Roman Ulpia Serdica, Greek Serdonpolis, Ottoman Sofya
Almost 6 years have passed since our first and only time in Sofia, and Bulgaria itself. A long time once again for a rather large and nice capital city, with a lot of changes for the better during this time in between. And of course, a great chance to revamp this once obsolete and not so detailed and descriptive guide for a proper up to date version. It’s interesting to see how little I was writing on the first guides when I started my travel blog, but I’m glad that I can also slowly rewrite them as we keep returning to many of these cities.
While Sofia could have been a very rich city in architecture, extremely elegant as Paris or Vienna, it suffered heavy destruction during WWII, and in 1977 further damages in the Vrancea earthquake (which epicentre was in Romania). Unfortunately, not everything was rebuilt as in other cities that suffered similar fates, however, many of these decaying buildings were not demolished, and as such becoming one of the key priorities in recent years restoring them, creating trendy areas and a good solid attractive for the tourism. Better and newer infrastructure, and definitely a great restoration and rebuilding program in the older parts of the city is the huge difference we can see now since the last time we’ve been.
The city itself is worth at least a 2 day visit. Planning any longer here might disappoint you as you will end up without anything further to do and see, and for heavy travellers used to city trips, a day is well enough. A weekend trip is the best decision; furthermore since the old town is very compact and not big, every sight is within walking distance to each other making of it an easy and not long walk without the need for taking any public transportation. There are just some sights on the outskirts as is the UNESCO World Heritage Site listed Boyana Church, where you will need to get onto a tram or a bus, but other than this the rest is great to enjoy on foot.
On this occasion we planned our trip with more friends than previously, six of us to be precise, for what we rented a big car that saved us a lot of time and hassle commuting from the airport to the hotel knowing our very late arrival in Sofia at 2.00am, but it also gave us the freedom and the time to include what’s been for a long time in the wish list of places to go, the UNESCO World Heritage Site listed Rila Monastery, 125 kilometres south from Sofia, well in the middle of the beautiful countryside among the mountains.
While some claims say Sofia is the world’s second oldest city, others of course disagree, but no one can argue it is indeed among the world’s 10 oldest cities being continuously inhabited since at least 6 millennia BC with the settlement of Slatina. It’s not much archaeological remains left nowadays, except for the Roman which are below the current city level underground, majority buried below the foundations of the buildings. One of the best examples was the rediscovery of the coliseum when a new hotel was being built and was therefore safeguarded and incorporated to the new structure, and visible not only for the hotel’s guests but for anyone to walk inside and admire. On a similar another of such examples is the oldest structure still standing in the city, the Church of Saint George, a bit hidden behind other buildings, and at a much lower level than the current street, among many Roman remains. But these are not the only archaeological sites, you will see more when touring the city across squares, parks and hidden below buildings.
The city during the Roman times was so powerful, big and well structured that with emperor Galerius it became the first Roman city where Christianity was recognised as an official religion, preceding Milan by 2 years. Not only that, emperor Constantine the Great used the motto “Sardica mea Roma est” (Serdica is my Rome) and considered making Serdica the capital of the Byzantine Empire instead of Constantinople. Then after the fall of the Roman empire, the constant changes through period, raises and declines, peace times and wars marked the character of city, its architecture and culture. Sofia is a great example where to experience and enjoy everything, and so the good and bad sides.
When thinking about food, what and where to eat, you will be surprised to find out possibly more Italian restaurants in Sofia than in any city in Italy. Pizza and pasta is everywhere, to the point of struggle to find local food. However of course, searching for it and you will find it. They have great grilled meats and vegetables, in huge quantities. You order by weight, being the norm half and 1 kg. If we can highly recommend a good place, with enormous portions, best value for money and incredible beer is Ale House. A traditional beer hour, quite big, where during lunchtime you will not have any trouble getting a table even if you are a large group, however for dinner this is impossible unless you book a table well in advance. Don’t hesitate here in ordering a kilo of chicken, kilo of mixed grilled meats, of mixed vegetables and their kilo of mixed chips. Simply incredible! And go for the beer by the litre, they will activate your own beer tab and you serve yourself as much as you wish (you have a counter so you always know how many litres you’ve taken). This place is on the parallel street to Vitosha Boulevard towards the southern end, very central.
For more information about Sofia visit Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites, and this article for Rila Monastery. Bulgaria’s currency is the Lev (BGN). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Sofia
- North of the City Around the main train station area and the Vladaya River few streets to the south, where the main ring road Boulevard Slivnitsa encloses the historic town.
-Maria Luiza Boulevard This is the major thoroughfare cutting through the entire city from north to south and beyond. Its name becomes the famous upscale Vitosha Boulevard from Sveta Nedelya Square, the heart of Sofia.
-The Lion’s Bridge The intersection of Maria Luiza with Boulevard Slivnitsa, over the Vladaya River. One of the most famous old bridges, very well kept.
- Old Fortress Area The proper heart of the city, right in the middle, where most of the historical sights are within a short walking distance. It is intersected by the Maria Luiza with Todor Alexandrov and Tsar Osvoboditel boulevards at Nezavisimost Square, aka the Largo.
-Banya Bashi Mosque Built in 1566 by the Ottomans making it one of the oldest in Europe.
-Sofia Public Mineral Baths Behind the Banya Bashi Mosque. Built in the early 20th century in the traditional classic style that was the norm in the back then Austrian-Hungarian Empire (Vienna Secession), on the same spot where the old ruined Turkish Baths used to be.
-The Largo – Nezavisimost Square Is one of the masterpieces of socialist classicist architecture in the city. The metro station serving this square is Serdika. Among the buildings that compose this place you will find:
-TsUM Department Store Just south of the mosque and mineral baths, is the first of the buildings, along Maria Luiza Boulevard where it projects its grand facade. It’s the most upscale shopping centre in Sofia.
-Council of Ministers of Bulgaria Behind the TsZUM, and occupying the entire apple, where its main facade is over the Nezavisimost Square.
-National Employment Agency The only of the buildings in a different colour, red. Attached to the eastern side of the Council building on Nezavisimost Square.
-National Assembly – Party House Marking the eastern side of Nezavisimost Square, one of the highlights in the Largo, at the centre of the other buildings marking a corner in between two streets. The monument to Tsar Osvoboditel marks the starting point of this boulevard of the same name heading east of the city (where the Archaeology Museum and National Bank are, explained in the next area, City Garden).
-President’s Office and Ministry of Education Along the southern side of the Largo, symmetrical buildings to these on the northern side (Council of Ministers).
-Sofia Hotel The last of the buildings composing the Largo, with its main facade over the Sveta Nedelya Square, where Maria Luiza becomes known as Vitosha Boulevard, continuing south towards the end of the historic centre fully pedestrian.
–Saint George Rotunda Considered the oldest building in Sofia, built by the Romans in the 4th century, it is situated behind the Sofia Hotel and President’s Office in their courtyard, amid the remains of the ancient town of Serdica.
-Sveta Nedelya Square At the front of the Largo, could be considered part of it.
-Cathedral Church Sveta Nedelya It was a mosque for almost 500 years, converted into a church in 1902.
-Theology Faculty of the University With its characteristic eclectic/neo-Gothic style.
-Court of Justice In a blend of eclectic and neo-classical styles, no one can argue the huge proportions and beauty of it, specially the grand columns and the lions flanking the main entrance.
-Vitosha Boulevard The main pedestrian street filled with cafes, restaurants and upscale shops in grand buildings. It starts at the Sveta Nedelya Square and runs south towards the South Park.
-City Garden – Battenberg Square A block southeast of the Largo by the Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard, it contains all around some of the finest buildings in Sofia.
-Archaeology Museum and National Bank of Bulgaria Both in the corner at the western side of the park, opposite the National Assembly from the Largo.
-National Art Gallery Located along the entire northern face of the park, used to be the Royal palace of Battenberg.
-Natural History Museum At the northeastern corner of the park, one of the largest of its kind in the Balkans
-Ministry of Defence Along the eastern side of the park.
–Ivan Vazov National Theatre The largest and most prestigious in Bulgaria, built in 1906 in neo-classical style by the famous Viennese theatre architects Hermann Helmer and Ferdinand Fellner.
-Amphitheatre of Serdica Few can be seen around, but the whole of the lower ground floor of the Arena Di Serdica Boutique Hotel kept these remains where you can clearly see the oval structure. It is behind the National Art Gallery, in Budapest Street.
- Bulgaria Square Following the same order in this list of sights, continuing south along Vitosha Boulevard, this square and garden marks its end.
-National Palace of Culture The centrepiece in the square, for some it’s an intrusive ugly building, for others, a masterpiece of communist style architecture. Judge for yourself. It’s the biggest congress centre in the Balkans.
- Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard Starts from the Largo – City Garden heading towards the eastern edge of the historic centre, outside of what used to be the Old Fortress Area.
-Russian Church and Garden Just at the other side of the Natural History Museum. Built on the grounds of the Saray Mosque that was destroyed after the liberation of Bulgaria by Russia from the Ottoman Empire in 1882.
-Military Club Opposite the Russian Church, one of the finest Italianate style buildings in the country.
-Embassies This street is home to many embassies housed in villas and palaces, noteworthy are the Italian, Egypt and Austria.
-National Assembly Square This half-moon shaped square along Tsar Osvoboditel offers great views towards the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral farther ahead among nice architecture.
-Academy of Sciences Next to the Austrian Embassy, completing the entire west corner, and projecting the north facade over the Aleksander Nevsky Square as well.
-Monument to the Tsar Liberator In the middle of the square.
-Parliament One of the most celebrated buildings built in neo-renaissance style. Even though a very large building, some departments had to be moved to the Largo.
-Yblansky House One of the finest mansions from early 20th century mixing rococo, baroque and renaissance architectural styles.
-St. Kliment Ohridski Rectorate At the intersection of Tsar Osvoboditel with Vasil Levski Boulevard, easy to spot for its grand architecture and size.
- Aleksander Nevsky Square At the other side of the Parliament building. Very large with lots of sights, churches, monuments and museums all around.
-Alexander Nevsky Cathedral Built in the 19th century in neo-Byzantine style, it is one of the largest orthodox churches in the world and not just the major monument in the city, but a symbol of Bulgaria. Right in the middle of the square.
-National Academy of the Fine Arts In the southeastern side of the square, built in 1907 by the Russians, in neo-Gothic style.
-National Library Built in neo-classical Soviet style, east from the Academy of Arts.
-National Gallery of Foreign Art The next important museum and largest of its kind in Bulgaria. Along the eastern side of the square.
-Hagia Sophia Church On the northwestern corner, the second oldest church in Sofia, built in the 6th century in Byzantine style. It is actually the 5th building on the site with the same purposes since the previous were destroyed in attacks.
-Patriarchate On the southwestern side of the square, in neo-Byzantine style.
- Outside of the city With too much to enjoy near Sofia, from great sky resorts literally minutes away from the centre, mountains and nature; to ancient villages and cities, monasteries and churches; the list could be too long. Easy to visit are two of the UNESCO listed sites in the country, good to manage coupled with your visit to Sofia in a same weekend.
-Boyana Church An UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built in the 14th century, contains very well preserved murals. Located on 1-3 Boyansko Ezero Str, which is outside the city centre. You can take tram numbers 9 or 10 from the stop underneath NDK (National Palace of Culture) to Hladilnika neighbourhood, the last stop. From here get bus number 64 which will drop you near the church. Entrance 10 Lev, 2 for students.
-Rila Moanstery Located in the middle of beautiful nature among valleys and mountains, 150 kilometres south from Sofia, this will not only be visiting the monastery itself but the journey there for the scenery. Founded in the 10th century by St. Ivan of Rila, it’s Bulgaria’s most important cultural, historical and architectural monument. Most of the current buildings date form the 14th century. There are many great frescoes through the buildings and notorious these in the courtyard.
Sofia International Airport is 10 kilometres east of the city, and has a great transportation towards the city centre. The recently opened extension of the Line 2 has its terminus at the airport terminal 2, and in just 12 stops you are at Serdika station, the heart of the city. It is in operation between 05.30am until 24.00pm. As an alternative, or after hours, the public bus number 84 travels between both terminals and the Orlov Most metro station, where the University is.
Coming from neighbouring countries by railway or bus is straightforward, yet time consuming. Sofia is an important point long the Pan-European rail and road system, so there are plenty of options. Check any visa requirements as you will be crossing borders, so unless you are an European citizen, then recall information beforehand.
The city currently boasts 2 Soviet style metro lines, being the station of Serdika the main intersection point and transport hub in the city centre. The third metro line is expected to open any time from 2019. It is complemented by an extensive tram network generally running along the main streets and boulevards and hundreds of public buses and trolleybuses crisscrossing the entire city and neighbourhoods. The price for a single ticket is 1.60 Lev (around 0.80€). You can also purchase a magnetic card for a cost of 2 Lev with a minimum of 10 trips, where each trip comes at 1.20 Lev, much cheaper if you are planning on taking public transportation often. This ticket is valid on any transport method (metro, tram, trolley or buses).
In any case, anywhere around the historic centre and nearby sights there is no need for taking any public transportation. The farthest sight is the Boyana Church all the way southwest, right at the foothills of the Vitosha Mountain, for what you will need to get on a tram and bus ride.
Being the capital and largest city in the country, with an ongoing boost in tourism the choice of hotels is continuously growing by the years. Almost any hotel chain can already be found in the city, with dozens of local hotels and family business smaller properties. The cost per night in the other hand is way higher than any neighbouring country, more than what we expected. Finding a good deal took us longer than usual. A good and reasonable point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers; where we found a great choice in hotels.com.
We stayed at the Ramada City Centre, in 131 Maria Louisa Boulevard, next to the central bus and train station. Possibly the largest hotel in Sofia, home also to the Casino, with a huge spa and indoor pool. While the staff is excellent in all means, breakfast very large and great quality, and a larger than average bed really comfortable, the overall state is quite outdated. Clean and functional, but very outdated. The TV is from early 90’s, bulky and just a bunch of not helpful channels; but what matters is location and comfort, which you will definitely get in here. Therefore even this downside, we can strongly recommend to anyone.
In our trip back in 2011 we stayed at the Hotel Arena Di Serdica, on 2-4 Budapeshta Street. Right in the middle of everything you are next door to all the sights, and next to the public transportation including the metro and buses to the airport. We were too lucky with this hotel because they were refurbishing it entirely, hence we paid a fraction of what’s the cost per night in this days in a brand new redesigned room, a proper 5* experience. The breakfast was simply stunning with anything you could imagine in the choice, but the staff on every department made the rest of our stay memorable. Absolutely recommended to anyone. A quite unique feature of this property is that on the lower ground floor you can find the Roman remains of the amphitheatre, perfectly integrated with the current structure. These can be seen either if you are a hotel guest or not.
Album for the city of Sofia
Album for the Monastery of Rila