I love Sofia in winter – the city just comes to life under a pile of snow. I love the look of the yellow vintage trams on snowy streets, the churches covered in snow, the cap of snow on Vitosha in the distance.
Here are 11 wonderful things to do in Sofia in winter, from cozy bars to Christmas markets to excellent museums. We’ve also included recommendations for where to stay in Sofia at the bottom of the post!
Visit the charming Christmas market
Not one to be left out of the Christmas market frenzy, Sofia has a beautiful Christmas market all of its own. Located in Borisova Gradina, the Christmas market is small but charming. You’ll find everything you can find at a German Christmas market, including glühwein (hot mulled wine) and bratwursts.
In 2018, the Christmas market opens on the 23rd of November, plenty of time to enjoy it before Christmas.
Marvel at the snow-covered architecture
Sofia is one of those cities that simply looks better underneath a blanket of fluffy white snow. There’s something about the way the onion domes of the Russian Church look against a stunning white backdrop or the way the brick red of Ivan Vazov looks even redder against the snow.
I mean, how beautiful is that church? I hate the cold (I’m a Californian after all) but I find myself longing for the snowy days to come, just to see Sofia under a blanket of snow again.
Ski and snowboard in Sofia in winter
How many cities can say that they have their own mountain in the city limits? And not just any mountain, either – Sofia’s Mount Vitosha is 2,290 meters high, yet because it’s so close to the center, you can drive from the city center to nearly 2,000 meters above sea level in about 30 or 40 minutes.
In fact, you can actually ski and snowboard on Vitosha. If you don’t travel with your own snow sports equipment, you can rent them at Aleko Hut for a reasonable day rate.
If you’re a huge snow sports person, you’d probably be better off at Borovets, Pamporovo, or Bansko, which are bigger snow centers. But still, the ability to ski in Sofia in winter without even leaving the city is pretty magical. I can’t think of any other city that boasts that.
Watch the sunrise over the snowy mountains
Vitosha is one of the most beautiful places to watch the sunset in Sofia. If you have rented a car during your stay in Sofia, I challenge you to wake up early one of the days to enjoy the beautiful sunset over the mountains. If not, taking a taxi to Vitosha will cost about 80-100 leva round trip plus wait time, roughly – not a bad expense if you get a few friends to share the expense.
If you’re lucky, Balcanic may be doing a free sunrise tour during your visit, which does a sunrise tour hike on most Thursdays. I did a hike with them at the beginning of April when there is still a lot of snow on the mountain, but I’m not sure if they will be running sunrise tours all winter long. The tour isn’t entirely free as you have to contribute to the cost of joint taxis but it was quite affordable – I contributed about 15 leva to the taxi pool.
Duck into a museum when it’s cold
If it’s a cold Sofia winter day, one of the best ways to get out of the elements is to duck into one of Sofia’s many excellent museums.
Kvadrant 500, an art museum located just a stone’s throw from Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, is home to the best art collection in the city, including both Bulgarian and foreign artists. The Regional Museum inside the former Central Mineral Baths are also a great choice.
One of our favorite museums is the Museum of Socialist Art, located a bit outside the city center in the neighborhood of Iztok. This museum is mostly indoors and has a collection of paintings and videos of Socialist propaganda. But one of the most interesting things in the Museum of Socialist Art is the Communist “statue graveyard” in the courtyard of the museum. Here, you can see the statue of Vladimir Lenin that used to be located where the Saint Sofia Statue is. You can also see the red star that used to top the party headquarters, which has since been taken down and relocated here.
Check out an opera or ballet
One of the best ways I can think to spend a winter night in Sofia is to take in a show. There are several excellent theater and music venues in Sofia; however, a lot of the performances are not very accessible to tourists as they are in Bulgarian and no subtitles are provided.
For that reason, I recommend going to something such as an opera or ballet, where the words do not matter quite as much. Here’s our guide for how to get tickets and go to the Sofia Opera and Ballet.
Eat some hearty Bulgarian food
Bulgarian food is great for winter weather! While some of the food is better enjoyed in summer (nothing is tastier than fresh summer tomatoes in a shopska salad), there are several Bulgarian dishes that are absolutely fantastic in the winter.
My favorite cold weather food is sach, a massive plate for two or more with sizzling vegetables and meat that is sometimes served on fire for dramatic effect. It’s classic cold weather food!
A few other dishes I recommend for the winter are delicious soups. Bob chorba – bean soup – is a favorite, and more adventurous eaters will definitely want to try shkembe chorba, a slightly spicy tripe soup that is supposed to cure hangovers. I can’t stomach (pardon the pun) tripe, so I’ve never tried it, but some people love it. And of course, it’s the Balkans – grilled meat is always a good choice in the winter.
Check out the great coffee scene
Sofia has a lot of excellent coffee shops where you can duck into for a quick break from the cold weather. One of my favorites is Drekka because, I mean, look at that interior! They serve amazing coffees (I particularly love the flat white) and the people who work there are sweet.
I also like DABOV Specialty Coffee near NDK and Chucky’s Coffee just off Vitosha Boulevard, but there are several other great coffee places in Sofia – just check out my friend Megan’s Sofia coffee guide.
Stroll down Vitosha Boulevard
Vitosha Boulevard is one of the main pedestrian thoroughfares in Sofia and it’s a must-visit on a cold night because the bars and restaurants lining the streets have great atmosphere year-round.One thing I especially love is that almost all the bars, cafes, and restaurants on Vitosha Boulevard have enclosed terraces so you can get the “outside” feel without, y’know, actually freezing.
However, be aware that these terraces also allow smoking so if you are smoke-sensitive you may prefer to sit indoors where smoking is not permitted.
Enjoy a glass of Bulgarian red wine
Bet you didn’t know that Bulgaria makes some excellent red wines! While I am partial to rosé all day in the summer, there’s no denying that a wonderful glass of red wine in the winter hits the spot like no other.
A lot of restaurants have great wine lists, such as Bagri and 33 Gastronauts, but if you want a wine bar then check out Grape Central just off Vitosha Boulevard. Try wines from Melnik, my favorite wine region in Bulgaria!
Drink in a warm, cozy indoor rooftop bar
Why don’t more cities have indoor rooftop bars? Sofia has some seriously cold weather in winter and some rainy weather in summer so it’s a fantastic idea to have all the beauty of a rooftop bar without the unpredictability and occasional unpleasantness of dealing with the elements.
Enter Sense Rooftop Bar, my favorite bar in Sofia. This sleek, elegant rooftop bar on the 9th floor with sweeping views of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, yet it’s entirely indoors so you can stay warm while you drink. Drinks are pricy by Sofia standards – a cocktail is about 15 leva, or 7.5 euros – but it’s well worth it for the views!
Where to Stay in Sofia
While accommodations in Sofia are affordable year round, prices dip quite a bit in the winter and you can get fantastic deals on hotels. We’ve broken down where to stay in Sofia according to a few different budget ranges. 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.
Mid-range: For a trendy boutique hotel that is surprisingly affordable, we recommend R34 Boutique Hotel. The location is dead center, near the Ivan Vazov National Theater in the middle of 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. 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.
Planning a Trip to Sofia? Don’t Forget Travel Insurance!
Make sure you always travel to Sofia with a valid travel insurance policy. While the country is safe, accidents can happen anywhere. If you experience an accident or theft, travel insurance will help you recover your costs and enjoy the rest of your trip. This is especially important in winter, since winter activities carry a certain amount of risk with them.
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.