Bulgaria's pleasingly laid-back capital is often overlooked by visitors heading to the coast or the ski resorts, but they're missing something special. Sofia is no grand metropolis, but it's a modern, youthful city, with a scattering of onion-domed churches, Ottoman mosques and stubborn Red Army monuments that lend an eclectic, exotic feel. Excavation work carried out during construction of the metro unveiled a treasure trove of Roman ruins from nearly 2000 years ago, when the city was called 'Serdica'. Away from the buildings and boulevards, vast parks and manicured gardens offer a welcome respite, and the ski slopes and hiking trails of mighty Mt Vitosha are just a short bus ride from the centre. Home to many of Bulgaria's finest museums, galleries, restaurants and clubs, Sofia may persuade you to stick around and explore further.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Sofia.
One of the symbols not just of Sofia but of Bulgaria itself, this massive, awe-inspiring church was built between 1882 and 1912 in memory of the 200,000 Russian soldiers who died fighting for Bulgaria’s independence during the Russo-Turkish War (1877–78). It is named in honour of a 13th-century Russian warrior-prince.
Tiny 13th-century Boyana Church is included on Unesco’s World Heritage list and its 90 murals are among the very finest examples of Bulgarian medieval artwork. A combined ticket includes entry to both the church and the National Museum of History, 2km away.
Housed in a former mosque built in 1496, this museum displays a wealth of Thracian, Roman and medieval artefacts. Highlights include a mosaic floor from the Church of Sveta Sofia, a 4th-century BC Thracian gold burial mask, and a magnificent bronze head, thought to represent a Thracian king.
Sveta Sofia is one of the capital's oldest churches, and gave the city its name. A subterranean museum houses an ancient necropolis, with 56 tombs and the remains of four other churches. Outside are the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and an eternal flame, and the grave of Ivan Vazov, Bulgaria's most revered writer.
Built in the 4th century AD, this tiny red-brick church is Sofia's oldest preserved building. The murals inside were painted between the 10th and 14th centuries. It's a busy, working church, but visitors are welcome. To find the church, enter through an opening on ul Sâborna.
If you wondered where all those unwanted statues of Lenin ended up, you'll find some here, along with the red star from atop Sofia's Party House. There's a gallery of paintings, where you'll rejoice in catchy titles such as Youth Meeting at Kilifarevo Village to Send Worker-Peasant Delegation to the USSR, and stirring old propaganda films are shown.
The history of Sofia is presented on two floors of the magnificent former Turkish Mineral Baths, just behind the mosque. Exhibitions are divided thematically over eight chambers, with the most interesting rooms dedicated to the Bulgarian royal families of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the findings of recent archeological digs around town. There are plenty of signs in English.
This remarkable, partly covered excavation site, situated just above the Serdika metro station, displays the remains of the Roman city, Serdica, that once occupied this area. The remains were unearthed from 2010 to 2012 during construction of the metro. There are fragments of eight streets, an early Christian basilica, baths and houses dating from the 4th to 6th centuries. Plenty of signage in English.
This beautiful church with glittering mosaic exterior and golden domes was completed in 1914 for Sofia’s Russian community, and named in honour of St Nikolai, the ‘miracle worker’. Students believe that the saint brings them luck, so they go there to pray prior to important exams. The cramped interior features icons painted between the 11th and 14th centuries.