Sofia is another one of those cities, in another one of those countries (Bulgaria) that does not cross the minds of most visitors to Europe, at least from my part of the world. Which is (probably) precisely why it was at the top of my list. For the 2 weeks that I had between my thesis submission and my graduation ceremony, I bought 3 air tickets- Milan to Timisoara, Thessaloniki to London, and London to Milan (which I promptly missed, I wish I had thought of making a video instead like this guy ).
Anyhow, so my first 5 days were in Romania which was such a giant strain on my senses, because I landed in Timisoara and was faced with a lot of snow- something I was totally unprepared for- and very, very grouchy immigration officials. Then I entered Bulgaria and planned to spend a few days there before taking an overnight bus to Thessaloniki from Sofia so I could catch my flight to London.
Now, I usually don’t skip capital cities because, you know, it’s the capital and all… But I’ve found that I always find myself a little underwhelmed and actually prefer smaller cities I’ve been to in the same country. And, yes, it’s true I liked Plovdiv just a little bit more, but Sofia…
I’m intrigued! Tell me more!!
Sofia is the capital of the Balkan country, Bulgaria. Its ancient name was Serdica because it was established in the 5th century by the Serdi tribe. And because of its 2400 years of history cannot be compressed into one little measly blog post, let’s just have a look at some of the many things this gorgeous city has to offer…
Since, I just mentioned 2 millenia of history, here’s proof. The Sofia metro was planned in the 60s but was only recently completed well into the 90s because they found archaeological remains EVERYWHERE. So their metro lines had to be designed and redesigned over and over to ensure minimum damage.
Right before this station, is this statue of Sophia which replaced a statue of Lenin in 2001. It is said that this is a sculpture of St Sophia, patron saint of the city, but a lot of people refuse to accept the because she is dressed too erotically, and is called the Goddess of Wisdom instead.
On that note, this is the Saint Sofia (or Ayasofya) church. Most people know of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, Turkey, but if I remember correctly, there are quite a few of these in the world. This is where the city got its name from, back in the 14th century.
The Church of St George, below, is Sofia’s oldest building. It was built by the Romans in the 4th century, and lies within the courtyard formed by the Sheraton Hotel, the Presidential Palace (the Largo) and a normal apartment complex.
Cool Story- When hifi people need to have meetings at the Presidential Palace, everyone living in the hotel and apartment are told to leave for the day or at the very least, keep their windows shut. Our guide told us about his friend who didn’t pay attention to the warning, and found a sniper pointing at her face. Oops!! 😛
Sofia’s (now) National Art Gallery was a police station during the Ottoman Empire and was converted to the royal palace in only 6 months. Because of the short time it got… It was/is the only asymmetric royal palace in the world.
Alexander Nevsky cathedral (named after a Russian Tsar) is a Bulgarian orthodox cathedral built in the Neo-Byzantine style. Its 3170 sq m size can hold 10000 people!!
Okay, there seems to be a lot to see. But where do I stay?
Just like the rest of Eastern Europe, there are tons of hostels in Sofia. I picked Hostel Mostel, because I stayed at the same chain in Veliko Tarnovo and Plovdiv, and loved it. And, believe me, I don’t like to repeat places or brands… So the fact that I chose to return to the same chain speaks VERY highly of the hostel!
Hostel Mostel, Sofia is a very cool, very old building with a pretty epic background. The common area is humongous and was completely jam packed while I was there. I posted a short review of it recently too.
But how do I see everything? Won’t I get lost? How do I know what I’m looking at?
This is where the Free Sofia Tour comes in! Like I’ve mentioned multiple times all over this blog, I LOVE Free Walking Tours and take as many as I can. In Sofia, our guide, Niki, was an architect (like me) and an excellent guide. He had a very typocal Bulgarian accent, and I think that totally added to the charm of the walk! They do two tours a day, one in the morning and one at night, and I actually contemplated doing both so I could see the sights at in daylight and darkness. But then I didn’t. It was freaking cold 😛 I just ran to the hostel instead with my tail between my legs. (Did I just compare myself to a dog? Chheee!)
Another favourite thing of mine in the city was the Free Food Tour. It was absolutely super. And yes, it is free. They take you to three places- the first one to a soup place where we were given Tarator (which was really just a soupy version of namkeen lassi, believe me!), then to a little restaurant for Shopska Salad (oh, Bulgaria, how I loved your food!!), and finally to a bakery for some breads and spreads. You can easily make a meal out of this tour and save a few bucks (but please, tip them well, they deserve it!).
Speaking of food… I’m hungry!
I do like to eat at very ‘local’ places, so I wandered around some little streets till I ended up at this reaturant that was recommended by the hostel as well as the tour guide. I can’t remember the name right now, though In any case, it wasn’t the best value I’ve had (by Eastern European standards), though it was quite good.
I even went back to the last restaurant, SunMoon cafe, from the Food tour because I found it rather interesting. Though I later realised I could have skipped the chocolate cake and gone to some other place for some more of their Shopska salad. Dammit! I can get cake anywhere, but their droolworthy salads here in India? Doesn’t seem likely at alll!! 😥
Wait, I’m bored…
Okay then, let me tell you a little story.
Stefan Stambolov was a Bulgarian politician, and Prime Minister for a while, whose face was slashed by two assassins. Very interesting piece of history, and this controversial sculpture stands to commemorate that moment (I seriously wonder why).
Gory, huh The Food Tour I just talked about meets in front of this statue.
Anyway, getting bored is unlikely. Sofia is very pretty and there are so many little streets you can get lost in. Most public places I visited had free wifi, and overall (except perhaps the main Vitosha Boulevard which has a lot of swanky places) you can find wonderful cheap things!
Still bored? Fear not! The famous Rila Monastery is a quite close to Sofia, and most hostels organize day trips if they have enough people. (Actually, by saying ‘most’ hostels, I’m just making an assumption. Mine did, so I guess the others do too)
Tip: If you want to avoid missing out on the Rila Monastery trip like I did 😦 , make sure you sign up everyday. Hostel Mostel waited for 5 people to sign up for the same day to conduct the tour. I, unfortunately, wrote my name and wrote both the dates together, so I guess they missed me. I saw people coming back the next evening and was thoroughly disappointed.
There’s also Vitosha Mountain nearby, where you can spend a GOOD amount of time hiking and exploring in the summer, and skiing in the winter. There’s plenty of other day trips too, and you can do like this man I met did (an American uncle about my Dad’s age, who, incidentally, pretty much treated me like a daughter), and stay in the hostel for 2 weeks for a really good long-stay rate and make it your base! There’s so much left to seeeeeee… Really, I think I need to go back to this country!
I like these things!! Everyone knows I like these things!
So, as you can see, there is tons to see and do in this charming city. Like Poland, Bulgaria turned out to be one of those underrated (or actually, completely unrated) countries that totally captured my heart.
Aaand, finally, signing off with a picture of a very interesting shitpot.
What is your favourite Bulgarian food? I LOVE the Katuk salad!