Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital of 2 million, is the city where I was born, raised, and continue to return to after every adventure around the world. Although it is one of the poorest EU capitals, and there is still a lot of room for improvement here, Sofia is like one of those precious stones hidden in the heart of a regular, grey rock. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you might just miss the treasure. Sofia has a blend of culture, history, art, underground music scene, and cuisine, stirred with nature — the parks are actually forests, and the city itself is at the foot of Vitosha Mountain. Just half an hour from the city center you can hike in the summer or ski in the winter. Besides, the prices of visiting Sofia are among the most affordable within the EU.
Even though foreign visitors sometimes find it difficult to look past the traffic, soviet architecture, and touristy spots, a local’s perspective can reveal some of Sofia’s treasures.
Ancient History and Religious Tolerance at the Heart of the City
Sofia has a long and rich history of religious tolerance in the region, as evidenced today by a church, a mosque, and a synagogue residing together in The Square of Tolerance. Besides, many of the indigenous beliefs are preserved as well. One outstanding example is a traditional celebration in the spring. If you visit Sofia or any other Bulgarian city in the first days of March, you’ll find stands selling decorations and woven bracelets, made out of white and red yarn. Called martenitsa, they are worn as a token of love, health, and prosperity. At the end of March, when storks migrate back from Africa and you see one, hang your martenitsa on a blooming fruit tree.
Old rituals and ancient architecture form the basis of Sofia. The historic center, around the mineral water fountains and old bathhouse, held a population base starting in the 2nd century B.C. and grew for thousands of years. It was later a Thracian city, and then a part of the Roman Empire. Although the full excavations haven’t been completed yet, you can see some of the archeological remains in locations across the city center such as the Largoto district, the Serdika metro station, and the National History Museum in the Boyana neighborhood. There, you’ll also find the famous Panagyurishte Treasure – a collection of 9 delicately carved golden objects, used by the Thracians in religious ceremonies.
Did you know that the oldest gold in the world was discovered in Bulgaria? It’s Varna Gold Treasure and dates back to 4400-4100 BC. Some of it is at the National History Museum as well.
One of the things I love most about Sofia is its close relationship with nature. More than 20 parks are the green lungs of Sofia and its suburbs. Тhe most central and visited are South Park and the Borisova Garden (nearly 140 years old). There’s also the smaller Crystal Garden and City Garden, where the National Theatre is located.
During the summer and even on warm fall evenings, happy hour comes to the park. Groups of people bring light drinks, music, hammocks or blankets, and gather to share the sunset together. Although in some European cities drinking outside has been outlawed because of littering and excessive noise, in Sofia you’ll rarely find anybody being disruptive or leaving their trash behind after one of the gatherings.
Another curious feature of Sofia’s parks is their structure. Some, like Borisova Garden, have a section of neatly organized flowerbeds and carefully trimmed treetops. Then, another area which is essentially wild forest. I cherish being able to completely disconnect from the city’s noise and anxiety, while only being a few minutes away from the center. If you decide to venture into the forest, it might be a good idea to have a map handy on your phone, since the paths are not marked.
Art, Culture, and Underground Music Venues
One of the things I miss the most when I leave Sofia, is the rich artistic life, tucked away under the cover of old buildings and unassuming facades.
Several indie movie festivals, often subtitled in English, run throughout the year. Sofia Film Fest leads the way, featuring Bulgarian and international films, animations, and shorts. There is also a Scandinavian movie week every September. Whenever you’re visiting Sofia, make sure one of the boutique, retro movie theatres that only play indie movies. The oldest is Vlaykova, which opened its doors in 1926. It has never since stopped showing, apart from a summer break in August each year. The founder, Maria Vlaykova, was a teacher who built it to inspire and educate. In her will, she transferred the theatre to the Ministry of Culture and legally bound them to keep the building a cinema, as long as the city stands.
When it comes to music, there are plenty of venues as well, especially if you love jazz or electronica. For the former, check out Jazz Bar, Studio 5, the Art Club, or Sofia Live Club. If it’s electronic beats that get you excited, you might enjoy Micro, K.E.V.A, Fabrica 126, or Underground Gallery.
If you’re not in a party mood, but still want to get a taste of Sofia’s nightlife, the award-winning bartenders at 5L Speakeasy and Sputnik offer delicious blends with a regional spirit called rakiya. Maimunarnika is an outdoor bar in the Borisova Garden, where musicians share the stage with tall pine trees. Another favorite is Hambara – finding it is an adventure of its own because it’s hidden behind a wooden basement door. You knock and are invited into a small, cozy space, entirely lit by candles.
For visual arts enthusiasts, dozens of galleries are scattered throughout the city. The old palace now houses one part of the National Gallery, while the other is in the old Royal Printing Office at Square 500. Another iconic Soviet-era building is now home to the artists union, known as UBA, where they are always showing exhibitions. For modern art, One Gallery and Struktura gained popularity over recent years. Gallery Plus 359, an old water tower in a quiet residential neighborhood near the city center, is also worth a visit.
Get the Locals to Open Up to You
At first, Bulgarians might seem a bit grouchy — but once they warm up to you, they’ll happily show you around, invite you to a home-cooked meal, and just take great care of you. The older generation was conditioned to distrust by Communism, when speaking and engaging freely was always a risk. While this attitude is still ingrained in some people, a smile and a few words in Bulgarian go a long way. Especially since Bulgarians love foreigners!
Here’s your starter pack:
“Zdraveyte!” – Hello!
“Kak ste?”- How are you?
“Blagodarya” – Thank you
If you’re headed to Sofia, try to learn a few words, taste the local dishes and drinks, and you’ll become a Sofiyanets (a person living in Sofia) in no time.
Where do you want to go in the Balkans? In Eastern Europe? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter!