Bulgaria has been on the radar of Eastern European tourists for many years now, mainly because of its beautiful Black Sea beaches. Yet, few western tourists visit Bulgaria.
However, that has been changing because everyone is looking for nice beaches at affordable prices.
The thing about traveling in Bulgaria is that it has so much more to offer than beach resorts.
There’s so much to see and do in Bulgaria that it’s almost a shame if you get stuck at only the resorts.
Don’t get me wrong, the beaches are amazing, but one can find time for a little of everything, right?
Sofia is Bulgaria’s capital city, and it isn’t on the black coast. Thus it is a great place to start a trip to Bulgaria’s culture and attractions. Here we will explore the ten best things to do in Sofia.
Best Things to Do in Sofia
1. Visit the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is one of the main attractions in Sofia, and it's the most important Orthodox church in Bulgaria.
It’s a relatively recent cathedral, built to commemorate the liberation from the rule of the Ottoman Empire in 1879.
However, the construction took more than 40 years, and it was only opened in 1924.
This cathedral is an excellent example of the Neo-Byzantine style, with domes covered in gold. The highest one is 45 meters, but the bell tower reaches 50 meters.
Unfortunately, you can’t take pictures of the inside, but it’s beautifully decorated with Italian marble in various colors, Brazilian onyx, alabaster, and other luxurious materials.
As this is a working church, it’s free to enter, but you should wear appropriate clothing.
2. Visit the Saint Sofia Church
Saint Sofia Church is located very close to the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, and it’s the oldest church in Sofia, dating back to the 4th century.
While it isn’t as imposing on the outside or as luxurious on the inside, it’s a wonderful church with a much longer history.
Saint Sofia Church means the church of the wisdom of God, similar to the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
Curiously (or not), it was also transformed into a Mosque during the Ottoman occupation, but after it was partially destroyed by earthquakes, it was abandoned. Later on, they were rehabilitated into a church again.
It’s also free to enter this church. When we visited it, there was a marriage going on.
It was a pretty cool double experience; we got the cultural experience of a Bulgarian marriage ceremony and the historic Church.
3. Walk down the Vitosha Boulevard
Vitosha Boulevard is the main shopping and entertainment street in Sofia.
Located in the city center, it has several restaurants, bars, and cafes for you to enjoy.
It’s also full of shops selling everything you expect in a main commercial street of big European capital.
Vitosha Boulevard is a semi-pedestrian area and extends from St Nedelya Square to Southern Park.
It’s a long street that cuts through the city center, and while walking along it, you’ll be able to enjoy the view of some of the city’s nicest buildings, like Sveta Nedelya Church or the Court of Justice.
It’s also worthwhile checking out some of the side streets.
4. Explore the Church of St. George, St. Kyriaki Cathedral Church, and St. Sofia Monument
These three monuments are located in the historical center of Sofia and are very close to each other. You can easily visit them all together and in a short period.
The Church of St. George is considered the oldest preserved building in Sofia, dating back to the 4th century.
Made of red brick, it’s located close to the Sheraton Hotel, among remains of the Thracian town of Serdica and Roman ruins.
The St. Kyriaki Cathedral or the St Nedelya Church was built in the 19th century on the same spot as a demolished medieval church. It has a beautiful facade and is one of the landmarks of Sofia.
The inside is also worth a visit and can be particularly interesting during service.
Finally, the St. Sofia monument is a sculpture of Saint Sophia erected in 2000 to replace the Statue of Lenin.
It’s located right in front o the St. Nedelya Church, and it’s adorned with symbols of power (crown), fame (wreath), and wisdom (owl).
5. Visit the Banya Bashi Mosque
The Banya Bashi Mosque was built in 1576, during the years of the Ottoman rule of Bulgaria, and it’s the biggest and most important mosque in Bulgaria and the only functioning mosque in Sofia.
The large dome and minaret are visible from afar, but one of the most notorious features of the Mosque is that it was built on natural thermal springs.
You can even see the steam rising from the ground, near the mosque walls.
As this is a working Mosque, you can visit it freely, as long as you comply with the clothing requirements.
It was designed by the famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, who also built the mosque of Sultan Selim on Edirne and the Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul.
6. Explore the Central Sofia Market
For those who like markets, the Central Sofia Market is a great find. It isn’t as visited by tourists or as overpriced as many others in European capital cities, and one can find local products and cheap Bulgarian food.
For this reason, I advise you to visit it during lunchtime, where you can have a nice budget-friendly meal while you tick off this attraction.
The Central Sofia Market is also conveniently located on the other side of the street of the Banya Bashi Mosque.
The building combines neo-Renaissance and neo-Baroque styles with some neo-Byzantine features.
7. Discover the Boyana Church
The Boyana Church is located a few kilometers outside the town center but still in Sofia’s vicinity, in the Boyana quarter. You can reach it using Sofia’s public transportation, bus #64 and #107, or minibus #21.
It’s a medieval Bulgarian Orthodox church constructed in the 10th and 11th century and later expanded in the 13th century.
It was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as one of the few medieval monuments of Christian art that have survived until today.
We strongly advise you to go to the Boyana Church early because the entrance is very limited.
Only eight people can enter the church at a time, and for a maximum of just 10 minutes, which causes long lines.
However, one has to understand that these measures are needed to preserve such an ancient treasure.
8. Visit the Sofia Synagogue
Now that we have already advised you to go to several churches, cathedrals, and a mosque, we also need to send you to the synagogue.
The Sofia Synagogue is located in the so-called “Square of Tolerance,” where you have the Synagogue, the Mosque, and several important churches in a radius of under 500 meters.
The Sofia Synagogue was built between 1905 and 1909 by the Austrian architect Gruenanger with a Moorish style, in the same place as the old Synagogue.
Today, it is located right next to the Central Market. It’s considered one of the biggest synagogues in Europe, with a capacity of 1,170 people. It's the pride of the Jewish people in Bulgaria.
One of its main features is the central chandelier which weighs two tons and is the biggest in Bulgaria.
Two final notes. Despite the building's size, the services are typically only attended by 100 worshippers or less.
If you want to visit the synagogue's interior, you have to pay an entrance fee and go through a security clearance.
9. Sofia History Museum
The Sofia History Museum is located behind the Banya Mosque in the building of the former baths of the town, which means it’s close to most of the other attractions on this list.
Its unique building is known for its elegant style, lavish ornamentation, and exquisite decoration.
You could easily spend a couple of hours inside it enjoying the new permanent exhibition which occupies eight halls: Heritage from Antiquity, Power of the Spirit, Dynastic Bond with Western Europe, Palace Office, Sofia Street, National, and Municipal Institutions, What People in Sofia Wore, Cultural Life and Entertainment.
The ticket to the permanent exhibition costs 6 leva ($3.50); the temporary exhibit costs 4 leva ($2.30).
10. Try the Bulgarian cuisine
You may have never heard of Bulgarian food before traveling to Sofia, but you won’t forget it afterward.
One of the reasons I love Bulgarian food is its fresh, excellent quality ingredients.
Many Bulgarian dishes are also very healthy, with lots of tasty salads and soups. Healthy and tasty? What more can you ask for more? Well, it’s also cheap! The perfect combo, right?
So, what to eat in Sofia? We suggest you try the Shopska salad, Tarator (yogurt and cucumber soup), Kavarma (slow-cook stew), Banitsa (the most famous Bulgarian pastry), and Lyutenitsa (tomato and pepper dip).
And, obviously, do not forget to try Bulgarian yogurt, which the Bulgarians claim to be the best in the world.
Jorge & Claudia are travel Bloggers from Portugal who love to explore the world. They lived in Angola for three years and currently are traveling the world. Their mission is to keep on discovering new countries and sharing their tips. Check their site Travel Drafts.