A Day in Sofia, Bulgaria

I had a short break in Bulgaria in March and it was great! I highly recommend this country to anyone – it was cheap and easy to get to (my return flight was £30 and flying time was about 3 hours non-stop from the UK), cheap once I was there, safe, and I enjoyed great weather (sunny and warm during the day, cool in the evenings).

A bit about Bulgaria

There was also a surprising amount of interesting history and culture to see and explore. Bulgaria is bested only by Greece and Italy when it comes to the number of important archaeological sites. It is a proud city that has been sculpted over more than two millennia by Thracian, Roman, Ottoman and Russian influences. I spoke a bit in my last post about all the different names and identities Plovidv had held over the years. Well, Bulgaria has always been called Bulgaria, since 681 AD.

I was fascinated to learn about the last king of Bulgaria, Simeon II. His father (Boris III) is rumoured to have been assassinated by Hitler in 1943, as he died shortly after Hitler visited to discuss the Bulgarian refusal to deport their Jewish population… suspicious. The rest of the royal family fled to Spain, where they stayed until the late 1990s. Simeon then returned to Bulgaria and was voted their Prime Minister in 2001!

Also, interestingly, Bulgarians are proud to claim the origin of the Cyrillic alphabet. I’ve included some place names in Cyrillic in this post, and I enjoyed learning a bit of the alphabet while I was there, but it’s easy enough to get by without a single word of Bulgarian or Cyrillic.

However, if you want to be polite, the Bulgarian for thank you is ‘blah-goh-DAH-ryah’, which is a bit of a mouthful, but fortunately everyone seemed to just use the French ‘merci’.

Good morning is  ‘dobar den’ (same as Croatia I exclaim in my ignorance! And probably many other countries, too), and I found myself using it at any time of the day, so that was easy (or, easier than ‘hello’ which was ‘zdrah-VEY-the’ and I just couldn’t manage to pronounce it).

So what’s the low-down on Sofia?

Where to stay and getting around

I stayed in a 4-star hotel (! This is a big deal for me as I’m normally constrained to hostels and AirBnB due to price) in the centre of the city. Getting there was super easy as it’s a direct line to Serdika metro station from the airport – it took only 20 minutes and cost 1.60 leva (less than £1).

Important note: If you need to get to/from the airport at an unsociable hour, taxis are reasonably priced. But. There are some dodgy taxi operators in Sofia. OK Supertrans AD come recommended as a trustworthy operator, and you can book them in advance.

What can you see?

Staying near Serdika station in the centre of Sofia was a good call as everything is clustered around this area and in easy walking distance. I didn’t even know how good my choice was until I arrived and could look out my window and see the lovely Central Mineral Baths. Hot springs pop up all over the city and you will see people drinking from them or bathing their hands and faces.

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Happy in the sun out the front of the mineral bath house.

Walking south from there you will see a constant stream of beautiful buildings, all set against the picturesque backdrop of trams and distant mountains.

Serdika station is built around some (actually, lots of) uncovered Roman ruins and the medieval Church of St. Petka of the Saddlers (Църква Света Петка Самарджийска).

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St Petka church

Look up to see the Statue of Sveta Sofia (Статуя на Света София), the patron of the city. She was erected in 2000 on a spot once occupied by a statue of Lenin. An owl – representing wisdom – is perched on her outstretched arm

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Sveta Sofia

Continue down the road to see another medieval church St. Nedelya Church (Църква Света Неделя), apparently the resting place of Serbian king Stefan Milutin. I enjoyed Sveta Nedelya Square, where you can see side by side an Orthodox Church, an Islamic Mosque, a Jewish Synagogue and a Catholic Church, which is a great symbol of the long and varied history of Bulgaria and their commitment to embracing diversity while maintaining their own culture and identity.

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Keep walking towards the mountains and you will come to pedestrianised Vitosha Street, which is pleasant to stroll along with plenty of cafés, ice-creameries, and retail shops.

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Bustling Vitosha street

At the southern end of Vitosha Street is a patch of parkland dominated by the rather unsightly National Palace of Culture.

A little further out, and in a slightly different direction, there are more sights to see. If walking, you would have to partly retrace your steps (as always, I rely on Google Maps to find my way around – for free using GPS – just download the area map to your phone over Wi-Fi).

St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (Храм-паметник Свети Александър Невски) is one of the main sights of the city and one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world.

The cathedral is devoted to Russian soldiers who gave their lives during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. Saint Alexander Nevsky was a 13th century Russian prince.

Ivan Vazov National Theatre (Народен театър Иван Вазов) is a beautiful old building with a nice park in front of it and a quirky little book shop in a glass silo.

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The national theatre

The below Church of St. George (Ротонда Свети Георги) was built by the Romans in the 4th century as a pagan temple. Now it’s  hidden between a government building and Sheraton Hotel, in the middle of a courtyard. I stumbled upon quite by accident and it really brought a smile to my face.

If you aren’t churched out by this time, Boyana Church, on the outskirts of Sofia, is also nice. It is a World Heritage site and has murals inside dating back to 1259.

Getting there is a bus and metro sort of palaver, but a taxi is only about £5 so that can save you some hassle.

Entry to the church is £5.

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