Constantine The Great, the Roman Emperor who ruled from 306 to 337, was reported to have said: “Serdica is my Rome”. Serdica is the ancient city that Sofia is literally built on top of.
Want a weekend escape that is off the beaten path and not your typical Central Europe destination? Check out Sofia, Bulgaria! You will not need more than 2 or 3 days in this lovely city, and any longer you may run out of things to do. Before heading to Sofia, I had no idea what to expect. I did just enough research to fill up our itinerary, but I really wasn’t sure what to anticipate. What would the architecture look like? How big was the nearby escarpment? How old was the city? Would they have vegetarian options for dinner? We boarded the plane without even checking if we needed a visa and what the local language was. Luckily, as a Canadian, we did not require a visa and enough people spoke English.
Let us start with my usual suggestion, a PWYC walking tour. I know you must be bored of this suggestion by now, but this was one of the best ones yet! Our guide was not only informative, but kept up a great pace and knew her shit. She was also a loud speaker, making it easier to hear, and you could tell she loved her city. Another tour idea is their hiking tour up the famous Vitosha Mountain. I highly suggest you do this. It will eat up most of your day but you will see (the very small) Boyana Lake, Maiden Rock and the beautiful Boyana waterfall (pictured above). Warning, you will need to dress appropriately as you will indeed be in the deep of the forest hiking uphill…for hours. Also bring lots of water, snacks, and be prepared for the weather. When descending, we were hit with a major storm; not only was the storm above us, it was also around us because we were actually IN the storm clouds. It rained so much that even a submarine would get wet, and our escape path was flooded over thus requiring us to get a few soakers along the way. If you are a nature lover, do this tour. Heck, if you like fun do this tour.
Not far from Sofia (about a 2 hour drive) is Rila Monastery. This is a castle-like structure, with a courtyard that houses a medium size church (free admission but no photos inside) and a separate bell tower (small admission fee). The castle structure houses the residential accommodation which is off limits to the public, and it also has a museum which has the most detailed carved wooden cross I have ever seen. A short walk away from the monastery there are several restaurants where you can have traditional Bulgarian food, while looking at the mountains, with the soft roar of a raging river in the distance. Following the sound of the river will lead you to a hidden graveyard. In all, planning 2 – 4 hours is sufficient enough to see the local sights, though there are trails nearby that can occupy your time for a full day. This was one of the best overall atmospheres of any religious institution we’ve been to yet. The impeding mountains surrounding the monastery complex coupled with the unique look of the church was something we just have not seen yet.
There are a lot of churches in downtown Sofia, and great news they all have free admission, though most forbid pictures or will charge for the privilege of taking them. The most well-known church is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. It is actually one of the largest Eastern Orthodox Cathedrals in the world and a big tourist attraction. Though it was very lovely, my favourites were the Church of St. George and Church of St. Petka of the Saddlers. St. George is one of the oldest buildings in Sofia and is situated in the courtyard of the now Sheraton Hotel. This was done to discourage people from finding and attending church services. Like most churches here it is very small, and has 5 layers of preserved frescos, some dating back to the 4th century. If you think this church is small, then wait until you see St. Petka! Located among the ancient ruins right along the subway line, this tiny place of worship is worth a quick visit. To enter you take the stairs down and set foot through a tiny doorway (meant to be low enough to force churchgoers to bow to God before entering). A fun fact, the walls are 1 M thick made of brick and stone!
What surprised me most about Sofia was the numerous locations of ancient ruins. Even more astonishing is that you can walk among them and touch them, all for free. It’s incredible. These locations are all over the city, indoors and out, but usually located near subway stops. This is since a lot of them were discovered when they were digging for the transit system. The reason for the amble ruins is that over time instead of removing the old sections of the city after they were destroyed or left for disrepair, they would build on top of them. From this, almost every block within Sofia has another city below it. There are simply too many ruins to excavate them all, and so when they are discovered during digs for new developments, the government does not mandate that they need to be preserved in their entirety. A good example is with Arena Di Serdica Hotel, as they found an amphitheatre while digging, they were able to keep only a small section and put it on display and remove the rest for the foundation.
And now for the food and drink. Sofia is cheap!! Portion sizes are quite generous, especially for the price. I doubt you will need a late night snack to hold you over. But hey, I won’t judge if you do! Word of caution, Sofia closes down early, so if you want to have some nibbles late at night, be prepared and buy portable snacks during the day. My favourite places to eat were Moma (traditional food, fair prices, great service and the perfect ambience) and Hadjidraganov’s Houses restaurants (super cool Bulgarian feel with traditional eats and homemade wine). I highly recommend ordering the traditional Shopska Salad, Meshana Skara for the meat eaters, beans in a clay pot, or at the very least, something that you would not normally eat. Want to be pleasantly surprised? Order a glass of Bulgarian wine. I lied, order an entire bottle it’s De – Lish!
A few more things to note about Sofia, the taxis are very cheap…except when you want to leave the city center (Vitosha Boulevard) at night to hit the hay. People there shake their head no when they say yes, and shake their head yes when they say no. It’s a bit of mind trip and makes interaction very interesting. If you want to purchase rose oil as a souvenir for the ladies, it is everywhere, so don’t buy the first one that you see. Sofia has lots of museums, or look into spa treatments if you rather relax on your holiday. And overall people there seem very pleasant and are happy to help if you need it!