Country number 26 would be Bulgaria for me. Say hello to Sofia, a bargain £25 return flight from the UK to Sofia for a city break sealed the deal for us and we booked a weekend in Bulgaria’s capital city. I’d hoped for an overly autumn experience in a fun city similar to previous Euro trip’s I’ve had and I have to say Sofia surpassed any simplistic expectations I previously had of it.
THE GRAND CITY OF SOFIA – SEEING SOFIA
I had pictured Sofia before arriving. I had imagined small quaint market-town-style streets like those of Bratislava. I pictured a lively historic center like Krakow surrounded by soviet block buildings in every shade of grey. I imagined a sprawling concrete city with a busy cultural heart. Almost everything I had envisioned of Sofia was wrong and I began to realise that very quickly on my taxi ride through Sofia from the airport.
Sofia is a thriving cosmopolitan city with an intense ancient history that has filtered through to its customs and cultures. I would describe Sofia as a grand city and I honestly can’t think of a word that better describes this culture and history rich city. The historic architecture in Sofia is enchanting. Bulgaria’s capital is filled with opulent government buildings engraved with grand Cyrillic text and lined with golden tiles, stained glass windows, tall imposing fences in large open spaces.
The grand city of Sofia, Bulgaria
Whether you spend your hours in the bar and restaurant filled pedestrian Vitosha Boulevard or in one of the many open park spaces Sofia will not disappoint, Whether you’re culture hungry, an architecture fan or just enjoy the social cafe culture of a city then Sofia is a must add European destination for your bucket list.
EASY HOTEL AND TAXI TAFFIS – A CITY BREAK TO SOFIA
The day before our flight to Bulgaria hotel Hello Sofia unfortunately had to cancel on us last minute. They kindly offered to refund us the Hostel World booking fee/admin charge due to the inconvenience caused, which was a very kind gesture. We quickly booked one of the last remaining budget options on Booking.com and found ourselves staying in an easyHotel, something that had fascinated me for many years. easyHotel in Sofia was clean, hassle-free, no frills with friendly staff. A clear consistency across the brand.
We had been warned about taxi drivers charging tourists arriving at night a much higher tariff, there was even talk of this on our plane. We didn’t experience this thanks to the handy taxi booking system at the airport. From what I’ve heard it can be an issue for tourists arriving in Sofia, especially those arrive at night time. Don’t expect to pay more than 20 Levs at the absolute maximum. Take your time in the airport, locate the taxi desk and book your cab through the agency desk. Look for O.K Taxis.
EXPLORING SOFIA – SEEING SIGHTS, A CITY BREAK TO SOFIA
We experienced the best Autumn weather we could have. Clear blue skies, winter sun and crisp chilled air. The colours of Autumn filled Sofia and the many parks across the city came to life with people and families wrapped-up warm and enjoying the clear skies. I’m such a people watcher, I could spend hours sat on a bench in a park watching the world go by in any city or country. Try out City Garden Park home to the stunning Ivan Vasov National Theatre sit back on a bench enjoy the architecture, balloon sellers and depending on the season check out the fountains. They were turned off in preparation for a cold winter during our visit.
The National Theatre, Sofia
We arrived in Sofia with no plans, just some recommendations from a friend and a few pages turned over at the top in a Europe Lonely Planet. Without our usual checklist of tourist sites to see we were simply seeing sights in Sofia. Unplanned and casual. Our lack of plans left us a lot of time for leisure and to enjoy the green – now orange – spaces Sofia has to offer. After speaking to some locals we learnt that the parks in Sofia are filled with life year-round. Summer is a fun time to be a tourist in Sofia’s many parks.
RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CHURCHES – SEEING SIGHTS IN SOFIA
I seem to talk about architecture a lot here and I always find myself analysing the architectural styles within a city or country. I’m no expert but somewhere and somehow I became a bit of an enthusiast. If you appreciate grand architecture, beautiful churches cathedrals and tree lined boulevards Sofia is a city for you. I’ve seen a whole loads of some of the most stunning and opulent catholic churches around Europe. I’ve seen some pretty amazing mosques and synagogues. To be honest I’ve even seen some breathtaking temples in South East Asia. But nothing prepared me for how truly stunning a Russian Orthodox Church can be. From the bright colours to the large domes and other intriguing shape.
The architecture of these churches is truly unique and quite fascinating. Sofia is home to several of these churches and I can’t emphasise enough how much they stand out through the rusty shades of Autumn. A must see in Sofia is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, no trip to Sofia is complete without a photograph of this amazing construction.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Whilst you’re visiting notable buildings and churches be sure to check out the sunken and almost hidden Saint George Rotunda a 4th century church, think about how incredibly ancient it is and try not to get disheartened at the blatant lack of preservation attempts. Another favourite of mine is the Saint John of Rila Church just outside the centre of the city. We were looking enough to pop our heads in during a service.
Saint George Rotunda
The casual but clean streets in the residential area of Sofia, Bulgaria
CAFE CULTURE AND VITOSHA BOULEVARD – SOFIA CITY BREAK
The majority of our time spent in Sofia was spent on and around the Vitosha Boulevard, a pedestrianised street in the central heartland of Sofia. A tree lined lamp-lit spectacle filled with outdoor seating, there are many cool bars and restaurants that fill Sofia’s central zone. With the St Nedelya Church at one end and a large Southern Park overlooked by mountains at the other Vitosha Boulevard is definitely the place to be in Sofia.
City breaking Sofia style
We spent some of the coldest hours under the protection of a heat lamp checking out our new Europe Lonely Planet and enjoying a Bulgarian beer in some of the many bars and restaurants that line Vitosha Boulevard. Watch the world go by with a coffee or a beer and enjoy being in the commercial heart of Sofia.
Drinking is cheap. Sample some Bulgarian beer and wine in the many bars. Don’t expect to receive small change in your bill, things are generally rounded up. We found ourselves unsurprisingly watching English Football in an Irish Bar – try JJ Murphys for a few cold ones in a cool setting. Locals and tourists alike enjoy this bar which is always a good sign. There are no veggie options on the menu so I wouldn’t bother eating here if you’re a non meat eater. Chips anyone?
SOFIA, BULGARIA HOTELS
We stayed in the EasyHotel and it was my first time staying in this style of budget accommodation. It is ideal for a cheap and easy type of accommodation. For something a little less EasyJet why not try the Central Park Hotel in Sofia or one of the many other chain hotels in Sofia, Bulgaria. You’ll find all your standard chain hotels in Sofia including the classic Best Western. For a centrally located hotel bang in the middle of Sofia city centre check out the St. George Hotel.
EATING IN SOFIA BULGARIA – MUST TRY: SKAPTOBURGER
Away from Vitosha Boulevard (I’m talking a couple of streets) you can find a whole range of reasonably priced quirky restaurants that cater to all needs. Head to Skaptoburger, rated number one on Trip Advisor this tiny spot offers not two but three veggie options. Get the Skaptoburger, fries they are to die for but don’t be put off by the tiny location. Looking for something a little healthier? Maybe vegan or organic head to Made in Home – the perfect spot for anyone who loves the sound of the word Quinoa. Lots of great Bulgarian dishes along with homemade European faves from Italy and further East.
Enjoying Sofias cuisine plus Jamie’s massive plate of meat
If you’re looking for something a little snazzier with more of relaxed but classier atmosphere head to Spaghetti Bar situated just before Vitosha Boulevard in front of St Nedelya Church. It doesn’t look much from the outside but inside it’s a treat. Great food from the grill, obviously great pasta and a large selection of Bulgarian wine if you fancy giving it a go. Well priced, 2 mains, a dessert, 2 drinks and a bottle of vino costing us around £30 GBP that’s 70 Lev.
Overall our time in Sofia was enjoyable, with no real plans and no desire to do anything out of the ordinary we were able to pack our days with relaxation, drinks and take in the beautiful culture and architecture you can find all around Sofia. We found ourselves wandering but not lost, passing streets occupied by book stalls and fruit markets. We indulged in great food, handsome churches and all the Bulgarian beer you can drink in three days. For us Sofia became an idyllic destination for a European city break and for a £25 return flight why wouldn’t we visit Sofia, Bulgaria?
Market stalls filled with Soviet and Bulgarian books
Sofia National Art Gallery
SEEING SIGHTS IN SOFIA – SURVIVAL GUIDE
BUDGET SLEEPING IN SOFIA
From what we experienced backpacker hostels sell out first then the budget hotels, standards vary so be wary of anything that may look too good to be true, Overall budget accommodation is cheap. The easyHotel is an asset to Sofia in my eyes, try it out, you may also be pleasantly surprised. Don’t expect frills – you know the score.
BUDGET EATING IN SOFIA
Sofia is a culinary melting pot, whatever you are looking for you will find it. We were able to eat in nice restaurants for excellent value, prices don’t vary too much in terms of food in Sofia. Restaurants off the Vitosha Boulevard are cheaper. If you’re on a limited budget try not to worry, prices aren’t going to break the bank in Bulgaria. Watch out for the mega pizza slices available filled with cheese sometimes broccoli and other veg. Be warned of cheese overload. A perfect snack for a budget traveller.
Another handy thing to watch out for in Sofia are the many bakeries, savory and sweet baked goods including bread and croissants can be bought for very cheap and are extremely tasty and filling.
GETTING AROUND – TAXIS IN SOFIA
Don’t be hustled, ask for a price and check the meter. Don’t pay over the odds when you don’t need to. O.K taxis were the best for us and I’ve since read this online.
I’m going to sound like a bit of a cop out here. I’m usually the biggest advocate of public transport when travelling. But I have to admit we didn’t use public transport once during our three days in Sofia. We found taxis to be so efficient and well priced we’d walk around and jump in a taxi when it got too dark or too late. Speaking to the hotel reception we were informed that any of the public transport options – bus, metro, tram – will cost the same. Never expect to pay more than a couple of Levs for a ticket. Tickets can be bought from Kiosks along the roadside like in many Eastern European cities.