Sofia, capital and largest city of Bulgaria, is the latest hotspot for city trippers in Europe. The heart of the Balkan has a complex history with many different rulers. This results in a melting pot of all kinds of influencers, from Soviet to Ottoman, creating a unique Bulgarian culture and architecture. Nowadays about 1.2 million people live in Sofia including many students. Sofia keeps you entertained for a few days. Plus: there are many interesting day tour options from Sofia.
What to see in Sofia
Obviously, when visiting Sofia, you want to explore the city. Go walk around and discover all the things that this city has to offer; from churches to parks to architecture to statues, but also culinary and the vibrant bar and club scene of Sofia! What can you see and do in Sofia?
Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
This huge orthodox style church with spherical turquoise roofs built in the late 19th century. THE landmark of Sofia, possibly Bulgaria, fits at least 10K people. Apparently it is listed in the top 50 largest Christian church buildings around the world! There are several churches in Bulgaria that are smaller copies of it.
Sofia has many more churches that are worth seeing, such as:
- Saint Sofia Church from Byzantine time
- Boyana Church medieval orthodox church in the Boyana Quarter (UNESCO)
- Saint George Rotunda with medieval frescos and red bricks
- Banya Bashi Mosque
- Saint Nedelya Cathedral
- Sofia Synagogue
- Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church
- Russian Church Sveti Nikolay Mirlikiiski
See map below for locations.
From Boyana Church, you can walk straight into nature, following the river and see Boyana Waterfall.
This elegant street forms the heart of the city center, boulevard style with fancy boutiques and top fashion brand stores, surrounded by many great cafes, restaurants, kiosks, etc. Take a walk during the day. Vitosha Street (bul. Vitosha) includes many benches that you can take a seat on to relax a bit and watch people walk by.
A walk through the park is good for any human being, especially in spring and summer. Sofia has a lot of parks, see also map below. Some of the most interesting parks are:
- Borisova Garden the city’s biggest park
- Doctor’s Garden
- Vrana Park huge garden of former emperor’s villa outside of center
Like Budapest, Sofia has several thermal springs, developed in Ottoman time. The warm water is believed to be good for your health. Your best bet would be Pool & Spa Complex Korali (Pancharevo), open daily 09:00-19:00h. The Sofia Public Mineral Baths (also known as Central Mineral Baths) is a gorgeous building that is renovated into Sofia Regional Museum of History.
Outside the city there are a lot more thermal springs, which you can visit as a day trip from Sofia, for example to the Balkan spa capital Sapareva Banya.
In the mood for shopping? Check out Paradise Center!
More sights to see
Throughout the city there are several other sights to see, including several museums, such as:
- National Palace of Culture in Sovjet style
- National Theatre in Viennese style named after Bulgarian writer Ivan Vazov
- Roman Amphitheatre of Serdica discovered during the construction of a boutique hotel
- National Assembly of the Republic of Bulgaria (Parliament) with change of the guard
- National Historical Museum
- Museum of Illusions
- National Gallery art in an old palace
- National Archeology Museum
See map below for locations.
The Red Flat
Want to do something fun and cultural on a cold or rainy day? Visit The Red Flat, an ordinary old style apartment, like stepping into people’s home with a time machine. You get headphones with 46 different stories about every day life in Bulgaria in Communist time.
Just walking around Sofia can already be a lot of fun, on your own or with a local guide. There is a lot to see, such as architecture, street art, statues, parks, fountains, etc. Fellow street art lovers may enjoy this guided Sofia Street Art Tour of 2.5 hours. This Self-Guided Audio Tour or the Communist Walking Tour can be an interesting way to learn more about the city. This Retro Tour is on my to do list for next time I will be in Sofia.
This mobile friendly map includes most things mentioned in this article and more!! It is smartphone friendly; you can use it easily via Google Maps. Click on the top left icon to open the menu. To customize the map to your interests, simply (un)select categories. Via Google Drive you can copy it to your folder of My Google Maps.
Where to eat in Sofia
Sofia bursts of good restaurants, especially around Vitoshka Street, with delicious, big meals AND cheap. For sure you will have to try traditional Bulgarian food! Recommendations:
- Pod Lipite (Under The Linden Trees) at ul. Elin Pelin 1
- Raketa Rakita Bar Restaurant at 17 Yanko Sakazov Blvd (with garden)
- Hadjidraganov’s Cellars at 18 Hristo Belchev St
- Hadjidraganovite Kashti at 75 Kozloduy St
- Chevermeto at corner of bul. Pencho Slaveykov and Bulevard Bulgaria (with Bulgarian singers and dancers)
- Mamin Kolio at ul. Pozitano 40 (also a pension, ski school and BBQ)
If you are looking for a bit fancier, more international oriented restaurant, try for example Corso at bul. Tsar Osvoboditel 10 or even more stylish Capo at ul. Saborna 14. See map below for all locations of these restaurants.
Bars in Sofia
For pre-clubbing drinks I would recommend the following places:
- Sense Rooftop Bar at the top floor of Sense Hotel with view on Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (see top photo of this article and see Where to stay)
- Raffy Terrassa Bar at 2nd floor (downstairs restaurant has questionable service)
- Art Club Museum combi food, cocktails, lounge music and terrace
- Once Upon a Time Biblioteka outdoor cafe and night club (after 22:30h) located behind the National Library
Where to go dancing
In most clubs in Sofia, reservations are necessary, basically everywhere we go… So contact the club in advance to reserve a table for your group. In Bulgarian clubs it is usually the best (cheaper) to buy bottles of vodka instead of cocktails/shots. The best night clubs in Sofia:
- Club Revue amazing club with possibly the friendliest security
- Megami Club in Hotel Marinela Bulgarian upper class yet cozy and occasional dance shows
- Bedroom Premium Club go with a local for the best experience
- Carrusel Club voted best club of Sofia 2016 – 2017 – 2019
- Gotham Club never been there myself (yet) but heard it is good – if it is your music style
Outside of Sofia
Got time to see more of Bulgaria? Although Sofia has a lot to offer, there is much more to see outside of the capital of Bulgaria. For example Plovdiv, the European Cultural Capital of 2019, but also a lot of beautiful nature and historical sights. If you have a few spare days to spend, I would definitely recommend to explore a few areas outside of Sofia too.
Bulgarian people may come across a bit depressed or grumpy sometimes, but overall they are friendly folks, especially on the country side.
The 2290m high Vitosha Mountain is right next to Sofia. In about 20 min by taxi you can reach Aleko, a ski resort that includes the Simeonovo gondola. If you feel like going in the nature, you can spend some time here. In winter you can go skiing, in late spring, summer and early fall hiking and paragliding for example. You can also take bus 66 from the zoo to the other side of Aleko; it stops at Hotel Moreni, which is also a spa, 10 min walk to Bear’s Meadow view point and the upper ski lift.
Day trips from Sofia
Places that I would recommend for a day trip from Sofia (depending on your personal preference) would be:
- Plovdiv and Asen’s Fortress (2 hours southeast)
- Rila Monastery & Boyana (2 hours south)
- The Seven Rila Lakes (2 hours north)
- Krushuna Waterfalls & Devetashka Cave (2.5 hours northeast)
- Melnik Wine Tour (2.5 hours south)
- Veliko Tarnovo & Arbanasi (3 hours northeast)
- Skopje capital of Macedonia (4 hours southwest) or with Matka Canyon
Where to stay in Sofia
I really enjoyed staying at the stylish design Sense Hotel with comfortable, modern rooms, a fancy rooftop bar and restaurant, indoor pool, sauna, surrounded by little parks and right next to the famous Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. 20 min walk to Vitosha Street (bul. Vitosha) or 5 min by taxi.
Should you wish to stay closer to Vitosha Street, you may like Art ‘Otel or Les Fleurs Boutique Hotel. For low budget travelers I would recommend having a look at Hotel Paradise, which offers cheap rooms (around EUR 30 p/n) close to the center of Sofia with excellent reviews (9.1 score).
How to get to Sofia
Many European cities offer direct flights to Sofia Airport (SOF). For example with Bulgaria Air you can reach Sofia from Amsterdam within 2.5 hours for around 135 EUR return in summer. Austrian Airlines and Air Serbia offer sometimes slightly cheaper indirect flights. To check possibilities and prices for flights to Sofia Airport from anywhere around the world, check Skyscanner.
From Sofia Airport to the center you can take the public bus (cheap), mero, taxi or shuttle. The ride from Sofia Airport to the city center takes about 10 to 30 min, depending on traffic and accommodation location.
From other southeastern European cities like Skopje (250 km), Thessaloniki (300 km), Pristina (350 km), Bucharest (400 km), Belgrade (400 km), Tirana (550 km) and Sarajevo (600 km) you could also take the FLIXBUS if you want to save money and travel climate friendlier than by airplane. Train is an alternative for the bus in most countries. Or rent a car, but often it is not allowed to cross borders with rental cars.
How to get around Sofia
Like any given city trip, walking around the city is the easiest way, you will make a lot of steps those days!
Public transport in Sofia is pretty good in most parts of Sofia, there are busses, trams and a good subway network for example. Most stations opened over the last 10 years, so everything is modern and reasonably fast. A 3-day public transport card costs just BGN 12. Bulgarians pay in Lev (BGN); if you divide it by two you have the approximate value in euro. I would recommend getting this card from the start so you can use the public transport whenever you want. There is also night public transport but it is separate and not included in the 3-day card; since taxis are very cheap better just take taxis for moving around the city at night.
Taxi in Sofia
When it is cold, rainy, snowy or late at night for example, you may prefer taking a taxi. Bulgarians tend to still old-fashionably call a taxi instead of using an app; you may want to get the phone numbers of the most popular taxi companies saved to your phone before going out to a bar or club:
Unfortunately there is no Uber service in Sofia/Bulgaria; it was banned due to ‘unfair competition’ a few years ago. There are few taxi apps that you may want to try in Sofia:
Also hailing a taxi on the street is fine as well, BUT make sure to check the prices before stepping in. By law, Bulgarian taxis must have them on the windows. Normal prices are around 0.80 BGN/km (daytime) and 0.90 BGN/km (nighttime). There are some taxis which are much more expensive. This is legal, just they decided to charge much higher prices, like 3-4 BNG/km. So be aware of that, also when you had a few drinks, because that is usually when they drive around the city…
When to go to Sofia
To my personal taste, best time to visit Sofia is between May and September. Summer can be hot (between 27 and 41 degrees Celsius). Last time I was there late June and – as you can see in the pictures – had lovely sunny weather. Winter is pretty cold in Sofia (record low is 31.2°C), grey and heaps of snow may fall, unless you plan on skiing? Early June there is the annual Balkan Wine Festival which is fun to visit and taste regional wines, held in both Sofia and Belgrade (Serbia).
Bulgarian language uses Cyrillic script, similar to Serbian and Russian for example.
Explore Central & Eastern Europe
Check out my other articles of Central & Eastern European destinations (which are all not so close to Sofia):
- Budapest (765 km)
- Bratislava (950 km)
- Vienna (1000 km)
- Krakow (1165 km)
- Prague (1280 km)
- Krasnodar (1800 km)
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I hope this article was helpful for you to explore Sofia. Please feel free to leave a comment or question below.