Return flights: £45.96 (Ryanair)
Accommodation: BGN 90 (approx £41.21*) Vega Pension (Booking.com)
*Exchange rate accurate at time of writing
Summary and Highlights:
- Free drinking water is avaialble from various fountains around the city. Water in Sofia has a low mineralisation and is fed from sources in the mountains (including one from a hot spring where the water comes out at about 37 degrees celcius).
- Bulgarian Lev is pegged agains the Euro at a fixed rate so rates are favourable when exchanging Euros or Pound Sterling.
- Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
- National Palce of Culture
- Vitosha Mountain
- City of Plovdiv
Sofia is not the first choice of destination for tourists heading to Bulgaria – usually opting for the beach or ski resorts. It is, however, probably one of the only places you could stand in one spot and see an Orthodox Church, a Mosque, a Synagogue and a Catholic church whilst standing on top of Roman ruins by a Soviet-era building.
I didn’t know much about Bulgaria before I went, but I enjoy Eastern Europe and Sofia and Bulgaria in general always cropped up as a budget destination. This is also likely due to the exchange rate, which is over 2 Lev to the Pound.
The city centre is fairly compact so finding accommodation close to the centre is easy and I saw nobody where I was staying the whole time apart from the woman who checked me in. June, however, is the busiest time in Sofia for tourism which became evident on the walking tour when about 50 other people turned up. I would say the only landmark people really know about in Sofia is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, but there is plenty of evidence of the history that has passed through in the past 2000 years including the Romans, Ottomans and Soviets.
I’d never come across any other form of free tour aside from walking tours, so when I discovered a free hiking tour through Sofia Green Tour (yeah I know it’s still walking but not a sightseeing walking tour) up to the Vitosha mountain I thought I’d give that a go. Vitosha is on the edge of Sofia and was the first nature park in the Balkan peninsula. It is the nearest ski resort to Sofia and a popular hiking destination. When doing my research, it kept cropping up to visit the mountain that overlooks the city. There was only me and 2 other people with the guide who took us up to the Boyana waterfall and then across and down again. He was super knowledgable of the area and also on the lookout for mushrooms to cook and collected Elderflower to make cordial. I told him that Aldi does a banging sparkling Elderflower water, but I’m sure his homemade is a lot better.
Sofia is not a huge metropolis and 2 days is more than sufficient to see the city and the sights. Due to the days of the flights, I had an extra day and was toiling between visiting Plovdiv (Bulgaria’s second city and 2019 European Capital of Culture) or travelling to Skopje in Macedonia. However, I think Macedonia would need to be a trip in itself. It’s really simple to get to Plovdiv, simply head to the main bus station and buy tickets from the bus company kiosk. I used Karats and buses leave on the hour for BGN 9.50 each way (about £4). The journey is about 2 hours and the bus station in Plovdiv is about a 10-minute walk from the centre
Plovdiv is supposedly Europe’s oldest continuously inhabited city, with over 8000 years of history. There is a lot more historical evidence of especially the Roman period, with the theatre and stadium partially still remaining. As well as buildings from the Ottoman period, such as former churches that were converted to mosques. The same company that I did the walking tour in Sofia with, runs one in Plovdiv and covers most of the sights as well as views from one of Plovdiv’s seven hills.
I’d say overall I found Bulgaria a bit less developed than its other Eastern European neighbours. However, unique in its own way and had some experiences I’d not previously encountered before.