When I tell my friends or other travelers about my trip to Sofia I always hear the same things: “How was it there”, “Why did you go to Bulgaria?”, “I never thought about visiting Sofia!” And I can really understand that because I never thought about visiting Sofia or even Bulgaria before I booked my own trip. So why did I go there? Well, I found an amazing offer with one of my tricks to find cheap flights and just went for it. What I can tell you now is: This was an excellent decision and I definitely plan to visit Sofia again in the future, because I couldn’t manage to tick off all the fun things to do in Sofia. In this guide, I will tell you everything you need to know when visiting Bulgaria’s capital and the best things to do in Sofia. No matter if you’re working on your Bulgaria Itinerary or just want some inspiration: You’re right here. But before I start with my Sofia Guide, here are…
10 fun facts about Sofia
- With 550 meters above sea level, Sofia is the fourth-highest capital city in Europe.
- Sredets, Tradiatsa, Sofia – the name of Bulgaria’s capital changed several times during history.
- In the city center of Sofia, you can find a Church, Mosque and a Synagogue in walking distance. It showcases the religious tolerance of the city.
- It took over 30 years to build the first subway station in Sofia because they found too many archaeological sites and even thermal water during the time of construction.
- Bulgarian yogurt is a trademark of the country and according to Bulgarians, makes you live longer.
- Sofia is built on top of Roman ruins, which can be seen throughout the city.
- Despite being allies with the Germans in WWII Bulgaria saved 48’000 of its Jewish citizens.
- In 1879 Sofia became Bulgaria’s capital after a voting – with a difference of only two votes.
- Sofia is famous for its yellow brick roads, which were produced over 100 years ago.
- Many foreigners mispronounce Sofia, which is correctly pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable.
13 things to do in Sofia, Bulgaria
1: City center
I know that this sounds quite general, but I’m totally serious about it. The city center of Sofia is just extremely beautiful and has a lot to offer. There are several buildings from different times of history, various religions and style of architecture that are already worth a visit. When you are in Sofia’s city center you can visit the following famous landmarks within walking distance:
- Ivan Vazov National Theater
- St. Alexander Nevski Cathedral
- St. George Rotunda
- St. Sofia Church
- Central Mineral Baths
- Banya Bashi Mosque
- St. Nedelya Church
This sounds like a lot – well it is! Sofia is a city full of history and the location it stands today was massively influenced by the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire and later from the Russian communist era. When you stroll through the city center of Sofia you can almost feel the power and importance of all those influences. To me, Sofia’s city center is an extremely interesting place. The one building that stood out for me was the Alexander Nevski Cathedral, which is not only the second tallest cathedral of the Balkans but also absolutely beautiful – from the inside and outside. It was my favorite photography spot in whole of Sofia. If you love to hear some more background and historical information about all the places listed above I recommend doing one of the many tours available in Sofia. You can read more about them on point 7. And now I will let a picture speak for Sofia’s city center:
2: Vitosha Boulevard
The Vitosha Boulevard is the main commercial street in Sofia which is the location of many posh stores, bars, and restaurants. It extends from the St.Nedelya Square to the Southern Park and is therefore perfect to add to your stroll through the city center. Vitosha Boulevard is considered to be a must-have for every Sofia itinerary – and I agree with that. The street is named after Vitosha Mountain, which is nearby Sofia. If the weather conditions are good you can see the mountain peak while walking on the fanciest street of Bulgaria. Vitosha Boulevard is by far not the best place to eat or drink in Sofia, as there are plenty of cheaper and better options around, but it’s already worth a visit just for the vibes of the Boulevard.
3: Boyana Church
Another church made it to the list! But the Boyana Church is a special church and located a 20-minutes car ride away from the city center. The medieval Bulgarian Orthodox church is part of the UNESCO World Heritage List and was built in three stages from the 10th to the 19th century. In the 13th century, the beautiful interior paintings were made, which make the Boyana Church so special and interesting for visitors. Some researcher even called the Boyana church a predecessor of the Renaissance. Nearby the beautiful church you can also find the Boyana waterfall, which can be added to your stop. The Boyana Church is definitely one of the best places in Sofia.
Distributed over the whole Sofia you can find almost 30 different museums. As I already mentioned the city is full of history and this also reflects in its museums. This can be quite overwhelming – especially if you only stay in Sofia for a couple of days. These are some of the best museums in Sofia:
- National History Museum
- National Museum of Natural History
- “Earth and Man” National Museum
- Sofia History Museum
- National Archaeology Museum
The History Museum is the biggest museum in Bulgaria and especially interesting if you want to know everything about the past of the country and Sofia itself. Together with the Sofia History Museum, you will be totally covered if this is what you are looking for. A more special Museum in Sofia is the “Earth and Man” National Museum, which is a place for one of the biggest collections of minerals of the world. Moreover, the National Archaeology Museum is one of the most interesting in Europe and unveils the past of the country piece by piece. In Sofia, you can basically find a museum for every taste.
5: Vitosha Mountain
The Vitosha Mountain is not only a symbol of Sofia but also the closest site for skiing and hiking. Vitosha also includes the oldest national park in the Balkans which is famous for its big diversity of birds. With its maximum elevation of over 2’200 meters, the Vitosha Mountain is a perfect location for all times of the year. Whereas you can try to ski there in Winter, many remote routes for hikers are available during the rest of the year. Because of that, Vitosha Mountain is definitely one of the best things to do in Sofia. Getting there can be quite a challenge though, as the public transportation (buses) doesn’t run every day and time of the year, however, it is of course possible. You can find more information on how to get there right here.
If you don’t plan to spend too much time about planning your route to the Vitosha Mountain you can also book one of the many tours that will bring you there for a fair price.
6: Borisova Gradina
If you are looking for a place to relax a bit Borisova Gradina is your choice! Built in the 19th century after the Bulgarian Revival Borisova Gradina is the oldest park in whole Sofia. It was developed by three different designers from Switzerland, Alsace, and Bulgaria. The park is a perfect location to stroll around or just have a great time with friends. Especially if you don’t just stay in Sofia for a weekend this park should be on your Sofia itinerary. During summertime, there are also free concerts that make the whole atmosphere even more special.
Fortunately for every traveler, there are many tour operators in Sofia. Some of them offer free tours, which is a great offer. However, it is not really “free” in my opinion. I already did two of these tours in Sofia and Venice and you tip “what you think it was worth” after the tour. Nevertheless, this is a great opportunity to avoid flops and get an amazing tour from a motivated guide. Because if his performance is bad he will receive less money. Here are some tours in Sofia that I found on the internet or did when I was in Bulgaria:
Free Sofia Tour
To participate in the Free Sofia Tour was probably the best decision while staying in Sofia. While walking through the historical city center our guide explained us everything perfectly and gave us a lot amazing background information, as well as funny stories behind some decisions of the Bulgarian government. The tours are mostly held by local students and I really enjoyed it.
When: Every day (April-November: 10 AM, 11 AM, 6 PM | November-March: 11 AM, 6 PM)
Meeting point: Palace of Justice, no registration required
Costs: Free (Tips at the end)
Sofia Green Tour
This tour operator offers different tours that are perfect for travelers that are looking for some adventures. The organization is living only by donations and sponsorship. The tours are free and led by volunteer guides. The selection is big and you can join them for hikes, bike tours, winter adventures or a Vitosha sunset tour.
I personally didn’t have the time to try one of their tours, however, they all sound amazing. You can find all their tours and more information on their website.
Balkan Bites: Free food tour
This was the second tour I made in Sofia and it was also a good experience. I had some wrong expectations though, that shouldn’t happen to you. The Balkan Bites Food Tour will take you to different local restaurants to try some of the most famous dishes of Bulgarian cuisine. The food is somewhat similar to the Turkish cuisine I tried in Istanbul but also really tasty. On every stop, you will get a small sample to try and your guide will tell you background information about the Bulgarian cuisines and history. Don’t go to this tour with an empty stomach though. I thought we will eat a lot and was almost starving at the end. Of course this was not the mistake of the tour because you can’t expect big dishes from a free tour, however, it is something you should now. After you tried all the different places you can just go back to your favorite restaurant and enjoy an amazing Bulgarian dish.
When: Every day at 2 PM (not on national holidays)
Meeting point: Park Crystal, registration recommended
Costs: Free (Tips at the end)
You can find them in almost every city: The Pub Crawls. Also in Sofia! The interesting part of the Sofia Pub Crawl is, that you will hear some funny anecdotes about all of the places you will have a drink. In the end, you will get a free entrance to a nightclub.
When: Every day at 9 PM
Meeting point: Park Crystal
Costs: 20 Bulgarian Lev
Sightseeing Running Tours
The guys from Sofia Run are offering Sightseeing Running on different routes throughout the city. A professional running guide will pick you up at your hotel and set the pace according to your level. On the way, your guide will tell you interesting facts about the landmarks. Definitely, a unique way to explore a city.
When: Only on request
Costs: 10-80 Bulgarian Lev
Free Communist Trabant tour
The object of this tour is to take you back in time to the communist times of Bulgaria. You will get to know how it felt to live in the communist era and showcase the challenges that people had to face. The Communist Trabant tour is therefore perfect for everybody that is interested in this time of Bulgarian history. They also offer private guided tours.
When: Saturday & Sunday at 10 AM
Meeting point: Next to National Palace of Culture
Costs: Free (Tips at the end)
8: Street Art
One of the things to see in Sofia are the different pieces of street art that can be found spread over the whole city. The Tsar Ivan Shishman Street is a perfect place to see some of them, including spectacular paste-ups. You can also book a Graffiti Tour, in which an experienced guide will show you the best graffitis and even tell you information about the street art scene in Sofia. Sometimes Sofia is even called the “Berlin” of the Balkans, due to its huge variety of graffitis.
Sofia is well-known for its vibrant nightlife – no matter if you choose to spend your time in a bar or a nightclub. The possibilities are almost endless and the best thing: Sofia is one of the cheapest cities to go out in Europe. All the locals I met recommended staying in the “One More Bar”, which I really enjoyed. Let me know if you have more specific recommendations and I will happily add them to my list.
10: Lake Pancharevo
This artificial lake is located 12 kilometers southeast of the city center and one of the favorite locations for locals to do a weekend trip. The location between the Lozen and Vitosha mountains offers beautiful sceneries and landscapes. Not only is it a perfect place for watersports like swimming in summer, but also a great place to fish or take pictures. Lake Pancharevo is a great thing to do in Sofia, especially during summer time. It is easily accessible by bus from the Tsarigradsko Shose metro station with the lines 1 or 3.
11: Snail House
A snail house? I thought the same – what the hell? You can find this building in the Simeonovo neighborhood. And you will find a gigantic and colorful snail house. Sounds crazy, it is crazy! The house was planned meticulously by its architect Simeon Simeonov and is everything but not conventional. You should check out this fun and kind of weird building if you have some time left when staying in Sofia. For more information about it check out this article.
12: Monument to the Soviet Army
This monument was built in 1954 to honor the Soviet soldiers who left their lives during World War II. Nowadays, the monument has become a popular place for both vandalism and protests. For that, they turned its figures into pop culture icons. In 2011 all the figures were painted to look like Ronald McDonalds, Santa Claus, Superman or Wonderwoman. Since then, this became a huge trend and the design of the figures changes from time to time. The vandalism led to attention from not only the Bulgarian but also the Russian government. The figures are currently (March 2018) blank, however, this can change at any time.
13: Day trips
Sofia is also a perfect starting point for several day trips you can do. I did two of them on my own and can highly recommend doing so. Bulgaria has some outstanding places full of history and breathtaking wonders of nature to offer. Here is a list of places that you can visit in just one day from Sofia:
You might ask your self which tour is the best for you. And I can help you out: When you’re interested in history and culture there is no way you can pass on Plovdiv, which is one of the oldest cities in Europe. If you’re a photographer you have to see the Belogradchick Rocks and Veliko Tarnovo, as both of them offer incredible views and amazing possibilities to take scenic images. The Seven Rila Lake is a great choice for the warmer month as it is a perfect location for hikes to enjoy the nature. In winter it is not always accessible due to snow.
Accommodation in Sofia
The good thing first: Accommodation in Sofia, and in Bulgaria in general, is extremely cheap compared to other European countries. You can get a luxurious stay with a spa for a reasonable price or even book a place for less than 10$/night. I listed you three options that should cover all different kind of traveler type:
Canape Connection Guest House
This is the place I stayed and I was absolutely satisfied. It is not a hotel but also not a hostel – at least kind of. You can book double rooms with amazing beds and in summer you can use the shared community space in the courtyard. What I liked the most though was the perfect location in the city center. All the famous landmarks were easily reachable within walking distance. I also got some amazing advice from the friendly staff. A place I would definitely choose again if I go to Sofia another time.
Price: 20-30$ per night for a double room | Book here
Earth & People Hotel & Spa
One of the best-rated hotels in whole Sofia that also offers a spa area in the hotel. The rooms are modern and the location is directly in the heart of the city. If you are looking for a great value for your price – this is a place to go.
Price: 60-70$ per night for a double room | Book here
Luxurious 5-star hotel in the city center that offers amazing breakfast and everything that you could wish. Also includes an inside pool and spa area for every guest. If you’re looking for some luxury and spacy rooms during your stay this is a good choice.
Price: 120-200$ per night for a double room | Book here
If none of the places matched with your interests you can find all the available options right here. I’m sure you will find a great place to stay in Sofia, as there are so many amazing and cheap options to choose from.
Restaurants in Sofia
I’m not at all an expert when it comes to food, however, I do love to eat and tried some of the local restaurants in Sofia. It is a good idea for you to do the Balkan Bites tour (which you can find listed above) and afterward decide what you liked the most. Still, I will tell you the three restaurants which I visited and really liked. If you are looking for good food in Sofia they are a good choice:
- The Little Things (Cozy and fancy restaurant with amazing Bulgarian food and raspberry wine)
- Divaka (Incredible cheap prices, fast service, and tasty food)
- Sun Moon (Vegetarian restaurant with amazing, creative dishes. They also run a bakery and a smoothie store, which I can both recommend)
Well, that was it! I hope you enjoyed my Sofia guide and you will enjoy your own trip to Bulgaria. If you got any questions or additions feel free to comment below and I will try to help you out. For more pictures from my travels check out my Facebook or Instagram page.