As Bulgaria’s largest city and capital, Sofia is pretty compact with a certain east meets west charm. Travelling into the city from the airport is relatively painless and once there, you can reach most places by foot. With a flight time of around 4 hours, it’s close to the UK making it ideal for a weekend getaway. I booked it on a whim after finding a too good to be true deal. I’ll be honest, I had little knowledge of Sofia and didn’t know what to expect: I certainly wasn’t expecting it to become one of our favourite European cities.
While we’re encourage to stay home, stay safe and preserve our NHS, I’ve become nostalgic about the travels John and I took. Without further ado, here’s our guide to…
Furna, 3 Stefan Stambolov Blvd. Sofia 1303
Furna describes itself as a small bakery, but it’s so much more than that. Whilst there’s seating inside and out, arrive mid/late morning and you’ll find yourself out of luck and taking your pick of what’s left. With Furna on the doorstep of our hotel, we tried it out of convenience however, we advise making it your first stop to try Bulgaria’s Banitsa. With savoury and sweet options, they’ve taken Bulgaria’s traditional pastry and made it contemporary and if that isn’t enough to sway you, it served the best flat white we tasted during the trip.
Pros: Amazing coffee. Quirky banitsa.
Cons: Could be considered a tad expensive in comparison with similar places close by.
Fabrika Daga (Rainbow Factory), ul. “Veslets” 10, 1000 Sofia Centre
Located centrally, Fabrika Daga (translated: Rainbow Factory) left us feeling as cheery as its name. A handy spot to drop in for a quick bite or coffee on the go (it gets busy with many locals choosing here), we found this café after visiting a second hand shop on the corner of ul. Veslets. Pretty on the eye, it’s a great place to visit if only to Instagram your speciality coffee. Their friendly staff helped us to translate the menu, ensuring we had delicious Bulgarian fare with a twist. After sampling banitsa at Furna, we chose (and thoroughly recommend) meketsi with white cheese which I’d clumsily describe as tasting like a thick, doughnut-pastry only it’s made with yoghurt.
Aesthetically pleasing, casual and vibrant with affordable lunch specials, a great place to people watch while sampling Bulgarian food and culture with a twist. Another small café which gets busy, especially around lunch time. Self-service means you could be waiting in line for some time, that’s if you’re lucky enough to find a table.
Try Rainbow Factory 2, located at 13B Sheynovo Street, Sofia 1504. A 20 minute walk from the original Rainbow Factory, it’s located close to Eagle Bridge and Sofia’s National Stadium.
Sofia has more than its fair share of second-hand shops, it seems preloved is big business here and you’ll find many large shops bursting with rail after rail of used clothing (sometimes, without a mention of charity). These shops are usually bustling and blasting out Euro hits, but they’re a great place to rummage.
Shops we visited:
Muppet Mag Bul. Aleksandar Stamboliyska
Humana Bul. “Vasil Levski” 85 (note: there are multiple Humana shops in the centre)
Shops you could try:
Zig Zag Ul. “Knyaz Boris”
Apexata Ul. “Tsar Samuil” 86
Zhenski Pazar Women’s Market, Bul. Stefan Stambolov, 1000 Sofia
Once a place for parents to “show off” their daughters in search of a husband, Women’s Market still retains its Eastern European charm. Here young and old come together to sell their wares: from socks to souvenirs, flowers to fruit. Although there’s probably not too much for a tourist to buy, its vibrant, local atmosphere makes it well worth a visit.
What could beat dining stood up eating real home-cooked, fried chips with chunky, old-fashioned style sausages? If you’re looking for a flavour of authentic Bulgarian life, then Women’s Market is a good, firm starting point.
Again, another place to visit early but for different reasons. Reviews report that the market can become rowdy from early evening onwards with people drinking alcohol in the streets.
Flea Market, Alexander Nevski Square
Chances are, you’d have stumbled on this traditional style flea market after a visit to St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, however it’s an enjoyable visit especially on a sunny afternoon. It’s everything you’d expect. Tables and blankets laid out with relics from an era long gone, religious icons, bric-a-brac and some antiques mixed with souvenirs. Vendors converse with each other loudly and will try to entice you to barter for goods if you show interest in their stall. While you can pick up your souvenirs here, unless you’re prepared to haggle hard beware of slightly inflated prices due to its proximity to the cathedral.
Bustling with street entertainers and musicians, Vitosha Boulevard is a 500m pedestrianised shopping street in the centre of Sofia. Flanked with bars and restaurant, it’s a great place to people watch, even in the winter months. You’ll find high street names alongside souvenir shops. Worth a visit if only while passing through.
Once you’ve seen one European shopping centre, you’ve seen them all. Largely generic, nevertheless we find ourselves visiting most shopping centres out of curiosity or to use the facilities. Sofia has a number of “malls”, each as non-remarkable as each other. You can find the main ones at:
Mall of Sofia, 101 A. Stamboliyiski Blvd 1303
Serdika Center, Bul. “Sitnyakovo2 48, 1505 Oborishte
Paradise Center, Bul. “Cherni vrah” 100, 1407 Hladilnika
Although a small city in comparison to its European neighbours, if you’re looking for things to do in Sofia you’ll certainly find enough to keep you entertained. While it’s a city stacked with monuments and religious sites, great architectural buildings, don’t be fooled – Sofia is bursting with modern culture too such as street art and museums.
St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, pl. “Sveti Aleksandar Nevski”
St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral must be one of Sofia’s most recognisable landmarks. Large and imposing with gold covered domes, it’s an impressive building that tourists rightly flock to. Inside I believe you’ll find an impressive interior, an underground museum of Christian art and a restaurant- but as we’re not religious, we didn’t enter.
On your approach to the cathedral, you’ll see the Insta’ famous road crossing. Position your Insta’ husband or wifey on the path leading to the crossing and church for the best shot, although take care – the cathedral is located on a busy, central road in Sofia. Go early or late to reduce traffic or your chances of other Instagrammers blocking your shot.
Buy a coffee and a banitsa to enjoy while taking in the impressive view of St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.
National Palace of Culture Congress Centre, 1 Bulgaria Square
Classed as a conference and exhibition space and with a TripAdvisor rating of #22, we think it’s so much more. Not only is it a fine example of communist architecture, but a spectacular building that is now used as an event space. On days when fayres are held, you can enter. Fans of ??? decor will revel in the detail of the building’s interior.
Our tip: Avoid the hustle and bustle of Bulgaria Square by following the steps up the side of the building, continuing round to find a large platform and undisturbed view of Mount Vitosha.
Stadium Balgarska Armia (Bulgarian Army Stadium), 1040, Bul. “Dragan Tsankov” 3
This is definitely one for long-time football enthusiasts (like my husband, not me). Harking back to a different era of football, this stadium is the long-time home of CSKA Sofia. Although it’s seen better years, it retains the charm from Communist times. We visited expecting to experience the stadium from behind the boundary line, but John was pleased to find we were granted permission to enter by one of the club’s officials. Not only was he able to photograph the stadium in detail, but discovered there was a fundraising football match on later in the afternoon. I believe it was a great experience, if you like football.
Street Art – In the city
Colour seeker? Even in the bleakest of winters, there’s colour to be found on the streets of Sofia although, if you’re seeking street art in abundance – you’ll have to venture a little out of the centre. However, there are some spectacular pieces dotted around the city centre.
Street Art – Out of the city
Most of the city’s murals can be found in Sofia’s residential areas of Poduyane and Hadji Dimitar, both within walking distance of the city centre but public transport is available from Serdika, one of the city’s main transport hubs. Although you’ll need to walk round a mainly uninteresting residential area, you’ll be rewarded with larger than life, spectacular murals.
We travelled to Sofia in February 2019 and paid £94 per person for our flight and hotel. Flying from Liverpool airport with RyanAir, this included hand luggage only and three nights at the four star Central Hotel Sofia. Using Topcashback, I received £15.04 cashback by booking through Expedia which took our total cost to £86.48.
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