A Weekend in Sofia
Between Moussaka, Fur Coats and Cyrillic letters
Yes, there is a place in Europe, where you can find a traces of a multi religious past, a church, a mosque and a synagogue within a few meters walk – all old and impressive. Where you can eat a plate of Moussaka for lunch for 1,50 Euros (2,90 Lev). Where women are wearing fur coats to resist the cold and where some bus drivers still smoke behind the wheel. Traveling to Sofia for a weekend can be very interesting. In winter or in summer, Sofia is one of the European capitals, that might surprise and impress you at the same time. But keep in mind: Bulgaria is also one of the poorest countries in Europe. The contrast is visible between the tourist city center of Sofia and some remote towns with run down buildings in the countryside. Already on a weekend in Sofia, you will get a good impression. While traveling in Bulgaria, Sofia is at least woth a stopover.
Don’t expect to find in Sofia anything like the Paris’ Louvre, London’ nightlife or the Rome’s historical treasures. Visiting Sofia is more about discovering a different world while meeting people, walking around, checking out the shops, markets, food, diverse impressive religious sights and the lifestyle. Sofia is a perfect destination for a long weekend trip for budget travelers or a stopover while traveling around Bulgaria. And there are a lot of free things to do in Sofia.
Even in winter, sightseeing at temperatures of minus 10 °C with piles of snow next to the pedestrian walkways can be fun in Sofia. I was there in January 2017. Probably it makes the experience even more unique to visit Sofia in winter. Especially, because winter sport fans have the opportunity of skiing close to Sofia. And on a trip to the famous Rila Monastery, you don’t need to rub shoulders with hundreds of fellow travelers.
Food, public transport and hotels are cheap in Sofia
The great thing about traveling to Sofia is: It’s still cheap in comparison to western European capitals. Hostel beds in dormitories are available for 7 Euros per night. Budget hotels start around 20 Euros per room, if you find good deals at hotel booking websites. A metro ticket for a single ride is 0,80 Euros (1,60 Lew).
If you are hungry while sightseeing, grab a big piece of takeaway pizza. Just a few streets away from the main tourist attractions, I saw prices starting at 0,50 Euros (1 Lew), got a takeaway coffee for 0,20 Euros (0,40 Lew) and had a big beer for 1,30 Euros (2,60 Lew). But even in the city center, you can have a huge restaurant dinner in a kind of tourist trap for two people including starters and drinks for 20 Euros (40 Lew).
Sofia airport: Metro takes half an hour to the city
We arrived on a Saturday night at the airport. Luckily, the metro from airport terminal 2 is running from 5.30 am till midnight. For 0,80 Euros (1,60 Lew), you can catch the metro directly from the airport of Sofia to the city center. The ticket machine accepts cash and credit cards. So don’t worry, if the ATM at the airport just gives you big notes. Your credit card will save you.
It takes less than half an hour from the airport to get to Sofia. The public bus line 84 runs from and to terminal 1 and terminal 2. It was easier than we thought to get to the city center.
- Read details about airport transportation on the Sofia Airport website here.
Sleepy Sofia: Empty streets on a Saturday Night
When we got off the metro at Serdika Metro station right in the heart of the city around 11.30 pm on a Saturday night, we expected to arrive in a lively environment with bars and restaurant open. But no. We had been almost the only passengers in the metro train. And when we got off Serdika Metro station, there was basically no one around, nothing open. We didn’t even see the impressive Statue of Sveta Sofia on a 12 meters high pedestal, that we walked by in the dark.
On a Saturday night in winter, there were almost no cars on the streets. And no one to ask for directions. Luckily, we had booked a hotel online in advance and had a mobile phone to check for directions. It was extremely cold with minus 12 °C. There was snow around, the pedestrian walkways very slippery. But luckily, our hotel was in a very central location.
Stivan Iskar Hotel: Leaking toilet, but perfect location
We had chosen the Stivan Iskar Hotel, which had gotten alright recommendations by Tripadvisor. When we wanted to make a booking for our weekend in Sofia a few days before our arrival, all the double rooms of popular hostels like Hostel Mostel had already been fully booked. There are not countless hostels and budget hotels in Sofia. That is why it probably makes sense to check the situation a few days before your arrival there.
We checked in to the Stivan Iskar family hotel in Iskar Street in Sofia. Well, it was more like a guesthouse. The room price was around 30 Euros per night (59 Lew) for a room with two beds and a bathroom inside. The lady at the reception gave us a welcoming smile. The room was super clean and nicely set up. The heater was working well. And after a while, we also got used to the old TV with blurry pictures, the slight smell of smoke and that the toilet in our room was leaking a bit after each use.
We basically just stayed Stivan Iskar family hotel to sleep. And exactly for that purpose, the hotel offers a good deal in a very central location. It is not the place, where travelers socialize. Also don’t expect great advise about sightseeing or bus timetable to travel to other destinations in Bulgaria. But you will get a map, when you ask. And with that, you are able to find the tourist information.
Discovering Sofia: The tourist information helps
The tourist information offices are helpful for every traveler in Sofia. There is one open even at weekends. But the main tourist offices are open Mondays to Fridays.
- The info point in the glass pavilion in the City Garden on Knyaz Alexander Street is luckily open from Monday to Sunday from 10 am to 8 pm.
- The Largo Tourist Information Centre, underpass entrance metro station Serdika is open Mondays to Fridays 9.30 am to 6.30 pm
- The Tourist Information, underpass entrance metro station St. Kliment Ohridski University is open Mondays o Fridays, 9.30 am to 6pm.
Nightlife in Sofia: Good vibes at Mc Carthy’s pub
After the hotel check in, we still wanted to go out. It was around midnight. A perfect time in many European citys to start discovering the nightlife. But finding an open bar in Sofia at that time ended up to be an adventure trip around the city center. Many places were already closed or about to close. We didn’t feel like following the cheesy disco sounds of the clubs in Marija Luisa Street or visiting one of the strip bars, that are spread across Sofia.
We found some cafés and bars in the main shopping street, Vitosha street. And finally the really cool Irish pub “Mc Carthy” hidden in Alabin Street (ul. “Alabin I. Vl.” 29 ) opposite Mc Donald’s and the “Internet Hostel”. A local guy recommended the place to us. There are some stairs leading up to Guinness and Kilkenny beers and a cozy atmosphere. No sign outside. But inside the bar, international guests shared the karaoke stage, smiles and stories. Sometimes, they have live music. It was fun to be there spontaneously. But the prices were almost the same than in western European capitals. For cheap drinks, go elsewhere.
Pub Crawl every night at 9 pm: Discover hidden bars
But I’m sure, that Sofia has more to offer than Irish pubs as for example bars like “A:part:mental”. Moreover, there is a pub crawl starting every night at 9 pm. You can show up at the starting point at Park Crystal. They promise to show you Sofia’s hidden bars and cool nightlife. You pay 10 Euros (20 Lew) and get a few free drinks. Get more information about the pub crawl here.
Churches of Sofia: It’s getting holy holy holy
The best way to discover Sofia is to walk. Walk, walk, walk and you will find interesting monuments, parks, markets, funny shops and a few impressive religious treasures. You cannot miss the prime sight St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Some visitors describe their impressions about the church on Tripsadvisor. It’s free to get into the Orthodox Church. Whoever hasn’t had enough of religious paintings and icons might find some little souvenirs on the market next to the church.
Fairy tale like impressions offers the Russian Church. It is officially known as the Church of St Nicholas the Miracle-Maker and is located just a few meters away. The entrance is also free. Yes, it is very holy everywhere.
Make sure to behave in Sofia’s holy places
Think about your head! But make sure, that you know, how to behave. When we entered a tiny old chapel just hidden at the metro station Serdika, a lady told my brother off to take of his beanie. “It’s a church”, she said strictly looking at us like we were complete jerks, while we were looking at all the souvenirs, that were being sold there.
I’m very sure, that God doesn’t mind too much the outward appearance of the inexperienced. But the locals clearly do. The funny thing is, that obviously God wants guys to put on their huts a few meters further in the Synagogue. And women again have to cover their heads inside the Mosque.
Security check at the Synagogue of Sofia
The Synagogue of Sofia are also waiting for visitors. I found it very interesting to see the Synagogue from the inside. Basically, because I have never seen one, which was built before World War II. It’s open for visitors from 9am to 5 pm and costs 1 Euro (2 Lew) per person. They also have a museum. Be aware, that the security guy is checking your bag.
The Synagogue is painted with just beautiful colors. I also found it very practical thinking, that they have changed all the candles into energy-saving lightbulbs in there. It doesn’t take long to look around. But it is really worth to check it out and to get a feeling for religious diversity in Sofia.
The Banya Bashi Mosque in Sofia
The Banya Bashi Mosque in Sofia can be visited by men and women. Adults pay 2 Euros (4 Lew) to get in. It’s open from 10 am to 8 pm from March to October and from 10 am to 6 pm from November to February.
Traces of the political past of Sofia? Not in museums!
Many European countries and citys are earning money from tourists with presenting their political past in museums, exhibitions, former homes of dictators, former prisons or parliament buildings. Especially the eastern European countries usually have a lot to offer in terms of after World War II history and crazy communist dictators.
Apart from the Museum of Socialist Art, we were not able to find museums or exhibitions in Sofia, that deal with the political past of the country after 1940. That was a little disappointing. Even the National History Museum doesn’t show anything about the younger history.
Sofia: Communist past and capitalistic present
Still, by walking around the city center of Sofia, you can feel the clashes between the communist past and the capitalistic present. The “Monument to the Soviet Army” meets art meets shopping malls. You find old public phones, walls full of graffitis, market stalls selling everything from sanitary goods to souvenirs. You find trams, that look like the old ones from the East German city of Leipzig.
You find shops selling fur coats. You find shopping malls full of western brands. You find too many Mc Donald’s restaurants. You find big holes in pedestrian walkways next to stylish bars. You find massive dish antennas on balconies.
You find peace at the Borisova gradina or Knyaz-Borisova gradina translated as Boris’ Garden or Knyaz Boris’ Garden. You find cheap Bulgarian cigarettes. And you find many people speaking English quite well.
Art and History Museums in Sofia: Don’t miss free days
Apart from the political history, there are still a lot of things, that the museums in Sofia have to offer. With a bit of luck, you get in for free. Be in the right place at the right time!
- National History Museum: Free entrance: For all visitors – every last Monday of the month
- City Art Gallery: Thursday – free day
- National Gallery: Find prices, addresses and opening times of other art museums in Sofia, including the Museum of Socialist Art, which is located outside the city center.
“Free” tours around Sofia: Hiking to Boyana Church
- To get an overview about Sofia, you can also take part in a “free” Walking Tour based on your tips for the guide.
- Or from April to November a “free” hiking tour to Boyana Church, to the beautiful Boyana waterfall and Boyana lake based on your “tips“ for the guide. But be aware: There are optional costs involved for a taxi back to Sofia and entrance fees.
From Sofia to the Rila Monastery by bus
If you have a spare day to spend in Sofia, a trip to the Rila Monastery is a must. The Rila Monastery is regarded as one of Bulgaria’s most important cultural, historical and architectural monuments and is a key tourist attraction for Bulgaria. That means: Usually, you won’t be alone in the Rila Monastery. The entrance to the Rila Monastery and the church is free. But there are entrance fees to visit the museums inside the Monastery.
The Rila Monastery is located in 1147 meters altitude in the middle of the forests of Rila Mountain and is listed as Unesco World Heritage. By bus from , it takes around two hours from Sofia to get there. The bus leaves once every day at 10.20 am from the West bus station (Ovcha Kupel), 4km southwest of the centre, but reachable by tram from the city center. The bus returns at 3 pm from the Rila Monastery to Sofia. The return ticket is 11 Euros (22 Lew). When we got of the public bus from Sofia to the Rila Monastery directly in front of the monastery, the sky was fresh and blue. The view on snowy peaks behind the Rila Monastery were amazing. The colors of the Rila Monastery were impressive. Inside and outside. I wasn’t able to stop watching.
As we were there in January, there were no hordes of tourists around, which made it a quiet place. Although it was freezing cold, I was happy not to meet the hundreds of visitors, who are supposed to get there every day in summer.
Rila Monastery: Nothing open in winter
The downside was, that inside the Rila Monastery walls, there was almost nothing open apart from the Church History Museum. If you are not the most spiritual person, yo might be able to resist to get in. I would have liked to take part in a tour, to know more of daily life in a Monastery, to see the kitchen or to get a view from the top.
But no. The only thing, which was open in January next to the Church History Museum was the public toilet, a few souvenir shops at the back entrance of the Monastery and a restaurant. Moreover, there was no one around speaking English, not even in the museum.
We were not able to get any information about what to see or to do there exactly. We arrived at 1pm and had two hours to spend there. The public bus was leaving again at 3 pm. So, we had a lot of time to watch the Monastery from the inside and outside and enjoy the spirit of the environment. Even the view tower, which you can usually climb for 2,5 Euros (5 Lew) was unfortunately closed.
To Rila Monastery from the bus station in Sofia
Getting to Rila Monastery by public bus is easy. The bus leaves every day at 10.20 am from the West bus station (Ovcha Kupel), 4km southwest of the centre. The bus returns at 3 pm from the Rila Monastery to Sofia. The return ticket is 11 Euros (22 Lew). The bus is easy to recognize. It’s called “Rila Express”. If you don’t see it, just stand around in time at the bus station and look like a stupid tourist. The bus driver will find you. Everyone seems to smell, where you want to go and tries to help you. It is really impressive.
You can get to the bus station from the city center with tram lines 4 or 5. Tram number 5 leaves from the City center every few minutes behind the Palace of Justice. You can buy tickets for the tram for example directly at one of the small ticket kiosks at the starting point of tram line 5 in the city center.
The Rila Monastery is not in walking distance from Sofia as some people discuss in travel blogs. By road, it’s 120 kilometers away from Sofia. It would be a long hike to get there.
The bus ride was very comfortable. While the bus driver was listening to songs of Abba, Celine Dion and Elton John, he switched on the heater to comfortable 30°C and scrolled down the window a few times to smoke cigarettes. I guess, that this is part of the experience.
Begging children in front of public toilets
You don’t see a lot of beggars or homeless people on the winter streets of Sofia city center. But there was one incident happening to us in Rila, that made me thinking. On the way to Rila Monastery, we stopped for half an hour at the bus station in Rila. Enough time to use the public toilet. I already saw the little boy coming. His pants were full of holes. And he was tough enough to ask every tourist in a self-confident way for money. He wanted 1 Euro (2 Lew) for the use of the toilet. A lot.
There was this child, that should have been at school on a Monday morning. And a totally frozen public toilet, that he surely was not in charge of. What is the right thing to do in these moments? Ignore? Give money? Does anything make a change? That is the only thing, what I hate about traveling: Feeling sometimes helpless, feeling stupid and knowing, that there is no quick “right” solution of how to help or behave in a good way.
It’s especially the Roma people, that don’t have a place to fit in in Bulgaria. The travel blog Yomadic gives inside views of how the Roma live in ghettos. Read the article “The Largest Gypsy Ghetto in Europe – Stolipinovo, Bulgaria”.
- Read about national integration of Roma people on the website of the European Commission. “Bulgaria’s National Roma Integration Strategy”.
About malls and markets in Sofia:
A popular one is Zhenski Pazar Women’s Market
There is no shortage of shops in Sofia. Whatever you need, you will get it: Underwear, a new shower, fruits or half a pig. The best way not to waste money is going to the open air Zhenski Pazar Women’s Market on Stefan Stambolov Street and the surrounding shops. Here you get everything from souvenirs to household goods. Low budget. Bulgarian brands. And the fattest and cheapest tomatoes, that I have seen during the winter in Europe.
The market is not very big, but it’s also a place for a cheap coffee, snack or lunch in one of the eateries around. Get a plate of vegetarian Moussaka for 1,50 Euros (2,90 Lew). The market is busy, the atmosphere lively. This is one of the places, where the locals really shop.
Malls and markets in Sofia: Central Market Hall
In the Central Market Hall on Marija Luisa Street, you can buy bakery goods, fish, meat and soap without freezing your ass off. It’s nicely heated. In the middle of the action, there is a café. And in the basement, you find a cheap eatery.
Malls and markets in Sofia: Shopping in Vitosha Street
The main shopping street in Sofia is Vitosha Street. You find big chains like H&M, restaurants, book shops and a lot of clothes shops. The shops were not very crowded. It wasn’t busy at all in comparison to the open air market. But probably minus degrees in January don’t necessarily raise the shopping fever.
Malls and markets in Sofia: Shopping center TZUM
There is also a number of shopping malls in the city center. My travel guidebook recommended a visit of the upmarket TZUM-Sofia, the central Department Store. But it is nothing against the hundreds of people walking into the modern Mall of Sofia.
Poverty in Bulgaria
Many people are far away from shopping in modern Malls. Read, how Bulgarian’s pensioners live of 165 Euros every month. That’s the average pension in Bulgaria, the EU’s poorest country. Get more information in the article “Waving off poverty in Bulgaria” by DW-“Deutsche Welle”.
According to a report of the media enterprise Bertelsmann, one-third of the Bulgarians have no resources to cover basic needs, necessary for normal life.
Read more in te article “High Risk of Poverty or Social Exclusion for People in Bulgaria – Report” of a Sofia News Agency.
Food in Sofia: Pizza, national cuisine and live folklore music
As a traveler, you don’t have to worry about loosing weight in Sofia. There are a lot of restaurants around, pizza take aways, cafés with lovely cakes and international fast food chains. They might not all be open for lunch on a Sunday. But any other time, you will be fine. The portions in the local restaurants are usually big. And especially outside the city center, you get really good deals. You just have to know, where to go – and be brave enough to enter a restaurant with just a Cyrillic menu.
Really famous among tourists is a restaurant called Hadji Draganovite Izbi, which offers Bulgarian national cuisine and live folklore music. The restaurant is located in 18, Hristo Belchev street, parallel to Vitosha Boulevard in the city center. It feels a little bit like a tourist trap. But at the same time, it is fun to go there. The restaurant is decorated in a very folkloristic style. The portions are really massive. You can easily share a main dish and order a starter or side. Also the salads are huge. If you consider that before ordering, the prices are not as bad. We had no clue. With the food, that we ordered for two people, we could have fed a family. Anyway, yo get good value for money. The atmosphere is lively and relaxed. You can expect Bulgarian folkloristic live music, although the musicians didn’t show up, when we were there. But the staff really happy to help you finding the right dish.
For snacks in between try the takeaway pizza slices, that are sold everywhere. You get them for 0,50 Euros (1 Lev) to 1,50 Euros (3 Lev) in vegetarian and non-vegetarian versions. Bakeries are also good options for sweet and salty snacks for example with chocolate or cheese.
A nice place for lunch is the Supa Bar. It is located at the corner of Ulitsa Ekzarh Yosif and Ulitsa Serdica. You can get fresh soups with fish, meat or vegetarian versions with bread for around 2 Euros (4 Lew) in a very stylish environment.
Sofia for vegetarians and vegans: It’s manageable
In general, vegetarians won’t have big problems to become happy in Sofia. Dishes like the famous Shopska salad are available in almost every restaurant. In many places, there are vegetarian versions of Moussaka and Pizza available and many more Bulgarian specialities. For vegans, it might be a little bit more of a challenge. Find advise here.
Metro in Sofia: A cheap way to get around
There are two metro lines in Sofia. A ticket costs 0,80 Euros (1,60 Lew). Better don’t buy any single tickets in advance. The ticket is valid to travel in the metro within 30 minutes from the issue hour. And buy the ticket at the entrance, where you want to use the metro. We were not able use a ticket, that we had bought at the metro entrance Serdika 1 to get into the metro entrance Serdika 2. To get around in the city center or do a little sightseeing on tracks and wheels, there are also trams and buses.
In total about Sofia: None of my favorite European capitals, but the time there was great
I have enjoyed my short stay for a long weekend in Sofia a lot. I felt, that almost 4 days were enough to get a good impression and a feeling for the atmosphere in Sofia, to see the most important sights and to visit the Rila Monastery. It’s a perfect place for budget travelers. The food is very good, hotels cheap. I experienced the people being very helpful.
Many people in Sofia speak at least some basic English. It’s not a problem at all to make yourself understood. If you speak Russian or Polish, it might be even better as the languages have some similarities. Learning Cyrillic letters is not a big deal. Give yourself one or two hours and you will be fine. But especially in Sofia, all the street signs, metro stops and most shop names and other descriptions will have a Latin version.
Many restaurants offer menus in English. Sofia is a fun place to walk around, check out the shops and churches. And it worth a trip all year round. Don’t let low temperatures in winter put you off.
In total, for me, Sofia didn’t make it to the list of my favorite European capitals. It was very interesting to see it. And I don’t want to miss the experience. But as long as I don’t have any friends there, I don’t feel the urge to return. But I clearly want to return to Bulgaria to see more of the countryside, the sea and the mountains. I got the feeling, that it is not so much about the capital, but that Bulgaria is a country, that has a lot to offer.