SOFIA, BULGARIA: Sofia is a city with heights and contrast, lot of ancient history surrounded by contemporary look. It is the capital and the biggest city of Bulgaria. You can see a unique combination of European and Communist style architecture in the city center. The motto of the city “It grows, but never ages” really matches the culture of it. Surrounded by Vitosha Mountains, Sofia is one of the most scenic cities of Balkan region and in Eastern Europe.
Most of Sofia’s main sights are centrally situated and can easily be visited on foot. City offers free walking-tour for its guests. Just be cautious when crossing the roads since I hardly saw any zebra crossing here, most of the time you have to use underground tunnels or subway stations to go to the other side of the streets. To make it easy on the travelers, all of the major attractions are very well marked and is provided with information boards written in both Bulgarian language and in English. For those who like updating their Facebook statuses every now and then, it’s great to know that most of Sofia’s shops and restaurants have free Wi-Fi.
TIME of TRAVEL: Sofia was our 2nd destination on our Easter Break trip of 2013, after visiting Kiev in Ukraine. It was during the first week of April when we came to Sofia. It was absolutely fantastic weather here…not as cold as Kiev and not too hot either. We got a little bit of drizzle once in a while but no major rain.
OUR HOTEL: Our hotel in Sofia, Hotel Maria Luisa, was a beautiful 4-star hotel situated within walking distance from the city center and Metro station “Serdika”. It’s a very cozy hotel with luxurious living style and extremely helpful staff. We had free breakfast every morning with many options and free Wi-Fi to stay connected with everyone.
EATING and SHOPPING: Bulgarian cuisine is a mixture of Slavonic, Greek, and Turkish. There are many trendy cafes and restaurants in the city center with outdoor seating when the weather is nice and warm. There are also McDonald’s, KFC, Subway, and other local fast food restaurants for quick meals. Bulgaria is known for its roses. They have valleys of roses few hundreds km away from Sofia. Therefore, rose products are popular souvenirs. You can find rose flavored soaps, lotions, body spray, bath salts, and etc. in any shops.
PLACES WE’VE VISITED: We spend about a day and half in Sofia dedicated just to explore the city. Other than the following major attractions, we have also visited these places from outside or just passed by them: Levski Square Monument, National Library, Sofia University, Bulgarian Parliament, Tsar Monument, war memorial, Orlov Most, and Court of Justice. They are definitely worth visiting if you can spare time and good thing is that they are all close to each other.
1) ALEXANDER NEVSKY MEMORIAL CATHEDRAL: This massive cathedral with big gilded dome is number one attraction of Sofia. Construction of this remarkable piece of architecture was completed in 1912 in memory of the thousands of Russian, Bulgarian, Ukrainian, Moldavian, Finnish, and Romanian soldiers who, from 1877 to 1878, laid their lives for the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire. Inside the cathedral is decorated with 300 dramatic murals featuring many Biblical scenes and important saints of that time. Vaulted ceilings, high copula, Venetian mosaics, and huge chandeliers are superb. Main focus of this cathedral is the richly decorated façade. Interiors of the cathedral recalls the shapes of the decoration of the Hagia Sophia church in Istanbul and Roman traditions. Marbles, Brazilian onyx, and alabaster made its interior a marvelous place to visit. As one may expect, this is not a typical cathedral with rows of seats, main nave, and big altar. There are some benches on the sides but the floor in front of altar is just a big open space. Area around the cathedral is the largest square in the city for welcoming foreign dignitaries, such as Pope, presidents, and etc.). Visitors can buy souvenirs, antiques, arts, and many unique things in the open air market here.
The cathedral is located opposite of St. Sofia Cathedral and in front of International Art Gallery. Although there are signs that taking picture is not allowed inside, but I saw everyone was doing it and no one really says anything. The crypt is located on one side of the main entrance and is open from 10 – 5:30.
2) ST. SOFIA or HAGIA SOFIA CHURCH and MONUMENT to the UNKNOWN SOLDIER: St. Sofia’s Church is the most notable church and a valued cultural monument in whose honor the city was named after in the 14th century. It was built in 565 AD under Byzantine Emperor and was used as a mosque during the Ottoman rule. Interior, mainly built with stones, is small but nice.
Just outside the church is the lion sculpture and an eternal flame of the Unknown Soldier which was unveiled in 1981. Both of the monument and the church is located across from Alexander Nevsky Memorial Cathedral and in front of City Hall of Sofia. There is no fee to enter the church.
3) SOFIA SYNAGOGUE: This is one of the largest synagogues and the largest Sephardic synagogue in Europe. This beautiful architectural monument is known as Bulgarian National Romanticism. It’s really gorgeous inside with Venetian polychrome mosaic floor, ornamented walls, big circular dome, and decorative furniture. Remarkable is the main chandelier, weighing two tons, the largest one in Bulgaria. There is a small museum representing the history and the culture of the Jewish community in Sofia and Bulgaria, but nothing was written in English. This is located behind Municipal Hall and very close to Banya Bashi Mosque. It can be easily recognized by its big golden dome with David’s stars on top. It is 2 LV to enter the synagogue, kids are free. The synagogue is open for visitors from Monday to Friday: 9 – 4 pm and Sunday from 10 – 2 pm.
4) BANYA BASHI MOSQUE: Located very close to Sofia Synagogue, this Turkish mosque was built in 1576. The dome and its minaret can be seen from far. You can actually hear “Adhan”, calling for prayer from its minaret right before prayer time if you are walking by it. Inside the mosque is embellished with artistically inscribed citations from the Koran. Banya-Bashi Mosque is one of the few buildings, monuments of Ottoman architecture, preserved in Sofia, which is still being used by the worshippers. There is no fee to enter but don’t forget to take your shoes off before entering the mosque. Also be mindful of the dress code.
5) ST. SOFIA STATUE and SVETA PETKA or ST. PETKA: At the main intersection of the city near Metro station “Serdika” stands a 24 meters tall Statue of Sofia which was unveiled in 2001. Under the metro station, there is a small 14th century church Sveta Petka or St. Petka. This is an ancient Christian monument which is still active. Inside is a bit dark but you can see its well-preserved frescoes from different periods. Climb the stairs to go to the 2nd floor to see a tiny chapel. There is no fee to enter the church.
6) ST. GEORGE ROTUNDA: This is a charming round red brick church dating back to 4th century (from the time of Emperor Constantine The Great), the oldest architectural monument in Sofia and the only building city preserved. The roof dates as far back as the Roman Empire. The frescos can still be seen inside the church which dates back to the 10th century. It’s a small church with small altar with really old walls and copula. This was also used as a mosque at one point of history. It’s located behind Sheraton Hotel near the Statue of St. Sofia. There is no fee to enter but no photos once inside the place.
7) IVAN VAZOV NATIONAL THEATRE: This is a beautiful maroon and white building surrounded by a big park in front for walking and strolling. The two towers are decorated with copper sculptures of Goddess Nike and the façade is decorated with a large triangular pediment with a mythological relief of “Apollo and the Muses”. Atmosphere near the theater is nice, you can hear live music when the weather is warm. The fountain in front of it wasn’t open when we visited but I can imagine its beauty when they reopen it in spring.
8) ST. NICOLAI RUSSIAN CHURCH: This church was built in 1914 at the site of the Saray Mosque which was destroyed in 1882. It has a typical Russian medieval style in the shape of a marquee. It’s a very small but beautifully ornate church with five golden onion domes. Church was under major renovation during our visit. There is no fee to enter and is open from 8 – 6:30.
9) SVETA NEDELJA or HAGIA NEDELJA CHURCH: This is another bold architecture of Sofia in the main city center surrounded by busy streets, many shops, and cafes. It has been standing there since the 10th century. Interior is very old with high dome and richly ornate. It’s free to enter and to look around but have to pay a fee and take permission to take photos inside.
10) TRIP to BOYANA CHURCH: This ancient church is located about 6 miles (10 km, took us about half an hour) from the city center at the foothills of Vitosha Mountains. This is considered to be one of the most valuable memorials of Bulgarian and European culture. This is an 11th century church that has undergone major restoration and is now open to the public. The remarkable realistic frescoes are acclaimed as “the best examples of Eastern medieval art” with the earliest murals dating back to 1259…these frescoes are considered as predecessors of European Renaissance. These paintings belong to the masterpieces of Bulgarian Medieval art. It was added to UNESCO World Heritage Site for its historic significance and cultural value. The park and the garden are very calm and serene with lots of trees and some scattered old ruins.
We took a private taxi (our hotel receptionist’s friend) to take this trip to Boyana Church. He charged us 60 LV (~30 euros) for this 1 1/2 hours trip. It’s 10 LV to enter the church (kids free). They only allow 8 people at a time and visitors can stay for 10 minutes inside the church, which was more than enough for us. The church is open every day from 9 – 5:30 pm from November 1 to March 31 and 9:30 – 6 pm from April 1 to October 31.