Bulgaria‘s capital ticks all the city break boxes: awesome architecture, lots of leafy parks, cool urban art and not forgetting countless chic bars to prop up. Visit Sofia in June and you’ve got 12 hours to soak up the sunshine each day.
Thinking about hitting the slopes? The city also boasts world-class low-cost ski resorts on nearby Vitosha Mountain. With direct flights to Sofia all year round from Dublin, it’s a great value European destination. Here are ten must-sees to get the most out of your trip to this Balkan beauty.
Top 10 things to do in Sofia, Bulgaria
1. Take it to church
It’s not only one of the world’s largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals, it’s a giant war memorial. St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, built in the early twentieth century, is dedicated to the 200,000 soldiers who died during the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878). It has become a symbol of Sofia, its gold dome a 45-metre high beacon shining across the city’s skyline.
Have a nosey at the Italian marble, Brazilian onyx and gold religious inscriptions adorning the walls of the church’s interior. In fact, the cathedral is a showcase of fine craftsmanship from across Europe. The lights were made in Munich, the gates in Vienna and the mosaics were shiped in from Venice. If you’ve got enough puff then try climbing the 53-metre bell tower.
Open daily from 7am to 7pm, it’s free to visit, giving you more coppers to spend on souvenirs and antiques in the market opposite the cathedral.
2. Vitosha Mountain
If you’re looking for a cheap place to get some snow this winter, then consider Sofia. South of the city you’ll find Vitosha Mountain, a national park and terrific snow resort. Know any budding Jean-Claude Killys? Vitosha’s pistes are suitable for all ability levels and the ski school has over 40 instructors who speak a range of international languages. The highest point, known as Black Peak, is 2290m above sea level. But Vitosha is also a great spot for summer trekking. Find cheap car hire in Sofia so you can get in and out easily and explore the natural areas surrounding the city.
Top tip: Save money by staying in the city rather than in a mountainside resort. Sofia is just 10km away and a gondola gives direct access from Simeonovo suburb. The ride offers stunning views over the city.
3. See a puppet show
Spend an evening at the theatre and enjoy a unique performance by the Sofia Puppet Theatre. One of the city’s premier cultural activities, this talented troop have been pulling the strings for over 60 years and have a wide repertoire. Take the kids to see an enchanting performance of The Beauty and the Beast, while adults will be enthralled by their adaptation of Shakespeare’s _The Tempest. _Be sure to check the theatre’s calendar before you fly to make sure you can squeeze in a show – there are performances every day of the week except Mondays and the main theatre is on General Gurko Street.
4. Visit quirky cafés
Antrakt café-gallery is a meeting point for lovers of alternative art, music and theatre performances. It’s a fine spot to take a book or the morning paper, even if it is just a prop to make sure you fit in with all the other cool kids hanging out on Antrakt’s battered sofas and mismatched chairs.
Another quirky café to swing by is + Tova, which hosts workshops, exhibitions and events like swing parties, while also providing friendly coworking space. Plenty of cakes and savoury nibbles to choose from, too!
5. Spot the next Banksy
You know those grey boxes that sit squatly on the side of the road, a transformer box storing the electrical gear for all the houses on your street? They’re usually quite ugly, just something for Fido to pee against on your bleary-eyed morning walk. Well, in Sofia they’ve transformed these eyesores into works of urban art.
As you’re wandering through the city, keep a look out for colourful murals and bold graffiti. From depictions of national landmarks to John lennon’s famous spectacles scrawled on the side of one of these boxes – local artists have been creative in their choice of subject, often with a humorous twist (like the two fat priests on the box outside a local church). They brighten up the sidewalks and they’re fun to spot. So count them and see how many you can find!
Read more: 10 cheap European city breaks under €100
6. Relax in one of the many parks and gardens
Sofia isn’t short on parks and gorgeous green spaces, perfect for enjoying a picnics, going for a bike ride or seeing some open air art exhibitions. Take a breather in Borisova gradina, the oldest park in Sofia, affectionately known as the city’s lungs and named after the Bulgarian Tsar Boris III. During the communist period it was renamed ‘Freedom Park’, but reverted to it’s original title post-1989.
Skirt the edges of the park’s lake before collapsing in the shade of an acacia or mulberry tree for a mid-afternoon siesta. Who cares if it’s Sofia and not Spain, this is the place for five minutes peace.
For serenity right in the heart of the city head to Sofia University’s Botanic Garden, nestled off Moskovska Street. It’s a stone’s throw away from the Foreign Art Museum and Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Smell the roses, peonies, orchids and clematises as you stroll beneath the palms. The park’s main aim is to showcase some beautiful plants and teach the public a thing or two about the more rare and endangered species on-site.
7. Party all day and all night
Step aside Prague. Move over Barcelona. There’s a new party city destination where the drinks are much cheaper (€1 a pint), the clubs are open longer and you don’t get the same stupidly dressed stag and hen crowds. Relish the virtually non-existent licensing laws in bars and clubs that are open all times of the day and night, typically until 5 or 6am.
The biggest concentration lies either side of Vitosha Boulevard and in up-and-coming Ulitsa Rakovski. Bang your head to some Balkan beats in a chalga club. One of the biggest is Night Flight, which holds about 1,000 ravers and comes with a 30m² flashing LCD dance floor, not to mention a VIP balcony. If shredding your dignity below a disco ball doesn’t sound like your idea of a fun night out, then have a few in Baskerville on Denkoglu Street instead. It’s open until 2am and serves well-crafted cocktails as well as Bulgarian beers and light bites.
Read more: 10 best party holiday destinations in Europe
8. Take a free tour of the city
Forget bickering with your other half over a rain-sodden map as you try to navigate your way around all of Sofia’s main sights. Take a free city tour instead to make sure you do’t miss any of the big-hitters, without biting anyone’s head off. The Free Sofia Tour is in English, runs four times a day from April to October (at 10am, 11am & 6pm), and is, well as it says, completely free!
Head out from the Palace of Justice on Vitosha Boulevard and take in over 20 important sites, including the Banya Bashi Mosque, the city’s mineral water springs and the former Communist Party Headquarters. The whole thing lasts about two hours. There’s no need to book, just show up at the Palace and pack an umbrella or sun hat as tours run all year whatever the weather.
Read more: Top 10 free things to do in Ireland
9. National Archaeological Museum
Sofia’s fascinating National Archaeological Museum was established in 1949. But what you’ll find inside dates all the way back to Bulgaria’s Paleolithic past (1.6 million years BC!). Ponder the early years of man in the Prehistory Hall, gawk at the grave goods on display in the Vault, or check out the bling from Bulgaria’s ancient aristocracy in the Middle Ages Hall. There are four permanent exhibitions as well as visiting temporary ones.
Find this treasure trove of human history on Saborna Street and visit any day of the week from 10am until 6pm (until 5pm November-April). Tickets cost 10 lev (around €5) for adults and families. Unless it’s the last Sunday of the month, in which case it’s free for everyone!
10. Day trip to Rila monastery
If you’ve hired a car and fancy exploring this beautiful bit of Bulgaria then take the 120km drive (about one and a half hours) south of Sofia to Rila Monastery, lying in the recesses of Rila Mountain. Founded in the tenth century, after Bulgaria’s first hermit St. Ivan of Rila settled on the mountainside and dedicated his life to prayer and fasting, it’s now a major must-see.
It consists of over 300 monastic cells, the main church ‘The Nativity of the Virgin’ and a library, all contained within stone walls on a 8,800m² patch of land. The striking five domed church on this UNESCO World Heritage site was built between 1834 and 1837 and designed by Peter Ivanovich. You’ll also find Hreliov’s Tower occupying the centre of the yard, erected by a local feudal lord back in the 14th century. Between the religious buildings and temporary exhibitions it’s a full day out and a great break from the city centre if you’ve got more than just a weekend trip planned.
Read more: 10 best things to do in Thessaloniki
10 best things to do on a city break to Sofia
|1. Take it to church|
|2. Vitosha Mountain|
|3. See a puppet show|
|4. Visit quirky cafés|
|5. Spot the next Banksy|
|6. Relax in one of the many parks and gardens|
|7. Party all day and all night|
|8. Take a free tour of the city|
|9. National Archaeological Museum|
|10. Day trip to Rila monastery|
*Revised September 2019. Prices correct at the time of publication and are subject to change and/or availability.