Sofia is one of the most interesting cities in central Europe! Here’s everything you need to know to plan a few days in Sofia, Bulgaria!
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Bulgaria’s capital is such a sleeper city! I haven’t heard people talk about it, but it’s the perfect weekend getaway. Great food, fascinating history, and interesting architecture hit the trifecta for me.
The cost of living is so inexpensive, and it’s small enough that you can see everything in one busy day or 2 slow days. Adding on a day trip is also easy, and I have a few suggestions below.
The Best Way to See Sofia: Walking Tours!
The best way to explore is always with a walking tour. I like to do these on the first day, the first morning if possible because they give a ton of info on the parts of the city you’ll want to explore more. It also takes you to the major monuments and sites that you should see, but don’t need a ton of time there.
I did a Free Sofia Tour and loved it! We spent two hours walking around the historic part of the city. Especially in smaller cities or places where you don’t know the history going in, these tours help set the scene so you can absorb what you’re seeing.
For example, the famous Sofia monument? It used to hold a statue of Lenin. Additionally, the city’s name comes from a Christian saint (really, from the church dedicated to the saint), but the artist who designed the monument didn’t know that and used pagan symbols to depict her. The orthodox community wasn’t so happy about it, but the statue remains.
If you like free tours, there’s a second one you need to try: Balkan Bites!
Balkan Bites is a free food tour. Over two hours they take you to 5-6 locally owned restaurants to try Bulgarian food! Our guide, Dara, was fantastic. She gave us the history behind the dishes, as well as how they’re similar or different to other Balkan nations’ specialties.
It’s a food tour but not a full meal’s worth of food; it’s more of a snacking walk to inspire the rest of your time in Sofia.
A quick soapbox moment: please tip your guides! They’re called free tours, but the idea is that your guide is working for tips. They just took you around their city for hours, giving you all their expertise. Even if you can only tip a bit, it helps.
What to See in Sofia
Churches, Mosques, and Synagogues
In a city that’s majority orthodox Christianity, there are plenty of churches to see! As they’re orthodox, the layout, architecture, and religious symbols are different than you may have seen before. Each one I visited is free to enter, but you need to pay a small fee to take photos.
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is the one you’ve probably seen photos of. The outside is beautiful, and it’s one of the newest in the city, built in 1912. Definitely go inside, even if just for a few minutes! The massive gold chandelier is pretty impressive in the space. It’s also one of the biggest eastern orthodox churches in the world.
St. Sofia Church sits next door to the Nevsky Cathedral. It’s the oldest church in the city and Sofia’s namesake. It sits on a slight hill, so it was said that the church was the first thing you could see if you were traveling toward the city, prompting it to be renamed as Sofia in the 15th century.
Sveta Nedelya Cathedral has my favorite interior! The inside had the brightest paintings along the walls and ceilings. If you want to pay to take photos, take them here.
The cathedral sits in a square nicknamed ‘tolerance square’ by locals, because it hosts an Orthodox church, a Roman Catholic church, a mosque, and a synagogue all close together. It’s possible to visit all of them!
The Sofia Synagogue is the 3rd largest in Europe. It was built relatively recently (~100 years ago). Visiting the synagogue requires some planning ahead, and know that you can’t do it on Saturdays because of Shabbat.
The Banya Boshi Mosque sits in the center of things and was built in the height of the Ottoman Empire. Nowadays it’s the only active mosque in Sofia. You can enter, but remember to take off your shoes and women need to cover their heads. They provide head coverings to borrow if you don’t have a scarf with you.
St. George’s Rotunda is interesting because it was originally a bathhouse! When Christianity swept through the Roman Empire, so many people needed to be baptized that church leaders turned one of the small baths into a chapel. It’s also the oldest building in Sofia.
Saint Nicholas Church has a different architectural style because it was built for the Russian community in Sofia. Built in 1907, it’s one of the newer historic churches and actually remained open during the Communist period due to its Russian heritage.
The Serdika Archeological Complex is probably my favorite free thing in Sofia! When digging the metro, they found ruins from the Roman city beneath the central city square. They built the metro station around the ruins and opened them up to the public. Meaning you can explore a 2,000-year-old city as you get on and off the metro. So cool.
I mentioned the the Sofia monument above. You can’t miss it – it’s in the same area as the Serdika archaeology complex and the mosque.
Due to massive tectonic shifts, Bulgaria is full of mineral hot springs! There are several in the city, including one that fed the historic baths in the center of Sofia. Nowadays that building is a museum, so the springs were diverted into a fountain area next door. Locals fill water bottles there to take home! The water is hot enough to make tea, but without the sulfur smell we often associate with hot springs. I heard that in summer, people try to sell this water to tourists nearby. But the springs are free for everyone and easily accessible!
While Sofia has less Communist architecture than some of its other central European neighbors, there are a few examples. The Communist Party Headquarters in Bulgaria is the major one, complete with a massive star on top of the building (now removed). It retains the building name; it translates roughly to “national assembly” although it no longer houses the national assembly.
The Presidency is the president’s residence. It’s a small thing to see, but you can see their guards outside the door in the same way you can in London. They have a massive eagle feather on their hats because historically, soldiers had to kill an eagle with their bare hands to join. Nowadays, they don’t do this – just use the discards from the zoo.
Bulgaria is one of the oldest European nations. Sofia has been inhabited continuously for over 5000 years, so its history is massive. You’ll probably want to pick and choose your museums based on what era you want to focus on!
The Red Flat Museum shows an apartment as it was under Communist leadership in the 1980s. Bulgaria was a communist country but didn’t suffer under dictators like Romania or some of the other countries beyond the Iron Curtain. The apartment is set up much as it would’ve been, with an accompanying audioguide telling about daily life, jobs, entertainment, normal household routines, and family life.
One thing I really appreciated about the Red Flat was that the museum was focused on daily life, not the politics of the age. As an American too young for firsthand experience of the Cold War, it helps humanize that period. I also spoke to some Italian friends who visited and they said much of the furniture/accessories/kitchen bits reminded them of their grandparents’ homes.
There are several good history museums about the region and the country, but the National Museum of History gives the best overview of Bulgarian history.
It starts with prehistoric finds dating back 5000 years, then covers the Thracians, Romans, Bulgurs, and more. The history continues up through WWII.
That being said, it doesn’t dive so deep that you lose interest. You can see the whole thing in an hour or two, and 95% of the explanations are also in English.
The only downside? It’s just out of town! But it’s easily reached by taking the 304 bus out there. Or you can do as I did and choose a day trip that includes a stop there!
If you’d rather see museums in town, you should break it down by era. Some of them are the Sofia History Museum (which is inside one of the historic bath buildings), Archaeology Museum, Museum of Socialist Art, or the Kvadrat 500 (modern-ish art museum).
Add on a Day Trip!
Rila Monastery is a popular day trip option for good reason! It’s 2 hours out of town so you’ll need to arrange a group trip or rent a car, but I highly recommend it. I enjoyed it enough to do a whole other guide on it – check back soon!
Another popular city in Bulgaria is Plovdiv. It’s known for its beautiful architecture (arguably more so than Sofia) and is closer to nature here. You can do it in a day by taking the train or joining an organized group trip.
Budgeting for Bulgaria
While a part of the EU, Bulgaria doesn’t use the Euro. The Lev roughly equals .50€, which makes for easy math.
Sofia has an inexpensive cost of living! You can get a high-quality sit-down main course for around $10, and there are plenty of cheaper options if you’re trying to do it on a backpacker budget.
Hotels in Sofia
Sofia’s inexpensive cost of living translates to accommodation, making it easy to get a comfortable hotel for cheap.
I stayed at the Sofia Place Hotel and really liked it! It’s a solid, 3-star option – not luxury, but had everything I needed, good wifi, and in a fantastic location. I would stay here again for sure.
If you want something more luxury, try the Sofia Balkan Palace. The rooms are stunning and the location can’t be beat: it overlooks part of the archaeology complex.
Wanting to go the hostel route? The number one recommended option is Hostel Mostel!
Sofia is very walkable – everything you’ll want to do is in the city center, giving you a max 20-minute walk from one side to the other. There are also plenty of inexpensive hotels and hostels in the area. They have a metro, but you won’t need it day to day.
If you fly in, the Metro connects directly with the city! Take the 4 line into Serdika and you’ll be in the middle of Sofia.
While I usually don’t advise changing money at the money changer booths (typically you can get a better exchange rate at a bank ATM), there is one by the baggage claim if you need cash for a taxi. Take the metro unless you arrive late and don’t want to fool with it.
Check back soon for more Bulgaria tips, including a Sofia restaurant guide and a day trip to Rila Monastery!
Can’t wait? I have all this and more in an interactive map format on Thatch!