Right near the edge of the short haul Empire, Sofia is a 3 hour flight away from London Stansted. The Bulgarian capital is not on many of the top 10 places to go, not a new age must like a Budapest or Prague but it’s not without its intriguige. The Balkan Hub has been home to Muslims, Christians, Jews and Soviet rule over it’s recent history. Resulting in a historic centre of humanity worthy to hunm and harr at.
It was a fairly smooth landing on a 90% full Ryanair flight. Sofia airport is fairly easy to get through, although you might have to wait on a bus to get to the terminal itself. Security was a breeze, with the official looking at my passport for all of 2 seconds, before giving the nod to enter Bulgaria. Although this may be on account of my pale pasty skin, my lady witnessed a man having his passport checked by the passport scanner machine and then by 4 security officials. He also happened to be Asian, British, but Asian, Bulgaria is ‘known” for its uglier side at times.
Sofia has it’s airport hooked up to its metro service, it works out as 70p per journey per person and it sends you into the heart of city in 15 minutes. The central stops of the metro are the first sights to see before you even head for fresh air.
With its tanned red and cream colour, high ceiling and regal street lights dotted on the platforms; it’s grand, bright and ultimately gifts you with a safe feeling. Pictured is the Lavov Most metro station, a district of Sofia just outside of the centre. Known as a poor area of Sofia, where at night it’s stalked by glue addicts, prostitutes and supposedly members of the Bulgarian mafia. Lavov Most was also home to our hotel.
Thankfully during the sunlit hours it’s a relatively sleepy part of town, it’s run down and the poverty is visible. You can see folks selling vegetables on the floor, roughly 10p each for a bunch, stray dogs (a big problem for Sofia), and a few buildings with their roofs collapsed. Around the metro station are some glorious towering old Georgian buildings, rundown but a glimpse of a more prosperous time for the area, a foreign past.
Our hotel itself, Hotel Budapest named after its street, was in stark contrast to the area, new and grand it had more in common with the metro station below than the area surrounding it. Room was 30ish something pounds a night. Good room with a balcony and to my delight a lovely breakfast Buffett is included in the price. A damn good cup of coffee you pour yourself rather than by machine is always appreciated.
Lavov Most is also home to arguably one of Sofia’s best pig out spots. Hadjidraganov’s House,(easy for you to say) pitches itself as traditional bulgarian, its dresses up with bulgarian folk dress around the walls and you can jear live bulgarian folk music every night. More importantly its a great introduction to the fact that Bulgarian Cusine is fucking delicious.
It shows off Bulgarian BBQ, the seasoning they have is delicious. Bring some home, the shops have them. We had Huge wooden boards with huge portions cooked perfectly. We had a cozy night watching a thunderstorm give Sofia its worst, as we were safe eating warming tasty food. They have kebabs done on an open fire grill and an orange syrup drenched cake for dessert was delicious as it was decadent. Its also a good introduction to service in Sofia. You’ll get a pleasant welcome with a nice grip on the English language, though you might find yourself having to grab their attention more often than not. Recommend the trip and don’t worry the restaurant is just a block away from the metro. The restaurant, along with peculiar contrasts of the neighbourhood makes Lavov Most a must.
Venturing further into Central Sofia, the city reveals itself to be a bustling city with many Sofians walking around avoiding the holes and cracks in the pavement and dodging yellow trams winding their way through the streets. It’s full of old Georgian buildings, in a little bit better shape than that in Lavov Most. It’s a functioning city and it’s not completely set up for Tourism so expect to do some googling before hand, particularly with that darn acrylic language they have on their street signs.
The main drag in centra Sofia is Vitoshka Boulveard, it’s a long pedestrians street with a copious amount of restaurants, cafes, shops and ice cream places. It also shows off the huge Vitoshka mountain, which can be seen as you walk down the Boulveard. Sofia is different in this regard, many other cities either have a river or coast line as it’s point the city is focused on, for Sofia it’s a huge mountain, much more dramatic than a wimply ole Rover. You can eat outside, though be warned Bulgaria has the 2nd amount of smokers in Europe(Greece takes that crown) each place on the blvd has outside tables that has it’s fair share of smokers. Considering that you might want to sit inside, unless you smoke, in which case you will be in a judgement free zone.
Restaurant Shtastliveca Vitoshka, I cannot recommend enough as the Boulveard choice fit eats. Grand interior inside and sohisiticated Bulgarian Cusine, they do some fantastic things with cheese, I’ll leave it at that. Once again huge portions is a big thing in Bulgaria.
Above is the St Alexander Nevsky cathedral, in city blanketed in cream and greys the teal and solid gold roofs make Nevsky’s place the Jewel of the city. Alexander was a Russian Prince who fought off Swedish and German invaders, still held in big regard today Russia, as recently as 2008 he was voted the greatest Russian in television poll. Impressive for a chap who died in 1263.
Inside is as migjty looking as the outside, they say no photos, but everyone in the place was taking them and met little to none resistance in that endeavour.
A short walk from Along fron Al’s Orthodox barn is the Square of Religious Tolerence, catchy I know. St Joseph’s Catholic Catherdral is neighbours with St Nedelya’s church along with Banya Bashi Mosque and the Sofia Synagogue. Orthodox, Catholic, Judaism and Islam all having the same local coffee shop. A testament to Sofia’s eclectic past and a slight hope that perhaps in the future, mankind won’t be destroying one another over the little things.
We actually discovered this pretty little building on our last day, previously an old bathouse, it’s the Museum of Sofia. Covering Sofia’s history from the discovery of the early man having been here, through the liberation of Sofia from Ottoman hands and the first years of modern day Bulgarian statehood, to present day.
Tickets, much like everything else, were incredibly cheap but extra if you wanted to take photos. It’s a quiet museum but well worth the wander, if only to show that Sofia was a crossroad of humanity with comparisons to Vienna. All those old Georgian buildings run down, were once part of one of Europe’s major prosperous hubs, heck they even have a picture of the Lavov Most lion statue in its prime. It helps bridge a gap, often the city seems foreign to itself, after years a Soviet rule followed by mismanagement and Bulgarian mafia, it’s hard to link and identify the old grand Georgian shell of Sofia with everyday Sofian life today. The museum really beings it all together.
Tucked away near the Museum are some taps. Stay with me here. It’s Sofia mineral water they have taps all around the city but these are the most well known. Locals bring giant plastic bottles to fill up for the week, in the past it’s been known for its healing powers. It comes out of the taps actually quite warm, perfect in Sofia winter but in 25 degree June weather…. may stock that big plastic bottle in the fridge.
Serdika is the central metro station, not all central metro stations are created equally. What makes this one interesting is all around it is littered with old Roman ruins, seeing it all is a 45 minute qander in itself. On the platforms they have glass cases of further Roman artifacts, so if you’re ancient history buff this place is a goldmine.
Outside of the ruins are some of the most grand and well kept buildings in Bulgaria, above is the old Soviet head quarters. Despite the well kept buildings you are still in eyeshot of some of rundown eyesores. You never quite escape the fact that a lot has been let go in the city.
Ultimately perhaps Sofia needs a few more years if you want a Prague or Budapest. It’s rundown still hungover from it’s recent past and depending where you are you might want to not draw attention to yourself.
On the other hand, it’s old world hints, teases you into wandering around the city centre, the place is drenched in history and peculiar landmarks worth seeking out. Bulgarian Cusine is enough to keep your senses enthralled and the cheapness of the place cannot be exaggerated, allowing you to eat and drink to your stomachs content, without too much wallet damage. All of this whilst Vitoshka mountain looms over you like a surreal spaghetti western backdrop. If you’re prepared to do some research and plan out your day, it’s well worth the trip….book a Thursday+Friday off work and have an extended cheap weekend in Sofia.
Hotel: Hotel Budapest
When we went: June 2017
Cost of fancy meal: 3 course plus drinks, could just about get us to over £30
Metro: 70p each time
Biggest thing we missed: Thunder and lightning prevented us from going to Vitoshka mountain proper.
Would we go again?: Give it a decade to grow and it would be a pleasure