On a date once, the topic of travel came up. My companion from OKCupid started talking about his recent visit to Bulgaria.
“Sofia is such an ugly city,” he said dismissively.
I sipped from my glass of wine hoping to hide the scowl forming on my face. Clearly, we were not meant to be. While Sofia may not have the grandeur of cities like my current hometown, Budapest, or the exotic appeal of somewhere like Tbilisi, or even the clichéd beauty of Paris and Barcelona, Sofia has a unique character that makes it one of my favourite cities in Europe.
Layers of History
While digging up the city to make way for the Sofia metro system, the proposed route kept shifting because they kept uncovering archaeological ruins from Roman times.
If you head down into the subway, you’ll see traces of an old wall or a gate. Take a walk around the city, you’ll see a stone left over by the Thracians, Roman ruins and also Ottoman influences to more modern elements of history, such as the Social Realism left behind by communism.
You can also go beyond the outdoor relics you’ll see around the city by visiting some of the city’s museums. Explore the Sofia History Museum, located in the old oriental-style Central Mineral Baths building or the National Archeological Museum, set in a former 15th-century mosque, showcasing treasures from Ancient Thracian gold to Roman sculpture.
Every corner you turn in Sofia, and you’ll find history staring back at you, from pieces of excavated rubble to exquisite buildings. It’s easy to lose yourself in the city’s past for days on end, if you’re interested in that kind of thing.
Bulgarian food is full of delicious fresh vegetables, creamy yoghurts and tangy white cheeses. It’s a fusion of Balkan cuisines, such as those iconic grilled meats you’ll find all across the region, and more Mediterranean flavours from neighbouring Greece and Turkey.
You can eat like a king inexpensively in the city. Try tarator, a dish made with yoghurt, or banitsa, a baked pastry made with the local white cheese, or the shopska salad.
Make sure you wash that down with some of Bulgaria’s wonderful Thracian wines.
Sofia has become quite the foodie hub, which is another incentive to visit if you enjoy trying out new flavours that are not only tasty but that you could even pass off as being good for you!
Aleksander Nevski Cathedral
I’m one who usually thinks that when you’ve seen one church, you’ve seen them all. But in Sofia, the Aleksander Nevski Cathedral is a spectacular piece of architecture. Instantly recognisable with its copper-green and golden domes.
Inside, it’s a wide open space covered with faded frescoes and perfumed with a fog of incense left over from the Orthodox services. This amazing cathedral was built in memory of the Bulgarian soldiers who died fighting for the country’s independence during the Russo-Turkish war, and is surprisingly quite a recent addition to the city.
Access to Nature
Sofia is Europe’s second highest capital, with views of snowcapped Mount Vitosha in the backdrop. It’s the perfect spot to head into the mountains for the day, whether you want to head off to the Rila Mountains or go hiking closer to the city. Sofia is also a great base to explore further afield, head down to Plovdiv and the surrounding Rhodope Mountains or trek into the Balkan Mountains.
And not only that, Sofia is a city rich in green spaces and beautiful parks, like the one next to the National Theatre.
Get Cultured Up
Some of the best opera singers have come out of Bulgaria, so it’s no surprise if the capital is a hub for music. Ticket prices are affordable, so see if you can check out the Sofia Opera House program to see if anything takes your fancy. In the summer, its operatic feats also go outdoors.
Value for Money & Lovely People
Bulgaria is one of Europe’s cheapest countries, but that doesn’t mean a lack of quality. You can find great food, good accommodation and plenty of cultural things to do, giving you a bang for your lev. If you’re looking to immerse yourself in culture, good food and wonderful hospitality without breaking the bank, then Sofia is a great city for you. But what’s more priceless, is the kind hospitality of its people. Bulgarians are warm, friendly people and will make you welcome when you visit their country, but remember, you’re still a guest in someone’s country.