Sofia


WHAT TO DO

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 city's metro (subway) 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. Bulgaria's pleasingly laid back capital sits below Vitosha Mountain and is steeped in history. Home to some excellent museums and outstanding restaurants, Sofia is sure to please.

Start your adventure at Sofia's most cherished landmark, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (Sveti Aleksandar Nevski). This massive, awe inspiring church was built between 1882 and 1912 in memory of the 200000 Russian soldiers who died fighting for Bulgaria's independence during the Russo Turkish War (1877-78) - as a result of which Bulgaria was liberated from Ottoman rule. It is named in honor of a 13th century Russian warrior prince. Designed by Russian architect Alexander Pomerantsev, the church was built in the neo Byzantine style favored in Russia at the time and is adorned with mosaics and gold laden domes. The cavernous, incense scented interior is decorated with naturalistic murals, pendulous chandeliers and elaborate onyx and alabaster thrones. The cathedral was consecrated on September 12, 1924 and in 1955 it was declared a cultural monument. Visitors are welcome and there are daily services where you can hear evocative Orthodox chants and prayers. Note: there is a museum of Bulgarian icons inside the cathedral crypt, part of the National Art Gallery. The church claims that the museum contains the largest collection of Orthodox icons in Europe. Outside the cathedral is a park where you can buy handmade textiles and antiques at a small flea market. The cathedral is adjacent to Sveta Sofia Church, the church for which the city of Sofia is named. It is one of the capital's oldest churches, dating back to the 4th century. A subterranean museum houses an ancient necropolis, with many tombs and the remains of four other churches. Outside are the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and an eternal flame, along with the grave of Ivan Vazov - Bulgaria's most revered writer, often referred to as 'the Patriarch of Bulgarian literature'.

From there, head to the Ancient Serdica Complex at pl Nezavisimost. This remarkable, partly covered excavation site (located 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, as previously stated. There are fragments of eight streets, an early Christian basilica, baths and houses dating from the 4th to 6th centuries. Nearby at ul Saborna 2 is the Sofia Archaeological Museum. Housed in a former mosque built in 1496, this museum displays a wealth of Thracian, Roman and medieval artifacts. 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. Note: the Thracians were a group of Indo European tribes inhabiting a large area in Southeastern Europe, what is today Bulgaria. Next door to the museum is the Party House - this domineering Stalinist monolith, built in 1953, was once the headquarters of the Bulgarian Communist Party. It is now used as government offices and is not open to the public. The red star that once perched atop the building is now housed in the Museum of Socialist Art, which I will discuss later. Across the street at bul Dondukov 2 is the Sveti Georgi Rotunda. 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 working church, but visitors are welcome. Note: to find the church, enter through an opening on ul Saborna. Sveta Petka Samardzhiiska Church is located in the center of the Serdika metro complex at bul Maria Luisa 2. This very small church was built during the early years of Ottoman rule (late 14th century), which explains its sunken profile and inconspicuous exterior. Inside are some 16th century murals; and it's rumored that the Bulgarian national hero Vasil Levski is buried here. Dubbed the Apostle of Freedom, Levski ideologized and strategized a revolutionary movement to liberate Bulgaria from Ottoman rule. Outside the church is the Sofia Monument - erected in 2000 on the site where a gigantic statue of Lenin once stood, this 80 foot high memorial was created as a new civic symbol for the city. The bronze female figure at the top of the column, holding the wreath of victory in her right hand and balancing an owl on her left arm, represents Sofia - personification of wisdom and fate. Close by at pl Sveta Nedelya is the beautiful Sveta Nedelya Cathedral. Completed in 1863, this spectacular domed church is one of the city's major landmarks and is noted for its rich, Byzantine style murals. It was designed by the famous Bulgarian architectural team Vasilyov-Tsolov. The history of the cathedral's earliest years is to a large extent unknown - it was probably built in the 10th century. The former building was demolished to make room for a larger and more imposing cathedral in 1856. The church was targeted by communists on April 16, 1925 in a failed bomb attack (it claimed over 150 lives) aimed at assassinating Tsar Boris III. Note: the origin of the name Sveta Nedelya is rather obscure - it can be translated as either 'Holy Sunday' or 'Saint Nedelya'.

Next, make your way to the Sofia History Museum at pl Banski 1. The history of Sofia is presented on two floors of the magnificent former Turkish Mineral Baths. 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. The Mineral Baths, also known as the Turkish Baths, was completed in 1913. Its elegant striped facade and ceramic decorations recall the designs of the medieval churches in Nesebar on Bulgaria's Black Sea coast. Note: the museum is open from 10a-6p and is closed on Monday. Next door at bul Maria Luisa 2 is the Banya Bashi Mosque. Built in 1576, this is the city's only working mosque. It certainly is an eye catching building and the red brick minaret makes a convenient marker. Note: visitors are welcome outside prayer times if properly dressed. Around the corner at ul Ekzarh Yosif 16 is the Sofia Synagogue. This Moorish style structure was designed by Austrian architect Friedrich Gruenanger, and was consecrated in 1909. Built to accommodate up to 1200 worshipers, it is the second largest Sephardic synagogue in Europe - and its 5000 pound brass chandelier is the biggest in Bulgaria. There's a small museum on the second floor with an exhibition dedicated to the rescue of Bulgarian Jews during World War II. Located at ul Tsar Osvoboditel 3 is the Sveti Nikolai Russian Church. This beautiful church with glittering mosaic exterior and golden domes was completed in 1914 for Sofia's Russian community and named in honor of Saint Nikolai, the 'miracle worker'. Local university students believe that the saint brings them luck, so they go there to pray prior to important exams. The small interior features icons (a religious work of art) painted between the 11th and 14th centuries. The lovely Boyana Church can be found at ul Boyansko Ezero 3, southwest of the city center (take a taxi). This tiny 13th century church is included on UNESCO's World Heritage list and its 90 murals are among the very finest examples of Bulgarian medieval artwork. Highlights include the oldest known portrait of Saint John of Rila, along with representations of King Konstantin Asen and Queen Irina. Note: visitors are limited to ten minutes inside in order to preserve the precious murals.

After visiting several museums and places of worship, take a time out at Borisova Gradina. Lying southeast of the city center, Sofia's most attractive park is filled with countless statues and flowerbeds and is a relaxing place for a quiet stroll away from the hustle and bustle of the city. It's a vast green space and is home to the Vasil Levski National Stadium. The eastern end of the park is dominated by a gigantic communist monument built in 1956 - it's known as the Mound of Brotherhood and features a 140 foot high obelisk and socialist realist icons including a pair of partisan fighters, dramatically gesturing comrades clutching Kalashnikov assault rifles, and smiling, stoic workers. It has long been neglected by the authorities and several of the socialist heroes are now missing limbs and have gained coats of graffiti, but small groups of pensioners come on occasion to lay flowers in remembrance of the red old days. Near the entrance to Borisova Gradina is the Monument to the Soviet Army. This gigantic monument was built in 1954 and is a prime example of the forceful socialist realism of the period. The place of honor goes to a Red Army soldier atop a column, surrounded by animated cast iron sculptural groups depicting determined, gun waving soldiers and grateful, child caressing members of the proletariat. For more communist monuments, head to the Museum of Socialist Art at ul Lachezar Stanchev 7 (take a taxi). It is housed in a gated Ministry of Culture building, look for the big red star in the garden. Along with statues of Lenin and Stalin, there's a gallery of paintings and a room where stirring, old communist propaganda films are shown. Be sure to check out the souvenir shop before leaving. Note: the museum is open from 10a-5p and is closed on Monday. Perhaps the most significant monument in Sofia, the somber Vasil Levski Memorial is located on a roundabout not far from Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. It dates from 1895 and marks the spot where Bulgarian national hero Vasil Levski was hanged on February 18, 1873 by Ottoman authorities. Conclude your tour of Sofia by taking a City Sightseeing Bus Tour. This hop on, hop off bus tour takes in all of the sights across town. Tours are conducted in English and leave from the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral twice daily. Note: reservations are required from October to March; just show up the rest of the year.

WHERE TO EAT

Sofia has plenty of great places to eat and have a drink. Its main pedestrian thoroughfare, bul Vitosha, is lined with many cafes and restaurants. Begin at Vila Rosiche, just off bul Vitosha at ul Neofit Rilski 26. This pretty bakery is the perfect place for a morning coffee and croissant. Relax in the back garden and enjoy the wonderful aromas of freshly made breads and cakes. Another good spot is Green Deli Cafe, located at ul Rakovski 165. This cafe and bakery offers a tempting range of breakfast sandwiches, baguettes, croissants and the like - it also has some of the best cakes and pastries in town. There are tables to eat at inside or you can take away and enjoy in a nearby park. For some darn good coffee, head to Fabrika Daga at ul Veslets 10. This classic third generation roaster has a fine selection of blends that are scrawled on a chalkboard. Espressos, vacuum pots and French presses squeeze out java drinks from a wide variety of exotic beans. It is a handy spot for morning coffee and a breakfast sandwich, or a slice of yummy cake.

When lunchtime rolls around, head on over to the Central Sofia Market Hall at bul Maria Luisa 25. This elegant market hall opened in 1911 and has three floors of shops and cafes. Stalls on the ground floor sell fruit, vegetables, pastries, wine and cheese. Upstairs there's more shops and a food court that sells local grub, along with kebabs, pizza and ice cream. If you like soup as much as I do, Supa Star is the spot. Located at ul Tsar Ivan Shishman 8, this small, laid back and brightly decorated place offers a range of homemade soups - including meat and veggie options. Every day there are at least 6 different kinds of soup, but some tend to sell out quickly. The celery soup with croutons was excellent. They also do salads and sandwiches, try the smashed avocado sammie. Enjoy your soup up on the second floor where there are colorful chairs and interesting paintings on the walls. If you fancy grilled meats, do try Skara Bar 2 at ul Benkovski 12. This restaurant features a bright, airy space with wooden floors, an open kitchen, exposed pipes and white tiles. They use locally sourced beef, pork, lamb and even horse meat; and offer a good selection of domestic wines. The specialty of the house is the grilled meatballs, but they also do steaks and burgers. Before & After is located at ul Hristo Belchev 12, just off bul Vitosha in the city center. It is set in an old house and is a popular spot for lunch. The atmosphere is pleasant and the stylish interior is art nouveau. Pasta, risotto, fish and steaks feature on the menu. At The Little Things, you will see that every detail has been precisely chosen. The restaurant is situated in a small house (at ul Tsar Ivan Shishman 37) and has a warm and homey ambience. They serve tasty, homestyle food with seasonal products inspired by traditional Bulgarian and international cuisine. This charming place serves large portions and mains include handmade meatballs, pastas and fish dishes. Be sure to save room for the luscious fig cheesecake. If you're in the mood for pizza, Mr Pizza is the place to go. Located just off bul Vitosha at ul Verila 3, it is one of the best pizza joints in the city. If you desire some afternoon delight, Sofia has 2 excellent ice cream shops located in the city center. The first is Afreddo, found at bul Vitosha 12. It is hard to beat its location (on the main pedestrian boulevard) and its very good ice cream. Try one of the dozens of flavors available - the pistachio is out of this world. The second shop is Confetti, located nearby at ul Graf Ignatiev 4. This spot is home to delicious, mouth watering homemade gelato, in countless variations, that call out for some sampling from the oval shaped front counter. I went with coconut and nutella and did not regret my decision.

Bulgarian cuisine has Ottoman influences from its almost 500 year rule combined with peasant cooking, using fresh vegetables and herbs, and it essentially has Balkan characteristics. Meals at dinner usually start with fresh salads, the most common of which is the glorious shopska salata - a mixture of tomatoes, cucumbers and a local sirene cheese that is similar to feta. This is followed by a main course consisting of soup or meat with vegetables, either grilled or slowly cooked in clay pots as stews. Dessert is a delicious selection of sweet tarts, fruits and cakes. The menu at Niko'las boasts a 'taste of the Balkans with an Asian twist'. Located at pl Rayko Daskalov 3, its open kitchen allows direct interaction with the chefs; and the wood clad walls are warm without being folksy. The food is amazing - expect the likes of smoked trout topped with beetroot, goat cheese and poached pear, or grilled sea bass with Bulgarian caviar. The yogurt dessert with a walnut biscuit and honey jelly is delightful. Note: the restaurant is closed on Sunday and reservations are recommended. Divaka is set in an old house at ul 6 Sepemvri 41. This place is a solid choice for traditional Bulgarian food. Dishes include wine soaked kebabs with mashed potatoes, a potato and cream soup, and grilled trout. Another good spot is Manastirska Magernitsa, found at ul Han Asparuh 67. This traditional mehana (tavern) is among the best places in Sofia to sample authentic Bulgarian cuisine. The enormous menu features recipes collected from monasteries across the country - with dishes such as 'drunken rabbit' stewed in wine, as well as salads, fish, pork and game options. The portions are generous and the service is friendly. Note: be sure to dine in the garden if the weather is nice. Shtastlivetsa means 'the Lucky Man' and it was one of the pseudonyms used by the famous Bulgarian writer Aleko Konstantinov. It is at bul Vitosha 27 and focuses on traditional Bulgarian dishes. Go with the shopska salad, followed by the grilled lamb meatballs with garlic and finish with the homemade cherry pie with fresh cream. This place is always busy so book ahead to be safe. A must visit is Hadjidraganov’s Cellars, located off bul Vitosha at ul Hristo Belchev 18. This is probably the best place to try traditional Bulgarian cuisine in Sofia. Set in an old cellar with a unique atmosphere - the restaurant has stone walls, barrels, woodcarvings, traditional Bulgarian garbs and items from the 18th century. There is live folklore music in the evenings, and the menu is based on traditional Bulgarian recipes. There's also an extensive list of Bulgarian wines. Menu highlights include the shopska salad, assorted meats on skewers and the chicken shashlik - garnished with fried potatoes, chutney, onions and beans. Note: the tavern is open every day until 2a (with last orders for food at 11p).

Located at ul Solunska 28, Restaurant Moma is the new modern face of Bulgarian restaurants. Its concept combines a delightful culinary experience with authentic recipes which remind us of times past and bring us back to our roots, and a modern interior blending the beauty and purity of the Bulgarian maidens of yore, represented by the designer through various visual symbols, photos, fabrics and decors. The interior design of each dining room of Restaurant Moma conveys a message related to the culture and traditions of maidens and young women in Bulgaria. It truly is a memorable dining experience. Chef Jivko Ivanov adds a modern touch to traditional Bulgarian dishes. I enjoyed the moma salad (tomato, cucumber, roasted sweet pepper, red onion, unique cheese from Southern Bulgaria, quail eggs and fried ham), the charcoal grilled sabre skewer (pork wrapped in bacon with fresh vegetables) and the grilled lamb meatballs (served with homemade tomato spread and bean salad). Note: the restaurant is open every day and reservations are suggested. I saved my favorite place for last - Raketa Rakia Bar can be found at ul Yanko Sakazov 17, next to Oborishte Park. Named for its sizable selection of rakia (fruit brandy), Bulgaria’s national spirit (common all over the Balkans), this communist era retro bar also has a pretty solid menu of Bulgarian classics. Before you start working your way down the rakia list, be sure to fill your belly with a shopska salad and some perfectly grilled meats. Raketa is a good time and the staff is super cool. It’s a popular spot, so reservations are recommended. End your evening in Sofia with a drink or two. One More Bar serves the best drinks in town and can be found inside a gorgeous old house at ul Shishman 12. This chic hot spot has an extensive cocktail list, a delightful summer garden and jazzy background music which adds to its cosmopolitan appeal. Just around the corner at ul Aksakov 18 is Motto. By day, it's a pleasant place to stop for some homemade lemonade in the tree covered back garden. By night, a more raucous mood takes over as a crowd crams the bar for drinks against a throbbing DJ beat. A few blocks east of bul Vitosha is Pavage, located at ul Angel Kanchev 9. Enjoy drinks in the open air at this secluded bar and club. Early evenings and during the week the vibe is relaxed, but weekend nights after 10p can be more crowded as DJs bring out the clubbers. After you've had your fill of DJs, head to Ale House at ul Hristo Belchev 42 for a fill of pints. There's no need to line up at the bar at this friendly beer hall because the tables have their own beer taps. Ale House is open every day until 12a and there is live music on Friday and Saturday. Finish up at the super cool Dada Cultural Bar, found at ul Georgi Benkovski 10. A local institution, it is far more than a place to drink. The mission here is culture - expect to find live music, art installations, readings or happenings. Dada has a friendly staff and a welcoming vibe.

WHERE TO STAY

Sofia offers a number of places to call home during your stay and there are 2 that I especially enjoyed. Both are in prime locations and provide exceptional service, modern amenities and comfort. The first is Sense Hotel, located at bul Tsar Osvoboditel 16. This trendy downtown hotel is just a stone's throw from Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and Sveta Sofia Church. Contemporary rooms offer smart TVs, iPod/iPhone docks and free WiFi, in addition to minibars and espresso machines. All have floor to ceiling windows and upgraded rooms add balconies. There's a modern Mediterranean restaurant with a terrace and an excellent rooftop bar with views of the cathedral. Other amenities include a spa and an indoor pool.

A second option is Hotel Balkan, located at pl Sveta Nedelya 5. This stately hotel dates from the mid 1950s and is a short distance from the Ancient Serdica Complex and Sveta Nedelya Cathedral. The elegant rooms feature complimentary WiFi, minibars and flat screen TVs, plus cherry wood furniture and Italian marble bathrooms. Upgrades add tea and coffee making facilities and executive lounge access offering breakfast and drinks. Additional perks include a restaurant, a bar and a lobby with an arched ceiling and Italian marble. There's also a fitness center, a casino and a business center. A spa with a sauna and massage services is available.

Sofia has a rich history, a dynamic culture, beautiful architecture and delicious cuisine. It treated me well and I look forward to returning.