Note: This is a guest post from our friend and fellow Bulgaria enthusiast, Annemarie of Travel on the Brain, who has spent several months in Bulgaria.
Sofia in Bulgaria is a beautiful city and shamefully underrated.
There is so much to see and do even with just two days in Sofia! To give you a head start on orient yourself, plus a few other practical travel tips, here’s a quick Sofia itinerary, perfect for if you only have time for a weekend in Sofia.
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How to Get to Sofia
In case you are coming from outside Bulgaria, you can easily get a bus (even overnight). For instance, from Bucharest in Romania, it takes 7 hours and can cost as little as 15€ with Flixbus. Among Balkan backpackers, connecting to Istanbul is also a popular option. This takes about 8 hours and costs around 23€.
In case you have an Interrail ticket, you can, of course, take advantage of train travel as well! There are different tickets for different travel spans, and the Balkans are included too. However, buses are generally faster and more reliable.
To get anywhere by long-distance bus from Sofia, you can buy tickets on-site at the bus station next to the train station. If you are traveling to popular destinations during high season, make sure to get your ticket in advance at the station or check BusExpress.
In total, there are 40 ticket offices, and you need to find the correct one for your destination. It’s advisable to bring a note or screenshot in Cyrillic with your destination on it, so you can be guided to the correct stall.
To really make the most of your Sofia itinerary, get yourself a metro day ticket from the tourist information for 4 BGN (2 euro). Another option is a single ticket for 1.60 BGN per ride or a set for a discount. Those can be bought at ticket machines or staffed metro counters.
Please be aware that these metro day tickets don’t include bus or tram rides, for example to Boyana. You will need to pay in exact change on the bus or get a ticket prior from a kiosk.
On that note, when you arrive at the airport, you can either take a bus or the metro into town. You can also take an affordable taxi for around 10-15 BGN (5-8 euros) to the center. With large luggage, you need to have a separate ticket on trams and buses.
Publish transport operates on a limited basis throughout the night, so it’s a good idea to download the local TaxiMe app, which is basically like a Bulgarian Uber. It’s cheaper and will show you the exact prices as well. You need Wifi or data to operate it, but most restaurants and bars will have that.
To get your bearings when sightseeing Sofia, why not join one of the free walking tours? You should pay a small tip afterward (Editor’s note: we recommend 5-10 leva per person), as the guides really show you the main spots and fill you in on interesting background stories. I’ve done it twice and learned something new every time.
Key points to visit in the city centre of Sofia are the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral near the golden road. From there, walk towards the ancient Serdica Complex and explore the excavations inside the metro station and out.
Get off at the northern exit and walk towards Sofia Regional History Museum and the bubbling drinking fountains. The mineral water coming out of these is warm and has healing qualities. Locals bring giant water bottles to fill up on the good stuff. It has a unique flavor that isn’t to everyone’s taste but you should give it a try.
There are more museums worth entering if you are curious about local history, art and culture. The Archaeological Museum of Sofia, for instance, displays Thracian, Roman and medieval artifacts. It houses in a former mosque and features a mosaic floor from the Cathedral of Sveta Sofia.
Once you are done sightseeing, walk south towards the Palace of Justice. Make a stop at the cathedral Sveta Nedelya, which has been destroyed and rebuilt multiple times, reflected in its many mosaics.
Along the shopping street Vitosha Boulevard, you can visit many popular European high street fashion stores as well as souvenir shops specializing in rose beauty and soap products. There is a variety of dining options to be had in the area as well, ranging from Italian over traditionally Bulgarian and Asian fusion restaurants.
Next, stroll around NDK, the National Palace of Culture, which clearly shows Sofia’s Communist heritage. Solemn statues next to the grey concrete and edgy architecture of the cultural center mark the otherwise rather bland park, which is nonetheless a very popular hangout spot among locals.
End the day in a quaint restaurant or café in the area of Oborishte. Particularly intriguing is the Soviet-style Raketa (Ракия Ракета Бар). Here, drinks use local ingredients in creative ways, the food is extremely delicious takes on traditional Bulgarian classics, and the décor strikingly retro. At neighboring Bar Sputnik, part of the Raketa family, the bartender can mix drinks for you based on a series of questions.
Not only is Sofia busy during the day, but its nightlife isn’t bad either. Just know that party time doesn’t start before midnight! There are many different clubs and live music clubs. A popular (yet sometimes snuffed at) Bulgarian style of music is chalga, which is a style of House music with Arabian influence.
A Walk in Nature
For your second day in Sofia, why not enjoy the beautiful countryside that is around Sofia? You don’t even have to leave the city to immerse yourself in nature!
For one, there is the centrally located Borisova Gradina, which is a park on the one side and a natural forest on the other. The first is perfect for people watching and enjoying a little picnic. The latter is great for some quiet time and if you like the idea of forest bathing.
For a more mountainous terrain, try Mount Vitosha. Over the colder months, you can actually go skiing and snowboarding at the slopes up on the top. There is a restaurant too to refresh your energies and warm you up before setting out into the cold again!
There are different lifts up Vitosha mountain and options to reach them. For the Simeonovo lift, take bus 122. For the Vitoshko Lale lift, jump on bus 166 on weekends, which also passes both the Dragalevtsi chair lift and Dragalevtsi Monastery. Note that this year, it is only in service from July 6 to October 27, 2019.
Ona sunny day, no matter the season, try the Boyana walk up to Boyana Waterfall and Lake. It’s refreshing on a hot day as you’ll follow shady paths, which are all well laid out. I used my maps.me app offline to see the various trails and gradients. If you don’t want to go alone, there is another tip-based guided tour available.
There are different levels of difficulty, but it’s definitely not an easy walk. But depending on your fitness levels, you don’t need to walk all the way. A good compromise is making it up to the lake and then have a seat and take in the beautiful nature. There are natural springs along the way too if you need to refill your water bottle.
To get to Boyana Church and start your hike, it’s best to go to the bus stop at National Palace of Culture and take line 9TM. Then switch into the 64 at Hladilnika. The stop to get off at is Boyansko Hanche. Ask the driver to notify you, or better yet, use the excellent Moovit app to get schedules, route information, and notifications of when to depart the bus.
For a day trip a little bit outside of Sofia, try the famous Rila Lakes and Monastery. It’s difficult to get here via public transport, so a tour is definitely the best way. For instance, with a Get Your Guide tour, you’ll get an instant printable confirmation and a convenient round-trip transfer. We recommend this tour which includes both the Lakes and the Monastery.
Alternatively, you can visit Bulgaria’s second-biggest city, Plovdiv, which was named one of the two European Capitals of Culture for 2019. It is a very cute city that is separated into two parts. The lower is full of parks and shopping facilities and the funky neighborhood of Kapana.
On the higher levels, you can conquer its many mountains and explore the Old Town with its Roman ruins and remains of an ancient fort. The mountains make for epic sunset viewing spots and aren’t that hard to conquer. Book a tour from Sofia to take away the hassle of figuring out bus or train schedules and see the main attractions with a knowledgeable English-speaking guide! We recommend this one which also includes the adorable museum town of Koprivshtitsa.
5 Things to Pack for Sofia
We have a full Bulgaria packing list here, but here are a few things you shouldn’t forget to pack for your trip!
A good guidebook: We own and recommend the Lonely Planet Bulgaria & Romania, which is very comprehensive and useful for travel in the region. Travel blogs are great, but there’s no substitute for a paper guidebook you can easily flip through.
Grayl Water Bottle with Filter: While water in Sofia is drinkable (and we drink it regularly), some locals don’t like the taste and prefer bottled water. In some smaller villages in Bulgaria, water may not be drinkable at all. We love using a water bottle with a filter like this one which can sanitize water in a single step.
Comfortable walking and/or hiking shoes: Sofia is full of hiking opportunities, long sightseeing days, and hilly vistas with beautiful views. It’s easy to do 10,000+ steps in a day, especially if Vitosha is on your agenda. For hiking, I love these hiking boots (women’s).
Anti-theft backpack: While Sofia is a very safe city and we haven’t had any issues during our 2+ years living in the city, we also take more precautions than the average person as a result of several years of travel. We both own and love the PacSafe Citysafe Backpack, which is packed with anti-theft features like interlocking zippers and slash-proof mesh construction. It’s also stylish and streamlined.
Rain jacket: Sofia is a drizzly city throughout the year, and nothing ruins a travel day worse than not having the proper clothing for it. I strongly recommend this Marmot PreCip jacket (here’s the women’s version; here’s the men’s), which is totally waterproof and will keep you going strong throughout whatever weather is thrown your way. If you don’t want to carry a rain jacket, at least pack a travel umbrella.
Where to Stay in Sofia
Here are our top 3 recommendations for where to stay when you visit Sofia.
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 couldn’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.
Sofia Travel Resources
We want you to have the best trip to Sofia possible. Start with these Sofia travel tips to get you prepared for your visit, and this Bulgaria packing list which has packing tips for all genders, seasons, and travel types.
To help you, we’ve created a number of resources that will be helpful – this 101 things to do in Sofia should be a nice start!
If this will be your first time in Bulgaria, check out our Bulgaria trip planning guide.
We also have Sofia restaurant and bar recommendations, as well as a thorough post on where to stay in Sofia. We also have articles for popular day trips from Sofia like Plovdiv, the Rila Lakes, and Buzludzha.
Planning a Trip to Bulgaria? Don’t Forget Travel Insurance!
We think it’s a good idea to travel to Bulgaria with a valid travel insurance policy. Travel here includes outdoor activities and travel to highly touristed sites. It’s a good idea to be covered in case you have an accident or fall victim to theft. Travel insurance will help you recover your expenses and continue to enjoy your trip.
For travel insurance, I use World Nomads. I’ve been a happy customer of theirs for almost three years, and I’ve never had an issue when making a claim. I’m happy to refer them to anyone I meet.
Originally from California, Allison has been living in Bulgaria for the last two years and is obsessed with traveling around the Balkans. She has been published in National Geographic, CNN Arabic, Matador Network, and the Huffington Post. She loves befriending dogs, drinking coffee, geeking out about wine, and cooking food from around the world.