Sofia, Bulgaria

Viewed from Vitosha pedestrian street: A streetcar passes in front of the Sofia Courthouse. Sofia has one of the longest tram systems in Europe, some of the cars dating back 50 years.

I added Sofia, Bulgaria, on whim to the 8-night side trip I’d planned for us before our latest house- and cat-sit in Antwerp, Belgium. It was really a matter of “as long as we’re in the area (Bucharest, Romania), why not?” I didn’t know much about either Sofia or Bulgaria before then. Pre-travel research confirmed my general impression of a less-than-wealthy Eastern European capital, still recovering from Communism and still relatively new to the EU. As of the latest census I could find, Sofia has a population of 1.2 million people as compared to Bucharest’s 1.8 million. Bulgaria is both the poorest country in the EU and the fastest shrinking population in the world.

We flew Romanian Tarom Air from Bucharest to Sofia. Arriving at 5:30am at the Bucharest airport, we found a long (albeit fast-moving) check-in line and a bustlingly busy airport. When we arrived in Sofia at around 9:40am, passengers on our flight were the only people in the baggage claim. Following online advice, we used an airport-sanctioned OK Supertrans taxi from the queue and had a friendly (non-English-speaking) driver with a working meter. It was a bargain 10 lev + 2 lev tip ($6.80 total) for the ride along a wide, straight boulevard into the center of Sofia and our AirBnB apartment.

First impressions were generally good. The wide, smooth boulevard turned to yellow glazed brick roads (Yes, the yellow brick road is real! :D) as we entered the older center of town. Boring residential architecture further out gave way to elegant and imposing public buildings with grand columns, arches, fountains and statuary. Less than a block from our apartment, a wide pedestrian street, named Vitosha after the mountain that rises above the city, bustled with people enjoying the many cafes and shops that lined it.

Facing the pretty open courtyard of a Spanish restaurant, our apartment boasted a much more appealing entrance than our lodging in Bucharest. Self check-in was a breeze using an electronic fob and keys left for us in a small safe locked to an adjacent shop gate. The one-bedroom apartment itself was spacious and modern with a remote that opened electric privacy shutters on windows and doors on two walls that opened to a patio and narrow side path. Nice!

We settled in and were back out the door by 10am our first day. Early flights have their benefits. After a quick run by the local grocery store to stock breakfast supplies, we headed back out to explore. Turning left at Vitosha, away from the pedestrian street, and putting the imposing Sofia Courthouse on our left, we walked toward the large Sofia statue, a personification of the city. Using the metro entrance to cross under the big intersection there, we popped up at the Serdika ruins which date back to ancient Roman settlers. The ruins are open-air and free and worth a look. David, more hungry than impressed with history, pushed for a lunch break so we left the ruins to settle into shady seats at upscale Largo Bar and Dinner under the high-arched portico of the adjacent Constitutional Court of Bulgaria building. An elegant lunch of grilled shrimp appetizer and a chicken pasta main course for David and seared sesame-crusted tuna salad for me along with local beers was tasty and reasonably-priced at 52.10 lev ($29.45 US).

The awnings of Largo on the left on the Constitutional Court building, plaza Nezavisimost on the right and the Sofia Concert Hall in the distance.

Happily fed, we continued on to the number one site in Sofia, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The cathedral, in classic Eastern Orthodox style, was a tribute/thank-you from Bulgaria to Russia and is named after a Russian national hero. The elaborate painted interior of the cathedral with its huge dome is impressive. Entrance to the cathedral is free, but there’s a charge for photography. Two smock-clad guardians busily tut-tutted anyone snapping photos (even those waving their receipts) and scolded anyone who looked like they might even be considering wrong-doing of any sort. Since kissing and touching icons is a big part of religion in this part of the world, I had to wonder what was going on when these guards seemed to complain about people getting too close to certain items.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Interior of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

After the cathedral, we meandered our way down boulevards and through parks on our way back to the apartment. I wanted to scope out the park meeting place for the free food tour I’d booked for the following day.

The free food tour turned out to be big fun and way more than I expected from a free tour. We ate lunch (at another health food stop for a salad to counter all that hearty Balkan food) beforehand, and I really should have skipped it. The two-hour food tour stopped at five locally-owned restaurants and shops, each of which offered us hearty tastings. The tour was so well attended that we were split into two groups. The guide for our 16-person tour was an eloquent 23-year old student named Ioan. At Supa Star, an all-soup diner, we were given cups of tarator, a traditional cold yogurt soup made with cucumbers, dill and garlic. Bulgarians are very proud of their unique and healthful yogurt and eat it and cheese in a myriad of dishes. We were surprised to descend into a pedestrian underpass on blvd Vasil Nevsky in front of the Ministry of Youth and Sports for our next stop at a shop selling national-favorite banitsa, a coiled savory pastry. The lady baker cut us generous portions of the fresh-from-the-oven pastry, filled with fresh farm cheese.

The least picturesque of our stops, but we had really tasty cheese-filled banitsa at this little shop.

We had a non-traditional bonus stop at Skaptoburger, a hamburger joint (one of a small locally-owned chain and very popular) where we each got a quarter of a hamburger. After that, it was off to Sun Moon, a well-known vegetarian restaurant and bakery where we sampled toasts spread with two classic toppings, one predominantly tomato and one eggplant. Sun Moon grows and grinds their own grains for their breads. Our final stop was at the impossibly-named Hadjidraganovite izbi, a Bulgarian tavern restaurant set in a wine cellar with traditional decor. There we were treated to a shot of a pelin, a celebratory wine-based absinthe drink, along with three types of bread-with-topping appetizers. As a final send-off, we joined hands to form a cramped ring as Ioan taught us a traditional dance.

As we walked from restaurant to restaurant, Ioan explained life in Sofia. When we came across this post-wedding gathering, he explained that the crowd was shouting “Bitter! Bitter! Bitter!” until the couple kissed to make things sweet.

I’ll save the rest of our Sofia stay, including a day trip to Rila Monastery and a cooking class in the apartment of a charming local hostess, for separate posts.

Practical info:

Find the free food tour (and other for-pay tours) on the Balkan Bites web site. Reservations aren’t necessary, but they will guarantee you a spot. This is a popular tour, so book if you know you want to go. Two late-comers were almost sent away the day we took the tour. Meet for the tour every day at 2pm by the large head statue in Crystal Garden (a/k/a Crystal Park). Although the tour is free, do tip. These guides put a lot into a full 2-hour tour.

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is open 7 days/week, from 7am-7pm. Entry is free. There’s a10 lev ($5.66 US) charge for photos. Find photos and a virtual tour on the cathedral web site.

For fresh salads in a casual small lunch spot, we liked Greens near Vitosha Boulevard.

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