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Sofia, Bulgaria: One of Europe’s Best Kept Secrets

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Sofia, Bulgaria: One of Europe's Best Kept Secrets
By Antoine Taveneaux (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Often overlooked by foreign travelers, Bulgaria is truly one of Europe’s best kept secrets. The capital city of Sofia is rich in culture, yet incredibly affordable for visitors. Here you can explore a culture that dates back thousands of years, and it won’t cost you very much to do so. Everything from delicious food to comfortable accommodations to public transportation is still pretty cheap here, making it ideal for budget travelers. From Roman ruins to remnants of the country’s Communist days, there is so much to see and learn about this important hub in the heart of the Balkans.

The Sights

While walking Sofia’s city streets, you’ll feel as though you’re at a crossroads in a place where old meets new. The style of beautiful early 20th century buildings blends with bold Communist elements, both of them standing in stark contrast to the modern architecture that is slowly but surely creeping in. The downtown area is the perfect place to go sightseeing on foot.

One of your best bets for seeing it all in a day is the Free Sofia Tour. This guided tour takes groups of visitors to some of the most significant attractions in the city. A friendly and knowledgeable local guide leads you around, offering insight into each stop along the way. If you’re short on time and willing to walk for a bit, this is the smartest option for exploring downtown. Some of the stops on the Free Sofia Tour include:

  • Banya Bashi Mosque – built in the 16th century when Bulgaria was under Ottoman rule, it is the only mosque still functioning in Sofia today
  • The former Communist Party Headquarters – an imposing, yet beautifully executed building design that was completed in 1953. Bulgaria was under Socialist rule for 45 years, until 1989
  • The former royal palace, now the National Art Gallery
  • Saint Sofia Church, which dates back to the 14th century
  • The National Assembly – Bulgaria’s Parliament building
  • Ivan Vazov National Theatre – built in 1907, it is a gorgeous example of Austrian architecture from the turn of the century

No trip to Sofia would be complete without visiting the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. If you’re going to be downtown, you really can’t miss the glimmering golden domes rising high into the skyline. This Eastern Orthodox cathedral is stunning, both inside and out, and you will definitely want to make a stop here.

Several years ago, as work began on the expansion of the metro system, workers discovered the ruins of a Roman amphitheater in the city’s center. During Roman times, Sofia was known as Serdica, and today, the uncovered ruins of this ancient city are on display for all to see. The open museum allows visitors to check out the exposed preserved ruins where gladiators once battled to the death with wild animals like lions, bears, and crocodiles. There’s also artifacts on display, including pottery, mosaic tiles, and coins, among other things. If you’re feeling spendy, you can book a night in the Arena di Serdica Residence Hotel, which is built above part of the ruins.

The People

Bulgarians, in general, are very welcoming, and they make excellent hosts. They are a passionate and prideful people, and enjoy sharing their rich history with anyone interested in learning more about it. The language barrier can be a put-off to many tourists, but you definitely should not let that stop you from seeing the country and making new friends.

A little effort can go a long way when you want to interact with the locals. Learn the basic phrases and try to get a grasp on the Cyrillic alphabet, and you should be in good shape. You may not find a fellow English speaker on your first try, but many younger folks have learned the language, and restaurants in the capital city almost always have an English version menu available. Street signs and business signs can also be found in English, as well. Navigating the city shouldn’t prove too difficult if you’re up for a little adventure!

There’s a great deal more to see and do in this beautiful Balkan country, but Sofia, Bulgaria is a perfect starting point for visitors. Get your feet wet, so to speak, with the language, food, and culture of Bulgaria in the capital, and then continue on to other notable places. Cities like Plovdiv, Varna, Ruse, and all of the charming villages in between are well worth any traveler’s time in Eastern Europe.

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