Sofia travel guide
Located in the Sofia Valley, the capital city of Bulgaria lies at the foot of the Vitosha and Lyulin Mountains, and is the centre of the country's political, economic and cultural life.
Founded over 7,000 years ago around numerous hot and cold mineral springs, which are still operating today, the fortunes of Sofia have flourished and declined along with the variety of civilisations who have made it home. It is one of the oldest settlements in Europe and numerous archaeological, cultural and historical monuments from its rich Thracian, Byzantine, Roman, Slav and Turkish history have been preserved among the modern edifices. The blend of the new and the old lends a charming quality to the capital, which is known to be a very attractive city.
Despite its modern, cosmopolitan nature, Sofia has a laid back atmosphere and the proximity of Mount Vitosha, offering myriad recreational opportunities on the city's doorstep, adds to the relaxed feel of the city. Like any distinguished European capital, Sofia also has a wealth of museums and galleries, and boasts plenty of cultural entertainment. In Sofia tourists can enjoy all modern urban amenities at the same time as feeling surrounded by history and ancient significance.
St. Sofia Church
The St Sofia Church, also called the Hagia Sophia Church, is the oldest Eastern Orthodox church in the city, dating from the 4th to 6th century, and is regarded as one of the most significant examples of early Christian architecture in the Balkans. In the 14th century the church gave its name to the city of Sofia, meaning 'holy wisdom'. The church was built on the site of several earlier churches and places of worship, dating back to the days when the site was part of the necropolis of the Roman town of Serdica. As a result of this location on an ancient necropolis several tombs have been discovered under and around the church which are very interesting and valuable in themselves. Another feature of the St Sofia Church is the intricate Early Christian mosaic which covers its floors. During the Turkish rule the church was converted into a mosque, but was abandoned after two successive earthquakes destroyed one of the minarets almost 30 years later, and it was again converted into an orthodox church. Local legends credit St Sofia's miraculous powers for its protection over the centuries, surviving occupations and natural disasters to remain as a spiritual inspiration to the city.
Address: 2 Paris Street
St George Rotunda
The rotunda church of St George is considered to be the oldest building in Sofia, dating back to the 4th century, and is situated amid the remains of the ancient Roman town of Serdica. The St George Rotunda is famous for its exquisite architecture and layers of medieval frescoes that were discovered under a covering of plaster. The church currently functions as a museum and the magnificent dome is protected by UNESCO. It is located in a square enclosed by the Presidential Buildings and this makes the contrast between the ancient and the modern quite striking. There is a fair amount of information on the history and significance of the site available at the entrance, which is worth reading. There is a pleasant restaurant next door to the site where you can enjoy a meal with views of the church, and if you linger for a while you might well see the guards marching by. Visitors must ensure that they are dressed appropriately and conservatively as people with bare arms or legs will not be allowed entry into the church.
Address: 5 Ploshtad Sveta Nedelya
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
One of the finest examples of 20th-century architecture in
Sofia, and one of the iconic buildings of the city, the magnificent
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was built between 1882 and 1912 to
honour the Russian soldiers who died fighting to liberate Bulgaria
from Turkish rule in the war of 1878 under Tsar Alexander II. It is
one of the biggest cathedrals on the Balkan Peninsula. The famous
religious monument is situated in the centre of Sofia, on the
tree-lined square of the same name, which also contains the
Monument of the Unknown Soldier with its eternal flame.
The impressive five-nave basilica houses an interior just as splendid, with mosaics, stained glass windows, marble and woodcarvings as well as frescoes that cover the walls and domes. The underground crypt houses the Icon Museum featuring icon paintings from across the country that represents masterpieces ranging from the 9th to the 18th century. For those who fall in love with the Bulgarian icons, there is often a local artist who paints and sells replicas in the little museum gift shop. There is also a souvenir market very close by.
The cathedral is an active place of worship, so services and events may disrupt sightseeing, but entry to the main building is free.
Address: 1 St Alexander Nevsky Square
National Ethnographic Museum
The National Ethnographic Museum in downtown Sofia has one of
the richest collections of cultural artefacts on the Balkan
Peninsula, representing the traditions, arts, crafts and lifestyle
of the Bulgarian people from the 17th to the 20th century. The
museum contains a wealth of exhibits from around the country,
amounting to over 50,000 items including national costumes,
jewellery, art works and musical instruments. If you are lucky, and
the place is not crowded, one of the staff members may give you a
personal tour. This is the best possible place to find out about
local folklore and to gain an understanding of the traditional
clothes (the embroidery on the borders serve a purpose in Bulgarian
mythology), customs and beliefs. It is also a popular cultural and
The National Ethnographic Museum is located in the same building as the National Gallery, the onetime Royal Palace, and you can buy a joint ticket to see both these worthwhile attractions if you prefer. A great museum shop on the premises sells crafts and other traditional items from all over Bulgaria - a useful place to shop for presents for those waiting at home.
Address: 1 Battenberg Square
Rising above the capital city of Sofia, Vitosha Mountain is one
of the symbols of the capital and is the most visited mountain in
Bulgaria. Starting where the suburbs end, the whole mountain has
been designated a national park - the oldest in the Balkans - and
is home to deer, bear, wild boar, fox and a variety of rare birds.
Vitosha is known for its 'stone rivers', or moraines, piles of huge
rounded granite boulders carried and deposited by glaciers
thousands of years ago, as well as for its curative mineral
Vitosha is popular during all seasons and the well-known resort of Aleko is the most established winter ski resort in the area, offering modern hotels and ski facilities within easy reach of the capital. Although you could spend a good portion of your holiday enjoying this mountain and staying in its resorts, you can just as easily head up the mountain for a hike one afternoon and gain some beautiful views of the city below. There is a cable-car and several bus routes which can take you part of the way up Vitosha. There are several great picnic sites to enjoy if the weather is good and an excursion up the mountain is a lovely activity for the whole family.
The Boyana Church complex - located on the outskirts of Sofia - is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of Bulgaria's most important tourist attractions. The first of the three buildings that make up the Boyana Church complex was built in the 10th century, but it is the second building - built in the 13th century - that is the obvious tourist draw card. Containing frescoes painted in 1259, the second Boyana Church building is nothing less than the site of the most important collection of medieval eastern European art in the world. The paintings, which conform to a Byzantine aesthetic, are almost perfectly preserved and offer visitors a rare insight into the long, proud history of Bulgarian art and culture. The church complex also houses the National Museum which boasts a rich collection of historical and cultural artefacts. It is recommended that visitors hire one of the professional guides available to give them a tour of the church and museum as they greatly enrich the experience.
Address: Boyana District, Sofia
Sofia International Airport
Location: The airport is situated six miles (10km) east of Sofia.
Time: Local time is GMT +2 (GMT +3 from the end of March to the end of October).
Contacts: Tel: +359 (0)2 937 2211/2 (international flights departures and arrivals).
Transfer between terminals: A shuttle operates between the terminals at 30-minute intervals from 7am to 8pm. Outside this time period, inter-terminal transfers can be requested at the Tourist Information desks in Terminals 1 and 2.
Getting to the city: Regular bus services 84 and 384 run on a frequent schedule day and night from the bus station close to Arrivals. Passengers will have to pay extra for large pieces of luggage. The journey takes 40 minutes on weekdays, and is slightly faster on weekends and holidays. Most hotels and tourist resorts run their own airport shuttles.
Car rental: Avis, Hertz, Budget, Europcar and Sixt have desks located in the arrivals hall.
Airport Taxis: Taxis are available, and passengers are advised to use OK Supertrans taxis from outside the arrivals hall; their enquiries desk is located inside the arrivals hall. Note that a five to 10 percent tip is expected. Taxi drivers are happy to accept both US Dollars and Euros. If no taxis are available, passengers can request one at the taxi desks located within the arrivals halls.
Facilities: The airport is well equipped with banks, currency exchange, ATMs, restaurants, cafeterias and bars, duty-free shopping, a chemist, travel agency, tourist information desk and first aid facilities. There is also a business lounge with internet access, and a luggage-wrapping machine at departures.
Parking: Parking at Terminal 1 is in an open lot, and costs BGN 2 for 20 minutes, BGN 3 for an hour, BGN 6 for two hours, BGN 9 for three hours, escalating to BGN 30 for 24 hours; each additional day is BGN 10. Payment is made at the cash desk at the car park exit. Parking at Terminal 2 is in a parking garage, and charges similar rates; payment is made at the machine by the elevators, or the adjacent pay desk.
Departure tax: US$20 (nationals of the USA only).
The centre of Sofia is easily accessible by public transport, which includes buses, trams and trolleybuses. Buses run from 5am until midnight and trams run until 1am. Single trip tickets can be purchased before boarding as well as on the vehicle and must be punched once aboard. Although it is possible to rent cars and drive yourself around in Bulgaria, it is not practical to travel into or around Sofia's city centre by car as parking spaces are limited and traffic can be a problem. Taxis are cheap and easily available. Tariffs are usually shown on the vehicle window; if they are not and there is no meter, be sure to negotiate a fare before setting off. Many tourist attractions in Sofia are close together and it is possible to walk while sightseeing; the city is generally safe but it is worth being aware of your possessions at all times as there are pickpockets in some of the popular tourist areas.
Sofia's climate is one of its main positive attributes. Situated on an open plain only 1,804 feet (550m) above sea level and ringed in by the Balkan and Vitosha Mountains, summer days in Sofia are warm and sunny with temperatures occasionally soaring above 86ºF (30ºC). Winters are cold and snowy. Winter temperatures usually drop to around 38°F (3°C). Temperatures are moderated by the Black Sea in the east, and Mediterranean influences moderate the interior's harsher continental climate. December and January are the coldest months and July and August are the hottest months. The capital receives 25.6 inches (650mm) of rain a year with most rain falling in the summer; April, May and June tend to be the wettest months. Bulgaria has four distinct seasons and Sofia is typical of the Bulgarian climate; summer is the peak tourist season but winter also attracts many visitors to the ski slopes. Spring and autumn are pleasantly mild seasons and both are known for their beautiful colours; in spring the whole country blossoms and Sofia is full of blooms, and in autumn the fall colours are rich and vibrant. Sofia is therefore a year-round tourist destination, and the Vitosha Mountain looming above the city has activities for every season.
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