Lonely Planet Local Yoana Hristova has had her share of roaming around the world, but she has returned to her home in Sofia only to fall in love with the city all over again. Rediscovering the Bulgarian capital’s charms for her has meant enjoying its laid-back atmosphere, green spaces, fun nightlife and the typically Balkan obsession with food and coffee.
What I love most about Sofia is… that it’s a capital city with a relaxed feel. Sofia offers a range of cultural experiences, from modern art exhibitions in spaces such as the Forum Art Gallery to offbeat historical sites like the Soviet-related Museum of Socialist Art. Lingering in cafes or soaking up the sun in one of Sofia’s numerous parks is almost a religion here. The pace of life is slow and the focus is on enjoying your companions and surroundings.
When I have friends in town… I cook for them or take them out for a meal. Food is a big deal in the Balkans and locals will make sure that the guests are well fed. For a tasty brunch in the city centre, my friends and I go to Fabrika Daga or Shtastliveca (they offer vegetarian and vegan options too). Next, we follow up with a sightseeing tour starting at the iconic Aleksander Nevski Cathedral, and finish with some shopping and ice cream on the popular Vitosha boulevard that leads us to the colourful gardens of the National Palace of Culture. On a sunny day, we opt for a meal at Bacon Bar & Dinner (you can’t go wrong with their shopska salad, featuring vegetables, Bulgarian white cheese, parsley pesto and a grilled hot pepper wrapped in bacon), and take a long stroll around Yuzhen Park.
When I’m up for a big night out… I’ll start with smooth jazz, a dinner and some red wine at Teahouse (try their signature vegan wrap, or enjoy a hearty stew and some spicy sausages). Afterwards, I like to spoil myself with a scoop of Italian ice cream at the central Afreddo. The real party starts at Club Terminal 1, where I go for live concerts and dancing. I also like visiting Rock’n’Rolla Club for a crazy night filled with rock music. For drinks, I regularly show up at The Shots (it’s best to go with a local as the pub is located outside the central area). On long summer nights, Maimunarnika turns into one of the trendiest outdoor stages for alternative concerts and parties.
For cheap eats… I often grab a mashed avocado sandwich or a warm bowl of soup at Supa Star. I love the affordable and healthy food options offered by Red Bell – in particular, their vegetable cream soups and homemade cakes are excellent. For authentic and relatively cheap Italian pizza, I go to Franco’s Pizza or Roma Bene, which is on the outskirts of the city.
My week can’t pass without… my daily cup of strong black coffee. I usually have it while catching up with a friend, sharing experiences and laughs and watching the passers-by. Another thing I almost never skip is sports. From yoga at Yoga Diwali and swimming at Anel Sport to fitness training in my neighbourhood, I practice daily.
A typical weekend involves… a morning run, followed by sipping coffee on the balcony and a walk in the company of good friends. When the weather is nice, I like wandering around the city parks and green spaces or in the nearby Mt Vitosha. If it’s cold and rainy, I prefer hanging out in cafes such as the one at Orange Book Center. Evenings are usually reserved for a dinner out, a hilarious play at Salza i Smyah theatre or a ballet performance at the National Opera House. Weekends are also a great time to have friends over or meet them for a beer at Luciano or Ale House. At least once a month, I travel to the picturesque town of Vratsa below the Vrachanska Mountains, to spend some time with my family.
When I need to relax... I head to one of Sofia’s most attractive parks, Borisova Gradina, for an invigorating stroll in the woods. Alternatively, I sit in the shade of one of its mighty oak trees and immerse myself in a good book. The secluded Doctors’ Garden is another personal favourite that helps me escape from the bustle of the city.
When I want to get out of the city... I catch the Simeonovo gondola (accessible via bus lines 122 and 123) and hop off at the Aleko Hut station that’s a great starting point for a trek to Mt Vitosha’s highest peak, Cherni Vrâh (literally ‘Black Peak’). Escaping the urban life is easy in Sofia as the Vitosha Nature Park is just a 10km drive from the city. And if you’re up for a road trip, within a few hours you can find yourself gasping at the soul-stirring scenery of the Rila Mountains and their Seven Rila Lakes.
One thing I hate about Sofia… is the city’s public transport system. While everything is within walking distance in the centre, some neighbourhoods are not very well connected. The distances are not huge but commuting to work might take from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on where you live. Besides, I love cycling and walking but in some areas it’s impossible and even dangerous – cycling infrastructure is either completely missing or poorly executed. On the bright side, Sofia metro is brand-new and more stations are expected to open around the city.
You know you’ve been in Sofia too long… when you’re used to spending a summer evening chilling out on a park bench, drinking beer or rakija (local brandy, often home-made and awfully strong) with your friends – something that Sofia locals call a ‘bench party’. One of the most popular spots for it is the National Theatre park.