Six Ways to Get to Know Sofia
Sofia is one of Ryanair’s newest routes and is an absolute gem of a city break destination. Not only does it offer unbeatable value for money, but there’s plenty to write home about too. The following are six ways to make the most of your trip to the Bulgarian capital.
Give Indiana Jones a Run for his Money
Curious about the city’s past? There’s no better place to start your Sofia story than in the cool, dark chambers of the necropolis beneath St Sophia Basilica. Sveta Sofia Underground Museum tells the history of the city’s earliest settlers, who, by all accounts lived the life of Riley in Sofia’s 4th century AD incarnation, Serdica. Between maps and fast facts, the museum’s guides paint a pretty picture of a highly sophisticated city that had enough bells and whistles to captivate even Constantine the Great. In fact, the Roman emperor was so impressed with Serdica that he called it ‘my Rome’. To this day, glimpses of Serdica’s grandeur still survive in St Sophia Basilica’s necropolis, not least in the showpiece floor mosaic called ‘Eden’.
Entry Fee: 6 lev for adults (approx.€3) 2 lev (approx. €1) for students and OAPs.
Get Out and Stay Out
With its mild, continental climate, Sofia lends itself perfectly to outdoor living. And there’s no end to the number of parks and gardens in the Bulgarian capital where you can kick back and enjoy the city’s beautiful surroundings. Located just in front of the magnificent National Theatre building, City Garden is one of the most central green spaces in Sofia. The park’s resident ballerina fountain, musical performances and local chess players all add to the charm. If you’ve got kids in tow, Zaimov Park offers plenty of family friendly fun including free outdoor ping pong tables, cafes, art installations and even a mushroom-shaped ‘fairytale house’.
Eat Your Weight in Cheese
A quick flick through any restaurant menu will tell you that Bulgaria is a dairy lover’s dream. Local white cheese known as sirene is king around here, especially in dishes such as Shopska Salata, a chunky salad of tomatoes, cucumber, peppers, onion and layer upon layer of feta-like cheese. Traditionally, the salad is accompanied by a serving of yoghurt or glass of Rakia, the local fire water that arrives with a small bucket of ice. Grilled meat dishes such as chicken, pork and veal are main course staples. For lunch or dinner with a mountain view, head to the stylish restaurants and cafes of the pedestrianised Vitosha Boulevard where you can fill your belly without emptying your pockets – the cost of eating out in Sofia is still well below the European average.
Head for the Hills
Located tantalisingly close to the city centre, Mount Vitosha is a playground for skiers in winter and hikers and bikers in spring, summer and autumn. The mountain is famous for its glorious sunsets – for the full on local experience, head to one of the look-out points in the late afternoon, bring a packet of sunflower seeds (it’s a thing here) and watch the sun slowly sink beneath the Bulgarian capital. Alternatively, make the trek to the nearby Boyana Church, the tiny UNESCO-listed Orthodox church that dates back to the 10th century. Due to the beautiful but fragile nature of the murals inside, entry is limited to just 15 minutes per group, but the sight of the sun streaming onto the pre-Renaissance art is well worth the wait.
Snap the Street Art
The National Gallery isn’t the only place you’ll find wonderful works of art in Sofia. In recent times, the city’s grey, soviet-era apartment blocks have been transformed into open-air canvasses by talented street artists. Keep your eyes peeled for colourful depictions of local heroes including Dobri Dobrev, the so-called ‘Living Saint’ who has been immortalised in spray paint by artist NASIMO. Now over 100 years old, the beggar is a well-known figure on the streets of Sofia, where, over the years he has collected the equivalent of tens of thousands of euros. And he’s given it all to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Grandpa Dobri, as he’s affectionately called, has become the largest private donor of the golden-domed Alexander Nevsky cathedral and is considered a living saint by Bulgarians thanks to his selfless acts of generosity and bearded, other-worldly appearance.
Take it to Church
Topped with golden domes and filled with twinkling candelabras, Sofia is home to some of the most beautiful Orthodox churches in all of Europe. Two churches in particular stand out – the aforementioned Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and the Russian Church, also known as the Church of St Nicholas the Miracle Maker. Built as a thank you present to Russian commander, Prince Aleksander Nevsky for the liberation of Bulgaria from Ottoman rule, the landmark cathedral was completed in 1913 and is the largest Orthodox cathedral in Bulgaria.
Not far from here, is the Church of St Nicholas the Miracle Maker, the official church of the Russian Embassy, which features five gilded domes. Beneath the main door, there’s a crypt which houses the remains of Saint Archbishop Seraphim. Locals still visit, leaving notes and prayers for the saint.
A one and a half hour drive from the city will take you to Rila Monastery, the pièce de résistance of Bulgaria’s sacred sites. Built on the forested slopes of the highest mountain in the country, the monastery dates back to the 10th century when it was founded by St Ivan of Rila. With its monochrome arches and colourful biblical murals, the monastery’s Nativity of the Virgin church is a photographer’s paradise.