So far, I have really struggled to write “what to do in X” posts. Sure, I have done plenty of things on my trips – visited museums, tried restaurants, beach-hopped – but writing about them in listicle format is always a challenge for me. I feel I am at my best when I’m writing about a more specific subject. I mean, I wrote over a thousand words about a single cathedral in Prague. I just posted another thousand-word blog about only one of Bulgaria’s museums, the Museum of Socialist Art. When I write overarching ‘Prague’ or ‘Sofia’ posts, I feel like I can’t build a narrative and they end up meandering. I like writing long-form, narrative blogs about a single place or thing – I don’t want to stop doing that – but I do want to be able to offer a more concrete list of recommendations too.
I was worried that, for Sofia, this was going to be a short list. When we asked our snowboarding instructor for some recommendations for Sofia, he shrugged. “There’s nothing there. Don’t bother going.”
Right. Planning off to a good start, then.
We spent just under two days in Sofia at the end of our Bulgaria trip and in that time, I do feel we saw a lot of the “must-see” sights. Our instructor was right – there’s not that much there in terms of major tourist attractions. Of course, you can always walk around, take in the city and eat the food – as we also did because what is travel without food? – but here’s some information on a few of the more concrete options for a bit of culture.
Where we went
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral – as became a theme with the churches and cathedrals we perused in Sofia, the outside is a lot grander than the inside. The exteriors tended to be covered in gold and bright colours and adorned with spires and domes. It was punchy. It made a statement. You knew the Catholics meant business. But as soon as you went inside, it was clear that restoration work had been put off. The walls were covered in art but it was faded and dirty and the whole interior was just very dark. There are no photos of the inside of these buildings because you had to pay to take pictures, though there is no fee for entry.
So, while the inside of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was underwhelming, the outside is awesome. This is definitely something worth seeing in Sofia. It is covered in teal and gold bubbles and it is massive. Going inside was free (though it cost around £4.50 if you wanted to take pictures inside).
The Saint Nikolas Russian Church – we stumbled across this church on our way to the main cathedral. It is very small and the inside is very dark, but, again, the outside is striking with a lot of green and gold. It’s like the main cathedral but smaller and darker. But it’s free and the two are approximately a four-minute walk apart so you might as well pop in. If the title wasn’t enough, this is a Russian Orthodox church and having a look was free (though it also cost around £4.50 if you wanted to take pictures inside).
The Rotunda of St George (Sveti Georgi) – we also stumbled across this church on our way to the cathedral. The centre is small. These are more ruins than a church, though you can go inside to see what is left of the original main structure. This is Sofia’s oldest building, built by the Romans in the 4th century. It is impressive that it is that old, but, in all honesty, it is not much to look at. Fortunately, it’s on the way to everywhere so you can just have a quick peek (it’s free!) and then keep moving.
The Sofia National History Museum – this museum uses word, pictures and items (like an actual old tram, a cart with a (fake) horse, traditional clothes and pots from genuinely thousands of years ago) to tell you about Bulgarian history. Well, not all of Bulgarian history. This museum covers the years 6000 BC to 1946 and completely avoids discussing what happened in Bulgaria after WW2, namely the country’s communist period. This omission is weird and was especially unfortunate given that this time period was when I was particularly interested in learning about. That being said, if you are interested in Bulgarian history before 1946, this is the place. Adult tickets were about £3.50, more if you wanted to take pictures.
The Museum of Socialist Art – after our slightly odd experience at the National History Museum, we figured the Museum of Socialist Art was our best bet for some communist history.
Well, this thinking turned out to be both right and wrong.
Right because it is where all the statues of major communist leaders (that used to be spread across the city) are now housed and there are a few short documentaries from the 1960s playing in a small video room. Wrong because the art is all posters from 2017 & 2018, which, while the posters are still very creative, is not exactly what you expect from a museum that positions itself as sharing art from the communist period. This museum was so interesting to me that I wrote a whole post about it. Adult tickets were about £3.50.
The National Museum of Military History – you can go inside this museum and pay, or you can stay outside and look, for free, at the frankly terrifying amount of planes, tanks and other weapons to find in what is now essentially a public park. Children flew kites and rode their bikes in amongst, uh, ENORMOUS TANKS. It was very quirky. Military history – as in, looking at particular models of fighter jets – is not really my jam, but Jake is into that stuff and enjoyed this ‘museum’ a lot. The reviews we read said that the outside collection was by far the best thing there so we stuck to that as we had limited time. Go here if you want to visit a park full of old tanks, literal fighter jets and multiple cannons, all for free.
Where we ate
The Poli Tavern – this was the site of our hilarious dinner where the menu was all in Bulgarian and none of the staff spoke English (which is obviously totally fine because we were distinctly not in England). We ordered at random and it was hilarious. We ended up with an amazing tomato-aubergine sauce/starter, a beetroot & yoghurt salad that was a little heavy on the yoghurt, some cheese and meat wrapped in more meat and grilled, which was good, and then a whole grilled fish with vegetables that was very good. Then a cheesecake covered in some kind of jelly that looked like it had olives in it. The cheesecake was delicious but only after we’d removed the slightly unusual jelly layer. I also ordered bread using Polish which I was thrilled with (some Polish is similar to Bulgarian in terms of speaking, but Bulgarian is written using the Cyrillic alphabet so sounding it out was not possible for us – yet. I should learn!). We also had a lot of beer. All of this cost £18, total. You can check my highlights on Instagram if you want to see this evening play out in real time.
If you like adventure or, you know, speak Bulgarian, I would recommend this restaurant. If the thought of ordering at random gives you hives then maybe eat somewhere else.
Rainbow Factory – this little brunch place is proof that you can find hipster brunches everywhere now. No matter how far you roam, there will always be a poached egg in a ten-metre radius (not really – but maybe). The breakfast we had here was excellent: we had a classic egg, bacon, cheese, fried bread plate, something that turned out be a delicious flan and then, my favourite, a classic Banitza (a Bulgarian pastry) with the most delicate custard I’ve ever had. Plus drinks. All of these cost only a few pounds each (though you have to pay in Bulgarian lev, obviously). A bonus tip: carry cash. While some places accept cards, many restaurants and museums are still cash only.
Mekitsa & Kafe – Mekitsa are special Bulgarian doughnuts and, if there’s any tourism am I committed to, it’s bakery tourism. We went to the café dedicated to these doughnuts for lunch. We had classic Mekitsa with powdered sugar, savoury Mekitsa with cream cheese and Mekitsa with fig jam. The doughnuts are basically like huge, circular churros and they are extremely good (though the powdered sugar ones were especially delicious). Each doughnut was very affordable.
The Hadjidragana Tavern – This was probably the most popular of all the restaurants we ate in, where we had a few traditional Bulgarian dishes that I sadly can’t remember the name of now. It was definitely the case that the more traditional the menu item, the cheaper it was. We had a cheese and potato dish, an amazing tomato and cheese scramble with bread and some stuffed peppers. The meat was all quite expensive but the vegetables dishes were cheap, so we had a vegetarian meal and it was good. I also had some Ayran, a diluted yoghurt drink that is common in Eastern Europe. I would recommend, but it was definitely more expensive than most places we ate.
Given we were actually only in Sofia for about thirty hours, I think we did a pretty good job of looking around. We also walked through a number of lovely parks, with lots of dogs and live music, which had a great vibe.
Hopefully that gives you some ideas for things to do in Sofia. I’ll leave you with my final tip for travelling in Bulgaria (or anywhere, really):
- DO NOT GET INTO A TAXI WITHOUT A METER. Taxis in Sofia are very affordable and you will get ripped off spectacularly if there is no meter. Make sure you say “meter, yes?” before getting in and driving off. This will save you money and a nasty confrontation.
Get ready for grilled meat, pastry and an insistence that the latter half of the 20th century didn’t happen. Happy travels!