With a past rooted in Ottoman tradition and Socialist struggle, the narrative of Bulgaria tells a colorful story of conflict, fortitude and perseverance, where the capital city Sofia emerges as a sparkling center of energy and cultural richness. Offering a plethora of compelling galleries, museums, parks and night spots, there has never been a better time to visit the city, which today stands as the second oldest settlement in Europe. An interesting and atmospheric destination, here’s our list of the 10 best things to see and do in Sofia.
Established in 1981 as part of the state of Bulgaria’s 1300th birthday celebrations, the National Palace of Culture in the heart of the city center is a striking sight to behold in itself. The sprawling hexagonal building is made primarily of grass and concrete, and was designed by eminent Bulgarian architect Alexander Georgiev Barov, an artist whose work was prolific during communist-era Bulgaria. Nowadays the building and the surrounding gardens act as an interesting example of the socialist architecture of the past, with its sleek and minimalistic aesthetic, harsh geometric lines and imposing size all contributing to its historical artistic significance. As Europe’s largest conference center the palace plays host to a number of compelling events, from art exhibitions to musical concerts, meaning that visitors can be sure to catch something interesting during their visit. Thousands of exhibitions and shows are showcased here all year round.
The bright lights, tall buildings and bustling streets of Sofia can occasionally make it seem like a concrete jungle; take a trip to Borislova Gradina Park for some fresh air and tranquility in the city center. Constructed in 1884 and named after Boris III of Bulgaria, the park is divided into three parts. Each section was designed by a different successful and accomplished gardener: Joseph Frei, Georgi Duhtev and Daniel Neff. Including a number of peaceful green spaces and tree nurseries, as well as its famously alluring water lily lake, the park is a charming place in which to experience Bulgaria’s natural beauty. For history and architecture lovers, the park is also home to the Borisova Gradina TV Tower, an impressive 14 story building which served as the headquarters for the first Bulgarian National Television broadcasts in 1959.
One of the oldest restaurants and bars in Sofia, the Pod Lipite Tavern is a rustic pub dating back to 1926, once the favorite haunt of such notable Bulgarian figures as actress Elena Snezhina and writer Angel Karaliychev. Creating hearty, home made Bulgarian dishes with ingredients sourced from the restaurant’s own meat and dairy farm, Pod Lipite is a real taste of authentic Bulgarian cuisine, and uses traditional recipes and cooking methods. Entering into the restaurant itself feels like stepping back into the past, with the stone walls, brick fireplace and wooden beams evoking a homely, countryside charm which erases all traces of busy modernity. Truly a top spot in Sofia, a meal at Pod Lipite is one to remember, not only for its original flavors but also for its unique atmosphere, history and style.
Once one of the largest Eastern Orthodox churches in the world, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is constructed in a beautiful and intricate Neo-Byzantine style, and is one of Sofia’s most visited landmarks. Built in honor of St Alexander Nevsky, the prince famed for 13th century military victories over Germany and Sweden, the cathedral is seeped in history and is an important symbol of Bulgaria’s past. Today it is the official Church of the Neophyte of Bulgaria, Simeon Nikolov Dimitrov, the head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. It is a peaceful and magnificent place in which to spend a few quiet moments in the city. Spacious, tranquil and luxuriously ornamented on the inside, visitors can spend hours exploring the majestic interior and prolific ancestry that make this cathedral so symbolic.
Those wishing to find some weird and wonderful Sofia souvenirs will not be disappointed at Bitaka Flea Market, the largest bazaar in the region. Offering a range of merchandise, from cameras and technology, toys and watches, to jewellery, clothes and old photographs, Bitaka is a treasure trove of fascinating finds. Situated next to the Aleksander Nevski Cathedral in the center of town, the market is home to a variety of sellers, from experienced stall vendors offering cutlery and kitchenware, to locals bartering over miscellaneous trinkets arranged on bed sheets in the street. A truly eccentric, eclectic and diverse market, Bitaka is open every weekend from the early morning until late afternoon. It is an excellent place in which to experience Sofia’s unique culture, to meet local people and to bag yourself some bargains.
Rakia is the celebrated national beverage of Bulgaria, with homemade bottles often being proudly presented after every evening meal. A national treasure, this strong, smooth liquor is a must taste whilst in the country, and there is no better place to take a sip than in the thriving capital city. Centrally located Raketa Rakia Bar is not only a popular restaurant serving a variety of local and international cuisines, but is also a lively bar offering the best collection of rakias in the city. With its quirky decoration and assorted memorabilia dotted around on shelves, Raketa has a quirky, trendy vibe, whilst being bright, airy and decidedly laid back. Visitors are advised to line their stomachs with some of the restaurant’s tasty plates before becoming acquainted with rakia; some varieties of the spirit are 65% alcohol.
This fairly new museum aims to showcase the artwork created in Bulgaria’s socialist period, presenting pieces by some of the most notable painters and sculptors of the time. Featuring an indoor gallery and an outdoor sculpture park, The Museum of Socialist Art contains a number of engaging exhibits, including the red star that once adorned the Socialist Party headquarters in Sofia. There are also a number of sculptures depicting famous leaders, most notably Joseph Stalin, figures which previously lined the streets of the city. This compelling collection strives to exemplify the advances in art achieved during the socialist struggle, particularly the development of Socialist Realism, a style which glorified communist values and sought to honor the proletariat classes. A beguiling and reflective venue to visit in the heart of Sofia.
Situated just outside of the center of Sofia, at the foot of the stunning Vitosha mountain, Kambanite is a peaceful park complex with an interesting past. Over thirty years ago UNESCO declared 1979 to be the ‘International Year of the Child’, a movement initiated to highlight the suffering of children worldwide. The Kambanite Park in Sofia was thus created in response to this initiative. Containing 68 bells, each representing a separate country, the park aimed to unite children from all over the world, and it became the site for the ‘Banner of Peace’ International Children’s Assembly. Today this is an excellent place for visitors to explore and enjoy the symbolic landscaping and architecture.
A Sofian institution proving immensely popular amongst locals, Swingin’ Hallis a live music club and bar, boasting a vibrant and energetic atmosphere. A top spot for music loving visitors, guests have the chance to listen to a range of musical performances by talented local bands. The establishment is dedicated to promoting local talent and providing a lively night out for its customers. Remaining true to its name, Swingin’ hall hosts regular swing nights for dancers of all abilities, where groovers can practice their moves, meet new people and enjoy Sofia’s nightlife. Relaxed and unpretentious with a quirky interior design, Swingin’ Hall is a dynamic dance and music venue serving a number of international beers, wines and spirits. There is also an array of soft drinks and mocktails for thirsty non-drinkers.
Exhibiting a number of antique items from over 8,000 years ago, visitors at The National History Museum can spend hours learning the stories of Bulgaria’s people, and discovering the relics they left behind. Separated into five halls, each of which represent a different historical era, guests can marvel at the pottery of the Middle Ages before wandering next door and observing the various ornamental burial gifts of the second Bulgarian Empire. With Bulgaria’s history including such notable events as the Ottoman dominion (1396 – 1878) and the Bulgarian National Revival in the 18th century, there is no shortage of fascinating information to be discovered at the museum. A trip here makes for one of the most cultural and interesting days out in Sofia.