Updated: Jun 10, 2018
Obviously after 5 years living in Sofia, I have strong feelings about the city. More than any of the 5 places I’ve lived long-term in my life, Sofia is home. The city may not always live up to its name (derived from a local church which itself was named after the concept of the holy wisdom of god and not saint Sofia), but it has a vibrancy character, and an endless capacity to evolve and surprise.
The city has changed quite a lot since I first arrived in August of 2009. The metro has expanded significantly, renovations have been completed all over (though the quality is always dubious), food options have expanded tremendously, and all in all the city just feels more confident and international. It may not make as strong a first impression as Plovdiv, but give it time and Sofia will surprise and delight you.
The Dictator-Chic National History Museum:
This place is a two for one deal. You get a solid museum as well as a glimpse into the former home of Bulgaria’s communist dictator Todor Zhivkov. True, the museum is a bit lacking in narrative and context, but if you’re a listener to this podcast, you’ll have enough information to really enjoy it. Of particular interest is the Panagurishte treasure, though more often than not it’s a replica on display. Replica or not, it’s a remarkable artifact showing the level of detail the ancient Thracians were capable of. You can see some must-see treasures of the museum here.
The Boyana Church:
I have a rather strong BS detector when it comes to history, and when you’re as skeptical as I am there’s nothing quite like encountering the real deal. The Boyana Church is one example. Their guides will tell you about how the medieval frescoes there predate the Italian renaissance in their use of a vanishing point to create a 3D effect. Check their homework and they’re absolutely correct. These works of art are truly a wonder, well preserved and lifelike, showing just what Bulgarian culture of the Second Empire was capable of. Then, just as an unexpected cherry on top, there’s a genuine California Redwood in the park next to the church. So if you’re like me and have never made it to the coast to see the real thing, this is a truly unexpected delight. Also next to the church is the grave of Bulgarian Tsaritsa _____.
The hidden rooftop bar, Arhiva:
Though it will close and become a library soon, Arhiva has been a favorite spot of mine ever since I worked in that National Archive during my Fulbright research. It’s just the kind of odd place I love to find in Sofia. You first have to enter the archive building (which gives no indication that there’s a bar/restaurant open to the public inside). You give your name to the guard and go to the top floor. There you’re met with a stunning view of Sofia and Mt. Vitosha along with extremely cheap prices, even by Bulgarian standards. Best to check this one out while you can. Also, as this place has become more and more popular, a reservation is fast becoming necessary. Sofia is changing so much...
My Audio Walking Tour:
A few years ago I recorded a three part walking tour of Sofia with my friend Lance Nelson for his podcast Bulgaria Now. In it, you’ll hear me discuss Sofia’s history as well as its culture, bars, and restaurants. You can find part 1 here.
The Eccentric Basement Dive:
Do Re Mi is a polarizing place. Everyone I know who’s been either loves it or hates it. Let me explain how this quirky hidden restaurant works: you go in and are greeted by the owner, an odd guy who can barely see. He sits down with you and asks you three questions. Are you drinking? Are you eating? Are you vegetarians? You can add some details but more or less those answers determine your evening. There will be food and drink in copious quantities, at times it will come whether you asked for it or not. If that would drive you crazy, best stay away. But if you’re welling to let yourself go and just enjoy whatever comes your way (and pay the bill at the end, usually 20-30 leva for quite a lot of food and drink), then you’ll love this place as much as I do.
Vegetarian for Non-Vegetarians:
To be clear, I don’t just eat meat, I adore dishes like duck hearts, cow tongue, and tripe soup. But the outstanding quality of Bulgarian produce should be able to satisfy any meat eater. The two locations of Sun and Moon prove just that. With a mixture of international and local dishes, this cosy restaurant highlights just what outstanding tomatoes, peppers, herbs, and cheese can do.
Need a Gift? Go to Gifted Sofia:
Sofia has needed a place like this for ages. From its awesome Sofia-themed t-shirts (I have one that says Връждебна which means “hostility” and is also technically the name of Sofia’s airport. You can’t make this stuff up) to books, locally made scarves (which quickly became my favorite), and other interesting souvenirs, this place blows any other souvenir shop out of the water. It’s local, unique, and effortlessly cool.
Getting Your Spice Fix:
I don’t mention this much on the podcast but I am a passionate (one could say obsessive) home chef and foodie. I take immense pride in my enormous collection of exotic spices, sauces, dried chilis, etc. filling an entire large cabinet in my kitchen. It used to be very difficult to find ingredients like fish sauce, dried mustard, or good hot sauce in Sofia. But that has been changing fast. Today, Sofia’s very own Chili Hills offers delicious homemade hot sauces made from peppers grown just outside of Sofia. There are also dried peppers if you enjoy toasting them and making your own spice blend for chili (and if you don’t, you should absolutely try it). I particularly like the Jalapeno Lime sauce, the heat is heavy on the front of the tongue but the acidity of the lime and taste of the cilantro make it quite unique. For those missing other international fare, Little London on ulitsa Krakra has the best selection of UK products in town.
I have a little joke that whenever I return to Bulgaria I mention how good it is to be back in a “civilized country”. I define civilized in this case as countries where you can enjoy a beer in the park on a beautiful day. Joking aside, it is legal to drink in public in Sofia (though please do NOT abuse this rule for all of our sakes). In the summer months, this means the parks are all full of people sitting, laughing, playing music, and socializing well into the night. The result is a fabulous atmosphere where anyone can show up and find their friends or make some new ones. In general, the park next to the National Theater is the more hip place for this while the Crystal park is where the alternative scene kids tend to hang out. For a more relaxed atmosphere and fewer people, Zaimov park near where I live is also great. If you have kids, Borisova Gradina is full of fun activities for them as well.
The Women’s Market:
This neighborhood is one of my favorites in the city, but if you listened to most locals you would think it was a dangerous nest of crime best to be avoided. You'll hear people whisper that this area is full of "Gypsies and Arabs". Truth is, it is full of such people and they are delightfully friendly and hospitable.
Here you'll find a large open air market called the Women's Market because the shops and stands have traditionally be fun by mostly women. Prior to the Second World War, this was the Jewish Quarter (it still contains the third largest Synagogue in Europe). But although Bulgaria's Jews survived the war, nearly all of them emigrated to Israel to help found cities like Tel Aviv. As a result, over the decades, this neighborhood has become a haven for immigrants and refugees, largely from the Middle East.
As a result, it's full of excellent butcher shops, spice shops, Iraqi and Turkish restaurants, and more. The young Syrians baking bread are happy to show you how their special techniques work and give your dog a snack, the Falafel sellers will make you their hometown specialty if you ask, and you'll generally be greeted with a smile.
Iraqi Food in Sofia at Freddie's:
My favorite restaurant in the neighborhood of the Women's Market is Freddie's. The owner and chef is an Iraqi immigrant who runs a small hole in the wall with no menu and fantastic food. Salad and Biryani rice are a must, but the orange lamb is what gets me every time. Beer is in the fridge if you're thirsty.
Maybe I'm biased (okay, I'm definitely biased) because this place is basically in my backyard, but I really like Sputnik. The decor is jaw dropping, the music is usually excellent, and despite the recent weird attempt at a new menu concept (it's an absolute cliche) you can always ask for a normal menu and the cocktails are great. Pricey for Bulgaria, but still reasonable by international standards. I particularly like the Simeon or the Grog.
Pro tip: sit at the bar and watch them make the cocktails, it's quite a show.
It's a bit of a cliche but I adore this building. It's about 10 minutes from my apartment so I see it nearly every day. I love how this Neo-Byzantine style of architecture manages to exist on a huge scale without making you feel small the way western Neo-Gothic does. Finished in 1912, it only recently lost its title as the largest church in the Balkans to the far less beautiful St. Sava in Belgrade.
The National Palace of Culture:
Completed in 1981 to celebrate 1,300 years from the founding of the First Bulgarian Empire. It was the brainchild of Lyudmila Zhivkova, the daughter of Bulgaria's communist dictator Todor Zhivkov. Lyudmila was really into eastern spiritualism, causing much controversy among the party.
The building itself is huge. I mean really huge. It has several theaters, restaurants, bars, clubs, exhibition spaces, etc. It may not be the most beautiful building but some of the interior spaces are really cool. If you want to get a feel for the design elements favored by the Communists, here's the place. Personally I find the connection between this style and the western mid-century modern fascinating. For example, I once saw a fancy mid-century lamp in a store which looked exactly like the chandelier below.
Tsar Samuil Statue:
This statue got a lot of hate when it was built a few years ago. The point of contention was its glowing eyes, which most saw as hopelessly kitsch. But I felt the issue was that the eyes weren't explained. The idea was to represent Samuil's struggles and the horrible vision of his blinded army which killed him (you can find the story here). I wish a plaque would be added to give context and tell his story. Still, I'm happy at least something in Sofia exists to remind people of the First Bulgarian Empire.
Sofia was once a prominent Roman city beloved by Emperor Constantine. Central Sofia is built on a wealth of Roman era ruins. Most are hidden below hotels and other buildings but a section next to the Serdika metro station has been "restored". Around there you can find old sections of wall, walk on a Roman road, and even see a Roman underfloor heating system. If you want to learn more, check out the Roman Sofia Tour.
Ottoman Sofia was often a regional capital, but still had a small population. At one time it contained many mosques and the regional governor's mansion (later the Royal Palace, now an art museum). Today, only one mosque remains (Banya Bashi) although many others have been transformed into buildings like the Church of the Seven Saints and the Archeological Museum.
20th Century Sofia:
Because Sofia had a tiny population of under 12,000 when it became Bulgaria's capital in 1879. So, unsurprisingly, the vast majority of the city's buildings were constructed in the 20th century.
21st Century Sofia:
Since joining the EU in 2007, Sofia has gradually transformed. Today, it's full of organic supermarkets and hip coffee shops. As an ardent home chef I've been particularly delighted with the ever increasing variety of ingredients available. But in any case, Sofia today is gaining confidence and prominence as a place to be, a place worth visiting, and a place worth making a life.
The "Square of Tolerance”:
This is kind of a "thing" but also not. Tours will point out that central Sofia has a Mosque, Synagogue, Catholic church, and an Orthodox church in a tiny space within the center of the city. This wasn't really intentional, but it is a reality that these four faiths coexist within the center of the city and that Sofia has a long history of religious tolerance.
As Practical as it Gets: Taxis from the airport:
Every guest I've ever had has asked me this question so I thought why not share my answer. First, never accept an offer for a taxi from a person inside of the airport. Always go to the taxi stand next to the terminal where a line of them will be waiting. Then, unless you're taxing a taxi somewhere 100km away, don't negotiate the price beforehand. The driver should run the meter and a taxi to central Sofia should cost maybe 8-16 leva. If they're trying to overcharge you, make sure someone who speaks Bulgarian is at your destination to tell them that they're an awful person who is giving Bulgaria and Sofia a bad reputation.