I have to admit: when it came to Sofia, Bulgaria’s historic capital, I felt unprepared. I had no expectations; in fact, if I’m going to be totally honest, I didn’t actually expect to enjoy the city all that much.
I hadn’t even been planning to visit Sofia – I was originally planning a trip to Croatia and Montenegro, but when I found a Balkans tour that started and ended in Sofia, I ended up with an itinerary giving me several days in a city that I knew virtually nothing about.
The bus journey in from the airport did not add anything to my expectations – although the fact the bus cost a mere 80p added some bonus points to the city!
From the confines of the bus, I looked around at the Soviet-esque building blocks that made up the suburbs of the city, but occasionally they were interspersed with modern buildings that looked like they’d been plucked from any other city. This became a theme of Sofia; ugly concrete buildings next to beautiful colonial style architecture next to more modern glass towers.
The truth is, I thought most buildings were going to look like this:
The reality? That’s the only photo I have of a building like that.
And it’s not because I just didn’t take photos of them. It’s because more buildings looked like this:
I decided to get off the bus near Alexander Nevsky Cathedral so that I could check it out on my way to the hostel (ten efficiency points to Ravenclaw!).
It turned out to be a good decision – it meant that to get to my hostel, I had to walk the whole way through the city centre, so I could take pretty much everything in.
The weather was unexpectedly beautiful, which instantly lifted the whole place. I found a park, the main pedestrian shopping street and another church to come back to – and that was pretty much the rest of my day planned out.
And literally the first thing I saw when I got off the bus? A skate ramp with teenagers… next to a Soviet war memorial. At that point, I knew that Sofia was going to be a city of contrasts, but at that point, I didn’t know quite how much.
After check in, I made a bee line back to the park, to find that I’d TOTALLY missed the main attraction.
The national theatre is beautiful, and I wanted to make the most of the good weather, so I sat for a while to people-watch. A busker, an older gentleman, was setting up to play the oboe on a bench near me, and he bore a smile my way. Children were playing, old ladies were soaking up the sun, and people my age sat reading books. If this was life in Sofia, then I had vastly underestimated how great a city it is to be in.
The main shopping precinct, Vitosha Boulevard, is also unexpectedly beautiful. The clue is in the name – Vitosha is the name of the towering mountain outside Sofia, and you get a fantastic view of it from the street.
That, and it was surprisingly modern. It felt like I was in western Europe, though I was anything but. Pizza stalls were everywhere (seriously – Sofia actually has an obsession with pizza, and there are even 24 hour pizza places!). Restaurants looked like they could have been in London. There’s an H&M.
I don’t mean to follow a stereotype, but this wasn’t exactly what I expected from an ex-Soviet city. But that’s the thing – I had no idea what to expect, so all of this was a pleasant surprise.
I think what it boils down to is Sofia is far prettier than I could ever have imagined.
The architecture is nothing like I thought it would be.
Even when it was – every time I stumbled across a church (which happened A LOT), it blew me away.
And the cathedral? Absolutely STUNNING.
Sure, it’s a little rough around the edges when you get up real close, and to be honest I wasn’t enthralled by the inside (especially as you have to pay TEN LEV to take photos of the interior – that’s almost 5€!!). But it really is beautiful on the outside. The star of Sofia.
After a walk around, I traced my steps back to the park, to find myself faced with a lot of military. I immediately thought of Viktor Krum (he was Bulgarian, after all!). I was actually convinced that somebody in Harry Potter wore the same outfits as these guys, but I’m yet to find anything! If anyone knows, please comment!
They were setting up for a show; I keenly sat down nearby and made myself comfortable. Half an hour later, they still showed no signs of starting, and nobody else really seemed to be gathering apart from the occasional spouse, so I tottered off to get some food.
I never did go back, which could have been a cultural mistake. Instead, I got distracted – by more pretty buildings, of course. By the trams, which were another unexpected delight. (Who needs Lisbon?!)
By another church, which was so much prettier inside than the cathedral that I willingly paid 5 lev (£2.50) to take photos inside – before realising a ceremony was just starting!
…and by my much-needed desire to sleep after a 5am start!
I took a long walk down to the National Palace Of Culture, expecting it to be a museum. It’s not – it’s a venue and conference centre! It is pretty impressive in its ugly concrete mass, but secretly I was glad I wasn’t going to have to walk back there to check out a museum!
What surprised me the most – and let’s face it, Sofia was full of surprises already – was the park around there. You wouldn’t think that this was in Sofia’s city centre, would you?!
Feeling like I’d already seen most of Sofia in the few hours I’d spent there, I headed back to the hostel and immediately conked out at an unreasonably early hour.
The following day, I had decided to do a whole lot more walking – I was signing up for the much-revered free walking tour. I don’t utilise walking tours enough, but I’d heard so many good things about the one in Sofia. And even though I felt like it would cover a lot of places I’d been already, it would be interesting to hear more about the history and background.
Immediately, we set off in a different direction to where I had walked. Turns out – I’d missed a whole lot!
I got chatting to a guy on the tour almost immediately and we started talking about our travel plans around the Balkans. We were staying at the same hostel, and we would both be leaving Sofia tomorrow. I told him I’d be doing a tour, though I never normally do them and I had no idea what to expect from it.
“Wait,” he said. “Which company are you going with?”
“WHAT?! Me too!!”
“You’re going to Greece though – do you think it’s the same tour?”
“I think it will be. I guess we’ll find out!”
(Spoiler: it was!)
Our walking tour took us to the ruins of the Roman walls – I’d heard about them, but hadn’t quite gone that far on my walks. What fascinated me was the remains of the wall inside the train station. Even the path that you walk on is original. So cool!
We made a few more stops – the old Roman spa baths, the president’s palace, an inconspicuous church in a courtyard, and of course the cathedral.
My photo of the church, St George, completely sums up this post.
We learned about the old market building, where at one point it was the only place in Bulgaria you could buy a lot of things, and people had to travel from all over the country just to buy them here. We were invited to fill up our water bottles at some mineral water springs nearby – it’s weirdly warm, and locals believe it’s really healthy and try to drink at least some of it every day.
We saw some really grumpy guards outside the president’s palace, and I took a photo of a ridiculous lion.
The lion is the symbol of Bulgaria, as a sign of courage. One of the central points of Sofia that you can’t miss is the giant courthouse, with two (almost equally) derpy lion statues outside.
After the tour, I headed to the Elephant Book Store; a place that has virtually achieved cult status and is revered as one of the best shops in Bulgaria. I mean, it was cool, but it’s actually really small. It’s full of quirky gifts and old books, but it wasn’t quite the big book store I was expecting!
But that’s okay because I was planning to grab lunch nearby. Made In Home was another place that came highly recommended via blogs and reviews, so I was keen to check it out.
It’s a really cool place! It’s split into two rooms plus a patio, and feels very homely (the clue is in the name!) with lots of comfort foods. They pride themselves on everything being made in house, and although I didn’t find it as cheap as some places in Sofia, I definitely thought it was worth it! I actually ended up being in there for a couple of hours with my pot of tea!
It certainly made up for dinner later. The hostel offered breakfast and dinner for 6 lev (that’s £3 for BOTH!) so I jumped on the deal. Breakfast? FANTASTIC. Dinner? It was… mediocre. It felt like canteen food in primary school. But for £1.50 or something, you can’t really complain, and it filled me up enough for the pub crawl later!
(On my last night in Sofia 10 days later, a few of us went to Happy Bar for dinner, which I recommend. Great service, and I don’t know if I’ve EVER seen so many choices on a menu!)
I do totally recommend Hostel Mostel though (psst – that’s an affiliate link, which means if you choose to book, I’ll earn a tiny bit of commission at no cost to you!). Obviously the name alone is great, but the people and the place are even better! The only thing? The dorm is the WEIRDEST ROOM I’VE EVER STAYED IN. It was in the attic and the beds are like this!!
I would say that unless you don’t care about where you’re sleeping, maybe book one of the smaller dorms instead. The main rooms downstairs look lovely, with big wooden bunk beds and the terrace – plus, I found out later that breakfast (and possibly dinner?) is FREE. It only wasn’t for me because I’m a cheapskate and booked the 18 bed dorm!
Plus look at this – such a cute exterior!
I also highly recommend a day trip to Rila Monastery if you have time. I’ll be posting about that separately in what will mostly be a post of incredibly pretty photos – here’s a sneak peek though, because Rila is SO WORTH IT!
I am still surprised now about how much I enjoyed Sofia. I was worried that 4 or 5 days would be too much, so I was going to try and squeeze in a day to Plovdiv as well, but I was happy to relax in Sofia for an extra day after the tour instead because it’s just a nice city to chill out in!
Have you visited somewhere that REALLY surprised you?!
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