1. Take it to church in St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
It’s not only one of the world’s largest Eastern Orthodox Cathedrals, it’s a giant war memorial: St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, built in the early twentieth century, is dedicated to the 200,000 soldiers who died during the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878). It has become a symbol of Sofia, its gold dome a 45 metre high beacon shining across the city’s skyline. Have a nosey at the Italian marble, Brazilian onyx and gold religious inscriptions adorning the walls of the church’s interior. In fact, the cathedral is a showcase of fine craftsmanship from across Europe – the lights were made in Munich, the gates in Vienna and the mosaics were shiped in from Venice. If you’ve got enough puff then try climbing the 53 metre bell tower.
Opening Hours: 7am-6pm daily Tickets: Free Address: pl. "Sveti Aleksandar Nevski", 1000 Sofia, Bulgaria
2. Get some Bulgarian fresh air on Vitosha Mountain
If you’re looking for a cheap place to get some snow this winter then consider Sofia. South of the city you’ll find Vitosha Mountain, a national park and terrific snow resort. Know any budding Jean-Claude Killys? Vitosha’s six pistes are suitable for all ability levels and the ski school has over 40 instructors who speak a range of international languages. The highest point, known as Black Peak, is 2290m above sea level. Top tip: save money by staying in the city rather than in a mountainside resort. Sofia is just 10km away and a gondola gives direct access from Simeonovo suburb – the ride offers stunning views over the city. But Vitosha is also a great spot for summer trekking. Find cheap car hire in Sofia so you can get in and out easily and explore the natural areas surrounding the city.
How to get to Vitosha Mountain from Sofia: Catch the metro from Serdnika to Sofia Business Park. From here, catch a cab to the lower station of the cable car going up Vitosha. Once you arrive at this station on the cable car, you can choose from the routes across the mountain. Tickets: The mountain is free to walk on, the transport there should cost around 10BGN. Address: Vitosha, 2346, Bulgaria
3. See a puppet show
Spend an evening at the theatre and enjoy a unique performance by Sofia’s Puppet Theatre. One of the city’s premier cultural activities, this talented troop have been pulling the strings for over 60 years and have a wide repertoire – take the kids to see an enchanting performance of Snow White or The Three Little Pigs, while adults will be enthralled by their adaptation of Shakespeare’s _The Tempest. _Be sure to check the theatre’s calendar before you fly to make sure you can squeeze in a show.
Opening Hours: Performances every evening, closed on Mondays Tickets: Booking essential Address: ул. Ген. Йосиф В. Гурко 16, 1000 Sofia, Bulgaria (Gurko Street)
4. Visit quirky cafés
If you can’t make it to the Puppet Theatre for one of their scheduled performances, then you might be able to catch them at Antrakt café-gallery, which hosts alternative art, music and theatre performances. In their own words ‘meet art over a glass of wine’ or a delicious frothy coffee – it’s a fine spot to take a book or the morning paper, even if it is just a prop to make sure you fit in with all the other cool kids hanging out on Antrakt’s battered sofas and mismatched chairs.
Another quirky café to swing by is Adi’s Cook and Book. Enter the bright blue villa (on 31 Budapest Street) pull up a chair at one of the long communal dining tables or settle in to a comfy armchair with a book; Adi’s is the perfect place to make yourself feel at home and enjoy some hearty Bulgarian brunch. Stop by for lunch (the restaurant hold 40 covers max) or you can hire the place for a private function (prices on request). Bill Clinton has visited, but we reckon the cute pastries make this place more appealing.
5. Spot the next Banksy
You know those grey boxes that sit squatly on the side of the road, a transformer box storing the electrical gear for all the houses on your street? They’re usually quite ugly, just something for Fido to pee against on your bleary-eyed morning walk. Well in Sofia they’ve transformed these eyesores into works of urban art: as you’re wandering through the city, keep a look out for colourful murals and bold graffiti. From depictions of national landmarks to John lennon’s famous spectacles scrawled on the side of one of these boxes – local artists have been creative in their choice of subject, often with a humorous twist (like the two fat priests on the box outside a local church). They brighten up the sidewalks and they’re fun to spot, so count them and see how many you can find!
6. Relax in one of the many parks and gardens in Sofia
Sofia isn’t short on parks and gorgeous green spaces, perfect for enjoying a picnics, going for a bike ride or seeing some open air art exhibitions. Take a breather in Borisova gradina, the oldest park in Sofia, affectionately known as the city’s lungs and named after the Bulgarian Tsar Boris III – during the communist period it was renamed ‘Freedom Park’ but reverted to it’s original title post-1989. Skirt the edges of the park’s lake before collapsing in the shade of an acacia or mulberry tree for a mid-afternoon siesta – who cares if it’s Sofia and not Spain, this is the place for five minutes peace. For serenity right in the heart of the city head to Sofia University’s Botanic Garden, nestled off Moskovska Street a stone’s throw away from the Foreign Art Gallery and Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Smell the roses, peonies, orchids and clematises as you stroll beneath the palms; the park’s main aim is to showcase some beautiful plants and teach the public a thing or two about the more rare and endangered species on-site.
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday 8.30am-9.30pm, Sunday 7.30am-7pm Tickets: 2BGN Address: ul. "Moskovska" 49, 1000 Sofia, Bulgaria
7. Party all day and all night
Step aside Prague, move over Barcelona, there’s a new party city destination where the drinks are much cheaper (£1.10 a pint) the clubs are open longer and you don’t get the same stupidly dressed stag and hen crowds. Relish the virtually non-existent licensing laws in bars and clubs that are open all times of the day and night, typically until 5 or 6am. The biggest concentration lies either side of Bulvard Vitosha and in up-and-coming Ulitsa Rakovski. Bang your head to some Balkan beats in a chalga club – one of the biggest is NightFlight, which holds about 1,000 ravers and comes with a 30m² flashing LCD dancefloor, not to mention a VIP balcony. If shredding your dignity below a disco ball doesn’t sound like your idea of a fun night out, then have a few in Baskerville on Denkoglu Street instead, open to midnight and serving well-crafted cocktails as well as Bulgarian beers and light bites. Be warned, there’s no public transport from 1am to 5am so plan your route home before you get the jäger bombs in.
8. Take a free tour of the city
Forget bickering with your other half over a rain-sodden map as you try to navigate your way around all of Sofia’s main sights. Take a free city tour instead to make sure you do’t miss any of the big-hitters, without biting anyone’s head off. The Free Sofia Tour is in English, runs twice daily, first at 11am and then 6pm, and is, well as it says, completely free! Head out from the Palace of Justice on Vitosha Boulevard and take in over 35 important sites, including the Bulgarian National Bank, Banya Bashi Mosque, the city’s mineral water springs and the Communist Party Headquarters – the whole thing lasts about two hours. There’s no need to book, just show up at the Palace and pack an umbrella or sun hat as tours run all year whatever the weather.
Opening Hours: 11am-6pm Tickets: Free Address: Palace of Justice, Sofia
9. Dig deeper in the National Archaeological Museum
This fascinating museum was established in 1949, but what you’ll find inside dates all the way back to Bulgaria’s Paleolithic past (1.6 million years BC!). Ponder the early years of man in the Prehistory Hall, gawk at the grave goods on display in the Vault, or check out the bling from Bulgaria’s ancient aristocracy in the Middle Ages Hall – there are four permanent exhibitions as well as visiting temporary ones.
Opening Hours: 10am-8pm daily Tickets: 10BGN per person, free on the last Sunday of the month Address: ul. "Saborna" 2, 1000 Sofia, Bulgaria
10. Day trip to Rila monastery
If you’ve hired a car and fancy exploring this beautiful bit of Bulgaria then take the 120km drive (about one and a half hours) south of Sofia to Rila Monastery, lying in the recesses of Rila Mountain. Founded in the tenth century, after Bulgaria’s first hermit St. Ivan of Rila settled on the mountainside and dedicated his life to prayer and fasting, it’s now a major must-see, consisting of over 300 monastic cells, the main church ‘The Nativity of the Virgin’ and a library, all contained within stone walls on a 8,800m² patch of land. The striking five domed church on this UNESCO World Heritage site was built between 1834 and 1837 and designed by Peter Ivanovich. You’ll also find Hreliov’s Tower occupying the centre of the yard, erected by a local feudal lord back in the 14th century. Between the religious buildings and temporary exhibitions it’s a full day out and a great break from the city centre if you’ve got more than just a weekend trip planned.
Opening Hours: 9am-8pm Tickets: 22 BGN Address: 2643 Rilski manastir, Bulgaria How to get to Pila Monastery without a car: There are also tours that depart from Sofia to the Monastery
11. Spend a whole day on Art Street in Sofia
There’s something about Samuil Street that has attracted business owners, expats and artists and built it into a mini community of galleries and museums. The Art Gallery Paris reveals Bulgaria’s best new artists exploring hyperrealism, Absinthe is the only watercolour gallery in Sofia and the Doll’s House is exactly that, a museum of antique, ancient and new dolls.
Best galleries in Sofia
- Absinthe – Sofia, 37 Tsar Samuil Str.
- Dolls House – Sofia, 34 „Tzar Samuil” Str., floor.1-2
- Art Gallery Paris – 47 “Tsar Samuil” Str.
- Maestro Gallery – 37 “Tsar Samuil” Str.
12. Trundle round the Boyana Quarter and Church
The Boyana Church (Boyanska Tsarkva) may not beat St Alexander, but this UNESCO Listed buildings is worth a look in. The church was built in the eleventh and twelfth century, and the paintings inside have retained their vivid colours. The Boyana quarter is now an exclusive residential district in Sofia too, with great access to the mountains.
Opening Hours: 9.30am-7.30pm Tickets: 10BGN per person Address: ул. Боянско езеро 3, 1616 Sofia, Bulgaria
13. Go for a night out at the National Theatre
If the Puppet Theatre was too Punch & Judy for you, take a look at the National Theatre of Sofia as well. It’s one of the city’s most beautiful buildings, built by Viennesse architects Hermann Helmer and Ferdinand Fellner. Whilst you might not be too keen on seeing a Bulgarian play, the ornate hall is worth seeing, and if you don’t go in you’ll be able to admire the sculptures of Apollo and his muses on the outside.
Opening Hours: Plays on most evenings. Tickets: Buy tickets for shows online. Address: ul. "Dyakon Ignatiy" 5, 1000 Sofia, Bulgaria
14. Dive deeper into Bulgarian culture at the National Art Gallery
This is a small gallery encased in a former Neoclassical palace. There are striking similarities between the yellow of Sofia’s gallery and the one in Vienna, but the art is miles away. The collection here is composed of royal, contemporary and National Revival art from the likes of Georgi Velchev, and there are 10 temporary exhibitions year round. There’s no cafe on site, so arrive caffeinated, and prepare to spend a few hours absorbing the history of the place.
Opening Hours: 10am-6pm daily, open til 8pm Saturday and Thursday, closed on Mondays Tickets: 6 BGN per adult, 3BGN per child Address: i, ploshtad "Knyaz Aleksandar I" 1, 1000 Sofia, Bulgaria
15. Barter at Bitaka Flea Market
If you’re looking for the place where you can buy everything, this is probably it. It’s not the traditional car boot ordeal: buy yourself a brand new drill, a set of silverware, headphones, wellingtons, and postcards (new, naturally). Whilst it’s a treasure trove for random finds, it’s more of a people watching experience. After you’ve had your Saturday brunch at a quirky cafe, go down to Bitaka to see what you can find.
Opening Hours: Saturdays 8am-1pm Tickets: Free to enter Address: кв.Орландовци, Sofia, Bulgaria (find directions on their Facebook page)
How to get to Sofia
Fly direct to Sofia from Doncaster, Birmingham, Bristol, London, Liverpool, Glasgow and Manchester. There are also connecting flights from many other major U.K cities.
Where to stay on a city break in Sofia
If you’re looking for a hostel:
Art Hostel has cosy dorm rooms that will fit within your budget, without compromising on quality or location.
If you’re looking for a hotel:
If you’re on a work break on Sofia, you can trust the Novotel to deliver. Complimentary continental breakfast and fast Wifi are both included in the price.
If you’re looking for luxury:
The 5-star service at Arena di Serdica is great, but it’s the Roman ruins within the hotel grounds that we like here.