Best Things to Do in Sofia Bulgaria

In the text below we have outlined the top things to do and see in Sofia. Taking into account that most travelers will only stay for a day or two in Sofia and continue to explore other places in Bulgaria afterwards, we have kept our guide moderately short. With only a day at your disposal, your schedule must be very well organized keeping trips short and saving precious time and money for other pleasant activities like having dinner and drinking rakia and wine.
Sofia

Sofia Centre from above

An Introduction to Sofia

Sofia is the capital of Bulgaria and also its largest city. According to the last census there were more than 1.3 million people living in the city which is around 17% of Bulgaria’s population. Adding the inhabitants of the nearby villages and cities like Ihtiman, Pernik, Samokov, Kostinbrod, Radomir and others we can easily conclude that roughly 20% of Bulgaria’s population is living in the Sofia kettle. Currently the capital city is the administrative and industrial centre of the country. When we take a look at the map it is easily seen that the area is also a natural transport hub, being a crossing point for three transport corridors and linking Asia with Europe.

Sofia is a city bustling with life, and there are plenty of things to do around. Just to name a few, you can visit some interesting pubs and cozy restaurants to get a taste of the local drink and food. On the sightseeing end if things, you will be delighted to learn that Sofia is packed with museums, cathedrals and churches. If you are up for some fun, Sofia has entertainment and game centers, small art shops for handmade items, bars and diners, and a lot more. You can even join organized heritage and historical tours or cultural and city tours, but I always prefer to do sightseeing in my own pace.

Tip: If you plan on exploring on your own and you find public transit somehow confusing, you can always rent a car for getting around.

A Good Place to Start Your Trip

Sofia

Serdika Station

Let’s say that you’ve landed at Sofia Airport and have one day at your disposal – sufficient only for a quick tour. One of the smartest and easiest things to do in this area of Sofia is to take the subway to Serdika station straight from the airport. It is newly built and like most of the European cities you would skip the traffic jams. All this adds up to one short and pleasant journey. The cost of the ticket is 1 lev, or you can buy a day card for all lines and types of public transport for 4 lev (1 EUR = 1.95 lev). A taxi to the centre would probably cost you around 12 lev in one direction and time lost in traffic. Besides arriving right at the heart of the city the Serdika station is actually one small museum where you can look at the exhibits from the antiquity period found during its construction, and the best part is this is absolutely free. While still being there don’t miss to check out the Church of St. Petka of the Saddlers. The temple is built in XI century using the foundations of an old Roman tomb. According to the hypothesis backed by the writer Nikolay Haytov but disputed by others this was the burial ground of Vasil Levski. Dubbed the Apostle of Freedom he was considered as one of the most important figures in the revolutionary movement for the liberation of Bulgaria.

The Triangle of Tolerance

Not far from there are the the next stops in our things to do in Sofia list – The Synagogue and the Cathedral of St. Joseph . This is the largest Catholic temple in Bulgaria and it can accommodate up to 1000 worshipers. Intriguing and not very well known fact is that it was visited by Pope  John Paul II in 2002. This Synagogue is the biggest in Southeastern Europe with a capacity for 1300 pilgrims. One of its main features is the massive chandelier weighting  1.7 tons and the Jewish Museum of History housed inside. Despite its size the services are usually attended by not more than 60-70 people due to the secularity of the local Jewish population.

Sofia

Banya Bashi Mosque

Taking a look around and we can easily spot a minaret.  This is the Banya Bashi Mosque which was designed in 1576 by the architect Mimar Sinan who also built the Sultan Selim Mosque in Edirne. This example of the Ottoman architecture offers not so special exterior but compensates with a magnificent interior. A long description could not depict all the details and probably will be boring for most of the readers. The best thing is to just see it for yourself.
Together those three religious sanctuaries form the so called “Triangle of Tolerance” which is a sign not only for the rich cultural heritage in the capital, but also for the religious tolerance in the region.

Shopping

Like most of the Europeans the Bulgarians have also developed a passion for shopping, and this is actually one of the things to do in Sofia. Tsentralni Hali and TZUM are right across the street. The latter has a size of 19000 sq. metres and was the most luxurious store during the communist rule of Bulgaria. Once people from all over the country flocked here to buy things they couldn’t find anywhere else. Nowadays it is a modern store where you can discover the most expensive and well known fashion brands or enjoy a nice snack in the pastry shop.

TZUM at night

TZUM at night

Sofia Museum of History

Baths

Sofia Central Mineral Baths

Situated on the same street is the Central Mineral Bath. As the name implies back in the days this was a bath. Today it is the Sofia Museum of History. Built between 1908-1913 the construction had two pools and a special SPA section. Actually the mineral springs have been used many centuries ago. During the construction were found ruins dating back to the period of the Roman Empire.

Meet the Bulgarian Authorities

The next thing to do in Sofia is to pay a visit to the “Nezavisimost” square. Translated from Bulgarian “Nezavisimost” means “Independence” .  This is the place where  three authorities meet namely – The Council of Ministers, The Presidency and the office of the National Assembly. These building‘s style embodies the power of the authorities they represent. Here important decisions are taken every day and if you stay around for a while, chances are that you will see some politicians or other influential people. Impressive sight can be the hourly shift of the guards in front of the Presidency.

Square

“Nezavisimost” square

Cultural Heritage

Meseum

The National Ethnographic Museum

Only a hundred metres away are the National Ethnographic Museum and Art Gallery. The gallery’s edifice has quite an interesting story. Before the liberation it was the mansion of the Pasha. In 1879 it became the residence of Knyaz Alexadner Battenberg, who later asked the Austrian architect Friedrich Grünanger to make a major reconstruction adding a whole new wing. The ticket prices are 4 lev for adults and 2 for students. For this small price we can see more than 3000 pieces of Bulgarian art and get a stamp in our “100 Tourist Sites of Bulgaria” booklet. With more than 50 000 items in its collections The Ethnographic Museum  offers even more for a lower price. Tickets for adults cost 3 lev, students – 1 lev and children up to 7 years old can visit for free. Guided tours are 15 levs and quite informative, because the museum curators can tell many curious facts about the traditions and beliefs of the Bulgarian people.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Sofia

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

One of the top things to do in Sofia is seeing the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Named after a Russian prince (who was later canonized) this fine example of Neo-Byzantine architecture once was the biggest and fully completed acting cathedral on the Balkan Peninsular. The bell tower together with its cross is 53 metres high and accommodates 12 bells with total weight of 23 tons. Another remarkable feature are the gold plated domes. More than 8 kilos of 23.75 carats gold have been used to cover an area of 700 sq. metres. Imagine the number of the plates used having in mind each one is 8.4×8.4 cm and 0.4 microns thick. For the facade the Russian architect chose Italian marble, Brazilian onyx, Indian alabaster and other glamorous stones from around the world. Like every orthodox temple inside you can find beautiful iconostasis and woodcarvings but words would not be enough to describe them accurately. Taking photos inside is not forbidden but also not welcomed by the clerics.

Taking a Look at the Nature

With all of the above covered, it’s time to leave the city and enjoy the beautiful nature around it. There are still plenty of things to do in Sofia but skipping the visit to Vitosha Mountain would be a great flaw in your itinerary. Vitosha Mountain is just 15 km away from Sofia and is preferred by locals for getting away and relaxing, especially during the weekends. It is found on the southern edge of the capital and you can either find your way using public transit or you can rent a car in Sofia as a more flexible travel option.

Thanks to its great elevation variability Vitosha is giving home to a diversity of flora and fauna. That’s why here you can find the oldest nature reserve on the Balkans. Hiking, alpinism and above all skiing are amongst the most attractive activities you can engage in.

Those of you who are up for a hiking tour, should plan a day more in Sofia. There are organized hiking tours that you can join as well. Remember to bring packed lunch with you, and you will have plenty of fun. If you are travelling with children, there are plenty of parks, green areas, and entertainment facilities for children.

Aleko

Aleko Chalet

During winter, Vitosha gets a lot of skiers from all over the world. Aleko Chalet with its numerous, restaurants, ski runs and schools is considered as the centre of  Vitosha ski resort. If you’re into skiing and plan on visiting Bulgaria for your winter ski holiday, check out our full guide to skiing in Bulgaria.

Being on a mountain means also we can enjoy some spectacular views. One of the best sites to do this is “Kopitoto” complex, where you can enjoy a nice dinner with a beautiful panorama towards Sofia.

Making a full tour of Vitosha mountain will require some wheels, so plan where you want to go and get there with a car. Of course you can do all the mountaineering on foot but this will be extremely exhausting and time consuming, and as we all know time is most often of the essence.

Vitosha

Vitosha Mountain

This short guide can be very helpful for some business travelers arriving at Sofia airport with some spare time between the flights or tourists on a road trip from Europe to Asia. Be sure that the time spent in the capital city of Bulgaria will be one very pleasant and entertaining experience.

Sofia Picture Gallery

Kiril Yanakiev

Kiril Yanakiev

Kiril is a man of many different interests. Like all people at Bulrent, he shares the love for cars and enjoys taking long road trips with friends. He has a technical background - he majored "Fleet and ports operations" in the Technical University of Varna and also graduated as a Maritime Navigation major.
Kiril Yanakiev

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