At first sight Sofia – the capital of Bulgaria doesn’t look like an interesting city. The piecemeal mix of architecture and the lack of impressive tourist attractions leave many travelers disappointed. I can tell, I was one of them!
I had a chance to visit Sofia in spring 2012. It was my first time in Bulgaria and I had my hopes really high, after all I’ve heard really great things about the country. As it turned out everyone was raving about Bulgaria but not exactly about the capital.
And even if I’ve tried really hard to warm up to Sofia I just couldn’t. Back then I found the city just average yet with a really delicious food scene. And that was already the good enough reason to visit Sofia.
Over the years my interests and the choice of destinations I enjoy have changed a lot. Now, as you can very well see in here, I’m really into alternative things and post-Soviet places while Western Europe kind of bores me.
So last year, when I was planning my trip with Interrail tickets to Romania I’ve thought this might be a great chance to visit Sofia again and see if my perception of the city has changed.
And you know what? This time I really enjoyed Sofia and while everyone says that Warsaw, Ljubljana or Budapest might be the new Berlin I think Sofia can get this title! It’s just too cool and I’m surprised not many have discovered it yet!
Long history and a mix of styles in Sofia
Sofia is one of the oldest cities in Europe, founded some 2500 years ago. Thanks to its central location in the heart of the Balkans it was even briefly the capital of the Roman Empire. These days however there are only few remnants of these great times but it’s not difficult to find them right in the center of Sofia.
The oldest building in the city – Church of St. George – dates back to the 4th century and together with ruins of the Antic town Serdica now is surrounded by the buildings of Presidential Palace – a fine example of the Socialist architecture. This particular place sums up the look of Sofia very well.
It’s a total mix of styles. While other cities in the country – Veliko Tarnovo or Plovdiv – can be proud of their Bulgarian Revival buildings in Sofia it’s a little bit of everything: neorenaissance, neoclassical or Soviet architecture. And all these styles clash and eventually blend in together to create an unique place that may not appeal to many.
Things to see in Sofia
To be honest there aren’t many things to see in Sofia and all the most important attractions can be easily seen in only few hours.
The main pedestrian street – Vitosha Blvd – is a showroom of the city with fancy shops, fancy cafes and fancy people. If someone wants to be seen – this is a place to be! Nearby there are couple of nice looking buildings, like Ivan Vazov National Theatre or Public Mineral Baths.
The symbol of the city – St. Aleksander Nevsky Cathedral – looks like a big birthday cake with layers of domes and ornaments and really is the prettiest place in Sofia. But still I don’t think it will take anyone’s breath away. After I visited Sofia twice I still think the city is nice but average and there’s no way it can impress a typical tourist.
Sofia’s quirky face
But at the same time Sofia might be the quirkiest capital in Europe! Taking a parallel street from the main one can do a whole big difference.
It’s all about the details in Sofia and if you look carefully around you will see how cool it is! Street poles turned into blooming flowers, a former police post looking like a beehive, yards with some weird art installations or random mosaics on the buildings – it’s all there! You just need top keep your eyes open to find it all!
When I was wandering some random streets around Sofia I felt like a kid playing hide and seek, never knowing what I’m going to find in couple of steps! It was such a great fun!
Sofia street art
The Sofia street art scene is pretty amazing too. In the center there are only few (but still good) murals but the place is still full of great pieces around.
Almost 100 electricity boxes are covered in some of the really amazing paintings that were created during two street art festivals (the first one in 2011 with almost 30 artists was a big success and got such a positive response that a year after a second edition took place). On the walls of Sofia you can find also some cool quotes, one of which became even my cover photo on Facebook.
Of course there are some random tags around too, those that just spoil the whole look of the city, but still the Sofia street art scene was one of my favorite in the whole Balkans region!
When you visit Sofia it’s all about the soups
When I was discovering the alternative side of Sofia I wasn’t impressed only with its quirkiness and artistic vibe. I was also surprised how many cute shops there were: boutiques, book stores, even a street-art themed shop!
But the best were small food places, among them all I loved the most all the soups! I don’t remember any other city where you could find restaurants (ok, this might be too big word) that served only soups yet in Sofia I’ve seen couple of them. I’ve visited one – Supa Star – and it was the best thing I could do when it started raining!
The choice was decent – 5 soups if I remember correctly, including 2 vegetarian options; the staff was really helpful and the place was so cozy. I’ve tried a chickpea soup and tarator – a typical Bulgarian cold cucumber soup – and they were all excellent!
By the way, you should try doing tarator at home, it’s super easy and so good, especially in the summer time! I did it few times and it was always a big success!
Sofia parks with a funky background
And then there were parks. The center of Sofia have some really great green spaces (and spectacular mountains right at the outskirts) but two of them deserve more attention.
Park National Palace of Culture can be found at the end of Vitosha Blvd. It’s a pleasant place to chill out but there are two things that always interest me the most: a weird futuristic monument that I have no idea what it shows but it just looks crazy, like it’s about to collapse any minute and the National Palace of Culture – a great example of Socialist Modernism style, home to some cultural institutions.
The other park – Knyazhenska Garden – is where you will find some Soviet monuments at its best, alongside with a skate park. Funny fact – in 2011 one of the monument got painted overnight and soldiers were transformed into comic books characters.
Since then it was painted over couple more times – to commemorate the events in Ukraine or the anniversary of the Prague Spring. Take a look for more information (and pictures) here – and believe me, you want to see it!
Is it worth to visit Sofia?
This is not the city for everyone but those who visit Sofia with an open mind and a right attitude might actually enjoy it, a lot. It took me two visit, even in a crappy weather, to finally admit that yes, a city-break in Sofia is a good idea and that it’s definitely worth looking beyond main tourist attractions.
The city has this young, cosmopolitan vibe that combined with the quirkiness around makes a perfect mix. I’m sure it won’t take long for people to discover Sofia, even now it’s getting recognized by the big titles more and more often as the destination to visit before everyone else will. So don’t wait too long and visit Sofia soon!