Hello fellow travelers! Alexx here from Looking for Alexx. I'm in a one year solo adventure to a new country every week for a year, with my route based entirely on the cheapest flight each Tuesday. Yes, it is as hectic as it looks! This insane adventure took me to Sofia, a beautiful jewel hidden in the Balkans and the capital of Bulgaria. Here is everything you need to know if you are thinking of traveling to Sofia, what to do, where to sleep, how to get around and more.
Where to stay in Sofia
Let's give you some good news … Sofia is the ideal place if you are on a budget! There are plenty of cheap hostels in Sofia with dorm beds for under $ 13 a night, or you can get a budget hotel room for about $ 32 a night.
I am usually a big proponent of accommodation with a full kitchen, so you can save money on food, but the food in Sofia is so cheap (and good!) That, honestly, there is no need to cook your own food.
How to get around Sofia
If you are in the city center and don't mind going up, you can probably see the city easily on foot. Many of the main attractions are within walking distance, and wandering aimlessly through the city was how I found many of my top food recommendations!
If you prefer to get to a place faster (and perhaps drier), there are trams, buses and subways. A single trip costs 1,60BGN (about 90 cents) or a daily pass with unlimited travel is 4BGN (about $ 2).
There is no Uber in Sofia, but there is a great local taxi app that does the same thing, called TaxiMe. You can sign up with your UK number, add your credit card and take a ride through the app as you would anywhere else.
To get to and from the airport easily and relatively inexpensively, I recommend taking a taxi from the airport taxi stand. Only one company is authorized to provide taxi services at the airport and they have standard rates, so follow the signs to the official taxi area and you will be served. To enter the city center, you must pay about 15 to 20BGN ($ 8 to $ 12).
On a super tight budget? You can take the subway from Terminal 2 at the airport to Serdika station for 1.60BGN (cash only, so you need to use an ATM at the airport) and then transfer to a bus, tram or other metro to approach your hotel .
As for the budget for Sofia
Yay for cheap destinations! Just like my week in Warsaw, Sofia was a real gift for my wallet.
If you are looking for a challenge, you can try Sofia for just $ 15 to $ 20 a day. This would cover cheap accommodation in hostels ($ 9 to $ 13) and food for supermarkets or bakeries (up to $ 7). You can see a lot of beautiful buildings for free and, with a little Google search, you can self-guide a city tour to learn about the city's communist history.
To add a good local meal ($ 6 to $ 10), a drink ($ 3) and a donation for a free walking tour ($ 6), I recommend a budget of $ 40 a day .
You can get fresh baked treats from local bakeries for less than 1 BGN (about 65 cents), decent sandwiches or salads for lunch between 4-8BGN ($ 1.95 to $ 4.50) or dinners a little more extravagant from 12 to 20 GB ($ 6.50 to $ 12). A local beer will cost from 2BGN to 6BGN, depending on where you are ($ 1.30 to $ 4).
The best things to do in Sofia
Although not as well known as other Eastern European hot spots like Prague and Budapest, the city has a lot to offer and there are countless things to do in Sofia, no matter what you like.
Discover Bulgaria's rocky past, buy second-hand treats at flea markets, eat your heart at some of my favorite coffees on all my trips or escape the urban jungle and head out to explore another neighboring city. Here are five of the best things to do on your trip to Sofia.
1. Learn about communist history
Bulgaria's political past is still present throughout the city, with huge headquarters, architecture, museums and statues representing the communist era from 1946 to 1989.
If you are a novice in communist history or everything is fine and want to see how it has specifically affected Bulgaria, there are some places and tours to add to your communism class in Sofia.
Coming from New Zealand, where communism never came close to our corner of the world and where I opted for math and science classes on history, geography and politics (nerd, I know), my knowledge of communist regimes in Eastern Europe was limited.
The first is the Free Sofia walking tour, which takes place three or four times a day (depending on the season) and is based on tips. Your local tour guide will take you to about 20 of Sofia's must-see sights and you will get a decent overview of the city's history and politics, as well as tips from a local on things to do, eat and see.
Free Sofia also offers a daily excursion to communism for just $ 11, which offers a three-hour walk through the city's communist landmarks, as well as a vision of what Sofia was like to live in these 43 years.
Want more? Consider visiting the National Historical Museum or the Museum of Socialist Art, which houses the huge red star that was at the top of the Communist Party's headquarters before being overthrown in the late 1980s.
2. See the most beautiful religious buildings in the city
Although the dominant religion in Bulgaria is by far the orthodox Bulgarian (about 60%), there are some simply impressive churches, mosques, cathedrals and monasteries in the capital.
Start with the city's most epic building and one of the coolest buildings I've ever seen, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. This seriously impressive orthodox church was started in 1882, but was not completed until 30 years later, and is one of the most emblematic landmarks in the capital of Bulgaria, with a 45m high gold-plated dome and interior made of onyx, marble and others material fancy objects.
Other orthodox churches worth visiting are the Church of St. Nicholas (a Russian Orthodox church), the Church of Sveti Sedmochislenitsi and the Church of Sveta Nedelya, which has a dramatic history, including a funeral attack in 1925 by the Communist Party, where else 500 members of Bulgaria's elite political figures were injured and 150 were killed.
After the Eastern Orthodox, the next most common religion is Islam, with up to 15% of the population identifying themselves as Muslim. Bulgaria was under Ottoman rule for almost 500 years, from the late 1300s until the Russian Empire took over the Ottoman Empire in 1878, but after being freed thanks to Russia's victory and then declaring independence in 1908, many buildings of that time they were reused or destroyed. The 16th-century Banya Bashi mosque is the only remaining mosque in Sofia and, as such, is a bustling center of the city's Muslim community.
Fans of ancient history will want to stop by Sveti Georgi, a 4th century Christian church built by the Romans in the ancient city of Serdica. It is the oldest building in the city and houses some impressive frescoes dating from the 10th century.
3. Eat all cheap food
I am a big advocate of cooking your own food while traveling to stay on a tight budget, and I usually allow myself to spend a little money every week for a meal or two. But in Sofia, I ate all meals for the whole week. Yes, I said all meals!
The local food scene is not only cheap, it is also really impressive. From bakeries, where you can get four cakes or snacks for the equivalent of € 1, to brunch on Instagram with dishes from the next level, to traditional restaurants serving homemade dishes, I would go back in a second literally just for the food.
There is likely to be a restaurant in Sofia perfect for any type of food that pleases your imagination, but here are some of my favorites.
Bistro Pesto was my number one, and I'm not ashamed to say that I had lunch there four days in a row! They are a super cute corner restaurant close to the main shopping avenue and serve Italian food day and night. Their panini menu is incredible; authentic Italian ingredients and a Bulgarian price. Win win!
If you're looking for a photo of cool food (no judgment here), check out the brunch menu at Rainbow Factory or Boho. I didn't make it to Rainbow Factory, but my hostel colleagues loved it, and I personally can guarantee the stack of Oreo pancakes in Boho. Mmmmhmmmm.
And for a reasonably priced but delicious dinner, be sure to visit the legends of Shtastlivetsa, a chain restaurant with a HUGE home-cooked menu. The prices are understandably a little higher than the local street food stalls, but the service is fantastic, the meals are huge and there are many healthy Bulgarian dishes to choose from.
4. Go to the mountains
Sofia's landscape is rare in terms of European capitals, because there is a mountain range so close to the city center. The bottom of the Vitosha mountain is only 10 km from the city and is easily accessible by taxi, public transport or on foot, if you want to enjoy a day.
In summer, Vitosha is a popular hiking destination, where city dwellers escape for weekends to get some fresh air. The highest peak is 2290m, but there are also walks through the lower half of the mountain to different rivers and waterfalls.
During winter, the mountain is a ski resort, perfect for any snow bunny on a budget. Although it is significantly less developed than other European ski destinations, such as Switzerland and France, your daily pass and rent will be much cheaper and your money will go much further.
In addition to being a hot spot for adrenaline activity, Vitosha is home to another must-see place in Sofia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Boyana Church. Boyana is an 11th century Orthodox church and is famous for the many frescoes it houses, particularly a collection from early 1259.
5. Take a day trip
There are some incredible places to see and experience outside of Sofia itself, so if you have time, I recommend trying a day or two trip!
My main option for a day trip from Sofia is Plovdiv, another Bulgarian city and one of the two European capitals of culture in 2019. Plovdiv is a few hours away from Sofia by bus, and tickets cost around £ 6 each sense. When in town, I recommend taking a free walking tour, run by the same organization that runs the tour in Sofia. They have a city tour daily throughout the year, as well as a free graffiti tour daily from October to April. And if you want to explore yourself, don't miss the unique colorful houses that line the streets of the old town, it's unlike any other European city I've ever seen!
Do you like to exercise? There is no better place to move in Bulgaria than in the Seven Lakes area of Rila. You guessed that seven Rila lakes are home to seven glacial lakes in the Rila mountain range, and they are all between 2100 and 2500m high. It is possible, but it is difficult to get there by public transport, so it is best to rent a car and drive (1.5 to 2 hours) or book an organized tour or bus. Tip: don't miss the Rila Monastery, an orthodox monastery from the 10th century and the largest in the country. It's worth visiting!
And there you have it, a complete travel guide to Sofia and beyond for your Bulgaria adventure! Book yours flight to Sofia now with STA Travel. If you want to follow more of my adventures, you can find me on Instagram.