Even the guy giving us a walking tour of the city suggested it would be a shame to visit Bulgaria and not leave Sofia. And while that may be true, there are still some pretty cool things to do in the city that make it worth staying at least a day or two.
Take a free walking tour
The most informative way to spend an afternoon in Sofia is to take the city’s free waking tour, which is offered twice a day at 11 am and 6 pm. There’s an additional 10 am start between April and October. The tour will explain some of the sites you’ll see around the city like the ruins of Serdica, and the significance of some of the buildings. You’ll also learn a bit of Bulgarian history as you see the major sights of the city, including Bulgaria’s complex political past. This is a great thing to do as soon as you arrive so you can decide what you want to explore in more depth yourself later. The tour does not allow time to enter anywhere.
Visit the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
I think everyone can agree that this massive Bulgarian Orthodox church is the crown jewel of Sofia. Though entrance is free, they charge 10 lev to take photos inside. And going inside is a must. The shiny gold-domed cathedral is striking from every angle, but the interior is even more impressive. As an Orthodox church, it has no seats, just large open spaces that allow you to wander around and appreciate the intricate murals on the walls and ceilings. It’s a nice dark space, worthy of meditative worship, that lets in just the right amount of light.
Then visit all the other churches
Sofia has many beautiful churches representing different faiths and all are free to visit. You probably don’t want to miss the church of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Maker (which is also known as the Russian Church due to its architecture) or St Nedelya Church, which bookends Vitosha Boulevard opposite the mountain. Past the Statue of St. Sofia, which was put in place recently even though the city’s founding has no connection to the saint, you can also visit the Banya Bashi Mosque. Note that you’ll have to remove your shoes and women must cover their heads.
Hike Vitosha Mountain
Sofia is one of those great cities where beautiful open nature is just around the corner. Votisha Mountain is just an hour away from city center by car. You can also reach the mountain by taking the Simeonovo cable car, which can be reached by public transportation. Once you reach the cable car station on Vitosha, you can hike about an hour and a half to the Cherni Vrah Summit. Of course, you can also take Vitosha tours from Sofia. A lot of people come to Vitosha for the skiing and the views. Hiking there is popular all year round.
Check out the Sofia History Museum
Confession: We decided to come to Sofia after reading that it was known for its mineral baths. It wasn’t until we had booked our flight that we realized that there are no functioning bath houses left in the city. Whoops. The Sofia Central Mineral Baths building, which was used as the city’s public bath until 1986 now houses the Sofia History Museum. It’s a gorgeous building full of artifacts from the city’s history. What it is not full of is baths. However, you can enjoy mineral water from the springs near the museum, where people fill up bottles of the heated water to take home. It’s supposed to have medicinal properties and is safe to drink.
Walk down Vitosha Boulevard
Vitosha Boulevard is a lengthy pedestrian walkway lined by nice restaurants and shops with the backdrop of Vitosha Mountain off in the distance. Though I wouldn’t normally recommend eating in this kind of area, even the overpriced tourist restaurants are not so bad and the food is delicious. We had an excellent mushroom risotto at Spaghetti Kitchen, right near the beginning of the street. This is also a great place to get souvenirs, particularly anything rose-flavored or scented. Though I’m personally more partial to shopping in the flea market at Alexander Nevsky Square. Here you’ll find all sorts of fun relics from the Soviet era, including instruments, military uniforms, and street signs. It’s a good place to get a unique souvenir that doesn’t say “BULGARIA” on it.
Have a drink
By far, the best area to go out in Sofia with a lot of bar and lounge options within a close vicinity is near Sofia University. The somewhat hipster hub of city center has a variety of nightlife spots including chill cocktail bars like The Friendly Bear and late night dance clubs like Bar Friday. If you find the place you wandered into doesn’t suit your taste, you can just go somewhere else two doors down. Don’t forget to try Bulgarian fruit brandy (rakia). It tastes like absolute hell but one shot won’t kill you. And whatever doesn’t kill you makes you try a different flavor.
Get the GPS-guided version of this and other Sofia guides on GPSmyCity here.