The Thracian Serdi tribe settled the Sofia region as far back as the 8th century BC, and the area was briefly occupied by the Macedonians in the 4th century BC. However, the city as we know it today was founded by the Romans, who conquered the region in AD 29 and built the town of Ulpia Serdica. In the late 3rd century AD, Serdica became a major regional imperial capital, reaching a zenith in the early 4th century under Emperor Constantine the Great. The Sveti Georgi Rotunda is the most prominent reminder of the Roman era still standing.
The Bulgar king Khan Krum swung by in AD 809 and made it one of the main towns of his empire. The Byzantines occupied it in the 11th century, and it was during the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185–1396) that the name of the city was changed (for the last time) to Sofia, after the Church of Sveta Sofia, which still stands, albeit much rebuilt. Sadly, few monuments survive from this crucial period; the most important, and most precious to all Bulgarians, is the lovely Boyana Church.
The Ottomans, sweeping through the Balkans, captured the city in 1382, and held it for nearly 500 years. Sofia became the regional capital and a major market town. The Ottomans built baths and mosques, such as the Banya Bashi Mosque, but many churches were destroyed or abandoned; the tiny Church of Sveta Petka Samardjiiska is a very rare survivor.
The city declined during the feudal unrest of the mid-19th century, and it was in Sofia that the celebrated anti-Turkish rebel Vasil Levski was hanged in 1873, after first being interrogated and tortured in the building that later became the Royal Palace. After the liberation of the city from the Turks in early 1878, Sofia officially became the capital of Bulgaria on 4 April 1879. The new roads and railway lines linking Sofia with the rest of Europe and the Balkans soon boosted the city’s fortunes. However, Bulgaria picked the wrong side during WWII so, tragically, much of the city’s heritage was destroyed during bombing raids.
The Red Army ‘liberated’ Sofia in 1944 –the monument to their arrival still soars near Borisova Gradina – and a People’s Republic was set up after the war. Socialist architects set to work in the following years, rebuilding the heavily damaged city on the Soviet model, complete with high-rise housing blocks in the suburbs and monstrous monuments in the city centre, such as the old Party House which dominates pl Nezavisimost. Some of the more distasteful reminders of the communist era, such as the mausoleum of postwar leader Georgi Dimitrov, have been swept away, while others have been allowed to slowly decay since the fall of the communist government in 1989.
High unemployment and declining living standards blighted the 1990s, but while serious problems still exist, EU membership in 2007 does seem to have brought a new dynamism and sense of stability to the city, which is experiencing something of a building boom. As more international companies set up offices, and more foreign citizens choose to settle here, it’s a trend that looks set to continue.
Don’t be put off by the rusting army trucks in the overgrown front yard – this museum (946 1806; ul Cherkovna 92; admission 2 lv, guided tour 10 lv; 10am-6pm Wed-Sun) is among the most interesting and best presented in Sofia. Displays over three floors tell the story of warfare in Bulgaria from the time of the Thracians onwards, with extensive labelling and information boards in English. Most space goes to the period from the 1876 April Uprising through to WWI, with cases filled with weaponry, rebel flags and a seemingly endless parade of uniforms and personal belongings of soldiers. Among the more striking are the shaggy-fur flying costume, resembling a traditional Kuker outfit, worn by a Lt Simeon Petrov during the First Balkan War, and the pint-sized tunic of Nikola Kostov, a 10-year-old WWI ‘volunteer’. Exhibits from WWII and the communist period follow, with the final gallery concentrating on the Bulgarian army’s current peace-keeping role within NATO. An additional ticket (2 lv) is required for the 4th-floor galleries, which hold a collection of foreign decorations awarded to Bulgarian leaders and, if you haven’t had your fill, yet more uniforms and guns.
The rear yard is home to an impressive assemblage of defunct, Soviet-made military hardware including Scud missile launchers, tanks and MiG fighters. Everything is labelled in English. The museum entrance is on ul Han Omurtag.