Sofia is the capital of Bulgaria, but is it worth adding to your bucket list?
Here I will share the best things to see and do in Sofia, as well as where to stay, where to eat, and how to get around.
Plus: How long to spend in Sofia, and whether you should even bother!
Grab a coffee and take a deep dive with me, into Sofia Bulgaria.
Is Sofia Worth Visiting?
If you are just here for the short answer:
Yes. Sofia is worth the trip. Sofia is a slow burn however, and is better when you have time to get to know her.
Why Visit Sofia Bulgaria?
There are a lot of great reasons to visit Sofia, but here are the best of the best! :
- Sofia is affordable
- Sofia has great food
- Experience Sofia’s unique culture and atmosphere
- Sofia has an amazing history
Sofia is Affordable
For a major city in Europe, Sofia is ridiculously inexpensive across the board. Here are all of the things that you can save money on, when you travel to Bulgaria.
Sofia (and Bulgaria in general) is one of the rare places that you may not save a ton of money by cooking for yourself.
You can’t haphazardly grocery shop and make pretty much anything at your apartment and still save money over eating at a restaurant.
If you do some good meal planning you could definitely save a few bucks, but eating out for every meal won’t break the bank.
$25 – $30 USD per person per day would be plenty for food – even if you’re eating out.
Getting around in Sofia is very affordable. A taxi ride will not cost you more than $5 – $10 no matter where you are going in the city.
(Unless you have luggage! Then you may get gouged like anywhere else.)
Sofia has a limited and outdated metro system, but tickets will only cost you about $1 USD.
Plus, walking is free, and the city is pretty pedestrian friendly.
Free and Cheap Things to do
There are a number of quality free things to do in Sofia, which I will cover in a moment, under “Things to do.”
Another great reason to visit Sofia!
Sofia is more expensive than the rest of the country, but it still doesn’t push anywhere near the prices of other European capitals.
You can get a nice place in central Sofia for less than $300 USD per week. That’s just $42 per night!
(I will list some popular accommodation in just a minute.)
Depending on when you go and how much space you need, you can also find accommodation for under $30 per night.
Sofia has Good Food
Sofia isn’t just home to cheap food, it’s good food. This city has a budding art and foodie scene, and we’re here for it.
Sure there is a lot of pizza, but Bulgaria has a lot of other great comfort foods. A lot of the offerings are simple but delicious.
Sofia has a Unique Culture
I know some would scoff at the idea of Soviet “culture,” but Sofia has a very unique blend of Bulgarian folk culture mixed with their modern history of communism.
It’s present in the architecture and in people’s attitudes.
(Take that as you will.)
Sofia has a Long and Interesting History
Sofia has been around in one form or another since the neolithic era. Artifacts have provided evidence of settlement since 4000 BC or even earlier! That’s insane.
The best preserved history is from the time of ancient Serdica all the way through to medieval times.
Sofia isn’t just a cheap place to visit with a big church! Baby got back…story.
Why Visit Bulgaria?
Bulgaria has all of the same price perks that Sofia does.
Across the country you will find affordable:
- Things to do (many free)
What else does Bulgaria have going for it?
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it a million times, Bulgaria has everything when it comes to natural wonders.
This country has mountains and caves, beaches and hot springs, forests and lakes.
It even boasts a single (albeit small) desert.
Whatever natural things you like to see on vacation, you can see them in Bulgaria.
Sofia is about as touristy as Bulgaria gets, and it’s not that touristy.
If you like hidden gems and underrated destinations, you will like Bulgaria.
Bulgaria is on of the oldest countries in Europe (many say the oldest) and as such the country is full of amazing ruins and artifacts.
Relatively unknown archaeological sites are scattered everywhere, and you are sure to discover something you have never heard of.
History of Sofia
I will try to summarize as concisely as possible! As I mentioned earlier, Sofia was inhabited in the neolithic time, so there is a lot of ground to cover.
[The following is my best attempt at piecing together information from Wikipedia, Britannica, and a number of other credible sources that sometimes conflicted with one another. You may find details elsewhere that differ from what is compiled here.]
The first known organized settlement, was that of a tribe of Thracians. They lived in Sofia prior to the 5th century BC, at which time they became part of the Thracians’ Odrysian Kingdom.
Philip II of Macedon, the same kind who would give Plovdiv it’s former name “Philipoppolis,” defeated the Thracians and took much of modern day Bulgaria.
He conquered Sofia in 339 BC.
Details are scant about the tribe that gave Sofia it’s earliest recorded name of Serdica. The first mention of the city is from the 1st century BC.
While they are often referred to as Thracians or Romans, they were actually a Celtic tribe.
The Romans took Serdica around 29 BC and ruled for centuries. Most of the amazing antiquities found in Sofia are from this time period.
I cover Serdica and its ruins thoroughly here:
Under the Emperor Constantine, Sofia (Serdica) became part of the Eastern Roman Empire, known by most of us as the Byzantine Empire, sometime after 330 AD.
Huns destroyed the city in 447 AD, but it was rebuilt in the 6th century by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian.
(I was very curious what happened between 447 AD and whenever it was rebuilt in the 500’s, but I couldn’t find any info. The facts may not be recorded, or may only be available to those who can read Bulgarian language history books.)
In 809 AD Khan Krum of the Bulgars took the city and incorporated it into the Bulgarian Empire. At this time Serdica was renamed “Sredets” (In Greek: Triaditsa).
After this time control of the city went back and forth a few times:
- 809 AD – 1018 AD Bulgarian Empire
- 1018 AD – 1185 AD Byzantine Empire
- 1185 AD – 1385 AD Second Bugarian Empire
In 1385, Sredets (formerly Serdica) became part of the Ottoman Empire, and remained under their control for nearly 500 years.
During this time, the city came to be known as “Sofia.” Interestingly, the name was unofficial at this time.
The earliest known reference to this new name was in 1376, but people living in the city were still referred to as “of Sredets” and the region was known as “Sredetska.”
This lasted the entire Ottoman period.
Vasil Levski is Bulgaria’s most famous hero, and he was put to death for fighting Ottoman rule. In a long and sordid tale, his body is thought to have been laid to rest secretly under the Sofia church: St. Petka and the Saddlers.
In 1878 Sofia (and all of it’s still Sredetsian people) was taken over during the Russo-Turkish war.
The Ottoman Empire signed a treaty with Russia, but other European superpowers intervened in the agreement, and a new treaty – the Treaty of Berlin – was signed.
This treaty allowed for a pseudo-independent Bulgarian state.
During this tempestuous time period, the debate over the name of the new Bulgarian capital raged on.
In 1879 a committee of celebrities formed to lobby for the historical name of Sredets.
From the Wikipedia article:
“Gradually, a compromise arose, officialisation of Sofia for the nationwide institutions, while legitimating the title Sredets for the administrative and church institutions, before the latter was abandoned through the years.”
That doesn’t sound like a compromise so much as a formalization of what people were already doing, but the name Sofia ended up sticking, which is the takeaway.
In 1908 Bulgaria became truly independent, and was renamed the Kingdom of Bulgaria.
Bulgaria at War
Throughout the Balkan Wars (1912 & 1913) and both World Wars, Bulgaria remained independent and control of Sofia never changed.
Post World War II, Bulgaria was a member of the USSR and remained one until it’s fall in 1989.
Bulgaria was the only southern Slavic country to not join Yugoslavia.
Where is Sofia?
Sofia is in west-central Bulgaria, and is the closest major city to the Serbian border.
Getting to Sofia
Whether you are traveling from outside the country, or you are already in Bulgaria, there are a couple of ways to navigate to Sofia.
Flying to Sofia
From outside of Bulgaria, your most convenient and affordable option for visiting Sofia, is very likely by air.
Bulgaria Air offers a variety of affordable short-haul flights from other major European cities, as does Ryan Air and a few other low cost carriers.
If you are travelling from North America, schedule the cheapest flight to any large city in Europe, and find your own connecting flight to Sofia.
It will always be more affordable to arrange your own low-cost flight than to book all the way through to Sofia.
Getting to Sofia by Rail or Bus
Sadly the rail system in Bulgaria is poor compared to other countries, and is not a very efficient way to get to Sofia.
I know for sure that you can take a sleeper train from Istanbul, but beyond that I am not too sure.
There are some efficient bus options from bigger cities.
For bus and train routes, check out Rome2Rio. It’s an amazing resource for getting basically anywhere!
Driving to Sofia
If you fly to another Bulgarian city, either Burgas or Varna, you can drive to Sofia in about 4 – 5.5 hours respectively.
Download a maps.me to have offline GPS for your whole trip, or pay the extra few Lev to get a wifi device with your rental car.
Where to Stay in Sofia
The best neighbourhood in Sofia to stay in, is Vitosha Boulevard.
Vitosha is the main pedestrian area in the heart of Sofia’s city centre. From here you can reach a lot of great places on foot.
Boasting views of Mount Vitosha on one end, and the National Palace of Culture on the other, Vitosha is the best Sofia has to offer in terms of food, shopping, and culture!
Sofia City Centre
While Vitosha is in the city centre, staying inside the larger area of Sofia’s city centre is also a good choice.
Again this will be very pedestrian friendly, and nothing takes long to get to in Sofia.
Staying near the Sofia airport isn’t ideal for a few days stay, but for a stopover or for late departing or arriving flights, this might be your best option.
There are a number of hotels with free shuttles close to the airport, and you will also be close to the rental car agencies.
The metro into Sofia leaves right from the airport, so you can go back and forth with relative ease.
The airport is quite far from the city centre, so keep that in mind!
Best Places to Stay in Sofia
We happen to have not only a lot of personal experience staying in Sofia, but we also have connections to hundreds of travellers who have visited Sofia over the years.
Thanks to the Bulgarian adoption community, we have been able to gather a lot of information about people’s favorite hotels and apartments in Sofia.
These opinions are mostly from US families travelling with children.
Here is a list of highly recommended accommodation in Sofia!:
Top Accommodation in Sofia – Our Choice
Out of all the places we have stayed in Sofia, we liked Marrinella Apartments the best.
We have stayed in three different apartments with Marrinella, and each of them was great!
They have a number of apartments, all surprisingly spacious and close to Vitosha.
Our very favorite was a walk-up on the street ul. Knyaz Boris I – but that is probably because of nostalgia, it’s the first place we brought our daughter to!
Marrinella Apartments range in price from 22 – 84 Euros per night, and can sleep up to 5 people. If you don’t see something that will work for you, contact them!
We have found them to be very accommodating and I don’t think their full inventory is on the website.
Price: $25 – $97 USD per night
Ask about weekly rates!
Marrinella Apartments haven’t been reservable on booking.com recently, but you can still book through their website here.
You can see their previous reviews and a number of photos on their booking.com page still.
Best Budget Accommodation in Sofia
The Sofia Place Hotel is popular with families, as it has the amenities of a hotel, but still offers the space and convenience of apartments.
They get a thumbs up for having modern clean bathrooms, a delicious breakfast, and a great coffee shop next door.
Price: $35+ USD per night
Modest accommodations still close to the Vitosha pedestrian area. Great breakfast, and multiple people commented that they had very helpful staff.
There is also a good restaurant on site.
Price: $47+ USD per night
The Budapest hotel also has a great breakfast, and it is located in a quieter area of Sofia. The rooms are spacious and there is parking available, a rarity in the city center.
Price: $60+ USD per night
You can’t really beat staying at the site of ancient Roman ruins. Arena Di Serdica Hotel was built right over the remains of an ancient theatre that was discovered as they excavated for the foundations.
A more luxurious hotel in the most convenient area in Sofia.
Price: $141+ USD per night
Where to Stay Near the Airport
You really can’t go wrong with Best Western. As far as chain hotels go, they are incomparable when it comes to a predictable experience.
The Best Western near Sofia airport has a free shuttle, beautiful clean rooms, and an amazing breakfast.
Price: $65+ USD per night
Getting Around the City of Sofia
The Sofia metro is very limited in its reach and route options.
It is very affordable however! Last time we were there it was still only 1 Lev for a ticket. (About $0.60 USD)
The metro is the best way to get into the city from the airport, without over paying for a cab.
The airport metro station is to the left as you exit the terminal. It’s so close that it’s basically connected!
After this, the metro is likely of little use to you. If you are staying in the city centre you can get most places on foot. When you can’t walk, a taxi is a better option.
In Bulgaria, taxis are pretty strictly regulated and they need to run the meter or you can report them.
(The number to report is plastered on every single taxi)
Cabs are affordable, and the best way to get around the city when you can’t walk.
(I know, as a slow travel blog, I would like to be more eco-conscious, but when public transport isn’t good, that’s just facts!)
If you are worried about getting ripped off, just ask how much it will be for your ride.
Most of the time the driver will look at you like you’re a maniac and gesture to the meter, which means he will use it!
Taxis are allowed to a charge a more expensive base rate if you have luggage, so bear that in mind if they spike the meter at the beginning of the ride.
If you have a stroller: Fold it before you try to catch a taxi, because they won’t want to pick you up if it looks big. (We discovered this.)
I wouldn’t recommend driving around Sofia.
It isn’t necessary to have a car, and it will be very difficult to get around the narrow streets of the city centre.
Most of Sofia’s streets are also paid parking, and they expect you to have a Bulgarian phone to be able to call in and pay.
If you do want to rent a car for the rest of your trip, there are a number of rental companies in the airport. We prefer Top Rent-a-Car.
If you need to drive your rental car to your accommodation for whatever reason, search for a paid parking lot.
These are not usually expensive and you will be able to pay cash, unlike street parking.
Where to Eat in Sofia
Sofia offers a huge variety of dining experiences for every budget. Here is a selection of the best restaurants in Sofia.
Whether you want a view, or to see nothing at all, these are restaurants in Sofia with unique atmospheres:
This restaurant has an amazing atmosphere full of plants with floor to ceiling glass looking out on the ruins of Serdica.
Honestly, where else can you look out over Roman ruins as you enjoy your meal? Or maybe a better question: Where else can you comfortably afford to do that?
Restaurant Serdika serves traditional Bulgarian cuisine and features an extensive drink menu. Customer service was rated top notch here, which is somewhat of a rarity in Bulgaria.
Serdika is a little more expensive than the average casual dining experience in Sofia, and a main will cost you about 15 Lev (~ $9 USD).
Also in central Sofia, Tenebris is a once in a lifetime dining experience in total darkness.
Guests purchase a surprise 5 course tasting menu and enjoy their meal using every sense other than sight.
It may sound unusual, but Tenebris is actually the top-rated restaurant in Sofia on Trip Advisor, and receives rave reviews for both the quality of the food and the overall experience.
This atmosphere comes with a steep price tag for Sofia, and will cost you about 85 Lev (~ $50 USD.)
Reservations recommended. Vegetarian options available – Just make sure they know who at your table is vegetarian!
Despite the name implying perhaps an Italian restaurant, Carnivale is actually Greek food, but they do offer burgers and other items too.
Carnivale offers breakfast, lunch, AND dinner, so if you like it you are bound to return!
Customers of Carnivale love both the food and the service. Try their gyros with a local craft beer. Carnivale also offers hookah, so don’t be surprised by that.
Vegetarian options available.
Another top-rated restaurant in Sofia on a budget is SKAPTOBARA Iskra. This casual spot offers top-notch burgers, piled high with amazing toppings.
They also offer craft beer to pair with your delicious burger.
SKAPTOBARA makes a bold promise about their offering, saying “nothing lame.” They offer free wifi, and accept cards, so that definitely helps!
A main at SKAPTOBARA will set you back $3 – $10 USD.
Vegetarian options available.
Cake Lab is located very near Vitosha Boulevard and is the #1 rated “restaurant” in all of Sofia. They offer a wide variety of cakes, cookies, and other sweet treats. They also serve coffee of course!
Cake Lab also won’t break your budget! A treat here will cost only $1 – $4 USD.
Try Cake Lab for a breakfast pastry to start your day off right.
Restaurants on Vitosha
No surprise that the biggest tourist area in Sofia has a huge assortment of restaurants to choose from!
Most have patios that even operate in the winter with blankets and heaters.
Take a walk down Vitosha and try something new. We never had a bad dining experience in Sofia!
Here are a few of the more popular Sofia landmarks that you can see on your visit:
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
I promise if you do a Google image search for Sofia, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (or just “the Nevsky”) will fill the results pages. It is Sofia’s largest and most recognizable landmark.
A little investigation reveals that the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is the largest Orthodox church in Southeast Europe.
It is also said to be one of the 50 largest Christian churches in the world, and in the top 10 for largest Eastern Orthodox churches.
Basically, the Nevsky is huge, but not world-record huge.
You may notice that only some of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral’s domes are shiny. This is not because they were cleaned recently, but because only 5 domes are actually gold and the rest are copper, which oxidized to the characteristic green colour.
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was built between 1882 and 1912.
This is also where you can find Sofia’s famous yellow brick road.
Yellow Brick Road
The yellow brick road in front of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, is exactly that: A road of yellow bricks.
I don’t think anyone can say for sure. The story has long been that they were a wedding gift for Tsar Ferdinand from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Since then an architect has claimed that the real story is that they were purchased from that Empire at great expense, with the hope that Sofia’s paved road would make the capital city more fashionable.
This last story is very interesting, because the capital of Portugal, Lisbon, very recently painted a street pink to revitalize a seedy area. It worked.
Does coloring a street fix everything? How does the rest of the world not know this?
The yellow brick road is said to be disappearing, as the bricks are no longer produced and the broken ones are being replaced with regular ones.
I don’t see why they couldn’t paint the bricks like Lisbon painted the pink street, since the bricks are already deathly slippery when wet! I guess we will see what the future holds.
In the meantime, the yellow brick road and the Alexander Nevsky are great instagram photo stops in Sofia!
Sofia’s Oldest Landmarks
Some of Sofia’s oldest landmarks have been around since 200 – 300 AD!
These three are definitely worth visiting:
- St. George Rotunda
- St. Sophia Church
- Roman Ruins
I have already covered Sofia’s ancient sites in my post about Serdica (I will link it at the bottom of this article). Check that one out for how much everything costs to visit and where you can find each of them.
Statue of Sveta Sophia
You will probably see the statue of Sveta Sophia (St. Sophia) if you spend any time in Sofia’s city center traveling by car. She stands tall in copper and bronze in the middle of one of the city’s main thoroughfares.
In the year 2000, this statue took the place of one dedicated to Vladimir Lenin, the founding head of Soviet Russia.
National Palace of Culture
The National Palace of Culture in Sofia is hard to miss, and a must-see for anyone who is into Brutalist architecture.
The brain child of Lyudmila Zhivkova – both the daughter of one of Bulgaria’s Prime Ministers and a senior member of the Communist Party in her own right – stands tall in a city center park. It is now a convention center.
I have actually never been inside, but the grounds around it are beautiful, and the building is a sight to behold.
Monument to the Soviet Army
You will definitely want to make time to see the Monument to the Soviet Army if you are in Sofia, because it may not be around for long!
Much of the country is removing memories of Bulgaria’s communist past, and this monument is often debated for removal.
This monument has had a few moments of fame over the years, as it has been painted to look like different characters. Most famously it featured Captain America, Superman, and Ronald McDonald.
Wikipedia refers to these as “art instalments,” but most everyone else considers it creative vandalism.
Hopefully they opt to keep the monument and allow it to be used for creative expression, but that seems unlikely. For a while the monument had to be guarded, but I am unsure if it still is.
Things to do in Sofia
Here are some things to do on your trip to Sofia:
- Free Walking Tour
- Vitosha Boulevard
- Street Art/Graffiti Walk
- Paradise Mall
- Botanical Garden
You can read all about the free Sofia walking tour, and what to see and do near Vitosha Boulevard here.
Street Art/Graffiti Walking Tour
In addition to the free Sofia walking tour, you can also try the graffiti walking tour.
Like the volunteers that operate the other walking tour, this one is run by English speaking locals who appreciate your donations. Proceeds go back to the local art scene, and the artists who host your tour!
You can do a self guided street art tour, by wandering the avenues between Vitosha and the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, but the tour promises to sneak you into the places where the artists like to work.
Paradise Mall is very much a large mall like most other large malls in big European cities, but it’s still a fun place to pass some time.
At Christmas the mall is decorated extravagantly for the holiday season, and is sure to delight the kids in your group!
There is a large food court at the top level, where you can enjoy an affordable meal.
The Sofia Botanical Garden is a top-rated and affordable thing to do while in the city!
Stroll through a massive outdoor garden and even an indoor cactus garden. This is a beautiful spot to take photos.
Adults – 4 Lev (~$ USD)
Students – 2 Lev (~$ USD)
Children – 1 Lev (~$ USD)
Tuesday – Saturday: 10 am to 5 pm. (Closed at 4 pm from November to February)
How Long to Spend in Sofia
Sofia is a really affordable and unique place to visit in Eastern Europe. Having said that, a trip through the rest of Bulgaria is well worth your time too!
Is 2 Days Enough for Sofia?
You can see most of what Sofia has to offer in just 3 days. 2 days is not enough to do all of the sightseeing that you may want to do in Sofia.
You can still enjoy 2 days in the city center walking around and seeing what you find, just don’t try to do it all.
If you have 4 days or more, you could also travel out to Rila Monastery.
Is 7 Days Too Long in Sofia?
If you have nothing but time, you could easily spend a week or more in Sofia, just experiencing life as a local. Stay near Vitosha and try out a new daily routine.
Is Sofia Worth Visiting for an Extended Period?
It depends on what you are looking for. Sofia is a rising choice for Digital Nomads because it has great wifi, is affordable, and walkable.
If I was to spend a lot of time in Bulgaria, I would personally be more likely to settle near the Black Sea, in Burgas or Varna.
If the mountains are more your thing, Bansko is very popular in the summer with long-term travelers.
Where is Bulgaria on your list for 2022?