Tracing ancient Serdica: two days in Sofia

One of Europe’s youngest capitals, Sofia also happens to be among its oldest settlements, stretching back several millennia from ancient Thracian and Celtic tribes through the Romans, Slavs and Ottomans to the present day. This impressive heritage lends the city a highbrow historical element to accompany the great food, drink and party vibe Sofia has always been known for.

Part of Ancient Serdica ruins under a glass dome © Mark Baker / Lonely Planet

Part of the ruins of Ancient Serdica under a glass dome © Mark Baker / Lonely Planet

The full extent of the city’s ancient foundations only became clear in the past decade with the building of the metro. As bulldozers worked to lay rail, they unearthed whole streets, intact houses, baths and churches dating back almost 2000 years when Sofia was a Roman provincial capital, Serdica. Some excavation sites are now open to the public. Of course, having served as Bulgaria’s capital since the late 19th century (after the country gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire), Sofia offers a wealth of other historical and cultural attractions. Two days should suffice for taking in the highlights.

Day 1

Morning

Sofia History Museum in the former Mineral Baths building © Mark Baker / Lonely Planet

Sofia History Museum in the former Mineral Baths building © Mark Baker / Lonely Planet

Get an early start with coffee at Fabrika Daga (ul Veslets 10), a trendy, third-generation roaster that blends beans from around the world. It’s a short walk to the Ancient Serdica complex, the heart of the old Roman city. Attached to the Serdika metro station, the remains of eight city streets, as well as fragments of houses and baths, are open to the public during metro operating hours (6am to 11pm).

This part of town was also the heart of Sofia’s communist ambitions, and the ruins are eerily ringed by grand socialist-realist edifices from the 1950s, such as the Party House and the TSUM department store. The Banya Bashi Mosque in the background harks back to yet another era, when Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire.

Opulent Royal Carriage in the Sofia History Museum © Mark Baker / Lonely Planet

Opulent Royal Carriage in the Sofia History Museum © Mark Baker / Lonely Planet

The nearby Sofia History Museum (sofiahistorymuseum.bg) helps to weave together these fragments of time. Housed in a majestic former Turkish bathhouse, the museum has exhibitions on antiquity but is strongest on the late 19th century and Bulgarian independence.

Finish the morning with a stroll through the northern half of the centre, taking in the mosque as well as the enormous Sofia Synagogue. These days, this quarter is home to the city’s burgeoning Turkish community. Pop into Ege Türk (ul Tsar Simeon 108) for a simple but delicious kebab lunch to enjoy the fruits of this cultural mish-mash.

Afternoon

A heroic street monument in Sofia © Mark Baker / Lonely Planet

A heroic street monument in Sofia © Mark Baker / Lonely Planet

The Archaeological Museum, housed in a former mosque, shows off the treasures of the Thracian empire that predated the Romans. Across the street, the President’s Building (another socialist-realist mega-structure) is closed to the public, but arrive at the top of the hour to see an elaborate changing-of-the-guard ceremony. Proceed through an archway in the President’s Building (to the left of the guards) to find another delightful time warp: tiny, red-brick Sveti Georgi Rotunda – built in the 4th century – tucked away in a sea of 20th-century grandiosity.

Take a break in the nearby City Gardens, a popular green spot fronted by the Ivan Vazov National Theatre. If you’re up for another museum, the Sofia City Art Gallery, also in the park, holds rotating exhibitions of contemporary art.

Evening

MoMa Bulgarian Food & Wine restaurant © Mark Baker / Lonely Planet

MoMa Bulgarian Food & Wine restaurant © Mark Baker / Lonely Planet

Depending on the mood, begin with a stroll down bul Vitosha, an elegant pedestrianised street, lined on both sides by bars and cafes. For authentic local cuisine, try MoMa Bulgarian Food & Wine (moma-restaurant.com), just a block west of Vitosha.

Check out the trendy side streets, such as ul Hristo Belchev and ul Angel Kanchev, for after-dinner drinks. One can’t-miss is the open-air cocktail bar Pavage (ul Angel Kanchev 9a).

Day 2

Morning

The golden domes of Aleksander Nevski Cathedral © Mark Baker / Lonely Planet

The golden domes of Aleksander Nevski Cathedral © Mark Baker / Lonely Planet

Don’t leave the camera behind, as you start the next day at Sofia’s most iconic building: the Aleksander Nevski Cathedral. This magnificent church, its gold domes gleaming in the morning sunshine, took three decades to finish. It’s dedicated to Russian soldiers who perished to liberate Bulgaria from Ottoman domination. The crypt holds Bulgaria’s biggest collection of Orthodox icons. Nearby, the city’s namesake church, Sveta Sofia, dates from the 6th century, but the real treasure lies below ground: an ancient necropolis with some 50 tombs and the remains of four other churches.

Finish the morning at Sofia’s National Gallery Quadrat 500 (nationalartgallerybg.org), by far the city’s biggest art collection. It’s perfectly fine to pick and choose among the gallery’s 28 rooms and thousands of paintings. The collection is strong on 19th-century Bulgarian painting as well as European masters from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Afternoon

A cheerful street mural in Sofia © Mark Baker / Lonely Planet

A cheerful street mural in Sofia © Mark Baker / Lonely Planet

Make your way from the centre 8km south to the prosperous suburb of Boyana, at the foot of Mt Vitosha. The natural setting makes a perfect backdrop to perhaps Sofia’s most valuable relic: the Unesco-protected Boyana Church. Murals inside this miniature, 13th-century church show off Bulgarian medieval art at its best. Pair a visit with the National Museum of History for more Thracian gold and Roman statuary.

Evening

Sofia's monumental National Palace of Culture (NDK) © Mark Baker / Lonely Planet

Sofia's monumental National Palace of Culture (NDK) © Mark Baker / Lonely Planet

For traditional Bulgarian food, including a plate of grilled meats and a shot of the national aperitif, rakia, you can’t go wrong with folksy Manastirska Magernitsa. A bit trendier, with a nod toward organic ingredients and farm-to-table freshness, is Made In Home (ul Angel Kanchev 30a).

To work off the meal, the National Palace of Culture (NDK), at the southern end of Vitosha, has several dance clubs scattered in and about. Popular clubs of the moment include Sofia Live Club and Switch (bul Bulgaria 2).

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