Sofia Adventures

You’ll never run out of things to do in Sofia. I remember my very first day of Sofia sightseeing:  I walked from an Airbnb in Iztok, passed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and the Statue of Tsar Liberator, towards the Central Mineral Baths, and by the time I got to Serdica Station, I was completely in love with the city.

Since that beautiful autumn day, I’ve spent countless hours exploring Bulgaria’s romantic yet gritty capital. Allison and I have collected our favorite things to do in Sofia, plus recommendations from a few of our favorite (trusted!) locals to help you plan your trip. We’ve included the best landmarks, monuments, architectural achievements, tourist attractions, museums, historic sites, tours, markets, and a few of our very favorite bars and best restaurants. If you only read one post before getting to the city, this is the one you want.

Before we get started on all the things there are to do in Sofia, here’s a quick guide on our best recommendations of where to stay in the city.

Where to Stay in Sofia

Accommodations in Sofia offer a great value compared to other cities in Europe. Here is a general range of what we mean by each budget category:

  • Budget: A room in a hostel, usually $5-12 USD per night for a dorm bed or under $40 for a double.
  • Mid-range: Around $40-80
  • Luxury: Around $100 per night or more

Budget: For a hostel, we always recommend Hostel Mostel. I have never stayed at the Sofia location but several of my friends have and have always spoken highly of it. I stayed at the one in Veliko Tarnovo and it was excellent. Perks include a free vegetarian dinner in addition to breakfast included in your stay! Check rates and availability here. If you are traveling in peak season, be sure to book online, as Hostel Mostel is popular and tends to get booked up.

Mid-range: For a trendy new boutique hotel that is shockingly affordable, we recommend R34 Boutique Hotel. The location is fantastic, near the Ivan Vazov National Theater in central Sofia. It has gorgeous, loft-inspired details like exposed brick, giant windows, and streamlined but modern décor. It’s a great bargain, too – check rates, reviews, photos, and availability here.

Luxury: As far as we see it, there’s only one option for  the best hotel in town: Sense Hotel. We go to their upscale, beautiful rooftop bar all the time when we have guests in town – it has one of the best views in the entire city and they make fantastic cocktails. With beautiful views over Alexander Nevsky, Sofia’s most iconic landmark, the hotel could’t be in a better location. Sense Hotel also boasts a state-of-the-art fitness center, an art gallery in the lobby, an excellent spa with luxe treatments, and an indoor pool. It’s truly the best choice in town. Check rates, reviews, photos, and availability here.

Things to Do in Sofia: Churches & Religious Buildings

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is a stunning 19th-century Orthodox cathedral built in a neo-Byzantine style. It is named after the Russian saint Alexander Nevsky in honor of Russia’s assistance liberating Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire. If there’s just one thing you do in Sofia, make it a stop by this lovely cathedral in the heart of the city.

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I took this photo of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral on my first day of sightseeing in the city! What a welcome!

Banya Bashi Mosque

Bulgaria worked hard to forget the centuries spent under the Ottoman rule, and there aren’t many buildings in Sofia that reflect this Turkish chapter in the city. However, it’s impossible to ignore the Banya Bashi Mosque’s presence in Serdica.

The Ottoman mosque was constructed in the 16th century, and it remains a beautiful monument in the middle of the city. It underwent repairs in the last year that blocked some of the views, but it is now fully restored and the only mosque left in the city.

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View of the Banya Bashi Mosque from Maria Luiza Boulevard

Boyana Church

One of three UNESCO World Heritage sites in or near Sofia, Boyana Church is located in its namesake neighborhood of Boyana at the base of Mount Vitosha. This Orthodox church was built in three main stages, the first in the 10th century with later additions in the 13th and early 19th centuries.

According to UNESCO, Boyana Church is “one of the most complete and perfectly preserved monuments of east European medieval art”. Because this is in the outlying neighborhood of Boyana, plan your public transit ahead of time or get there via taxi.

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Boyana Church is one of Sofia’s most important landmarks

Catholic Cathedral of St. Joseph

The predominant religion in Sofia is Bulgarian Orthodox; however, there is a small Catholic population in the city. The Cathedral of St. Joseph’s was originally destroyed during the Allied bombing raids during World War II, and restoration was a difficult process under the anti-religion Communist party.

However, the Cathedral has been restored in its original location. Pope John Paul II laid the foundation stone for the newly resurrected Cathedral in 2002. While most do not choose to visit the interior of the cathedral, everyone can appreciate the view of the Catholic Cathedral, Orthodox Church Sveta Nedelya, the Baya Banshi Mosque, and the Sofia Synagogue, which together comprise a monument to religious tolerance in the center of the city.

Dragalevtsi Monastery

Technically right outside of the city in the town of Dragalevsi, this monastery is located on the lower portion of Vitosha Mountain. Often overshadowed by the more famous Boyana Church and Rila Monastery, Dragalevtsi Monastery is a great alternative to see an important Orthodox site far away from other tourists. The historic monastery dates back to the 14th century during the second Bulgarian empire. It also played an important role in the fight for Bulgarian independence, as freedom fighter Vasil Levski used it as a center for the movement.

Rotunda of St. George (Sveti Georgi)

This small, round church is the oldest building in Sofia. It is literally hidden by buildings put in place to keep churches out of sight during the communist era, when the government was seeking to discourage Bulgarians from practicing religion. It was built by the Romans during the 4th century when Sofia was the Roman city of Serdica. Inside, it features medieval frescos.

 

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The oldest church is Sofia is the small Rotunda of St. George

Russian Church (St. Nicholas the Wonder Worker)

The Russian church was built in 1914, just a few blocks away from Sofia’s most famous landmark: the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Done in the 17th-century Muscovite church style, the Russian church was designed by a Russian architect named Preobrajenski and built by Russian construction workers — many of whom also helped build the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Supposedly, the church was built for a Russian diplomat who didn’t want to pray at Bulgarian churches. To this day, it’s one of Sofia’s most beautiful buildings and a great source of pride to many locals.

 

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The Russian Church of Saint Nicholas the Wonder Worker 

 

Saint Paraskeva Church

The third largest church in Sofia, you’ll see it if you’re strolling down G.S. Rakovski street downtown. Saint Paraskeva is a fun church to see, as it is both reminiscent of Sveta Nedelya but it has a unique design for an Orthodox church. It’s also incredibly photogenic and not on people’s typical list of what to see in Sofia.

Sofia Synagogue (Central Sofia Synagogue)

The Sofia Synagogue has been the symbol of the Jewish community in Bulgaria for over a century and is the second largest Sephardic Synagogue in Europe. It is currently undergoing restoration and therefore is closed to tourists; however, if you’re near Serdica Station or the Central Market Hall, take a peek at this beautiful building which, despite damage from boming in World War II, has been standing on this spot since 1909.

 

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The Sofia Synagogue at Sunset

Sveta Nedelya Church

Sveta Nedelya stands exactly where the ancient Roman crossroads of the city lay when Sofia was the Roman city of Serdica. Different churches have stood in the spot continually since medieval times, but each successively has been destroyed throughout the years. In the 1920’s, the previous church was the subject of a terrorist attack that was aimed at the monarchy. However, while there were over two hundred people killed in the bomb blast, the tsar was unharmed as he was late for the service. The current church was built in the 1950’s by the Communist party.

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Sveta Nedelya in front of Vitosha in Winter

Sveta Sofia

Sveta Sofia is the second oldest church in Sofia after the Rotunda of St. George, dating back all the way to the Byzantine Empire. The city of Sofia got its name from the church in the 14th century. It was turned into a mosque during the Ottoman occupation but was restored in the early twentieth century.

Sveti Sedmochislenitsi Church

This Orthodox church was built out of the converted Koca Mehmed Pasha Mosque, which was built in the sixteenth century. The grounds have been used as a religious site for millennia, even containing the ruins of a Roman temple to Asklepios. The mosque, which was known as the Black Mosque, was officially converted to a church in 1902 after undergoing a year of renovations.

The Church of St Petka of the Saddlers

This small Ottoman-era church sits amid the Roman ruins in Serdica Station Metro. It’s short because it was built while the Islamic Ottomans ruled Bulgaria, and there were rules about how high a church could be compared to other buildings. There are rumors that Vasil Levski is buried here, but the rumors haven’t been substantiated yet.

 

Museums

Alexander Nevsky Crypt Icon Museum

Originally intended to be the resting place of the Bulgarian Kings, the space under the cathedral was converted into a museum in the 1960s. This museum is the largest collection of Orthodox icons in Europe and covers the entire history of Orthodox Christianity.

Earth and Man Natural Museum

With a lovely but completely confusing name, it’s hard to determine whether this museum should make your list, so let us clear up the confusion: this museum is a must-see for the geology lovers among us. It’s one of the largest mineralogical museums in the world with a mission of “finding, collecting, storing and exhibiting minerals and their derivatives.” Interesting for science geeks and lovers of quirky museums.

Kuklite (Art House Kuklite / The Dolls Art House)

This is a great place for children (or the young at heart). Kuklite has over 3,000 dolls from all over the world, including “porcelain, antique, ritual, modern, marionette, souvenir, vintage and collector dolls.” The museum has weekly workshops (book in advance) for children to learn about dolls, doll-making, and Bulgarian holidays. The goal is for children to learn about dolls and also to get hands-on making them. This is a great option for anyone traveling with children to the city.

Museum of Socialist Art

What do you do with all the government artwork when you’re done overthrowing your communist regime? Round it all up and put it in a museum, of course! The Museum of Socialist Art houses the two most important pieces of Bulgarian Socialist artwork:  the giant red star that sat atop the party headquarters and the giant statue of Vladimir Lenin that stood near Independence Square.

Although this museum is a little old school and a little bit out of the way (it’s in a neighborhood called Iztok), it’s one of my favorite museums in the city. Last time I went they didn’t even ask me to pay an entrance fee, though they ostensibly sell tickets. Another memento of Bulgaria’s socialist past.

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This statue of Vladimir Lenin used to be located where the Saint Sofia Statue stands now. Today it’s one of the most interesting pieces at the Museum of Socialist Art

Muzeiko (Americans for Bulgaria Children’s Museum)

This twenty million dollar museum is a must-see for anyone traveling with young children. The focus here is science-related exhibits and discovery. There are over 130 hands-on activities and games. Make sure to take time to watch a show in the planetarium.

National Archeological Museum

Housed in the fifteenth century Koca Mahmut Paşa Camii mosque, it’s easy to spot this Ottoman building in the middle of the classical revival buildings surrounding it. The museum opened in 1905 and features artifacts dating all the way back to prehistory. Highlights include items from ancient Thrace, Green, Rome, and their collection of medieval books.

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The National Archaeological Museum housed in a former Ottoman Mosque

National Art Gallery

Sofia has multiple art galleries, but only one of them is housed inside the former royal palace. Its collection includes over 50,000 pieces of Bulgarian art. Since all the foreign art was moved to the National Gallery for Foreign Art, everything on display from the permanent collection is by Bulgarian artists, making this a great place to learn more about Bulgaria’s unique national identity through its art history.

National Ethnographic Museum (Ethnographic Institute with Museum)

Across the hall from the National Art Gallery, the National Ethnographic Museum is also housed inside the Royal Palace. Covering Bulgarian traditions and ways of life, you can learn about Easter egg painting, regional costumes, and local folklore.

National Gallery for Foreign Art

I absolutely adore this art museum! Beyond having a great foreign art collection, it has a spectacular collection of Bulgarian art as well. I particularly enjoy seeing Bulgarian art juxtaposed with works from the rest of Eastern Europe. This museum also holds the best collection of Asian and African art in the Balkans. Housed in the State Printing House, don’t miss the statue garden and take in the spectacular views of Alexander Nevsky from the upper floors.

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If you love art, make sure to take some time for this museum. It’s the best art museum in the city!

National Historical Museum (National History Museum)

Another great museum, this one is housed in the former residence of the last communist leader of Bulgaria. This brutalist palace deserves to be toured in its own right, but it’s even better with hundreds of thousands of Bulgarian historical objects on display. Since it’s out in the neighborhood of Boyana on the foot of Mount Vitosha, couple a visit out here with a stop at Boyana Church or a hike on the mountain.

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The National Historical Museum: This is what a former communist palace looks like

National Museum of Military History

Run by the Bulgarian Ministry of Defense, this museum has almost a million objects related to Bulgarian and European military history. Starting with an overview of Thracian military techniques through modern military tanks, this is a great stop for anyone interested in the history of warfare.

National Museum of Natural History

The oldest museum in Sofia, this museum is dedicated to the study of ecology, biodiversity, and taxonomy. Displays include preserved birds, mammals, arachnids, and insects. This museum is a great stop for science and ecology lovers.

Sofia City Art Gallery

Another one of the beautiful buildings lining the City Garden, the City Art Gallery’s collection of Bulgarian art is thought to be the richest in the country, with a heavy emphasis on 19th and 20th-century works.

 

Markets & Shopping

Alexander Nevsky Antiques Market

This is an informal market which sets up daily near Alexander Nevsky Cathedral to draw in tourists after their visit to the church. There are two rows of tables full of items for sale, both new souvenirs and used and antique items from Bulgaria’s past. Across the street, there are women who set up tables to sell linens and other embroidered items.

Art Street Samuil

This street is a must-see for art lovers and collectors. Samuil, known alternatively as the art street or as the art zone Samuil, is full of galleries, art shops, and smaller museums. It’s also the center of the local art scene.

Bitaka Flea Market

A sprawling flea market on the outskirts of town, this is Sofia’s largest open-air market. The merchandise is cheap (and negotiable), and the stands sell everything from vintage pornography to hairless dolls to rotary telephones. Essentially if you’re in the market for something unique, old, or potentially stolen, this is the place to be.

Check out Concrete and Kitch for a great write-up of what to expect at Bitaka. Fill your pockets up with leva coins and prepare to haggle!

Central Market Hall (Covered Market)

On Maria Luiza, across from the Central Baths and the Banya Bashi Mosque, stands the Central Market Hall. Alternatively known as the Central Market, Covered Market, Halite, or Tsentralni Hali. Whatever you call it, the Central Market is a great place to people watch and to see how different Bulgarian culture is from some of its neighbors.

If you’ve been to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar or any market in the Middle East or Asia, you’ll be in for a culture shock. Prepared to be practically ignored by the vendors as you walk down the aisles. Instead of boisterous salespeople hawking goods, most markets in Sofia are full of quiet, downright introverted folks who wait for you to come to them for assistance.

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Sofia’s Central Market Hall at Sunset. Sofia has stunning sunsets.

Ladies’ Market (Zhenski Pazar)

Sofia hasn’t gotten around to giving this market a single, tourist-friendly name yet, and that’s because almost no tourists visit this market. You can find almost anything you’d like here: produce, pots and pans, recycled tools, fresh fish, flowers, fake crocs, and even literal kitchen sinks. Come fill up a reusable bottle of wine, grab a slice of pizza, and walk around this entirely Bulgarian market. This is one of my favorite places to get souvenirs, since they sell many of the same things but at prices aimed at locals.

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The “Ladies’ Market” of Sofia

Klek shops

Klek shops are one of the most endearingly unique parts of Sofia, but you need to come soon if you want to see one, as they’re slowly being replaced. They originated after the fall of communism when it was less expensive to rent a basement than a storefront. That didn’t prevent ingenious Bulgarians from figuring out how to make it work, anyways.

When ordering, you literally squat down to tell them what you need, which is how the shops got their name (Klek means squat in Bulgarian). You can find nearly anything you’d grab in a normal corner store here, but with the extra bit of cultural significance that makes traveling here so interesting.

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Klek shops are a unique fixture of Sofia life

Pirotska Street

Besides Vitosha Boulevard, there aren’t too many pedestrian-only areas in the city, but Pirotska, as the city’s first shopping street, is perfect for strolling safely away from traffic. This is a great way to keep going after a visit to the Central Market Hall, which marks the entrance to this area.

Rakovski Street

G.S. Rakovski Street is one of the most important streets in Sofia and it’s almost guaranteed you’ll cross it at some point or another during your time in the city. Walking down Rakovski, you’ll pass by Alexander Nevsky, the Russian Church, the Sveta Paraskeva Church, and other important Sofia landmarks, as well as tons of shopping. There are also a lot of great restaurants and cafes on Rakovski Street — don’t miss Baker Brothers (Chlebari Bratya) for some of the best bread in Sofia!

Vitosha Boulevard

Vitosha Boulevard — also lovingly called Vitoshka by locals — is one of the main streets in Sofia and the largest pedestrian-only thoroughfare in the city. It’s home to several cafes and restaurants where the seats spill out onto the boulevard, even in the winter (where heated lamps and glass paneled patios keep diners warm). This is also where you’ll find a handful of souvenir shops as well as international chains like McDonalds and H&M in case you’re in desperate need of the familiar while you’re in Sofia.

The German Christmas Market

The Christmas Market is a recent addition to the city’s winter festivities, but it is truly a delight. German food and gluhwein (mulled wine), Christmas carols, and booths selling ornaments line the end of the City Garden for about a month before Christmas. I’ve gone the last two years, and it’s one of my favorite winter activities here.

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The Sofia German Christmas Market is one of the highlights of Christmas in Sofia

Historic Buildings & Landmarks

Arena di Serdica

Whenever there’s a new construction project in the city, there’s always a good chance that Roman ruins will be found during the digging process. This is exactly what happened when the Arena di Serdica hotel was being built – they found a Roman arena underneath! Visitors to the city can go in and see this piece of history, preserved under plexiglass.

Central Military Club

If Wes Anderson shot a movie in Sofia, this building would feature prominently. Practically unknown to foreigners, this Renaissance Revival style building houses some of the most gorgeous interiors in the city. That’s why we think it belongs on our list as one of the most Instagrammable places in Sofia.

However, its significance to the city goes beyond lavish pink concert halls and domed rooftop views of Alexander Nevsky. This building was one of the first monumental buildings to be built after Bulgaria’s liberation and is, therefore, a major symbol of the country’s independence.

Central Mineral Baths

Like many cities in Eastern Europe, Sofia is built on top of mineral hot springs and houses a historic mineral bath building. Featuring stunning red and yellow Neo-Byzantine architecture with gorgeous interior tilework, the Central Mineral Baths is usually one of the first buildings that visitors think of when they imagine Sofia.

Instead of thermal baths, the building is now home to the Sofia History Museum, which boasts a collection dating back to pre-Roman times, as well the royal thrones of the Bulgarian monarchy and a full-size carriage. This is a great place to go to learn about the history of the city.

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Sofia’s Central Mineral Baths in all their Neobyzantine Splendor. This is my favorite building in the city.

Council of Ministers

One of the beautiful buildings in the Largo complex, this is where the Prime Minister of Bulgaria and the cabinet offices can be found. Like the rest of the Largo, the Council of Ministers is built in the Soviet Classical Style. You know you’re looking at this building if you’re facing the Communist Party Headquarters (with the Saint Sofia Statue behind you) and you look to the building on the left side of the complex.

Eagles’ Bridge (Orlov Most)

If you find yourself near the Monument to the Soviet Army (below), then take a moment to spot the Eagles’ Bridge. It’s amusing that the bridge has four majestic eagles sitting atop pillars when the actual bridge is so small and seemingly unimportant. Foreigners typically find the fact that this is one of the more famous landmarks in the city endearing after seeing it in person. While this isn’t a destination in and of itself, if you’re nearby, you should make a point to look for it.

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The aptly named Eagles’ Bridge

Former Communist Party House

This is the most beautiful and prominent building in the Largo complex, built in the Soviet Classical Style. As its name suggests, this building served as the headquarters of the Bulgarian Communist Party when they controlled the country in the 20th century. It’s also the most striking building on Independence Square.

During the communist era, it was topped with a giant red star (now on display at the Museum of Socialist Art). Since the end of communism, it has been topped with the Bulgarian flag. It is the current home of the National Assembly of Bulgaria.

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Former Communist Party House at the Largo

Hot Springs Mineral Water Fountains

While the Central Mineral Baths no longer operate as thermal baths, the city is still sitting on its famous mineral hot springs. There are fountains all around the baths, and you’ll see locals filling up reusable water bottles to bring the water home for medicinal purposes. You can taste (and smell) the water yourself, as the water is available free to all.

Independence Square (Nezavisimost Square)

Independence Square is one of the most prominent landmarks in the city, though you won’t often hear it referred to by its name since there are so many other reasons to visit this part of the city. The three Soviet Classical buildings of the Largo sit on the square, which is bordered by Knyaz Aleksandar Dondukov Boulevard and Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard.

Here is where you can see through the glass lid (which we affectionately call “The Bubble”) down into the Serdica Station underpass where there are exposed ancient Roman ruins. Visible from the square are some of the most important other sites in the city, like the Saint Sofia Statue, Banya Bashi Mosque, Catholic Cathedral of St Joseph, and the medieval Church of St. Petka.

Ivan Vazov National Theater

While a stop at Ivan Vazov’s grave is more of a hidden gem, spending time gazing at the Viennese-style Ivan Vazov National Theater is a Sofia must see. A stunning building lining the City Garden, the Ivan Vazov National Theater is one of the most important landmarks in the city.

It can only be described as ornate, as its gold-colored decorations, lions, and statues of Apollo and the muses give it a feeling of grandeur and elegance. Vazov’s play The Outcasts was the first ever to be performed here. Following damage during World War II, the theater was renovated to accommodate a larger crowd, but care was taken to maintain the building’s original appearance and cultural integrity.

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The beautiful Ivan Vazov theatre

Lions’ Bridge (Lavov Most)

This gorgeous bridge has four lions, one on each pillar. While it technically spans the Vladaya River, you’ll be forgiven if you don’t take a picture of this trickle of water. The beauty of this bridge is in the lion statues and how they’re integrated into the almost Hapsburg-like buildings around it. Just a few steps from the Ladies Market on Maria Luiza Boulevard, this is a beautiful spot for photography lovers, which is why the bridge and the surrounding architecture made our list of the most Instagrammable spots in Sofia.

National Palace of Culture (NDK)

Between Vitosha Mountain and Vitosha Boulevard sits this emblem of communist architecture. It’s home to the Sofia International Film Festival as well as year-round concert performances, conferences, and conventions. While it’s not typically on Sofia walking tours, we think it’s one of the most important places to visit in Sofia as it is central to life in the city. Step inside to see the some of the 80 monumental works of art that are part of the NDK, especially the gorgeous and overwhelming Revival statue, known affectionately as Mother Bulgaria.

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The National Palace of Culture at the end of Vitosha Boulevard at night

Palace of Justice

Walking down Vitosha Boulevard, it’s hard to miss the Palace of Justice, the large courthouse flanked by lion statues. The meeting place for the Free Sofia Tour is here under this lion. The steps are a common meeting place in the city, but it’s also an important stop for photography lovers.

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One of the Palace of Justice’s majestic lion statues. The lion is the national animal of Bulgaria.

Patriarch Evtimiy Square

After the Monument to Tsar Samuil, this square might be the home to the most unforgettable monuments in the city: an Orthodox priest standing raised above the passersby. Plus, this square has its own Facebook page. You know a square has to be hopping when it has its own social media, right? Definitely worth a visit if you find yourself nearby.

Presidency Building

The highlight of a visit to the Presidency Building is to see the Changing of the Guard. Less glamorous than its British cousin, this is still a fun ceremony to witness. In addition, the location between the Largo, the Rotunda of St. George,  and the National Archeological Museum means that it’s nearly impossible to walk around the city center without seeing this important but humble building.

Roman Wall

While there are definitely Roman ruins in the metro and inside hotel lobbies, the Roman Wall is a misnomer since it was actually built by the Ottomans. Part of a sixteenth-century religious complex, all that remains in the single wall, standing proudly in defiance of time. If you find yourself headed to the neighborhood of Lozenets, make time for a stop at the market that takes place daily around the wall or the Saturday “Roman Wall” farmers’ market.

Royal Palace (The Former Royal Palace)

This beautiful yellow building now houses the National Art Gallery and the National Ethnographic Museum, but once upon a time, it was the home to the Bulgarian monarchy. During the late part of the Ottoman rule, it was used as an Ottoman administrative building and was the site of the trial of Vasil Levski.

Saint Sofia Statue

This statue stands in the spot where the giant statue of Vladimir Lenin stood during the communist era. It’s prominent position and name makes many people think it’s a symbol of the city; however, the statue is incredibly controversial. In the first place, the city is not named after Saint Sofia but rather is named after the church of Sveta Sofia, which originally was named after Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and not the saint. In addition, the statue is highly sexualized and bears pagan iconography, and it scandalized the church when it was erected.

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The Owl and Laurel wreath are pagan symbols on the statue of Saint Sofia

Serdica Station Roman Ruins

How often can you walk through Roman ruins when taking a simple subway ride? When excavating to build the metro in central Sofia, the ruins of ancient Serdica were found — hence the name of the metro. One part metro, one part museum, it’s hard to miss Serdica station when walking through Sofia’s center, and it’s one of the most interesting parts of the city.

Sofia Opera and Ballet

Sofia has had an opera company since the end of the 19th century, and it has occupied its current building since 1957. Opera and theater lovers can happily buy tickets online or go to their box office, and tickets are reasonably priced compared to other European cities.

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In front of the opera house

SS. Cyril and Methodius National Library

The SS. Cyril and Methodius National Library is the national library of Bulgaria. Named after two of the most famous Bulgarian saints, Cyril and Methodius, who invented the Glagolitic Alphabet which is the precursor to modern Cyrillic. This is the oldest cultural institution in Bulgaria to be founded after the 1878 independence from the Ottoman empire.

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Saints Cyril and Methodius Library

Sofia’s Puppet Theater

Another great activity for families traveling with children, Sofia’s Puppet Theater is the oldest in Bulgaria and has been giving performances since 1946. With more than 500 performances a year, you’ll have ample opportunities for a show if this is something your family would enjoy.

The Bridge of the Lovers

You might have noticed that Sofia is full of artistic bridges that span either nothing or only very small waterways. The Bridge of the Lovers is another one of these strange bridges. Sitting in front of the National Palace of Culture, it gained its name from the local couples who would use this as a meetup point and kiss on the bridge.

The Largo

Nearly every building, monument, and statue here or nearby is already on this list because the Largo sits at one of the most important points in the city center. It would be an absolute crime to come to Sofia and not stroll through this important part of the city, where Roman ruins and communist buildings comingle with modern statues and newly renovated luxury hotels.

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The Largo is one of my absolute favorite spots in Sofia.

The Snail House

If you need a reason to make it all the way out to the Simeonovo neighborhood, look no further than the house which has been made to look like a giant, colorful, striped snail. At five stories tall, it would be nearly impossible to miss!

The Yellow Brick Road

Move over, Oz — Sofia’s got its own yellow brick road.  Yes, literally! The story goes that Prince Ferdinand of Bulgaria married a fancy princess and wanted to make Sofia a beautiful European capital along the lines of Budapest and Vienna. So his buddies, the Hapsburgs, sent out some yellow cobblestones made in Budapest as a wedding gift, and they were installed in 1907. They connect many of the most famous landmarks in Sofia so it’s quite possible to “follow the yellow brick road” to various sights within the city.

Vrana Park and Palace

This historic palace and large park have only been open to the public for the past five years. The former home of Tsar Simeon II, the last living tsar and one of only two former reigning monarchs to also be elected as head of state after ruling in his own right. The palace, which was originally the royal family’s summer home, is lovely. Take a guided tour to learn more about the history of the monarchy and the beautiful royal residence.

Yablansky House (The Yablanski House)

A taste of Vienna in the middle of Sofia, this grand little house was designed by the Austrian architect Friedrich Grunager in the Vienna Baroque style. Considered one of the highest achievements of architecture in the city, it was a symbol of the return to the European sphere after the country regained complete independence from the Ottoman Empire.

City Tours (Free & Paid)

Balkan Bites Free Food Tour

Sofia is the only city I know that has a 100% free food tour! Balkan Bites brings you to 3 different Sofia restaurants and gives you a snack-sized introduction to Bulgarian cuisine. While it’s not supposed to be a substitute for a free lunch, it’s the closest thing you’ll come to it in Sofia. The tour runs daily at 2 PM, though it’s recommended to arrive early — especially during peak season — as the tour is capped at 15 people. Be sure to tip!

Communism Tours

Many foreigners visiting Sofia are interested in learning more about Bulgaria’s communist past, making Bulgaria a hot spot for Red Tourism. There are a few different companies that offer a Communist tour with an overview of the most interesting sites from this period. While we’ve included many of these landmarks in this guide, we suggest taking an official communism tour so you can also learn the stories and context of this important era of Bulgarian history. There’s no more intriguing, controversial, yet rewarding time than learning about Bulgaria’s communist days from locals who lived through it.

Street Art Tour

Sofia’s street art scene is not quite as developed as, say, Berlin’s or London’s, but there are many delightful examples of street art shown throughout the city. However, it’s best experienced with a guide, as it’s not so simple to find street art as just walking to a specific neighborhood and looking around. Luckily, there are guided tours offered to help you appreciate Sofia’s street art scene.

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One of the icons of Sofia street art

Sofia Free Tour

The Sofia Free Walking Tour is one of the best I’ve experienced in all of Europe, mainly because the guides are a step above the rest. This is largely because it is run by a local nonprofit that is extremely passionate about Sofia. The free walking tour starts at the Palace of Justice and walks you through important moments and landmarks in Sofia’s history, including the Banya Bashi Mosque, the Sveta Nedelya Church, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the Central Mineral Bathhouse, and more. If you ask people who have visited Sofia, they often recommend this as one of the top things to do in Sofia and it’s for a good reason!

Statues & Monuments

Battenberg Mausoleum (Memorial Tomb of Alexander I of Battenberg)

After Bulgaria regained independence from the Ottoman Empire, Prince Alexander I of Battenburg reigned as Bulgaria’s first independent head of state in nearly five hundred years. Ruling for almost forty years, he eventually died in exile. His mausoleum is an eclectic mix of architectural styles, including Neo-Baroque and Neoclassical. The mausoleum was closed to the public during the Communist era to avoid celebrating the monarchy, but it was reopened in 1991 and underwent restorations in 2005. It is now open to the public and includes displays of some of the prince’s personal possessions and documents.

Doctors Monument (Doktorski Pametnik)

The Doctors Monument is dedicated to the medics who died during the Russo-Turkish war.  The names of over five hundred doctors, medics, and nurses are inscribed here, along with the names of the four most prominent battles, including the most famous, Shipka. The garden around the monuments, the Doctors Garden, is a favorite with locals. Due to their efforts, the monument was restored in 2004, and the garden boasts Wifi, concerts, and ongoing cultural events.

Grave of Ivan Vazov

Ivan Vazov (the namesake of the Ivan Vazov National Theater) is considered the father of Bulgarian literature. In quite a poetic fashion, he is buried in the yard of Sveta Sofia with a rock brought from Mount Vitosha serving as his tombstone. During the warm months, his grave is covered in a thick blanket of flowers.

Monument of Bulgarian Volunteers

Located behind the Central Military Club, this monument is dedicated to the Bulgarians who volunteered (called opulchentsi) and who fought alongside the Russians for Bulgarian Independence in 1877-1878. There are 12 artillery cartridges which contain soil from the places where the most decisive battles were fought, along with holding the names of thousands of opulchentsi. There is also a stone from Shipka Pass, where the most famous battle was fought.

Monument to the Soviet Army

Located on Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard near the Eagles’ Bridge, this statute creates an imposing silhouette on its surroundings, as it shows a Russian soldier, firearm hoisted, surrounded by Bulgarian men and women. This statue was built in the 1950s to commemorate the Soviet Army liberating Sofia from the Nazis. This is why the Monument to the Soviet Army, with its direct connection to the communist USSR, is often part of political protest and speech, while the statue to the Tsar Liberator, which commemorates the Russian empire’s helping liberate the Bulgarians from the Turks, is not.

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The Monument to the Soviet Army at sunset

Monument to the Unknown Soldier

Many nations have monuments or tombs dedicated to the countless unknown soldiers that perished during each of the two World Wars. Bulgaria’s tribute to these soldiers is a quietly beautiful eternal flame. The monument is near Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and is adjacent to a giant statue of a lion, which is a popular photo destination and an ending point to Sofia sightseeing with the free walking tour.

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The Monument to the Unknown Soldier is a popular place for government ceremonies.

Monument to the Tsar Liberator

The city’s only equestrian monument, the monument shows Russian Tsar Alexander II liberating Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire during the Russo-Turkish War in 1878, though the actual monument was completed in 1903. Sice Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, he never learned of the existence of the statue. Its prominent place in the city, right on Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard across from the Bulgarian National Assembly and close to Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, makes it hard to miss.

The Bells Monument

The Bells Monument is a communist complex from the 1980’s. You can read its fascinating history here, but know that a visit here is one of the most delightful times you can have just running around and ringing the ninety-five bells that make up this special corner of the city. This is one of the more unusual things to do in Sofia so don’t be surprised if you don’t see any fellow tourists here.

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The Bells Monument displays the message of “Unity, Creativity, Beauty”

Monument to Tsar Samuil

A newer addition to Sofia’s monuments and statues, this monument was erected in 2014 on the thousandth anniversary of the death of one of the first Bulgarian Kingdom’s great tsars. Though it’s only been standing a few years, this has quickly become one of Sofia’s most beloved monuments, as its appearance is simultaneously humorous and striking. I promise that if you come across this statue near Sveta Sofia and Alexander Nevsky, you’ll never forget it.

Monument to Vasil Levski

This granite monument was erected in 1895 to commemorate the 1873 hanging of Bulgarian national hero and most loved freedom fighter, Vasil Levski. There was a controversy surrounding the monument, as it was planned immediately after the Turks were expelled in 1878, but they weren’t able to raise enough money to complete the project. This infuriated the local intelligentsia who felt that Vasil Levski’s memory was being ignored, even though so much of the freedom movement had been set into motion by Levski before his death.

Mound of Brotherhood (Bratska Mogila)

Adorned with the words ‘He who dies in a fight for freedom never dies,’ this monument in Boris Gradina Park commemorates the Bulgarian partisan fighters who died trying to free Bulgaria from the Nazis in World War II. The monument is controversial, as it weaves different eras and movements together to celebrate the triumph of socialism over capitalism. Plans have been in the works to take the monument down, although there have been only minimal efforts towards that end. You can read more about this interesting monument here.

Parks & Green Spaces

Borisova Gradina Park (Knyaz-Borisova Gradina) (Formerly Freedom Park)

Named after Tsar Boris III, Borisova Gradina Park holds many honors in Sofia. It is the oldest park in the city, the largest, and the most well-known. Proclaimed a monument to Bulgarian parks and garden art in 1986, it is a large, multi-faceted place with untold statues, corners, and pathways to discover. It’s easy to lose yourself wandering through the beautiful space. Highlights include the lake, the Japanese Corner, and the Mound of Brotherhood.

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Borisova Gradina Park at Sunset

Boyana Waterfall

How often is it that a city boasts not only its own mountain but its own waterfall as well? Boyana Waterfall stretches 15 meters tall and is located in the heart of Vitosha National Park. This waterfall is one of the most beautiful places in Sofia and a great place for a short but enjoyable hike! Best visited from Boyana Church, the hike takes about 1-2 hours each way depending on your pace.

Central Sofia Cemetery (Orlandovtsi Cemetery)

Many travelers end up gravitating towards visiting important and historic cemeteries as they provide a great way to learn about a city, enjoy some solitude, pay respects to the city’s past, and photograph the beautiful and unusual artwork typically found in them. The Central Sofia Cemetary offers all of these opportunities.

The final resting place of famous Bulgarians, foreign soldiers from multiple wars, and regular Bulgarians, a visit here offers so much to experience and learn about the city. Important points include Plots 21 and 5 (German soldiers from both World Wars), Plot 1 (Bulgarian soldiers), Plots 15-19 and 22-24 (intricately decorated Catholic graves), and Plot 28 (important Bulgarian writers and poets). Check out this article for more information about specific plots and individual stories.

Cherni Vrah

It’s not often that you can climb to the top of a 2290 meter peak without leaving the capital city. Hiking to the top of Cherni Vrah is one of the best things to do in Sofia in the summer. It’s not hard to get there, which is why it’s one of the most popular ways to spend a weekend day in Sofia. And the amazing views overlooking the city certainly don’t hurt!

City Garden

The City Garden is second only to Vitosha Boulevard in its importance to the cultural vibrancy of the city. This park, bordered by the Ivan Vazov theater and the National Art Gallery, fills up with amateur chess players, couples, musicians, and groups of young people.

Always a great place to grab a cappuccino or Zagorka at a local cafe, this is also home to many special events, including Saturday night folk dancing and the annual Sofia German Christmas Market.

Bulgaria - Sofia - Fountain in the City Garden in front of the Ivan Vazov National Theater

Fountain in the City Garden in front of the Ivan Vazov National Theater, one of the best places to people watch.

Crystal Garden

Fun fact! This garden is actually where I got engaged on Valentine’s Day. Lined with cafes, bars, hotels, and a giant statue of murdered former prime minister Stean Stombolov, this is a common meeting place in the city. This is a great place to have a beer (maybe a Kamenitsa?) and enjoy being in the thick of the city.

Golden Bridges (Zlatnite Mostove)

The Golden Bridges are not really much of a bridge at all, but rather a dried up “stone river” on the slopes of Vitosha. The “golden” part of the name comes from the yellowish green lichen that covers the borders. It’s popular to hike from the Golden Bridges to Kopitoto (the TV tower) during the summer.

Kopitoto

You may have seen Kopitoto from Sofia city center if you were looking towards Vitosha — it’s the massive TV tower to the right of the peak, Cherni Vrah.
If you’re wondering what to do in Sofia that is a little off the beaten path, visiting Kopitoto is it. The view at Kopitoto is one of the best over Sofia, overlooking the city as well as the foothills of Vitosha mountain. There’s also an abandoned chairlift covered in graffiti, which makes for interesting photos and a bit of urban exploration.
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Views over Sofia framed by the old chairlift

Ski or Snowboard on Mount Vitosha

Yes, you can ski or snowboard without leaving Sofia! There are 4 chairlifts that run during the winter and trails. The main center for skiing on Vitosha is Aleko, which you can access by gondola, bus, or taxi. There are also plenty of mountain huts selling traditional Bulgarian fare (soups, salads, grilled meats), coffees, and beers if you get hungry while you’re skiing. It’s definitely one of the coolest things to do in Sofia in the winter.

South Park

South Park is not just the name of a raunchy cartoon — it’s also the name of one of Sofia’s largest parks, with walking and bike trails, a small river, a handful of cafés and restaurants, and a dog park all inside one park. But South Park is especially good for children, as there are rides and attractions perfectly suited to them, such as bouncy castles, trains, and trampolines, best enjoyed in lovely spring weather.

 

Food & Nightlife

Hadjidraganov’s Houses Restaurant (Hadjidraganov’s Cellars)

If you want to eat traditional Bulgarian cuisine while sitting in a restored traditional village house, then head over to Hadjidraganov’s. The unique architecture is comprised of four different village houses from different parts of the country: Koprivshtitsa, Zheravna, Melnik, and Bansko. There is also a beautiful summer garden open in warm weather. The food gets high marks, but it’s the extra atmosphere that makes this a hit with tourists. They also have folklore shows in the evenings.

Hambara Bar

There’s no name on the door and no sign on the street. When you enter, you’re met with a room that might as well be an old barn, lit only by candlelight with the wax of decades worth of previous candles lining the walls and tables. To get in, knock on the door and prepare to enter a different century, one where the capital’s intelligentsia meet in secretive, smoke-filled rooms.  This is one of the best bars in Sofia.

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Drinking by candlelight at Hambara Bar

Pod Lipite Tavern

Bulgarian cuisine is often organic and farm-fresh because Bulgaria is still very much an agricultural society. However, Pod Lipite takes this concept to another level, as it’s a traditional Bulgarian restaurant complete with its own farm. Try the pastrina or the Sofia-style chopped pork. And for dessert? Try the homemade yogurt or banitsa with Turkish delight.

Not in the mood for traditional Bulgarian food? Our restaurant guide to Sofia has more tips for hungry travelers!

Pub Crawl

If you’re looking for an introduction to Sofia’s vibrant nightlife scene, you can’t miss a pub crawl through the city center. You’ll get to explore at least 3 different bars, mix with locals and fellow travelers, and enjoy beer and Bulgarian spirits along the way. This is one of the most fun things to do in Sofia for solo travelers!

Rakia Raketa Bar

If you come to Bulgaria, you’ll have to try rakia sooner or later. Super strong and rarely understood by foreigners, rakia is the liquor of choice for many Balkan countries. Of course, don’t tell a Bulgarian that their rakia tastes like anyone else’s! The food here is pretty tasty, which is excellent since you should never drink rakia on an empty stomach!

Sense Rooftop Bar

For the best views in Sofia, you can’t miss the Sense Rooftop Bar. Located on top of one of the fanciest and best-located hotels in town, Sense Hotel, the rooftop bar offers sweeping views of Alexander Nevsky and the best location for sunsets and Instagram shots. Side note — Sofia has some of the best sunsets of any landlocked city I’ve ever been to, so the Sense Rooftop Bar is a great place to enjoy them!

Shtastliveca

One of the best places to have a traditional Bulgarian meal, Shtastliveca on Vitosha Boulevard is loved by locals and tourists alike. With a massive menu of Bulgarian classics, you’re sure to find something you like — the salads and soups here are especially delightful. There is a great outdoor terrace in the summer, but in the winter, the interior is super cozy and a bit grandma-chic.

The Apartment (A:part:mental)

Like Hambara, this bar is a unique Sofia experience not to be missed. The bar is literally two apartments that have been converted into a modern hangout space. You can play board games, lounge on the comfy couches, and when you’re ready to order you walk over to the (well stocked) kitchen. Make sure to bring cash for drinks and delicious snacks.

Tsar Shishman Street

Tsar Shishman Street is one of the best places to go out for a drink or dinner in Sofia. Several excellent bars — 5L and One More, for starters — are along this street. A handful of delicious restaurants are also here, making this a one-stop shop for a great night out in Sofia’s city center.

 

 

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101 Incredible Things to Do in Sofia

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