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I’ve long believed that the Balkans are the most underrated region in all of Europe. And my beliefs were only reconfirmed after my most recent trip to the hidden gem that is Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria.
There are so many fantastic things to do in Sofia, from exploring historical landmarks and visiting the fascinating museums, to enjoying the local cuisine or simply soaking up the city’s unique atmosphere.
The most distinctive feature of the city is it’s striking mix of old and new, with cool craft beer pubs and modern food markets sitting side-by-side with ancient Roman ruins, historic churches, and imposing ex-communist palaces.
In this guide to Sofia (pronounced SOF-ia, not so-PHIA like the name), I’ll run you through 25 of the best things to do in the Bulgarian capital. I’ve also included some other tips to help you plan your trip to Sofia.
1. Take a Free Walking Tour of Sofia
I’m a firm bleiever that taking a free walking tour is the first thing you should do when arriving in any new city. And Sofia is no exception.
Not only will you learn about the city’s history and culture on a guided walking tour, but you’ll also get to know the layout of the city and see many of its most famous landmarks.
The Free Sofia Tour is the tour we took and couldn’t recommend it any more highly! Our friendly local guide taught us all about the city, from the history and architecture to her family’s own experience living in Sofia during the communist era.
The 3 hour tour runs 3-4 times every day from morning to evening, so it’s easy to fit into your schedule. Plus you don’t need to book in advance. Just turn up at the Palace of Justice for the start time.
The tour is free and there’s no pressure to give any money. But if you enjoy it, make sure to give your guide a nice tip!
2. Visit the City’s Amazing Churches
With 85% of Bulgaria’s population being Orthodox Christians, it’s no surprise that Sofia is packed with beautiful churches.
Below are a few that you shouldn’t miss…
St. Sofia Church
While Saint Sofia Church isn’t the prettiest or most impressive church in Sofia, it is the most important.
Saint Sofia is not only the second oldest church in the Bulgarian capital, but the church also gave its name to the city, which was previously known as Serdika until the 14th century.
The current church (it was rebuilt several times) is believed to have been built under the reign of Byzantine emperor Justinian around the same time as the similarly named Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (then Constantinople).
Sophia/Sofia means “wisdom”, so both of these churches are dedicated to the “Holy Wisdom of God.”
On a visit to the church, don’t miss the chance to head down to the underground necropolis, which holds ancient tombs and the ruins of previous churches discovered in archeological excavations.
St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral isn’t only one of the best churches in the city, but it’s also one of the most popular tourist attractions in Sofia. And for good reason.
The impressive golden-domed structure is the largest cathedral on the Balkan peninsular and one of the largest Eastern Orthodox church buildings in the world.
Built in the early 1900s, the church was named after a Russian Prince to thank Russia for its ongoing support and alliance.
You can head inside the church to see its luxurious interiors, with beautiful hanging chandeliers and the Lord’s Prayer inscribed around the central dome in gold letters.
But as beautiful as it is, be careful about taking any photos inside. You’ll be charged 10 lev (£4.40) for taking photos and 20 lev (£8.80) for taking videos. So maybe it’s best to enjoy this one without the camera.
St. George Rotunda Church
Built in the 4th century during the reign of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great, St. George Rotunda Church is Sofia’s oldest building and one of the oldest fully preserved structures in all of Europe.
And what’s most impressive is that the 1,700-year-old church is still functioning today.
Take a peek inside the church (if there’s no service taking place) and look up to its ceiling, where you can see the many different layers of frescoes from its long history.
Tip: The church is hidden within the enclosed courtyard of the Presidential Palace of the Republic of Bulgaria. You can enter via two entrances on each side.
Sveta Nedelya Church
Sveta Nedelya Church is another domed Orthodox church located right in the heart of the city center.
The church is most famous for the horrific terrorist attack of 1925 in which a group from the Bulgarian Communist Party blew off the church’s roof during a funeral service in an attempt to kill the monarch, Tsar Boris III.
The Tsar was running late for the service, so was not injured during the attack. But 150 others were killed and 500 injured, making it the most deadly attack in the country’s history.
Today the church has been restored and you can visit its interiors for free to admire its many beautiful frescos.
3. And Sofia’s Other Religious Buildings
While Sofia’s churches are certainly its main attraction, there are a handful of other religious buildings in Sofia worth taking note of too.
The Banya Bashi Mosque sits in the heart of the historic city, close to the Roman ruins, and is the only mosque left in Sofia. Built in the 1500s, the religious building is an important remnant of the Ottoman rule of Bulgaria that lasted nearly 500 years.
The mosque is still used by the city’s Muslim population today and is open to visitors for free – remember to remove your shoes and cover your shoulders.
Just a short walk away, you’ll also find the beautiful Sofia Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Southeastern Europe. You can head inside for 5 lev (£2.20) and you’ll need a photo ID to enter.
4. Explore the Ancient Roman Ruins
A visit to the Ancient Serdica Archaeological Complex is a must-do in Sofia.
The large free-to-visit complex showcases the remains of the Roman city of Serdica, which dates back to the 2nd century. There are signposts around the complex (with English translations) so you can understand what exactly you’re looking at.
At first glance, some of the ruins may not seem old enough to be Roman. That’s because a layer of red bricks and stones has been added to some of the walls to help outline the original structures. You’ll notice a faint red line that splits the ancient ruins from the modern structure.
Many of the remains sit outside in the street, while even more can be found under the modern glass structures, within the underpass, and even inside Serdica Metro Station.
5. See the Statue of Saint Sofia
The towering copper and bronze statue of Saint Sofia sits center place overlooking Ploshtad Nezavisimost Square, the location of many of the city’s most important government and administrative buildings.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Sofia sits here as a historic symbol of the city. But the name is misleading. The statue actually has nothing to do with the name of the city of Sofia or its history (as I noted earlier, the city is named after the church).
The statue was only erected in 2000 as a replacement for the Statue of Lenin that sat on the podium during the country’s communist regime. The government wasn’t sure who to put in Lenin’s place and Sofia simply felt like an obvious choice.
6. Discover the City’s Best Street Art
One of my personal favourite things to do in Sofia has to be to discover the city’s amazing street art scene.
The Bulgarian capital is absolutely covered in beautiful murals, many of which have political meanings – both positive and negative.
While you’ll certainly stumble across a few of the murals while wandering around the city, the best way to see the more hidden pieces and learn about the fascinating artwork is on a free guided tour with Sofia Graffiti Tour.
Or if the tour isn’t running during your visit, check out this fantastic map with explanations of many of the artworks instead.
7. Learn About The Former Communist Regime
Like many other countries in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, Bulgaria fell under Communist rule for almost 50 years between 1946 and 1989. A period of time that has hugely shaped the country and people you find here today.
The most striking remnant of communist Sofia lies within Ploshtad Nezavisimost Square, where you’ll find many imposing ex-communist buildings, including the National Assembly of Bulgaria, the Ministry of Education and Science, and the Constitutional Court.
You can also visit the Red Flat, an unusual little interactive museum that gives you first-hand insight into everyday life in communist Bulgaria.
The best way to learn about Bulgaria’s communist past is by taking a Sofia Communist Walking Tour.
8. See if the President is in His Office
The Presidential Palace of Bulgaria is located inside an ex-communist building on the corner of Ploshtad Nezavisimost Square. The palace is the office of the President of Bulgaria.
The building is guarded at all times by two uniformed guards, who rotate every hour (on the hour) with a changing of the guard ceremony.
And how do you know if the President of Bulgaria is currently in his office? Is it through a raised flag? Or the number of guards outside? Nope. It’s by wandering to the left of the entrance and checking if his car is in the gated garage next door.
9. Check out Sofia’s Former Bathhouse Turned Museum
The capital’s historic bathhouse building and its beautiful square and fountains are definitely one of the best things to see in Bulgaria.
The striking yellow and cream building was once the location of the city’s main public baths, where locals would come for their weekly wash in the warm natural mineral waters (many people didn’t have baths or showers in their homes until the last few decades).
There’s even a Bulgarian saying that means “congratulations on your bath” that people would greet each other with after using the baths.
Today, a portion of the building is home to the Regional History Museum Sofia, a fascinating insight into Bulgarian history. There’s a 6 lev ticket fee to enter the museum.
Even if you don’t go inside the museum, spend some time enjoying the beautiful park and fountains outside.
10. Taste the Natural Spring Waters
Talking of the bathhouse, did you know that Bulgaria is a country that’s known for its natural mineral waters? There are many mineral springs scattered across the entire country that supply every town and city with a contestant flow of clean drinking water (yes you can drink tap water in Bulgaria!)
If you want to sample the freshest mineral water in Sofia, head to the city’s hot springs just behind the bathhouse.
Here you’ll find around 30 historic fountains that offer a constant flow of fresh thermal mineral water that comes from below ground at a toasty 37 degrees.
You can take a drink straight from one of the hot spring fountains. Or do as the locals do and bring some water bottles to fill up with healthy water. It may sound strange, but it’s definitely one of the most unique things to do in Sofia.
11. Visit the National Bulgarian Archeological Museum
Even if archeology isn’t your thing, the National Bulgariuan Archeological Museum is still one of the top places to visit in Sofia for another reason… it’s located inside the largest and oldest former Ottoman mosque in the city.
It’s worth paying the 10 lev (£4.40) entrance fee just to take a walk around the fascinating domed building that dates back to the 15th century.
And if you are interested in archeology, the museum itself has a huge range of interesting exhibits exploring the human occupation of Bulgaria and the surrounding region from Prehistoric times through the Middle Ages.
12. Admire the Ivan Vazov National Theater
The Ivan Vazov National Theater is Bulgaria’s national theatre and the oldest of its kind in the country. The imposing neoclassical building is also one of the most popular attractions in Sofia.
The theatre hosts a regular schedule of contemporary and classical plays. But unless you speak Bulgarian, you probably won’t want to bother watching anything.
Even if you’re not heading inside, it’s still worth popping by the City Park (in which the theatre sits) and admiring its beautiful baroque-style facade. It makes a great photo op too!
Looking for more Balkan travel inspiration?
Check out some of my other favorite places on the Balkan Peninsular:
13. Count the Lions of Sofia
Did you know that the lion is the national animal of Bulgaria?
You can find huge statues of the mighty beast all across the country’s capital, like outside the Sofia City Court and next to St. Sofia Church.
Keep an eye out for lions across the city and see how many you can spot during your visit.
Tip: This is a good way to keep the little ones occupied if you’re looking for fun things to do in Sofia with kids.
14. Enjoy the Lively Atmosphere on Vitosha Boulevard
Vitosha Boulevard is Sofia’s main pedestrian street and the place where you’ll find the biggest concentration of bars, restaurants, cafes, and shops. This, unsurprisingly, means that the street is where you’ll find most of the people too – both tourists and locals!
The lively street is a fun place to sit and enjoy a drink while people watching, or simply take a stroll and enjoy the vibrant atmosphere.
It’s worth noting that the restaurants and bars on Vitosha Boulevard tend to be a little more expensive than elsewhere in the capital. But that doesn’t mean you should rule it out. If you love big cities and being right in the heart of the action, this is the place to be.
V Street Bar is my favourite spot on Vitosha Boulevard to spot for a glass of wine or indulgent dessert. The pretty cafe has a small flower-filled atrium, lots of lovely outdoor seating, and a pretty pink London phone box for some cute Insta-photos.
15. Explore the National Palace of Culture
The National Palace of Culture (also called the NDK) is an imposing ex-communist building sitting within a huge park in the south of the city. The iconic building is known for its unique architecture and fountain-lined entryway and is a must-visit in Sofia.
The palace’s main function is now as a large events venue, with many concerts, plays, and exhibitions taking place throughout the year. The outer areas of the building are also several cafes, bars, and clubs.
The park and palace sit at the end of Vitosha Boulevard, so it’s worth paying a quick visit. The building and fountains are especially impressive at night when they’re brightly lit in a colourful light display.
16. Buy Fresh Fruit at the Women’s Market
Sitting in the northwest of the city center, Sofia’s Women’s Market is a historic open-air market that dates back over 130 years.
There are several theories on where the market got its name from. But one of the most interesting is that in the early days of the market, families with daughters of marriage age would bring the girls for a walk around the market in the hope of being noticed by an eligible bachelor.
Still to this day, the local market runs daily and has a variety of traders selling fresh produce and household items.
Take a wander around the lively market and enjoy some fresh seasonal fruit. The strawberries are delicious!
17. Keep an Eye Out for Traditional Folk Dancing
Dancing is a popular pastime in Bulgaria. Particularly National Bulgarian folk dances, which are known as “horo”.
These dances involve participants linking hands in a circle or winding chain and performing a series of steps to a traditional folk song. “Haro” is almost always performed at traditional festivals and parties in Bulgaria.
In Sofia, it’s also not uncommon to stumble upon a group of locals, big or small, spontaneously dancing “horo” together in the street. No occasion necessary. They just love to dance.
You can stand nearby and watch the joyous dancing. Or grab the hand of the person on the end of the chain and try joining in yourself. Most locals will be happy to teach you the steps.
18. Sample Delicious Bulgarian Dishes
First things first… you may be wondering, what is Bulgarian food?
Don’t worry, I had no idea either until my first visit to Sofia.
Of course, local cuisine varies across the country. But in general, you can expect lots of fresh, hearty, and flavoursome dishes using plenty of vegetables, herbs and spices, cheese, and yogurt. In other words, it’s fairly similar to Greek and Turkish cuisine.
What to eat in Sofia:
- Shopska Salad – a fresh salad made up of tomato, cucumber, onions, peppers, and white cheese, usually eaten as a starter or as a light meal during the summer months.
- Banitsa – a traditional Bulgarian pastry usually stuffed with cheese, but also with other fillings such as spinach, pumpkin, meat, or even apples (for a sweet treat).
- Kebapche – grilled minced meat seasoned with lots of spices and rolled into a long meatball (like a hot dog). A must-eat for meat lovers.
Not sure where to find these dishes?
Where to eat in Sofia:
- The Hadjidragana Tavern – a cosy traditional tavern with friendly staff, delicious Bulgarian food, and live local music most nights.
- MOMA – a modern restaurant filled with colourful artworks representing Bulgarian culture and folklore traditions. Be sure to make a reservation, it’s popular!
- Manastirska Magernitsa – this restaurant’s name means “Monastery Cuisine” as all of their recipes have been collected from monasteries around Bulgaria.
Love trying local dishes? Check out this Sofia street food market tour.
19. Visit Sofia’s Modern Food Hall
If you’ve eaten enough traditional Bulgarian food already and are looking for something a little different, head to Sofia’s brand-new indoor food market, Bohemian Hall.
The first-of-its-kind market offers a wide selection of local and international street food traders, serving everything from Hawaiian poke bowls to tacos, burgers, and more.
There’s also a cafe and bar so you can enjoy a coffee or cocktail in the cool covered market hall.
20. Explore the City’s Many Parks
Something you’ll notice very quickly when exploring Sofia is that it’s a city filled with beautiful parks and green spaces.
So, one of the best things to do in Sofia on a warm, sunny day is to grab a coffee or a picnic and spend some time enjoying one of the many parks. It’s the perfect break from wandering around the many sights and attractions of the city.
21. Have a Bench Party
Yep, this is exactly what it sounds like.
People in Sofia don’t only enjoy spending time in the city’s parks during the day. You’ll find the parks packed with people socializing with friends and enjoying a beer on the park’s benches throughout the evening and night too.
So grab a few local beers and head to the park for a “bench party” (yes this is actually what they call it – I didn’t make it up!). Or go a little fancier by bringing a bottle of wine and having a “bench soiree” instead.
Dinking in the parks is completely legal. No need to worry about getting into trouble.
22. Enjoy the City’s Nightlife Scene
If drinking in the park isn’t your thing, Sofia has plenty of fantastic pubs, bars, and clubs to enjoy each evening too.
KANAAL is one of the city’s coolest craft beer bars for beer drinkers, and it’s got a lovely beer garden. While the 5l Speakeasy Bar is a must-visit for cocktail enthusiasts – if you can find the secret entrance that is!
There are LOADS more fantastic places to grab a drink in Sofia. But it would take an entire article to list them all. So I’ll leave you to do your research on this one.
Or you can discover the best of Sofia’s nightlife on this hidden bar and pub crawl.
23. Try Bulgarian Wine
While Bulgarian wine may not be particularly well-known internationally (largely due to its communist past and the USSR taking all of the wine), the country is actually one of the oldest wine-producing countries in the world, and still to this day produces some exceptional wines.
The country is best known for its red wines, with a mix of local varieties such as Mavrud and Pamid being produced alongside more recognisable wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Bulgaria also produces some light, dry white wines too, such as Misket and Dimyat.
You can sample Bulgarian wines in restaurants and bars all over the city. Just ask the server for their recommendation and they’re sure to find something you’ll love.
Oh, and the best bit? The local wine is super affordable!
Interested in wine? Check out this fantastic Sofia wine and cheese tasting experience.
24. Go for a Hike on Vitosha Mountain
Vitosha Mountain is a large mountain located just 10km outside of Sofia. During the winter, Vitosha is a popular skiing destination, while during the summer, it’s a great spot for hiking and enjoying the stunning views over the city and surrounding landscape.
The mountain is easily accessible from the city center by bus, tram, and/or chairlift, so you can visit on a day trip from Sofia.
Hiking trails range from easy to difficult, making it a great destination for both beginners and experienced hikers.
If you’re looking for a quick and easy hike, the trail to Boyana Waterfall is a good option. It’s a short hike that takes you through a beautiful forest and leads to a picturesque waterfall.
If you’re up for a more challenging hike, the trail to Cherni Vrah (Black Peak) is a great choice. It’s a longer hike (around 4-5 hours round hike) that takes you to the highest point on the mountain, offering breathtaking views of Sofia and the surrounding area.
25. Take a Day Trip from Sofia
As well as Vitosha Mountain, there are plenty of other great day trips you can take from Sofia too.
- Rila Monastery – A UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the Rila Mountains, about 120 km from Sofia. The scenic drive and the beautiful monastery complex make for an unforgettable day trip. Book a guided day trip to the monastery here.
- Plovdiv – The second-largest city in Bulgaria, Plovdiv is known for its ancient Roman ruins, colourful old town, and vibrant arts scene. It is only 150 km from Sofia, making it an easy day trip destination. It’s simple to visit Plovdiv on your own by bus, but if you’d rather take a guided day trip, this is a good option.
- Koprivshtitsa – A charming town with well-preserved 19th-century architecture and rich history that offers a glimpse into Bulgaria’s past. You can combine a visit to Koprivshtitsa and Plovdiv on some guided day trips like this one.
Planning Your Trip: How to Travel Around Sofia
Sofia is a fairly compact city, with most of the main landmarks and attractions concentrated around the historical center. If you don’t mind walking and the weather is nice enough, you can cover the majority of the city on foot.
But if you can’t or don’t want to walk, the city also has a great metro, bus, and tram network that’s simple and affordable to use.
You can check Google maps or at the stations/stops for the schedules. A single ride will cost you just 1.60 lev (70p/€0.8), with a daily cap of 4 lev (£1.75/€2) for multiple uses.
You don’t even need to buy tickets. You can use your contactless card to tap on and off all public transport in Sofia – including the routes to and from the airport.
Planning Your Trip: Where to Stay in Sofia
There are a wide variety of hotels in Sofia to suit every style a budget.
These are a few of my favourite:
- The Grand Hotel Sofia – spacious 5* luxury right in the heart of the city, overlooking City Park and the National Theatre. The rooftop restaurant and terrace offer some of the best views over the city.
- Art ‘Otel – a quirky design-focused hotel in a historical building close to busy Vitosha Street.
- 5 Vintage Guest House – affordable rooms in a lovely guesthouse just off Vitosha Street, with use of the small kitchen with free tea, coffee, and snacks.
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