Sofia is the capital of Bulgaria, a country that forms part of the Balkan Peninsula and one of the oldest cities in the world . One of the best ways to explore this city is on foot, ensuring you don’t miss out on any hidden gems and at the same time immersing oneself in the culture while stepping into the heart of the county.
Upon arrival in the city, visitors are captivated by soaring Mount Vitosha while down town awaits with the discovery of grand Orthodox cathedrals, charming open-air book markets, ancient buildings and unexpectedly chic restaurants and cafes.
History peers out periodically exposing the Roman Ruins that the city is built on top of, also going relatively unnoticed are the architectural styling transforming from neo-Byzantine and neo-Baroque to German Functionalism, bauhaus, and communist style buildings.
Traveling on the over night train from Istanbul to Sofia I was immediately amazed by the beauty of the landscape we passed through. Lush surroundings and fields of striking sunflowers created the picturesque background for a train journey. Disembarking from the train the city smelt heavenly from a variety of scents of the 840 000 flowers that adorn the city parks as well as the chestnut trees.
One of the most famous bazaars in Sofia, its a feast as far as the eye can see selling fresh produce. Everything from fruits, vegetables, meats and cheeses. There are also souvenir shops, pottery stores and not to be forgotten the delicious Bulgarian chocolate.
The Soviet post-war period provides the city with affordable socialist era apartment blocks. These have inadvertently provide the cities 21st century street artists with a canvas for large scale mural art. With no less than 53 pieces of art on walls around the city, half the fun is trying to find all these quirky and stylish pieces
Sofia Central Mineral baths
A landmark in the city centre, built in the early 20th century near the former Turkish Bath which was then destroyed and was used as the city’s public baths until 1986 when it was closed due to its neglect. It was slowly reconstructed and now accommodates the Sofia Regional Historical Museum. Beautiful gardens outside create a calm and relaxing space to enjoy the sounds of nature.
The main commercial street in the centre of the city, abundant with posh stores , restaurants and bars. There is no better place for people watching in the city, while enjoying a Shopska salad, one of Bulgaria’s national dishes. This traditional cold salad which is served during summer , has colours that recall the Bulgarian flag. This attractive pedestrian zone is the largest shopping street in the capital.
St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
One of the most emblematic sites in Sofia, it is easy to spot from almost any point in the city. Considered one of the most important Orthodox churches in Bulgaria as well as one of the 50 largest Christian Church buildings by volume in the world. Inside one can marvel at the royal thrones and grandiose pulpit and richly decorated interior.
Built to honour Russian soldiers perished during the Russian- Turkish war of 1878 – 1879 , which helped liberate Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire.
Ivan Vazov National theatre
One of the most ornate buildings in the city is Bulgaria’s national theatre which was founded in 1904 and opened in 1907 , as well as the oldest and most authoritative theatre in the country with a magnificent facade that faces the city garden and fountains. This magical theatre has three stages with the main stage being able to host 860 guests.
Yellow brick road
The road got its nickname from the yellow cobblestone street connecting the road between the royal residence and National Assembly. The yellow stones were donated by Hapsburg, the cousin of Prince Ferdinand of Bulgaria who married Princess Marie Louise of Bourbon-Parma in 1893. The Prince wanted the city to be seen as fashionable European capital and so his cousin had them sent as a wedding gift.The yellow pavers were produced in Budapest with material from a local clay pit.
Built in the late 20’s of the 20th century for banker Dimitar Ivanov and his wife who lived here happily until 1944. After the war the property was nationalised and originally housed the Romanian Embassy. Later the house was a commercial representation of the USSR in Bulgaria . In the 90’s the house was restituted and retuned to the heir of the first owner however it is sadly neglected and over grown. The beauty of the structure still attracts many visitors who hope to get a glimpse inside.
After the fall of communism Bulgarians started their own businesses, however rental space was expensive. This led to the fascinating basement shops that popped up along the sidewalks in Sofia. Known as “klek “ ( ‘knee “ ) shops they operated out of the basements of old buildings through a cellar window not far above the ground. Customers must squat down to make their order and pay the shop keeper.
The square of Tolerance
Sofia is the only place in Europe that has places of worship for 4 major religions close to each other. One is the charming cylindrical St George Rotunda Church built from red brick and considered to be the oldest building in modern Sofia. In this area one can also find the Sofia Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Southeastern Europe and the Banya Bashi Mosque , the only functioning mosque in Sofia. the 4th is the Eastern Orthodox St Nedelya Church.
Bulgaria’s motto is “ Unity Makes strength “ now a united country with a place on the world map and one of Europes best kept travel secrets it is well worth the visit.