The cheapest capital in Europe is perfect for those wanting a purse-friendly weekend break or who want to explore more of Eastern Europe. Bulgaria’s capital is a striking mix of stark, Soviet-era, brutalist architecture and gilded-gold domed, majestic religious buildings. Hidden amongst bold buildings and elaborate facades are a mixture of culturally-focused centres, quaint coffee shops and tavernas offering a slice of Grandma’s home-cooking. Be sure to pack plenty of paracetamol for sore heads; Bulgaria’s national drink rakia is an eye-wincing 40% and is served with virtually all meals. Bottoms up.
Here are the top things to do in Sofia:
1. Visit the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
One of the landmarks of not just Sofia, but Bulgaria itself adorning an array of stamps, fridge magnets, snow globes and tea towels. Located at the heart of the city, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is one of the largest Orthodox cathedrals in the world and was built to honour those who sacrificed their lives during the Russo-Turks war of 1877-1878 which resulted in Bulgaria freeing themselves from the Ottoman Empire. An architectural delight, the cathedral borrows influence from various neighbours; the glossy marble was taken from Munich, the steelwork was sourced in Berlin and created in Vienna and the glittering mosaics were designed in Venice. Daily services take places where you can hear moving Orthodox chants and prayers.
2. Ivan Vazov National Theatre
The most imposing theatre in the country (you’ll also find it on Bulgarian bank notes) looks out over the city gardens. A beacon of baroque is decorated in gold gilt, ornate carvings and Apollo statues. Enter wide-eyed and leave inspired.
3. Central Market Hall / Central Hali Market
Dip beneath the clock tower to wander the three floors of the local, bustling market. Be sure to try a banitsa, a traditional Bulgarian pie layered with cheese, a glass of ayran which is a yoghurt-based, breakfast beverage and for stronger stomachs, order a shot of boza. This fermented wheat drink has a slightly sweet taste and originates from Turkey. Head to the neighbouring mosque and synagogue for another grand design display.
4. National Palace of Culture
Surrounded by a verdant green park, the National Palace of Culture (also known as NDK) is a multifunctional complex that hosts a variety of culturally-geared events such as exhibitions, festivals and concerts. Towering over eight stories with four terrace and three underground levels, the monumental structure was built in celebration of the 1300th anniversary of the Bulgarian state. A prime example of brutalist architecture, the mass of concrete and glass was constructed using more steel than the Eiffel Tower. In contrast, the surrounding gardens (pl Bulgaria) are brimming with pretty flowers, spraying fountains and a pop-up cinema in the summer. If you’re ringing in the New Year in the capital, be sure to snag an invite to NDK New Year’s Party – it’s the hottest ticket in town.
5. Vitosha Mountain
Hugging the city is the impressive Vitosha Mountain range. Active travellers should head here for ice climbing, paragliding and mountain biking. In the winter months it transforms into an alpine wonderland and in the summer it’s a haven for hikers. Easily accessible by public transport, explore the network of lifts, trails and ski slopes using Simeonovo as a starting point. After enjoying the cable car views over Sofia, the gondola deposits you to Aleko, which is the launch pad for many of the routes. Be sure to remember your manners and greet other hikers with a cheery ‘zdraveite’ – hello.
6. Manastirska Magernitsa
Housed in a 19th-century townhouse, this traditional taverna dishes up authentic Bulgarian cuisine in cosy surroundings. Sit next to the roaring fire or dine al fresco in the ivy-coloured courtyard during the warmer months. The menu is extensive (over forty pages long) so if you’re feeling overwhelmed, opt for the “Grandma Appetisers” option which comes with skewered chicken kebabs, spicy Sofiyskaja Mesganitza salad (served with a short of rakia) and syrupy baklavas.
7. Raketa Rakia Bar
Have a taste a what life was like during the communist regime as Raketa Rakia’s décor is inspired by the Cold War – think bare bulbs and walls plastered with communist propaganda posters. Line your stomach with some hearty, Bulgarian comfort foods before trying one of the most extensive rakia menus in Sofia (our tap out limit is five shots). Rakia is a fruit-based brandy that Bulgaria claims as its national drink. For those who don’t want any extra hairs on their chest, order a shot of the honey-flavoured spirit. Try the chilli-spiked shot, if you dare.
8. Yalta Club
After one (several) shots of rakia, you’ll be keen to slip into your dancing shoes and there’s nowhere better than the home of EDM, Yalta. Famed for starting nearly all of Bulgaria’s top DJ’s careers, the bass is heavy, the décor minimalist and the view across Sofia as the sun comes up should not be missed.
Trip tip: Don’t go before midnight unless you enjoy shuffling in silence, as with most European capitals the party starts late and finishes later.
After a brief (weird) stint as the Sudanese embassy, the A:part:mental reinvented itself as a cultural centre, which translates to mean hipster hang out. Sporting all the same characteristics of your student flat, grab a beer or homemade glass of raspberry wine from the kitchen fridge and settle down on well-worn couches amongst other budding creatives and intellectuals. The bar-cum-café-cum-freelance-workplace mirrors house party vibes with the added extra of homemade, finger-licking-good cakes.
10. Sleep at Moreto & Caffeto
Anywhere that offers you a brandy shot on arrival gets our vote…but aside from trying to bribe us with free booze (we’re cheap dates) Moreto & Caffeto is a family-run, conveniently located brand new hostel. Don’t be put off by the homely and welcoming atmosphere, they enjoy letting their hair down as much as the rest of us; take part in their drinking-game movie nights and communal home-cooked dinners. Rooms are decorated in pretty pastels complimented by green foliage and a gallery of unique artwork covers the communal areas.
Travel Trip: The only acceptable mode of transport in the summer is a bicycle, rent one from around the corner and peddle across to the lush gardens of Uzhen park. From here, you can access most of the city.