Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria is oftentimes a travellers first introduction to the country. The locality and size of Sofia means it’s easy to discover the capital’s tourist attractions with ease. Dotted within the city are numerous historical and monumental buildings that beautify the fusion of Thracian, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, Slavic and Socialist influences. Founded on these relics of the past, the narrative of Bulgaria is evident in Sofia’s character and richness. Originally called Serdika, this second oldest settlement in Europe is now emerging as a vibrant and cultural choice for an affordable holiday. Below are 10 attractions you’ll want to look out for when in Bulgaria.
Saint Alexandar Nevski Cathedral
The most iconic building in Sofia is The Saint Alexandar Nevski Cathedral which also happens to be the most photographed and visited landmark in the capital. Delicate murals and wall paintings embellish the interior of its Neo-Byzantine architectural design, all of which are topped with copper and golden domes making it a huge lure for visitors. Closeby there’s also a great flea market where you can haggle with stall holders over Russian, German and Bulgarian memorabilia, art and antiques.
The Central Mineral Baths
The Central Mineral Baths have recently undergone elaborate renovations to recreate the original decorations of neo-Baroque and neo-Byzantine influences. Intricate coloured mosaics make up the façade and ornamental features on the exterior of the building but walk inside and to see the large Roman bath with more areas housing artefacts exhibited by the Museum of Sofia. Next to the baths are the hot mineral springs which you can drink from and is popular with locals filling up their bottles in the belief of an assured long life.
While you’re rambling around downtown Sofia, look out for the old, electrical boxes which have been transformed into vibrant pieces of art and can be seen on most of the streets in Sofia. Head to Tsar Shishmann Sr and Radovski Blvd, the latter of which is noted for retelling stories behind the city through street art. In these streets you’ll be able to see shop walls, buildings and doorways colourfully decorated with street art, giving a different, fresh perception to the feel of the city.
Central Market Hall (Tsentralni Hali)
One of the best places to pick up presents and food on the go. Hidden behind the walls of this well-preserved, Neo-Renaissance building is a very grand indoor market. Spread over three floors, there are plenty of stalls selling traditional food, wine and souvenirs. This bazaar also has ancient remnants of the city of Serdica on the ground floor so you can wander around some very remarkable architectural relics after you’ve done your shopping.
Not many capital cities can boast a backdrop of a mountain, but the Vistosha peak looms over Sofia which makes for a welcome break from the city. You can travel up by a very inexpensive cable car to the top where you’ll see the great sights of the city below and breathe in the fresh mountain air. Whether you go just for the view or prefer hiking, skiing, visiting the numerous churches, lakes, waterfalls or monasteries, it makes for a great day out.
Museum of Socialist Art
A little out of the centre, this museum is the one to go to if you want to indulge in a bit of Communist history and art from within their indoor gallery. A collection of key Communist statues, some as high as 30ft and made of granite, and which previously stood on the streets of Sofia now dominate the park outside. In addition to the likes of Stalin and Lenin, the original red star taken from the Socialist Headquarters has found its new place above the museum’s entrance.
Situated in Kambanite Park are a collection bells donated by the countries of the world in 1979 to celebrate World Children by UNESCO. Not only are some of the bells characteristic of the country they’re from, ringing them all is a great opportunity for being a child again, despite some of them been stolen. While you’re there take a wander through the lush greenery and enjoy the nature in the heart of the capital.
Ivan Vazov National Theatre
This theatre is an exquisite building that dates back to the early 1900s and its Neo-classical architecture dominates one side of the City Garden. Gorgeous details of Apollo and the muses adorn the façade outside which you can admire whilst sitting outside by the fountains, taking in the chess players and musicians. Unfortunately, you can’t go inside unless you watch the performances in Bulgarian.
Church of St. George
Hidden behind the Presidency building and in the courtyard of Sheraton Balkan Hotel is a tiny, red-bricked UNESCO building dating back to the 4th Century. It’s been painstakingly preserved considering it’s the oldest building in Sofia! Originally built as a Roman temple, medieval frescos and Christian Art have been carefully restored inside. Laying in front of it are the remains of Serdica and if you time it right, you’ll be able to hear the voices of the priests singing.