What To Do In Sofia: Top Things To Do In Sofia Bulgaria
Many people who visit Bulgaria tend to focus on either the ski slopes or the beaches, places like Bansko and Varna. In the process, Sofia, the country’s capital, is often overlooked. That’s really a shame. Sofia is an eclectic city with so much more to offer than most people realize.
Situated in the very heart of the Balkan peninsula—equidistant from both the Black Sea and the Adriatic Sea—, Sofia is ancient. There’s archaeological evidence that people have lived in the area for more than 9,000 years. Nowadays, it’s a thriving city with many different faces. From great museums to Red Army monuments and iconic onion-domed churches to modern businesses, there are plenty of fun things to do in Sofia.
On top of that, it’s one of the most affordable capital cities in Europe for tourists, with a great selection of accommodations for all budgets. Entrepreneurs are drawn to this vibrant and mostly modern city as well, as it’s considered to be one of the world’s top ten cities for technology start-ups.
Long story short, this is a fascinating place to visit. It’ll surprise you, impress you and enchant you. Find out where to go in Sofia when you visit Sofia Bulgaria in this things to see in Sofia city guide.
Best Places To Visit In Sofia
Borisova Gradina Park
Sofia isn’t only about historic buildings, monuments, institutes and museums. It’s also a wonderfully green city. Borisova Gradina Park is the perfect example of the city’s green spaces, the oldest and most well-known park in Sofia. This beautiful and peaceful forested park features gardens, hiking trails, a lake, sports facilities and picnic areas.
St. Sofia Church
Its roots going back to the 6th century, St. Sofia Church is Sofia’s second-oldest church. Even though it’s a rather unassuming building—especially when compared to other churches in the city—, the St. Sofia Church is the church that gave the city its current name in the 14th century, making it one of the most significant places to see in Sofia. You can visit the church and see what remains of the building’s foundation and tombs that date back about 1,500 years.
Church Of St. George
A part of a building complex dating back to the 3rd and 4th centuries, the Church of St. George is the oldest structure in the city. One of the top Sofia attractions, this ancient Roman structure lies in what was the center of Serdica, the Roman town that stood where Sofia now lies. Inside this red brick building, you can see numerous medieval frescoes from the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries.
Bitaka Flea Market
Sofia may be chock-full with culture and history, but there’s also a lighter side to it. If you’d like some fresh air after spending hours in the city’s museums, consider going for a walk through the Bitaka Flea Market. This is easily the biggest flea market/bazaar in the city, if not in the entire capital region. Casually browsing the many stands is one of the most relaxing and fun things to do in Sofia. Who knows what you might find? Vendors sell everything from jewelry, old cameras and photos to watches, clothes, merchandise and toys.
Another one of Sofia’s many great churches, Boyana Church is one of the major Sofia sights. This medieval Bulgarian Orthodox church lies outside of the city center and is famous for its fresco-covered interior. You can see no fewer than 89 different scenes, including 240 images of people. Because of this wealth of frescoes, the church was designated UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
On the outskirts of Sofia, Vitosha Mountain towers over the city. Its massive dome rises 2,290 meters toward the sky and is the most accessible ski destination from Sofia. It’s so large that it actually consists of many different peaks, ten of which reach more than 2,000 meters in height. This enormous mountain is also a nature park—the oldest one in the Balkans, in fact—and offers a wide variety of outdoor activities. If you’re looking to escape the big city for a while, Vitosha Mountain is one of the best places to go in Sofia.
If you like (window) shopping, you definitely want to take a stroll down pedestrianized Vitosha Boulevard. Many a Sofia travel guide says that this is the most important commercial street in Sofia, lined with restaurants, cafés and bars, fashion stores and boutiques selling luxury products.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
An enormous edifice with a capacity to hold 10,000 people, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is unquestionably the most iconic building in the city, the epitome of Sofia tourism, and one of the very symbols of Bulgaria. One of the ultimate Sofia landmarks, it’s one of the world’s largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals. Like much of Sofia’s imposing architecture, this cathedral also dates from the late-19th century. If you’re figuring out what to see in Sofia in one day, this place should be the focal point of your Sofia trip itinerary.
Ivan Vazov National Theater
One of the top Sofia tourist attractions, the Ivan Vazov National Theater is Bulgaria’s national theater and oldest theater in the country. Located in the heart of the city, facing the City Garden, it’s named after famous writer Ivan Vazov, whose play “The Outcasts” was the first one that was performed in the theater after it opened. This imposing building with its huge portico is a major landmark not only in Sofia, but in Bulgaria, depicted on 50 lev banknotes printed in 1999 and 2006.
Central Mineral Baths
Just like a lot of other major Eastern European cities, Sofia originated near or on top of natural hot springs. Arguably the greatest structure that commemorates this integral feature of Sofia is the Central Mineral Baths. The current Sofia Public Mineral Baths building was constructed near the previous Turkish/Ottoman baths in the early 1900’s. Featuring traditional Byzantine, Eastern Orthodox and Bulgarian architecture elements, it’s one of the most prominent landmarks in Sofia.
Amphitheater Of Serdica
Before 2004, no one even realized that Sofia sat on what used to be one of the largest amphitheaters in the eastern Roman Empire. The ruins of this huge amphitheater lie in the very heart of modern-day Sofia, but were once one of the landmarks of the ancient Roman city of Ulpia Serdica. Some of the ruins are now integrated in the Arena di Serdica Boutique Hotel, which has to be one of the coolest hotels in Sofia. Tourists can see the ruins free of charge.
The largest synagogue in the Balkans and the third-largest in Europe as a whole, the Sofia Synagogue can accommodate no fewer than 1,300 people. Its measurements are extraordinary, the main hall being 31 meters high and its main chandelier weighing 1.7 tons. You can step inside to marvel at the Carrara marble columns, intricate wood carvings and colorful Venetian mosaics. Also, don’t forget to visit the Jewish Museum of history, which is housed within this enormous synagogue.
A visit to Sofia is not complete without a walk around the Largo. This is the governmental heart of Sofia, and therefore of Bulgaria as well, comprising of three so-called Socialist Classicism buildings. The Largo is regarded as one of the prime examples of this type of architecture in Southeastern Europe.
The collection of buildings consists of the former Party House, which now serves as the National Assembly of Bulgaria, a building housing the Council of Ministers of Bulgaria and the TZUM store, and a third building housing the Sofia Balkan Hotel, Ministry of Education and the President’s Office. Other notable sites in the Largo include the 4th-century Church of St. George (see above).
Best Museums In Sofia
National Historical Museum
The huge National Historical Museum exhibits the history of Bulgaria, all the way from prehistoric times to the nation’s communist era. With its 650,000+ artifacts related to history, ethnography, archaeology and art, this is one of the greatest museums in Sofia and Bulgaria.
National Archaeological Museum
Housed in the oldest and largest Ottoman mosque in Sofia, the National Archaeological Museum is not only a historically significant architectural landmark, but is also filled with fascinating exhibits. Its displays showcase the cultural heritage of Bulgaria, spread across five exhibition halls—Prehistory, Middle Ages, Treasure, Central Hall and a hall for temporary exhibits.
National Art Gallery
If you want to immerse yourself into Bulgarian art, the best place to visit in Sofia is the National Art Gallery. Situated on Battenberg Square, it houses no fewer than 50,000 works of Bulgarian art, including the country’s largest collection of medieval paintings and superb pieces of National Revival and contemporary art.
So, tell us – will Sofia Bulgaria make it on your travel itinerary this year?
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Main Photo Credit: Bjørn Giesenbauer