Where: Sofia, capital of Bulgaria
When: June 2018
Why: We stopped off at Sofia en-route to Baku, Azerbaijan. A new budget airline called Buta, Azeri Airway’s budget division, started flying from Sofia to Baku really cheaply – and so we used this as our means to get to the Caucus. As we’d never been to Bulgaria before we decided to have a few days here, whilst we were passing through.
Sofia is a pleasant, easy to navigate, friendly city – which surprised me somewhat. I don’t know why but I thought Sofia might have many old Soviet concrete tenements, be polluted and not have very good infrastructure – but how wrong I was. Being there was really easy, the city centre is full of art-deco classical buildings and parks, everyone we met was friendly and helpful and there were loads of great restaurants and shops too.
Sofia is not massive (it’s about the size of Pamplona) but there’s enough to do there to occupy you for a few days. Although we didn’t go to Sofia to go to Sofia, just as a jumping point, I’m glad we went here for a few days and I’d be happy to travel through here and spend a few days here again.
We originally booked to fly from Barcelona to Sofia with Ryanair. Because of a French Air Traffic Control strike, Ryanair cancelled our flight about three days before we flew. To be fair to Ryanair, they processed my refund really quickly – but it did leave us without a flight.
Luckily for us, we were able to get onto Skyscanner as soon as we got the cancellation message and so we saw that we could rebook, either with Wizzair or Bulgaria Air. Wizz Air, at the time, was only about 40€ and Bulgaria Air was 70€ – but the Bulgaria Air flight got in much earlier, so we booked with these guys. I was glad we’d been able to rebook quickly as J kept an eye on these flights over the next two days and the prices skyrocketed. The Wizz Air flight even sold out.
Sadly, our flight too got delayed by French Air Traffic Control and storms in Sofia, so we had a huge flight delay – but the Wizz Air flight didn’t! They left only about half an hour late, we left three hours late. The flight was good though and we were glad to be with Bulgaria Air: they were friendly, the plane was comfy and we had free food and drinks.
We finally got into Sofia at 4 a.m., but amazingly the Best Western shuttle bus that we had ordered was there waiting for us. I was so glad we’d booked an airport hotel. We would have had to get an expensive taxi had we booked somewhere in the city centre. Also, even at 4 a.m. the small supermarket at the airport was open and we were able to get cash from the ATM.
Sofia airport is tiny but is very easy to navigate and has all the facilities you could need. www.sofia-airport.bg/en/passengers.
The airport is connected to the city centre by Metro. The station is next to Terminal 2. Each journey cost us 1.60 LEV (80c/70p) and the journey to the city centre took about 20 minutes. Next morning we got the shuttle back to the airport and then the Metro into town.
Information on how to get to Sofia Airport via public transport can be found on the airport’s website.
Mostly we got around Sofia on foot. The centre is quite compact and most of the key sites are within walking distance.
To get to and from the airport we caught the metro. Each journey cost us 1.60 LEV (80c/70p)and we bought individual tickets from the machines. There’s only two lines, so the system is very easy to navigate. We also got the metro back from Boris Gardens to our hotel on Vitosha Boulevard, as I was hot and tired – but we were just being lazy to be honest. We could have walked.
What we did on our holiday
We didn’t do a huge amount in Sofia.We arrived very late on Saturday night and then left on the Tuesday, so we only had Sunday and Monday for exploring. Most things were closed on a Sunday and we wanted to rest after our late arrival, plus we had to change hotels – so Sunday was a write off. Leaving only Monday. And as I’m pregnant even our explorations on the Monday were more limited than normal. Pregnant women need naps. However, we did manage to visit the following:
City Gardens and Sveti Nikolay Mirlikiisk
On the Monday morning the first thing we did was head to Lidl to buy breakfast (mmmm Pretzels), which we ate in a small park. We then walked past the art-deco, ornate Bulgarian National Theatre to the City Gardens, a beautiful park space with fountains, cafes, cool shady areas and a cool, miniature bookshop, all surrounded by beautiful art-deco, pastel coloured buildings – including Sofia City Art Gallery. This felt like the heart of the city and a great place to go to to escape from the hustle and bustle.
I didn’t expect Sofia to have such beautiful architecture, certainly not in this style, and the statue covered town houses and museums were a delightful surprise – as was all the green space in the city. I don’t know why but I was expecting it to be busy, polluted and run down. Instead, the city felt spacious and pleasant – the parks a treat for everyone.
We strolled through City Gardens, over to the tiny Russian church of Sveti Nikolay Mirlikiisk – which we had gotten mixed up with the huge St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral – which we were heading to. Both are wonderful ornate, decorated buildings with a plethora of gold onion domes – but Sveti Nikolay Mirlikiisk is about the 10th of the size. For a while we did think it was the cathedral and were surprised that such an important building would be so small – but then we checked our map and discovered our mistake.
St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Completed just over 100 years ago, the St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is one of the largest Orthodox cathedrals in the world. This beautiful church, topped with golden onion domes and covered in frescoes, was built as a memorial to the soldiers who died in the Russo-Turkish War, which led to the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire.
The cathedral is beautiful and a wonderful place to visit. The interior is full of icons and the walls covered in beautiful paintings. The interior made me gasp, it was so wonderful, and I spent a good half an hour wandering around, a dazed look on my face, gazing up at the huge frescoes. The interior of the church was interesting to me as there were no seats; it’s a large, open space – and it’s full of icons, which I think are beautiful, but I don’t quite understand the Orthodox church’s attachment to this one form of artwork.
Entrance to the cathedral was free. It cost 10 LEV (5€/ £4.50) to take photos.
National Art Gallery, National Ethnology Museum and the Royal Gardens
It was break time/ snack time when we left the cathedral and we both needed bathrooms, so we headed back to the Royal Gardens, a lovely park at the back of the National Art Gallery and National Ethnology Museum – which are located in the old Royal Palace.
There was lots of cool art in this park and many Sofians were relaxing in the park, eating their lunch.
We ended up in the gorgeous, wrought-iron Tobacco Bar, at the back of the National Art Gallery Building, where we relaxed with a drink and a coffee and used their toilets.
Sadly, we didn’t make it into the gallery or the museum (we were hungry by this point and thinking about lunch). We shall have to go back.
The National Art Gallery looks particularly good. As well as modern stuff they have works by Rembrandt, Goya, Manet, Renoir, Cézanne, Chagall, Dali, Picasso and Kandinsky. nationalgallery.bg
The National Ethnology Museum, which is in the same building, contains exhibits about Bulgarian culture.
After a late lunch we walked over to Boris Gardens, a huge park located to the east of the city centre. Sadly for us, a festival or event appeared to be taking place in the park and we couldn’t work out how to get in. It was also supremely hot by this point – I was dashing from shade to shade – and I was starting to tire, so we decided to get the subway back to Serdika, where we would go visit the Church of St George and then head back to the hotel for a siesta.
Borisova Gradina is the oldest park in Sofia. It was laid out in 1884. The park contains forests, avenues of trees, statues, playgrounds, lakes, stages and an outdoor swimming pool. This is a great place to head to if you are looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the city for a little while.
Church of St George
We walked past the Church of St George on the Sunday night whilst looking for a restaurant. We didn’t know anything about it as it’s hardly mentioned on the Sofia Wikitravel page, but I wanted to find out more as the church looked as if it was made from Roman brickwork, but was incredibly complete.
The next day, when we investigated further we found out that not only is the Church of St George a Roman built church, it is also the oldest building in Sofia.
St George was an early Christian church built by the Romans in the 4th century. It is famous for it’s 12th – 14th century frescoes. The rotunda church is surrounded by Roman remains, of the town of Serdika (these are a series of small walls and the remains of a bath house). You can walk around the remains for free, though you get a better overview of them if you stay up on the path.
The church inside is very pretty but slightly plain. It was full of things for sale and didn’t feel like a religious building.
The Church of St George is located in the courtyard behind the Sheraton and the Presidents Palace.
Incidentally, the restaurant in the corner of the courtyard (Rotonda) has some amazing architecture inside – including an ancient grotto with vibrant frescoes.
Wikipedia has much more information about the history of the church.
Entrance to the church and the ruins was free. Photos not allowed inside.
Incidentally, if you head out of the courtyard towards Serdika metro station, you might see some glass domes in the pavement – and if you look in these you can see remains of ancient Serdika, the original Roman town. Emperor Constantine lived here before he moved the Roman capital to Constantinople. The remains are in the underpass between the Presidency and the Council of Ministers. If I had known this when we visited I so would have gone for a look. bulgariatravel.org/Krepost_Serdica_Sofia.
They were also conducting excavations outside the Sheraton whilst we were here, and though it was walled off there were windows in the boards so you could watch what they were doing.
What we didn’t do on our holiday
Boyana Church (UNESCO)
Number one on our list of things to see was Boyana Church, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. I’m slowly working my way through this list, trying to see all these amazing sights, so I really wanted to go here. When we investigated though, it was just a little bit too complicated for us to get to – and so we didn’t go. Had we been here for an additional day, this is what we would have gone to see.
This tiny, 13th century church is famous for its fantastic, vibrant medieval frescoes.
Entrance to the church is 10 LEV (5€ / £4.50). Wikitravel Sofia has information on how to get here from the centre.
Vitosha Mountain towers over Sofia. Apparently it is a great place for skiing or just to get out and be in the countryside.
There is a cable-car and we wanted to go on this, but again it looked a little complicated to get to and on our exploring day the mountain was covered in cloud. The cable car runs from Simenovo to Aleko. Flip Flop People and My Vacation Itineraries have information about how to get to the cable car. My Vacation Itineraries’ description is very detailed.
Contains Thracian, Roman and Medieval remains. 10LEV (5€ / £4.50)
Day trip to Plovdiv
Plovdiv is Bulgaria’s second city and it will be the European Capital of Culture in 2019. We have heard great things about Plovdiv and had we had more time we would have liked to have taken a day trip here. Plovdiv has extensive Roman remains, including a beautiful theatre.
Plovdiv is two-hours by bus from Sofia, and three hours by train.
You can get times and fares and buy bus tickets (all in English) from the Sofia Central Bus Station website.
You can get train times (in English) from the Bulgarian State Railway website.
Rila Monastery is one of the most important religious sites in Bulgaria. It is located in the Rila Mountains, about two hours drive from Sofia. I wanted to take a tour to the monastery so that we could see some more of Bulgaria.
Where we stayed
Best Western Premier Sofia Airport
I love Best Western Premier Sofia Airport. Not only was their shuttle bus there waiting for us at 4 a.m., when we arrived three hours late, like a trusty steed rescuing us from trial and strife, but getting into the huge bed after our long flight delay was like going to bed in a cloud. Jeff asked me what my favourite part of our stay in Sofia was and my answer was the bed at the Best Western. This luxury when I was tired and fed up was just wonderful. I’m so sad we only got to stay here for a few hours!
Our room was luxurious and lovely. We had an obscene amount of pillows, views over Sofia, snacks, drinks and toiletries and a heavenly, large shower. Yes it’s a chain hotel – but they did everything right, just when we needed it.
I don’t think I would stay here for a visit to the city centre as the hotel was too far out, but for staying close to the airport it was perfect.
We booked directly with Best Western and the room cost is 68€ / £60.
Guesthouse Vitosha 55
We chose Guesthouse Vitosha 55 because it was beautifully designed and in the heart of Sofia. The problem was, although it was beautifully designed to look at, it wasn’t beautifully designed to stay at and someone really ought to have looked at this hotel from a guest’s perspective to make it a great place to stay.
So, first off, because they advertised check in from 3, we turned up a little before we were due to check in and no one was there. Not their fault, we were early. So we went off for lunch and then I came back at check-in time, but still no one answered the door. I went downstairs to a bar underneath and they really kindly tried to call the hotel for me, using the number on our reservation, but no answer. Eventually I went to get Jeff and we decided to just sit on their stairs, waiting till someone came. I should add, we had knocked on the door quite loudly a number of times.
Eventually, someone came to answer the door – so they had been in there all along but hadn’t heard us. Why don’t they have a doorbell?
We went to check in and they asked if we could pay in cash – even though it said on the booking we could pay by card – which meant a trip out to the cash point and the money exchange. We came back – no answer again! This time we ended up sat on the stairs for fifteen minutes until someone came to answer the door and we were able to get in and to pay.
When we got into the room and onto the wifi we discovered that they’d emailed us to ask when we were checking in – about the time that we were sat on their stairs, waiting for them to check us in.
The room we stayed in was lovely. It had a great bed (it had our own IKEA bed), TV and was well-designed. Apart from one thing. There was a design feature, a floaty dress hung from the curtain rail. The skirts were like a canopy for the bed. The only problem was – this blocked the curtains and so we couldn’t shut them properly – because they were blocked by the bodice.
The toilets were separate but the shower room was communal and unisex – with shower curtains. As a middle-aged woman, I didn’t feel very comfortable showering in there with just a curtain to cover me up. Especially as you couldn’t keep your clothes and towels in the stall with you. Luckily, no one ever tried to use the shower room at the same time as me, but I think it would have been much better had they had shower doors or just a private shower room. The bathrooms were really cooly designed, looks wise, and they had toiletries and a hair dryer for guests to use – which was great, but like I say, it wasn’t well designed as well.
And yet – the guesthouse is beautiful. We were given bath robes, there were loads of plugs in the room, soft rugs and lovely little features.
Location wise, Vitosha 55 is in a perfect place. Vitosha Boulevard feels like the heart of the city: it’s a long street of shops and restaurants, with the cathedral at the end. Incidentally, if you do stay here and are having trouble finding the hotel – it’s through the gateway at the side of the sushi bar, then you go up the staircase on the right hand side.
With a few small changes, and a bit of thought, Vitosha 55 could be amazing. It’s a unique place, great value and in a brilliant location.
We booked through Booking.com and we paid 40€/£35 per night for a deluxe double room.
Where we ate and drank
One of the nice surprises about Sofia was how many wonderful restaurants there were and what wonderful food they have in Bulgaria. There were lots of options from huge salads, to kebabs, roast meats, Japanese, soup. We stayed on Vitosha Boulevard which seemed to be a central area for food and drink: the street was lined with bars and restaurants.
Ugo was a large, friendly restaurant located on Vitosha. I think they are supposed to be mainly a pizza restaurant, but they also served loads of different types of food and drinks, including huge salads, deserts and cocktails. www.ugo.bg.
We went to Rotonda because it had a beautiful location, overlooking the Church of St George, and a lovely set up – with outdoor flower bedecked tables and pretty lighting. The service was friendly and the food pretty good, but we did find it to be rather overpriced. Also, even though they have a Visa sticker on the door they only accepted cash.
One of the coolest things about Rotonda was the hidden grotto inside the restaurant, which had frescoes painted across it. I think the owner said this was 200 – 300 years old.
So soup restaurants seem to be a thing in Sofia, which is great for me as I love soup and great for J as they had a few vegetarian options! What’s also cool is that some of the shops have pun names – like Supa-Star and Soup Me.
We went to Supa-Star, where for 4.80 LEV (2.40€ / £2.20) I had soup, roll, drink and desert (a yummy yoghurty thing with fresh fruit). They also offered cheap salads.
The staff all spoke English and explained what all the soups were to us. I highly recommend this place, especially if you are looking for a good, budget place to eat in Sofia.
Social Cafe Bar and Restaurant
I hate to say this, but J and I pre-judged Social Cafe Bar and Restaurant. We walked past it on the Sunday night and it looked like the kind of chain bar that you would get in Ottawa, and we were a little rude about it.
However, on the Monday night there was a huge rainstorm – restaurants were flooding and many had lost power – but not Social Cafe Bar and Restaurant – and so we went in. And it was lovely. I had the Moussaka and it was absolutely yummy. It had an interesting, varied menu, with many vegetarian options for J, the staff were friendly and it was pretty good value too.
Please note, some, if not much of this information may not be correct, or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to site which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is our own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.
All photos copyright of J Clemo-Halpenny, unless otherwise stated. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.