique should head to SkaraBar or Manastirska Magernitza. Made In Home is another standout place to dine and lives up to its name, offering home-style cooking in a very relaxed environment.
Where to Stay
One of Sofia’s highlight attractions is the price of its hotels. Stay away from the Soviet-era concrete block hotels and you’ll find it hard to be disappointed. Best Western Premier, Central Park Hotel, Park Inn and Downtown Hotel are all popular mid to high-range options. Highly recommended is Grand Hotel Sofia, which offers a lot more than it charges, while Budapest Hotel Sofia has some of the best value rooms in Eastern Europe. Those on a strict budget will find plenty of choice at the small inns and family run hotels. Hotel Maya is one of the best cheapies and offers clean simple rooms and a good location.
Sofia’s retail offerings are another surprising highlight of the city. The century old Central Market has undergone a conversion into an elegant mall with many cafes and boutiques and is a good place to spend a few leva while The Ladies’ Market is the best place for souvernier shopping and to observe daily Sofian life. Stretching several blocks between ul Ekzarh Yosif and bul Silvnitsa, traditional pottery is a popular purchase there. Those heading to the slopes should first head to Stenata at Bratia Miladnovi to stock up on winter ski gear often on sale at summer prices.
Sofia Like a Local
Perhaps only in Sofia could the latest craze be soup. The trend apparently started in 2009 and now you’ll find Sofians sipping on soup at all hours of the day and well into the late night. Supa Star offers an unbeatable Thai style tiger-prawn soup, or for a measly couple of leva you can get a classic Bulgarian soup containing walnuts, cucumbers and yoghurt. Soup Me is another popular soup stop for locals. Keep an eye out for the soup ladle acting as a door handle.