Bulgaria’s laid-back capital exudes a youthfulness which combined with Ottoman mosques and Red Army monuments creates an eclectic, exotic feel that’s so characteristic of Sofia. The city also hosts some of the country’s finest museums, galleries, restaurants and clubs, so you may well want to stick around to explore.
Of course, Bulgaria’s Communist past still pervades in the streets, despite a relatively short occupation from 1945 to 1989. Neo-Stalinist architecture is part of Sofia, yet most of its major tourist attractions pre-date the Communist era: Aleksander Nevski Cathedral, the Central Sofia Synagogue and the Banya Bashi mosque remind us of this nation’s fascinating past.
Away from the boulevards and buildings, manicured gardens and sprawling parks offer welcome respite from the bustle. Meanwhile, the ski slopes and hiking paths of mighty Mount Vitosha are just a short bus ride away from Sofia’s centre – don’t miss the charming UNESCO-listed Boyana Church, an absolute must-see while you are there.
Museum of Socialist Art
The Museum of Socialist Art is home to a fascinating collection of art linked with Bulgaria’s socialist past.
The main attraction is the outdoor sculpture park, where you’ll be greeted by the imposing statue of Lenin that once stood in the city centre. Another feature is the red star which was taken from the top of the Socialist Party headquarters. This is not the easiest place to find but head for the gated Ministry of Culture building next to the Sopharma Business Towers, and let the big red star and statues guide you.
National Palace of Culture
If you’re yearning for a music concert or a show, head for The National Palace of Culture, a prominent, modern, polygonal concert hall, dominating the park at pl. Bulgaria. It hosts a variety of cultural events from classical to avant-garde, including concerts, film festivals, art, fashion shows and trade fairs as well as major conferences.
At the northern end of the park, you will find the crumbling 1,300 Years Monument, built in 1981 to commemorate the creation of the First Bulgarian Empire. Nearby, there is a memorial and chapel dedicated to victims of the Communist regime bearing some ten thousand names – behind this, there is a section of the Berlin Wall.
National Polytechnic Museum
If technology is your thing, there’s a treasure trove of information on the history of technology in this low-key museum – the oldest in the country. Exhibits include photographic, radio and time measurement instruments, such as atomic clocks, ancient film cameras as well as a gleaming Model A Ford from 1928.
Time measurement devices are the museum’s highlights so you will find a multitude of valuable clocks and watches, some of which belonging to the royal family. Other displays depict the different types of manufacturing which took place in Bulgaria at various times over history, such as glassblowing and the production of rose oil, chocolate and sweets. Meanwhile, a glass vessel holding some of the first experimental crystals of the chemical element germanium can be found here.
Sveta Sofia Church
Sveta Sofia Church gave the city its name and is one of Sofia’s oldest. This red-brick 6th century church now sits atop an ancient subterranean necropolis containing 56 tombs and the remains of four other churches in the city. Outside you can see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with an eternal flame, as well as the grave of Ivan Vazov, one of Bulgaria’s most famous writers.
The Church of St Nicholas the Miracle-Maker
Life on busy Tzar Osvoboditel Street bustles on, but step off it for a moment, and inside the Russian Orthodox Church for some peace and serenity. This is often labelled the prettiest church in Bulgaria and the impressive gold dome, surrounded by four smaller domes, perfectly complements the beautiful green majolica-tiled roof.
Underneath, the crypt is decorated with typical, Orthodox imagery and you can write out prayers and drop them into the box where believers kneel and kiss the grey coffin of St Nicholas the Miracle-Maker – a genuinely powerful setting.
The Royal Palace
This grand edifice was originally the headquarters of the Ottoman police force. It was here that the nation’s hero, Vasil Levski, was tried, tortured and then publicly executed in 1873.
After Bulgaria’s liberation, the building was reformed into the official residence of Bulgaria’s royal family and today it is home to the magnificent Ethnographical Museum and the National Art Gallery.
If you’d like a green getaway, near but not too far from all the museums, churches, shops and traffic, make your way south of the city centre to this vast, wild, green park, brimming with trees and shady pathways. A pretty stream bubbles through Yuzhen Park and you can stop off along the way at the handful of discreet cafes and bars to enjoy the peace.
Borisova Gradina Park (South Park)
Sprawling southeast of Sofia’s centre, this attractive park comes packed with countless statues and flowerbeds making it a picturesque place for a stroll. It comprises a vast open space hosting two stadiums, as well as several cafes and children’s play areas.
To its eastern edge, you will find the Mound of Brotherhood, a gigantic Communist monument featuring a 42 metre-high obelisk and a number of socialist-realist icons, including a pair of partisan fighters. Years of neglect has left several of the statues of socialist heroes missing limbs and “wearing” graffiti, but flowers are sometimes laid in their memory.