After traveling cross-country in the US with my husband for the past couple of months and having a ball, it required a mental shift to travel abroad for my annual mother-daughter trip. However, Sofia, Bulgaria is such a lovely, easily accessible city that I quickly adjusted and had a delightful time!
Upon arrival on our first day, my mother and I met easily at the small airport in the afternoon and quickly found the subway station from Terminal 2 that took us into the city about a 10 minute walk from our center city guesthouse, Hotel L’Opera. Arrival to check-in only took about 45 minutes!
After setting our things down, we set out to explore the city, starting with it’s most ancient section – Roman ruins discovered and incorporated into the central Serdika station. This free museum offers English explanations of the Roman history of the city they called Serdica.
Next, we explored two nearby churches: The Rotunda of St. George (Sveta Georgi) and the Church of St. Peter (Sveta Petka). The Rotunda of St. George is the city’s oldest church (and building), circa 4th Century AD. It is representative of the Byzantine culture of the city. We loved how it was just incorporated into the courtyard of the Presidential Palace.
The Church of St. Peter is perhaps a bit more interesting not just because of it’s tiny size and location in the middle of a metro station, but because its 14th century development would have occurred during the reign of the Ottoman Empire in this area, in which Christianity was outlawed.
Next, we walked down Vitosha Boulevard, a delightful pedestrian walkway, to eat dinner at a traditional Bulgarian restaurant our hotel recommended.
On our second day, we awoke early (mostly from jet lag) but had to wait for a surprisingly late start breakfast at 8:30am. Afterwards, we quickly got started on our day with a plan to walk clockwise around the city’s sights from our hotel.
We started at the Church of St. Sofia (Sveta Sofia), the 6th century church that gives the city its name. At the time, it was the largest church in the area and towered over the town before the city became the bustling capital it is now.
We next explored the nearby Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. This glittering, if in need of a good power washing, cathedral was built in honor of the 200,000 Russian soldiers that gave their lives to help Bulgaria rebel against the Ottoman Empire in 1877-78, securing Bulgaria’s (relatively) independent state.
Down the street lies the University Botanical Garden, but the grounds looked so dead that we opted to just move on to the Russian Church, rounding out our local church visitations! This church is the youngest one we visited, built between 1907-1914 for the city’s Russian community, just prior to the Russian Revolution of 1919.
Next, we began an afternoon tour of a few of the city’s museums, starting with the National Ethnographic Museum, located in the old Royal Palace during the time of the late 19th to early 20th century Tsars. The museum was mom’s favorite (mostly because of the traditional costumes on display). Also inside the palace is the National Art Gallery, but we opted to skip that one on this trip.
After the museum visit, we decided to stop in the nearby City Garden for a coffee in the sunshine before meandering through the park for views of the Ivan Vazov National Theater en route to the National Archaeological Museum.
We were excited about the Archaeological Museum because we’d been reading about the ancient Thracian tribes and their gold work, which is displayed here, but also because the museum is housed in an old mosque from the Ottoman reign. Most of the mosques were torn down after Bulgaria declared independence.
We wrapped up our museum visits for the day with the City History Museum, housed north of the city in an old Turkish bath that originally began as an old Roman mineral bath. Today still, people bring their water jugs to fill up on mineral water just outside the museum. We usually LOVE city museums, but did find this one a little confusingly organized, at least for English speaking foreigners. Though, there was good English signage throughout. No pictures because they charge extra for that :).
After three museums, we were a bit done with looking at tiny details and a bit hungry, so we walked across the street for some lunch at the Central Market.
After lunch, we walked through the Ladies Market, an extensive circuit of shops and stands in the northwest quadrant of the center city.
We used the length of the market to explore the northern area, walking across the Lions Bridge to the train station for a reconnaissance mission to prepare for our night train the following day and ensure they have luggage storage solutions, which they do: a luggage room on the first floor open 5:00-22:00.
We ended our visits for the day by heading even further north to visit the very large Sofia Cemetery, which is not included in tourist attractions for good reason. The difficult to access area is predominantly a large unkempt and fairly depressing place to visit, so we do not recommend it.
We took a bus back to our hotel from the cemetery and put our feet up for a bit before heading out to dinner at the HIGHLY recommended Vino and Tapas bar around the corner from our guesthouse. Our expert waitress recommended lovely local Bulgarian wines for us while we devoured delicious bites!
On on our third and final day, we opted to first go to the Central Train Station to drop our luggage off instead of leaving it at the hotel so we knew it would be easily accessible for our night train to Burgas later on in the evening. We easily took the bus from a nearby stop, dropped off our luggage, and took a taxi to the Boyana area, on the far southwest side of town.
The Boyana Church is a UNESCO World Heritage site, specifically for its ninety 13th century murals, which we were unable to photograph but were spectacular.
Near the church, you can access the Vitosha Nature Park, which includes numerous trails. We opted to begin the climb up to the Boyana Waterfall, which is about a 5 hour roundtrip excursion. It was enough for us to climb about a mile to get some views of the city and see the beautiful changing fall leaves on the mountains.
Next, we walked to the National Historical Museum, for which we had purchased a combined ticket with the Boyana Church. It is 2km away and not easy to access because the guarded Boyana Residence for the Council Administration is located between the two sites. However, we managed to find it and enjoyed exploring and solidifying our understanding of Bulgaria’s history. However, we were surprised to find no real mention of the Ottoman Empire, World War I and II, or the communist period. Yet, the building, an old communist era palace, and the grounds are beautiful and absolutely worth a visit!
After our long morning, we considered taking public transport back to the city, but opted instead to walk to South Park and meander through some of the city’s green spaces back towards the center city. We do not recommend this walk for the nervous traveler because it was very off the beaten path…but we have now seen Sofia!
We stopped at the National Palace of Culture to enjoy adult beverages and a stroll around the spectacular and lively grounds before dinner reservations.
For dinner, we had arranged to see a traditional Bulgarian folklore show of singing and dancing at a local (very touristy) haunt right next to the Palace of Culture. It was…okay. The singing and dancing were nice, but we couldn’t see from our table and the food was overpriced and not particularly good.
After dinner, we caught the trolley to the Central Train Station in plenty of time to pick up our luggage, charge our phones, and relax a moment before our 22:45 train to Burgas.
We were delightfully surprised by the quality of our overnight accommodations. We had a cabin (with a sink!) to ourselves and the beds were quite comfortable! Having traveled in overnight sleeper trains/buses on numerous occasions, I can attest to this being quite wonderful!
Stay tuned for more Bulgarian adventures as we next explore the Black Sea coast!