While I’d love to suggest you visit both, if you only have a limited of time, you may find yourself having to choose between Sofia or Bucharest. While I may be a bit biased because I live in Sofia, I think it’s a very valid choice. Sofia and Bucharest both offer incredible history, sights, and culture well worth sampling.
Trying to choose which to visit, Sofia vs. Bucharest?
Here’s some advice to help you make the choice.
Choose Sofia if…
… You have limited time and want a more compact city center
When I compare Sofia vs. Bucharest, one thing is very immediately clear from the geography. Sofia is a much easier city to see thoroughly in a matter of days than Bucharest, which is rather spread out.
The Sofia Free Walking tour covers virtually all of the city center’s most interesting sights in a matter of 3 hours, which leaves you ample time to pick from 100 of the other 101 things to do in Sofia we’ve selected for you!
Meanwhile, while Bucharest has a free walking tour as well, it won’t come nearly as close to covering the main sights of city, and you’ll have to take public transportation, Ubers, or walk quite a bit to see the most spread-out sights.
… You want to eat better local food (or you’re vegetarian)
Sorry to throw down a Bulgaria vs. Romania battle just a few hundred words into this article, but I’ll fight to the death that Bulgarian food is more delicious than Romanian food. Bulgarian food has a lot more salads and fresh yogurts and cheeses that make the cuisine feel a lot more light, meanwhile, I find Romanian food to be made up of too much stew and polenta for a normal human body to handle.
Bulgaria’s position between Turkey and Greece makes its cuisine quite literally a mishmash (that’s the name of a Bulgarian dish, for the 99% of you who will miss that pun). You’ll find moussaka and stuffed grape leaves (lozovi sarmi) from Greek influence, and kebapche and balkava from the Turks. Bulgarians love their salads and soups: from cold tarator soup in the summer to bob chorba in the winter, and shopska salad all year round, Bulgarian cuisine can actually be quite healthy (if you skip all the grilled meats, that is).
On the other hand, Romanian food feels to me to rather heavy and hearty compared to the freshness I associate with Bulgaria. While there are some delicious Romanian vegetable dishes like zakuska, it’s hard to find more vegetables on the Romanian plate (polenta doesn’t count!). Generally speaking, I enjoy Romanian food for a meal or two and then get bored, whereas I can always find something on a Bulgarian menu I’ll enjoy.
… You want a more low-key party scene
Sure, Sofia has plenty of all-night nightclubs (we recommend Sugar or Gotham). But while Bulgarians certainly love to party (just go to Studentski Grad…. or don’t), the wave of bachelor party bros that have overtaken Bucharest’s Old Town each night in search of cheap drinks and general debauchery have yet to make it to Sofia in such high numbers.
While you can certainly find a party in Sofia, the city center is generally way more calm than Bucharest in the evenings. There are lots of incredible hidden and cozy bars in Sofia, and we think this city is better for sitting with some friends, enjoying the ambiance and some delicious cocktails, rather than pounding shots with a bunch of bros.
… You want to hike or take day trips into nature
Sofia is perfectly located for nature lovers – I mean, the city itself has a 2200 meter mountain smack dab in its city limits. You can get to Vitosha Mountain easily by public transportation, taxi, or rental car, spend a few hours there, and then be back in the city center to enjoy more of your day.
You could even take public transportation or a cheap taxi out to Boyana Church and then hike to Boyana Waterfall, seeing a UNESCO-listed 10th century church and then a nearly 100-foot-tall waterfall in a matter of hours without even leaving Sofia.
While Bucharest certainly has its green spaces, it simply can’t compete with what Sofia has its own backyard. And that’s not to mention the 7 Rila Lakes hikes that Bulgaria is so famous for, an easy day trip from Sofia.
Choose Bucharest if…
… You want to travel for the ‘gram
With its alleys tiled with umbrellas and its stunning all-white bookstores and its Parisian-esque arcades, Bucharest has so many Instagram hot spots that it’s hard to put your camera down. While I find Sofia beautiful – I mean, just look at Alexander Nevsky! – it doesn’t quite have that “Insta-something” that makes a city like Bucharest blow up, which is either a good or a bad thing depending on your perspective.
… You want to party all night long
If you’re looking for a city to party in and you’re choosing Bucharest or Sofia, you’ve got to pick Bucharest. Bucharest’s nightlife is crazy, probably only second to Belgrade’s in Eastern Europe (and maybe even all of Europe, to be honest). This is a young city that truly knows how to have fun, and they don’t like to go home until the wee hours.
As a result, the Old Town where most of the bars and clubs are end up being quite busy until the wee hours. I actually recommend staying outside the Old Town for this reason, unless you’re planning on joining the revelry!
While there are plenty of more relaxed bars where you can have a quieter night, especially near Piata Romana, Bucharest is really a party destination.
…. You love museums
While Sofia has a handful of good museums, Bucharest definitely has the edge on it. The Village Museum in Bucharest is truly outstanding, one of the best of its kind in Europe. Other excellent museums include the Romanian Peasant Museum, the National Museum of Art, and the National Museum of Romanian History.
If you like quirky museums, you can’t miss the Museum of Kitsch, which is as odd and delightful as the name suggests.
…. You want to see castles on your day trips
Whereas Sofia has epic mountains and monasteries easily accessible by day trip, Bucharest is all about castles!
Two castles are quite easily accessible by public transportation or even easier by guided tours: Peles Castle and Bran Castle, aka “Dracula’s Castle” (though of course, neither the fictional nor the real life inspiration for Dracula ever lived here!). Whatever the story, both castles are absolutely stunning and make a fantastic day trip from Bucharest.
Visit both for…
… Amazingly affordable prices and easy connections to Europe
You probably already know this – it may be the reason why you’re reading this article! Both Sofia and Bucharest are rather affordable travel destinations, and you’d spend a comparable amount in each city in terms of accommodations, transportation, food, and fun.
Expect to spend about $30 a day as a backpacker, $50 a day as a mid-range traveler, and whatever you want as a luxury traveler.
… Interesting Communist history and beyond
Of course, what draws many people to this region is understanding the recent Communist history of Eastern Europe. If the history interests you, we recommend doing a guided Communist walking tour – we recommend this one in Sofia and this one in Bucharest.
Yet also remember there’s so much more to both cities than just their Communist histories! Sofia has Roman ruins in their subways from its roots as the ancient city of Serdika, churches dating back a millennia, and mosques marking its time under Ottoman rule. Bucharest is a newer city than Sofia, but you don’t have to stray far to find history in Transylvania, the most historic part of Romania.
… Relatively easy to travel but offbeat experiences
I find either Sofia or Bucharest to be the epitome of the “Goldilocks” of travel – not too hard, not to easy. Both cities are well set up for tourism and you’ll find plenty of tourist amenities, from free walking tours to plenty of informational signage to help you navigate around the city. Nearly every person in the hospitality industry will speak a decent level of English, credit cards are widely accepted at restaurants and shops, and public transportation is high quality and affordable. Taxi drivers can be hit or miss, so read our Sofia taxi guide or use Uber in Bucharest.
That said, while the cities are prepared for tourists, they’re still not coming in droves, so visit either Bucharest or Sofia (or both) and prepare to enjoy the big city buzz without the Western European prices or crowds. So pick Sofia or Bucharest, or find a way to pick both, and come and see for yourself!
Where to Stay in Sofia
If you’ve picked Sofia, congratulations! This is a wonderful city and accommodations are quite inexpensive. Better yet, because the city is quite small, nearly all the major hotels in the city are easy walking distance to pretty much any point of interest.
Here are some ideas on where to stay in Sofia – what we recommend to friends and visitors!
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.
Where to Stay in Bucharest
If you ended up deciding on Bucharest, you’ve also made a good choice.
Budget: After having a bad experience with the owner of Pura Vida and Little Bucharest, I cannot recommend them to other travelers, especially solo women travelers. Instead, I’d suggest checking out Funny Hostel (check availability and reviews here) or Friends Hostel (check availability and reviews here).
Mid-range: Omega House is a gorgeous boutique hotel (which also has a few dormitory style rooms if you are a solo traveler with a slightly higher budget). The hotel has beautiful design and a spacious co-working space where you can make use of of Bucharest’s speedy, best-in-Europe WiFi. It is near Piata Romana, my favorite part of Bucharest (and where many of the best coffee shops, bars, and restaurants are located). With a 9.0 rating on Booking.com (read reviews, see photos, and check availability here), I’d recommend this for travelers who want a step above a standard hostel without paying a ton
Luxury: I stayed at the Grand Hotel Continental during my first Bucharest trip and I can’t recommend it enough if you have the money to spare. The room was elegantly furnished and the bed was ridiculously comfortable – the comforters and sheets were just so lush. The bathroom and room itself were crazy large and spacious (though the bathroom was oddly modern, to the point where the sink was really confusing and barely usable). I loved being a 10-minute walk away from the Old Town. I actually don’t recommend at all staying in the Old Town itself, because it’s super loud with drunks at all hours of the night. It comes highly recommended by me and others agree, considering it has a 9.0 rating on Booking.com from others (check reviews and availability here).
Don’t Leave without Travel Insurance!
Finally, make sure you always travel to Bulgaria, Romania, or anywhere in Europe with a valid travel insurance policy. Both Sofia and Bucharest are very safe places to travel, but accidents or theft can easily ruin your trip if you don’t have the travel insurance coverage to recover the losses. Recently my aunt fell on a train in France and needed surgery, but luckily her travel insurance covered the costs in full. Thank goodness!
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.