How To Spend Three Days in Sofia: An Itinerary for a weekend away in Bulgaria
Increasingly serviced by budget carriers such as Ryanair and Wizz, Sofia is growing in popularity. The Bulgarian capital is, perhaps surprisingly, a cultural haven. With its soviet structures, the city has grown to have a reputation that it isn’t quite as pretty as the name would suggest. But with stunning buildings like the National Theatre and the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia has a certain charm. The main street through the center is also quite literally a yellow brick road, so there’s that going for it too!
Whilst modern history has seen Sofia dominated by Soviet-style architecture, much of what you can find in the city reflects 2,000 years of history. As well as being occupied by the Soviets, Sofia has also been conquered by the Greeks, Roman, and Ottomans.
In fact, there is so much history buried beneath Sofia’s surface. Sofia is similar to Rome in the sense that whenever they build something new, they invariably uncover a new archaeological site. Unfortunately, the Bulgarian government isn’t always as protective of the Italians over these treasures.
Even though Bulgaria has been an EU member state since 2007, the official currency of Bulgaria is the Bulgarian lev. The lev is pegged to the euro at a rate of one euro being the equivalent of 1.955 lev. Euros and British Pounds are easily exchangeable for lev when in Bulgaria. It is also readily available from most UK foreign exchange bureaus before you travel, but be aware that you may need to order it in especially outside of the summer peak.
Okay, so here’s my Sofia itinerary…
First and foremost, Sofia is a really walkable city. Public transport is also really cheap. A single ride on the metro costs 1.60 BGN, but most machines will only accept cash. Taxis are also cheap, but beware scammers as you should anywhere in the world. Uber or Bolt do not exist in Sofia, so download TaxiMe before you travel, which is similar to these.
Ivan Vasov National Theatre
One of the most notable and beautiful structures in all of Sofia is the Ivan Vasov Theatre. The Theatre is named after one of Bulgaria’s most famous playwright. Whilst in Sofia, you could catch a performance, but bear in mind that it will be performed in Bulgarian.
The theatre was opened in 1907. It was considerably damaged by a fire in 1923 but reopened six years later. When Sofia was bombed during World War II, the theatre was damaged again but was rebuilt in 1945.
Church of St George Rotunda
A ten-minute walk from Ivan Vasov National Theatre is the Church of St George Rotunda. The Church is situated amongst ruins in a hotel court yard. It’s not the most aesthetically pleasing structure, but is still worth a visit.
The Church dates to the fourth century and is still used today.
A couple of minutes’ walk from the Church of St George Rotunda is Serdika Station. This is the main metro station in Sofia. Most of the trains used on the metro are Soviet style, so are a pretty cool photo opportunity even if you don’t want to take a trip.
But the metro station is also engulfed by ancient ruins. It can take a fair while to wander around the station taking all of the ruins in, and you’ll probably also get a few strange glances from the locals on their commute.
Sofia History Museum
Housed in a beautiful building that used to be Sofia’s main bathhouse, the History Museum is a stones throw from Serdika Station. On display are various relics and artifacts from Sofia’s history right up until 1944. The museum doesn’t include any information on communism or socialism in Bulgaria. Entry is 6 lev, which is about £2.50.
Sofia itself sits on natural hot springs, and outside of the Sofia History Museum are public fountains which have geothermally heated water. It’s safe to drink this water and many locals do, so there’s a fun fact for you.
Banya Bashi Mosque
Next door to the Sofia History Museum is the Banya Banshi Mosque. The mosque is unique in the sense it is only a few hundred metres away from a church and a synagogue. The mosque was built in the Sixteenth Century, when Bulgaria had been conquered by the Ottomans.
You can visit the mosque for free out of prayer hours.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
One of the most iconic symbols of Sofia is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. For years, it was the largest orthodox cathedral in the world and it really is a beautiful sight to see.
The cathedral was built in honour of the sacrifice for all the men who fought and died for the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire in 1879. Alexander Nevsky was a prince and then later made a saint in the thirteenth century. He was chosen as the patron of the cathedral because he was the patron saint of the Russian Emperor Alexander II. Alexander II provided Bulgaria troops to liberate themselves from the Ottomans.
You can enter the cathedral for free, but there is a charge if you want to take photos whilst inside.
The largest Synagogue in the Balkans was completed in 1909. Whilst it’s the other end of the main area of Sofia to the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, it’s only a thirty-minute walk. You also pass some pretty impressive buildings on the way.
On my trip, I confused the Synagogue with the slightly similar looking Sofia History Museum, which caused a bit of a double take when I walked in. There’s a museum dedicated to the history of Jews in Bulgaria within the Synagogue. Especially interesting is the exhibition which details how Bulgarian Jews were saved during World War II.
There’s a symbolic fee to get in (I can’t remember how much it was exactly but it was only around a couple of lev).
Sofia Museum of Socialist Art
The only location on this list which is some way out of the center of Sofia is the Museum of Socialist Art. The Museum has been open since 2011 and it deals with the Communist era of Bulgaria.
The Museum displays Communist art and propaganda from between 1944 and 1989. The red star is the pinnacle of the collection.
Entry to the Museum is 6 lev (£2.50). It’s housed in a Ministry of Culture building, so Google Streetview it before you go to avoid getting lost. Get the metro from central Sofia to the GM Dimitrov Station and then walk up from there.
On your third day in Sofia, consider taking a trip to Skopje, the capital city of bordering country North Macedonia. Whilst not achievable by taking public transport, there are a couple of tours that you can take from Sofia to Skopje. I paid under £50 for mine. The pickup from my hotel was at 7am and I was back at just after 7pm.
Unlike Bulgaria whose currency is the Lev, the official currency of North Macedonia is Macedonian Denar. You can exchange euros or Lev in numerous places for this in Skopje. I only exchanged 15 euros, and I still had money left over at the end of the day.
There’s so much to see in Skopje, so it would definitely keep you occupied for the day! More details here.
Okay, so there’s way more to Sofia than you expected, right? I was actually taken aback as to how much there was to see and do. It’s definitely one of my favourite city in the Balkans, and it’s so accessible now with flights for £20 at certain times of year with Ryanair. Sofia was somewhere I’d wanted to go to for ages, simply because of the name. But I definitely wasn’t disappointed when I actually go there even though I worried I might be.
I stayed at the three-star Rila Hotel, which is central to pretty much everything and cost below £100 for three nights in January.