“Why are you going to Bulgaria?”, friends asked me. “Are you going to Sunny Beach?”, strangers asked me. “Isn’t it just grey buildings and poverty?”, colleagues said. Bulgaria is the fastest shrinking economy in EU, so something is wrong. But something is definitely also wrong with its reputation, because Bulgaria is a great destination. The capital Sofia is small enough to manage in a few days, has good food and wine, is cheap full of friendly people and plenty of green spaces to relax in.
But not only that, it’s also a city called Serdica. “Serdica is my Rome,” said the Roman emperor Constantine the Great. I was pleasantly surprised at the abundance of ancient history here: firstly a Thracian settlement, then Alexander the Great possessed it, the a Roman administrative center and even attacked by Attila and the Huns! At the beginning of the 9th century, the Bulgarian Han Krum invaded (why does this reminds me of Harry Potter?). And people kept coming: Sofia was part of both the Byzantine and Ottoman empire and controlled by the Communists.
So put on your best walking shoes, grab your camera and let’s explore the culture of Bulgaria’s largest city!
How to spend 24 hours in Sofia, Bulgaria for the cultural traveller:
Start the day with a nice breakfast. We stayed at two different hotels in Sofia, the Adria Complex near the train station and the Sofia Residence Boutique Hotel. Not surprisingly, I prefer the last one with breakfast on the private terrace. It’s located a little outside of the center n a quiet neighbourhood but wiht great bars, bakeries and restaurants nearby. I would definitely stay here again. We had a huge room with bathtub and desk. It was an old house made into a hotel giving it a homely feel.
9.30 THE SYMBOLS OF SOFIA
ALEXANDER NEVSKY CATHEDRAL
First stop of the day is the symbol of Sofia and Bulgaria: the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. If you’ve been to St. Petersburg you know the name. Alexander Nevsky is an important figure in medieval Russian history – a warrior prince turned Orthodox saint.
The huge golden domed Orthodox Cathedral is not that old, but finished in 1912 built to honour the fallen Russian soldiers fighting for Bulgarian freedom (although other nationalities are mentioned by the entrance).
Thrones in alabaster, huge chandeliers, Italian marble and gold gold gold. The Cathedral also have relics including a bone, which is said to be a rib of the actual Alexander Nevsky. The frescoes inside are quite faded, but beautiful.
It’s free to enter, but you pay 5€ for a photo permit. And they check. Think of it as support for the maintenance of the building, even though a Bulgarian later told me it just ends up in someone’s pocket. But I’m Danish. We trust people.
A necropolis is a city of the dead. And just below the church of St. Sofia is exactly that. The church of St. Sofia is the what the city Sofia is named after. It’s located just next to Nevsky, built in the 6th century, but somehow not the main attraction.
Instead: head underground immediately. Beneath the symbolic church, you’ll find the remains of 4 much older churches, and the necropolis or burial site for the ancient Roman city of Serdica. It’s really something to see and definitely the best of all the Roman ruins in Sofia.
Tomb almost stacked upon tomb, vaulted masonry tombs with decorations, early Christian graves, Mosaics, the rest of an early Christian basilica. I’ve been to many a ruins, but I haven’t seen quite something likes this before. If you only visit one ruin, this is the one! The price is 3€ and extra 7,5€ for photos (really a thing here…).
If you’re in the need of a break, head for a drink in one of the many green parks most with park cafes. Try a homemade lemonade. I liked the park, where the National art Gallery is, the Doctor’s Garden and the small one in front of the National Museum.
THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM
You have to choose between the Sofia History Museum and the National Archaeological Museum. If you have more time, you can go to Boyana for the National History Museum. If you are mostly into recent history, turn towards the former, but if you like me are curious about what was hiding in the old tombs, head for the Archeological. It’s 5€ to enter the former mosque.
There are 3 highlights: a golden mask, a bronze head and mosaics. One is the original of the one you just saw in the Necropolis. If you’ve been to Rome or Italy, the mosaics are just okay. But the glass found in the tombs of the Necropolis are very well preserved. Now climb the stairs for the treasury. It’s bling all the way from the Thracians, who lived 2500 years ago and is mentioned in the Illiad. They named the city Serdica, which the Romans kept.
Gold is everywhere especially in the churches. No wonder, Sofia was known for its goldsmithing during the Middle Ages.
Cross the square towards the Presidency. Inside in the courtyard of the building is the oldest church in Sofia – the St. George Rotunda is believed to be built during the reign of Constantine the Great. That’s really some time ago…
But try to be in front of the building ten minutes to 12. If you time this, it’s fun to watch the change of guards. If you are not nearby – don’t bother. Just like in the Danish and English Royal guards, there’s a meticulously planned guard shift – severe looking young men in uniforms from days of yore. They always carry out their duty as if it’s the most serious performance in the world. Like this is what keeps Bulgaria together…
On the way from the guards towards the mosque and the synagogue, you pass this horrible statue – Sveti Sofia.
The city of Sofia is named after the Saint Sofia – the patron of the city. So of course: “We gotta have a statue of her”. “Wait that doesn’t look like a saint?” Damn, then we’ll call her Sveti Sofia. Not really sure why a Christian statue came out carrying ancient symbols of the owl and the wreath wearing a clearly not nun-like dress. But whether she looks pagan or not, I don’t care – but it’s not art!
If you’re snacky, swing by the large Market Hall for a Turkish Delight or a bag of nuts before to keep going for a few more sites before lunch. Otherwise, don’t bother.
Bulgarian food is generally is pretty good. White cheese, cured meat, great salads like Shopska salad. In 5 days, I had around 5 servings of kebapches – the grilled meat sausage you find all over the Balkans. Wash it down with great wine.
The restaurant Moma Bulgarian Food and Wine comes highly recommended by several guidebooks and travellers, but we didn’t think it any special. It’s one of the most expensive places, but feels like “wanna-be”. Only 2 other guests was there, and it was clearly a business lunch – one phoning and the other checking her phone. The courtyard is full of fake flowers, which seems weird in a lush green country with a rose festival…
Instead cross the street for the gourmet deli Sun Moon or head back towards the golden lady and wait in line at the very popular Rainbow Factory and take your food away.
14.30 3 CULTURES
The official Tourism Site of Bulgaria writes: “There is hardly another city in all of Europe that has so many noteworthy Christian, Islamic, and Jewish monuments so close together.” Arh, they haven’t been to Sarajevo apparently…
Well, the dead in the necropolis have to come from somewhere. The ruins of the apparently so fantastic old Roman city of Serdica is very visible in the city, since it’s an open museum. More could be done to tell, what is old and what is reconstruction. There’s also an underground exhibition but it’s closed right now. I definitely preferred the graves, but then I also work in the Danish official Royal burial church(!).
“Serdica is my Rome”. These are the words of Constantine the Great and that’s saying a lot. He apparently even wanted Serdica to be new capital of the New Rome – which later fell to Byzantium or Istanbul. Crazy to think that now no one knows this place compared to Istanbul.
In Roman times, the city became a centre of an administrative region and expanded with protective walls, public baths, a basilica and a large amphitheatre. Under Byzantine Emperor Justinian I it was surrounded with great fortress walls, and you can still see the ruins.
In 1385, Sofia was conquered by the Ottoman Empire, but most buildings from those days are gone. The Banya Bashi is the only mosque in Sofia, which is really surprising to me. Especially after visiting Sarajevo, I’d expected a lot more. But the Muslim population fled after the Russo-Turkish war.
The mosque is from 1566. It’s build by the same guy, who build the Suleymaniye mosque in Istanbul, which I marveled at a few months ago (Enjoy a Luxury Weekend in Istanbul). Impressive architect! This is not the grandest attraction, but the mosque represents an important part of the city’s history. The National Museum right behind it use to be bathhouse, and the mosque is named after the baths being build upon natural thermal springs.
As with all mosques, dress modestly, take shoes off and avoid Fridays.
Just across the street from the mosque is the synagogue, so you can catch 3 religions in one day. As with the mosque, this is the only place for prayer for its community, and so it’s clear the Orthodox Christian religion is the primary one.
With its large dome, the impressive facade contains the largest Sephardic (Spanish–Jewish) synagogue in Europe finished in 1909. Tombstones from an old Jewish cemetery were used to build the base of the synagogue. Once in the 90’s, the government was attempted to turn into a concert hall, but it didn’t happen.
Sofia’s religious building are for some reason the place for gigantic chandeliers and the synagogue is no exception. It weighs 1700 kg, and all the other hanging lamps are copies of the large one. Probably not bought in IKEA.
On 13 April 1944 during WWII a bomb hit. It did not explode, but the vibrations broke the colored stained glass windows. Later a stained glass over the balcony was made as a reminder.
Remember to check for prayer time. You pay to enter and have to wear a scarf.
17.00 SHOP OR CHILL
The main shopping street is Vitosha, but I wouldn’t go there for the good buys. Gifted was a nice small souvenir shop with smaller artisan souvenirs. I bought a cool t-shirt with a certified demon-repellent image and who doesn’t need that. They also have luggage lockers, an art gallery and bike info(!). And they offered a communist experience: a visit to the Red Flat – everyday life in communist Bulgaria in the 80’s.
If you’re not into shopping, try to squeeze in one more museum, try a park if you missed it the first round or go desolate-sad-communist-building-block watching.
19.00 DRINKS & FOOD
Hungry? Of course- you have been walking all day and the Bulgarian food is still delicious and cheap. And accompanied by good wine. For more on the wine, read Culture Trips Wine Lover’s Guide.
The restaurant at our hotel is above average and cozy with red and white table cloths, inspirational quotes on the wall and had good white wine: Cotto. We payed 30€ for food, wine and dessert for 2 people.
Another good place is Gastronauts 33. Sit in the courtyard or on the street with small lights. They serve Mediterranean food and again good wine. You can also try the local liqueur Rakija here. It’s strong, but so am I. It’s a bit more expensive: 60€.
Read more on Sofia and the rest of the country in the official Tourism Portal here.
I love the Balkans! If you are hungry for more of this part of Europe, try Venetian fortresses & World Heritage in Kotor, Montenegro! or Trace the Grim Past in Today’s Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina.
Have you been to Bulgaria?