How a free waking tour redeemed Sofia

When you don’t like something, the best thing you can do is learn more about it. So when I came to Sofia and though “Oh ok… eh,” I did something I rarely do: a walking tour. The walking tours in Sofia are free and given daily at 11 am and 6 pm. They meet in front of the Palace of Justice (you can’t miss it. Looks like the New York Public Library.) The best part about free tours is that the guides are great because they work for tips. And indeed, our guide was charming and funny. The stories are in depth and give you a lot of history about Sofia and Bulgaria in general, which naturally endear you to the country and its people. sofia free tour One of the tour highlights for me was when we were standing on what is called the Square of Religious Tolerance, where Eastern Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, Muslims and Jews can all pray within blocks of each other. From this square you can see the Banya Bashi Mosque, the Sofia Synagogue, the Cathedral of St. Joseph, and the Orthodox St. Nedelya Church. And in this area, our guide told us about how during World War II, despite pledging allegiance to the Nazis (because they had no choice), they sabotaged every attempt to transport the Jewish people from Bulgaria to concentration camps in Germany. In the end, all 50,000 Jews living in Bulgaria were saved from the Holocaust. Symbolic tolerance is nice, but real tolerance backed by very real action is hard to come by. Throughout the tour, we learned about the bloody history of Bulgaria as power exchanged hands from the Thracians to the Romans to the Ottomans and communists. One particularly notable fact was how the St. Nedelya Church was razed by a terrorist attack carried out by the communists during a funeral to try to take control of the government. If you saw that on Game of Thrones, the Bulgarians did it first. sofia free tour The tour also guided us through the Roman Serdica ruins, which were found in 2004, when they were opening up the ground to build a metro station. It was an arena that is only 33 feet smaller than the Colosseum in Rome. The ruins are still being excavated but were left in place, with the station built around them. So you can actually walk around the ruins when you’re in the city center. The East Gate of the huge complex is under the Presidency and Ministry building (pictured above). There are parts of the ruins that are incorporated into the underground metro stations and even the Arena di Serdica Hotel. sofia free tour We also got a chance to visit the Hot Springs in town, which are basically running fountains of warm natural spring water, where locals fill up bottles for its medicinal properties. We got to drink some ourselves, so I hope it will protect me from future illness. And the tour guide did warn us that past that point of city center, the city gets real dodgy, validating my initial sentiments about Sofia. But if you’re brave, the 365 Association tour company also offers the paid Alternative Sofia tour, which takes you through these parts of town in a kind of scavenger hunt. The tour ended up at the Alexander Nevsky cathedral, which is a perfect starting point to go inside some of the places mentioned in the tour, like the churches which are all free to enter. Though you’re walking for a full two hours, the distance covered by the tour is not huge, and encompasses a lot of the city’s main attractions. After learning more about the city’s traditions and cool history, I was definitely much more excited about my visit. The amazing food and drinks have only solidified my affection for it. Because independent of the fact that I was impressed by the cultural tidbits I learned, the food has been stellar from day one. And the way to any travel blogger’s heart is through her stomach.