Sofia has a long history. Its first inhabitants settled in the area in around 800 BC. Today it continues to attract more and more tourists as it is the cultural centre of Bulgaria. The metropolitan culture of Sofia combines with the calm of the small city to give it a special atmosphere.
Here are some of its more interesting attractions.
National History Museum
The National History Museum in Sofia was established in 1973. It was moved a few years ago from its previous buildings in the city centre and is now located in the outskirts of Vitosha Mountain, on 16 Vitoshko Lale Street. Its collection includes more than 650,000 exhibits, which makes it one of the largest natural history museums in the Balkans. The collection includes archaeological findings from ancient and medieval cultures in the Bulgarian Lands - prehistoric culture, ancient Thrace, Macedonian and Hellenistic periods, Roman and Byzantine influence, first and second Bulgarian Kingdom, Ottoman rule and National Revival as well as Modern Bulgarian history. If you are lucky, you may be able to see some of the oldest gold treasures in the world – some of them dating back some 6,000 years. Sadly, these treasures are loaned to other museums most of the time and even Bulgarians have a hard time getting to see them.
National Art Gallery/ National Ethnographic Museum/ Royal Palace
The old Royal Palace which is located on 1 Alexander Battenberg Square houses two museums worth visiting – the National Gallery and the National Ethnographic Museum. In spring 2005, after many years of renovation, the National Art Gallery finally presented its permanent exhibition. The exhibition includes works by the most prominent Bulgarian artists from the last two centuries, including Zahari Zograf, Ivan Markvichka, Vladimir Dimitrov-Maistora, Zlatyu Boyadzhiev, Ivan Nenov and Dechko Uzunov.
The National Ethnographic Museum presents an extensive collection of artefacts from the ethno-cultural heritage of the Bulgarians and the other ethnos which inhabit the Bulgarian lands. The museum's collections include clothes, gold and copper objects, agriculture tools, woodcarvings, ceramics, fabrics and embroidery, carpets and ritual objects.
By paying the entrance fee for the museum and gallery, one can also see the interior of the Royal Palace itself. It was built at the end of the 19th Century and is situated in close proximity to the National Assembly (the Parliament). Even though rather small and not as grand as many royal residences in Central Europe, the Royal Palace is interesting with its bright hallways, red velvet-covered walls, huge crystal mirrors, and multicoloured marble fireplaces.
Alexander Nevsky Crypt
The vaulted crypt in the basement of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral houses one of the biggest collections of religious art. This museum is a branch of the National Gallery and displays some iconic masterpieces. The oldest of the exhibits dates back to the 9th Century.
'Earth and Men' Museum
This museum is situated right behind the Palace of Culture and is within walking distance from the other main attractions and shopping streets. 'Earth and Men' is a wonderful place for those interested in gems and minerals. The museum has a large collection of specimens from all over the world. The huge amethysts usually attract a great deal of attention and you can buy small gems from the museum shop.
Churches and monasteries have always played a special role in the life of Bulgarians. Not because Bulgarians are very religious, but because during many years of foreign rule, monasteries were the real centre of learning and culture, places where national awareness was preserved and flourished. Here is a short list of the most prominent churches in Sofia, which you may want to visit for their historical and cultural value.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Built in a neo-Byzantine style, this gold domed cathedral was until very recently the second biggest Orthodox temple in the Balkan Peninsula1. The cathedral, together with the Sofia University main building, the National Assembly house and the old Royal Palace, is one of the landmarks of downtown Sofia and is typical of 19th Century-style architecture in Bulgaria. The cathedral was built during the period 1882 - 1912 to honour the Russian Tsar Alexander II who helped to liberate Bulgaria from Turkish rule. The interior of the basilica is breathtaking, with the high painted ceilings, stained glass windows, mosaic floor, and marble and woodcarvings covering the walls.
St Sofia Church
A few hundred meters away from Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, next to the Tomb of the 'Unknown Soldier' and the grave of the national poet Ivan Vazov, you will be able to find the St Sofia Church, partly obscured by tall chestnut trees. This church was built during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian between 527 - 565. It is said that this church gave the city its current name, Sofia, in the 14th Century. During the Turkish rule, minarets were added and St Sofia was turned into a mosque until two earthquakes in the 19th Century destroyed one of the minarets. This was interpreted as a foreboding sign and so the mosque was abandoned. Extensive restoration work allows visitors to see some 1,600-year-old mosaic work.
St George Church
This red brick rotunda church is considered the oldest building in Sofia. It is situated in the courtyard formed by the Presidency and the Sheraton Hotel. The church was built during the 4th Century and is now standing amid the ruins of the ancient town of Serdica. Three layers of frescoes have been discovered, the earliest dating back to the 10th Century. At present the church is a museum.
Other beautiful temples around city worth visiting include the 14th Century St Petka Church with its medieval frescoes (now a museum), the Russian Church with its onion domes and the Banya Bashi Mosque.
The zoo was founded in 1888, which makes it the first in the Balkan Peninsula and one of the oldest in Europe. The idea to collect exotic animal species belonged to Tsar Ferdinand, an eager naturalist. The zoo was initially situated in downtown Sofia, but due to the rapid growth of the collection it was moved to its present location – easy to reach from the centre of city but close to the mountains. According to the latest reports, approximately 1,113 animals from 244 species can be seen in the park; some of which are endangered species. Along with representatives of the local fauna like deer, wolves, foxes and brown bears, the visitors can encounter hippos, rhinos, elephants, zebras, lions, panthers, monkeys and apes. Many exotic species of fish, reptiles and amphibians can be seen in the aquarium and terrarium.
Sofia Land Amusement Park
Sofia Land is a newly acquired attraction in Sofia, situated in close proximity to the Sofia Zoo and the Boris Gardens. It opened to visitors in the autumn of 2002. Even though it is rather small, the park has a good variety of amusements including several different carousels, a 'tower experience' offering a good view over the city from a height of 43m combined with a free fall, a 400m long and 15m high rollercoaster and a 'Wild River' ride on the water channels.
Bulgarians prefer to buy their fruit and vegetables at the open markets. You can find many of those around the city, offering their colourful, fresh produce together with plenty of noise and bustle. The biggest marketplace is the Ladies' Market where you can find everything from groceries to clothes and hardware. Beware of the pickpockets though – this is one of their favourite spots. If you don't feel at home in the 'oriental' atmosphere of the open market, there is a more modern, quiet and air-conditioned alternative – the indoor central market hall (Halite).
There are several parks in the city which offer a refuge from the noise and crowds. The two biggest parks worth a stroll around are the Boris Gardens, situated near the Sofia University main building, and the South Park, which starts just behind the Palace of Culture and the 'Earth and Men' Museum, extending almost as far as the foothills of Vitosha Mountain. You can find cafés and small beer stands offering refreshments in both parks. Boris Gardens is a popular place for a walk for the people living in the centre of the city. Even though nowadays it has lost part of its glamour, it is still considered one of the better-kept green oases in the city. South Park is more quiet and peaceful. Taking a walk there, especially in the southernmost end, can help you forget the hustle of the big city. With its lakes, small river and quiet alleys surrounded by a thick forest, it's a favourite local spot, especially with dog-owners when they walk their pets.
This famous church is located in the foothills of Vitosha Mountain, in what is now a suburb of Sofia. Due to its exceptional historical and artistic significance, the church is included in the UNESCO World Heritage list. During the Middle Ages, Boyana was one of the 35 Bulgarian fortresses forming the fortification systems of the city of Sredets (now Sofia). The Boyana Church was built within the fortress and is a magnificent example of medieval architecture and monumental art.
The 900-year-old Boyana Church is best known for its world-famous frescoes. According to many leading experts, the flawless technique, the psychological depth, complexity and the realism developed by the Boyana artists played an important role in the development of medieval Bulgarian and European painting. Boyana is the only and the most impressive entirely preserved monument of the Turnovo school of painting from the 13th Century.
Also at the foothills of Vitosha, this monastery can be reached after an easy, half-hour walk from the Dragalevtsi suburb. Hidden in the beautiful beech tree forest it is a lovely destination for a day trip out of the city. The monastery was founded during the reign of Tsar Ivan Alexander in the 14th Century. The frescoes in the church are a famous example of the Dragalevtsi school of painting. Through the years, the monastery has been an important literary centre. During the struggles for independence in the 19th Century, it often provided refuge to the most beloved Bulgarian national hero, the Apostle of Freedom, Vassil Levski.
The easy distance between downtown Sofia and Vitosha makes this mountain a favourite hiking and skiing destination for local people and visitors. The highest peak, Cherni Vruh (Black Peak), is 2290m high. In 1934 an area of approximately 66km² of Vitosha was declared a National Park - the first protected area on the Balkan Peninsula. During the following year some of the first Bulgarian reserves - Bistrishko Branishte and Peat Branishte - were defined within the park. Bistrishko Branishte has been designated as a biosphere reserve by UNESCO. Today, the boundaries of the protected area extend over the entire mountain.
Due to its elevation, Vitosha has a diversity of climates, flora and fauna. The National Park is the home of several endangered animal and plant species. You may be able to see wolves, foxes, martens, deer and many other wildlife during your visit there. After the massive extermination of bears during the 1920s, their population has been partially restored and there have been at least nine reported sightings of them. Although the lynx and the wild goat population disappeared from the mountain fauna at the beginning of the last century, there are ongoing efforts to recover the goat population.
A unique natural phenomenon are the so-called 'stone rivers' - piles of huge rounded granite stones (moraines) on some of the river valleys. Some of the stone rivers reach up to 2km in length and 50m in width. Most beautiful and best-known are the moraines in the area of Zlatnite Mostove (the Golden Bridges). The enormous stones there have a distinguished golden colour due to the lichen growth.
There are different ways to reach the mountain. You can walk up from any of the southern suburbs – Dragalevtsi, Boyana, Bistrica and Simeonovo. An easier option might be to take the bus all the way to the Golden Bridges or Aleko – starting points for all the major hiking trails. Or why not simply jump on the lifts in Dragalevtsi (open lift) or Simeonovo (cabin lift), which will take you to Aleko much faster and with a smaller chance of getting motion sickness (something that is quite likely if you take the bus up the narrow and winding roads).
If you want to extend your hiking trip over several days you can find plenty of cheap chalets offering basic accommodation and food. While we are on the topic of food, remember to try the bean soup, the katchamak (corn porridge seasoned with butter and white cheese) and the tasty tea prepared by the mountaineers using hand-picked herbs2.
The time of your visit to Sofia depends largely on what you want to do. If you enjoy skiing you should visit Sofia between early December and late April. The length of the ski season depends on the year and the amount of snow. Spring comes early in Sofia - it is not unusual to have the first green bushes by the end of March. The city turns from the ugly winter grey to a fresh and bright green very fast. Even though it rains often, the weather is pleasant and warm, with cool evenings and dewy mornings. It's important to be careful in the mountains during that season. The weather there changes fast and the melting of the snow may bring avalanches.
March is a special month in Bulgaria. On 1 March Bulgarians celebrate Granny Marta's Day. Granny Marta is the symbol of nature's rebirth at the end of the winter and the beginning of spring. It is said that her mood changes often, which accounts for the strange weather during that month. Her name originates from the Bulgarian name of the month - March is Mart in Bulgarian and is considered the only female month of the year. In order to celebrate Granny Marta's Day Bulgarians present each other with tassels made of red and white wool, called martenitsa – a symbol of health, good luck and the coming spring. By the end of the month you can see thousands of those red and white martenitsi3 hanging on trees and bushes - it is believed that they need to be hung on the first blooming twig for good luck.
The summer in Bulgaria is usually hot and dry. The summer days are pleasant in Sofia, where the mountains surrounding the city provide cool and refreshing evenings. Autumns come late with their many colours and there is often warm, mild and sunny weather until as late as November.