28 Best Sights of Sofia – descriptions and photos

50 Sights of Sofia

Bulgaria’s capital Sofia remains a dark horse for many tourists. We have popular Black Sea resorts in Bulgaria, and not everyone gets to its main city. Is it worth to come here? Are there any interesting sights in Sofia? Let’s walk around the city together with me and try to answer these questions.

I have been to Sofia several times. The first time was in 2009, and I would not say I was very impressed. My observations from that somewhat soulless trip can be read here. The next trips were for business reasons, so there was nowhere to go. I had to walk a lot around the city. I opened wikipedia and googlemaps and started to prepare. It turned out that on my first trip I had seen almost all the most interesting places, although I was there for a few hours, and to prepare I ran a couple of pages from Lonely Planet.

Sofia has a definite problem with recognizability. Here, honestly, can you without preparation name any famous local landmarks? However, Sofia is very old place, even before the Romans, there was a Thracian city. Something interesting in the city has undoubtedly remained. Say, what Russian city can brag of a surviving building of the 4th century AD or a mosque of Sinan himself?

I mean that in reality all was not so bad, and with the city itself over the years that have passed since the first trip there were some pleasant changes for the tourist and traveler. I will try to convey this positive attitude to our esteemed readers. So, in the first part I want to show you the most popular attractions of Sofia.

Map of places of interest in Sofia:

I’ll start with 1. The monument temple of St. Alexander Nevsky (1908). Why is such an unusual combination of temple-monument? Because it reminds posterity of the liberation of Bulgaria by the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-78. The temple is really huge, it’s a bit difficult to photograph, the best view is from the side of the Tsar Liberator Boulevard (see the title picture of the post).

Immediately behind the temple on Alexander Nevsky Square is the imposing building 2. National Gallery of Art. I liked the name of the museum in Bulgarian “Strangelno izkustvo”. I have not gone inside yet, I left it for my next business trip.

All on the same square is the next cult object, and very old (4th century!). 3. St. Sophia Cathedral, which gave the modern name to the Bulgarian capital. In Roman times the city was called Serdica, then Sredets, and from the 14th century it became Sofia. Like its Constantinople namesake, the cathedral was turned into a mosque by the Turks, so the interior decoration and frescoes have not survived. The cathedral is densely planted with trees, so in the summer the only way to shoot the building is through this crooked angle.

4. Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the walls of St. Sophia.

Nearby is a simple, but impressive 5. tomb of poet Ivan Vazov. During my last trip I often asked “who is Mr Vazov?”, because all the time there were objects named after him, like Pushkin. Well, in short, we can say that this is the Bulgarian Pushkin.

On the other side of the square is building 6. Synodal Chamber . I was surprised by its Venetian-Byzantine-Ottoman architecture.

7. Monument to the Bulgarian militia . Despite its classic appearance, the monument is quite new (2008). Militiaman holding a “Samara flag”, a copy of a scene from a famous Bulgarian painting. Yes, yes the banner is a gift from Samara. Samara, which eventually became a war relic in Bulgaria.

The yellow tower in the background is the main astronomical 8. point of the state triangulation (1920). Remember? It’s funny that Sofia does not have the typical tourist attraction in the form of “kilometer zero”. For more than a decade (!) several factions of artists and officials have been fighting each other to find a place. One of the options is right next to this tower.

At this point, perhaps, enough pictures from Alexander Nevsky Square. Let’s move on.

9. Church of St. Nicholas (1914). Bulgarians call it simply “Russian church. Why, then, is there a Russian church in Orthodox Sofia? The temple was built under the Russian embassy. Interestingly, the Bulgarians were in schism until 1945. In simpler terms, shortly before liberation from the Ottomans, the Bulgarians sent the Constantinople patriarchate and declared church independence. Because of this schism, Russian Orthodox could not visit Bulgarian Orthodox churches.

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Interestingly, already in the 30s the church became a stumbling block in the establishment of diplomatic relations between Bulgaria and the USSR. The Soviet side set a condition that this Russian church had to become Soviet. Whether it would be a museum of atheism (as in Vienna) or a warehouse or something else was of no concern to the Bulgarians, much less to the emigrants. Local numerous Russian immigrants caused a scandal about this, in fact, the Bulgarians were taking the church away from them for the sake of friendship with the USSR. Eventually a compromise was found, the church was no longer Russian, but it did not leave the Soviet mission, but became Bulgarian. The Russian emigrants were given another church.

Near the church of St. Nicholas is a pleasant park, again I will switch to Bulgarian with “century-old” trees. Somewhere behind their trunks hides a bronze Pushkin.

A little further is the former 10. Czar’s Palace, now the local “Tretyakovka. The building is still Ottoman, it housed the administration and court. But since the first Bulgarian ruler was from Battenberg (Russian Germans), he was not too worried about local problems, and discarded his suspiciousness, after the external remodeling, arranged here a residence.

In the park behind the palace he discovered THIS. Mr. Donov had portrayed Marcel Duchamp in a Trabant. For some reason I was immediately reminded of a popular Internet picture of Peter the pig and the tractor.

I wasn’t filming a chick with apples, but a vintage wine-making device in the background.

Next I went to 11. The city garden . Its main ornament is 12. the building of the Ivan Vazov People’s Theater. In this photo there is proof that there are tourists in Sofia.

The garden in Bulgarian is “gradina”, so the city garden is called somewhat tautologically “Gradskata gradina”. I tried to look for Dimitrov’s mausoleum in the Gorsad. It turned out that it was blown up in the late 90s, but it still appears in some descriptions of the city.

The Grand Hotel Sofia is adjacent to the Gorsad. I would have walked past it, but I was attracted by the high-pitched shrieks. Turns out this was the Bulgarian students’ way of greeting their idol in the person of Selena Gomez (who is this?).

There’s some kind of museum next door of degenerate of modern and contemporary art (13. Sofia City Art Gallery).

Before my trip, I tried to find a list of surviving Ottoman buildings in Sofia. I couldn’t find one, but I have seen examples from time to time. Here is the former 14. Great Mosque (1494), now the Archaeological Museum.

A popular style in Sofia, “with a turret”.

Opposite the former mosque is the 15. Presidential Palace .

The palace is nothing, but suddenly it has such a gem inside!

16. The Rotunda of St. George is the oldest church in Sofia (4th century). Unlike St. Sophia, there are frescoes under a layer of Turkish plaster. In front of the temple are the remains of the palace of Constantine the Great.

Of course, the church is slightly patching up the restorers, it’s noticeable by the color of the masonry. But judging by the old photos and prints, their imagination did not get too wild, i.e. the building is quite authentic. By the way, the original purpose of the building is still not clear, most likely it was a pagan temple.

Another church is St. Nicholas, but it is already Bulgarian and very old (12th cent.). The church is very popular with the Bulgarians and on December 6, a huge queue for the blessing of the saint lined up here.

Opposite the church on Tsar Kaloyan Street is the St. Sophia Metropolia.

Out of the alleys to Independence Square and here is another old church that amazed me so much on my first trip. 18. Sveta Petka Samardzijska , in Russian it is St. Paraskeva Friday (or not?).

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Time of construction of the temple is unknown, the first written mention of the 16th century, but it is believed that the church exists on this site almost from the 11th century. The Bulgarian “Samardzhiska” can be translated into Russian as Shornikovskaya. That is, the church of saddlers – artisans who made horse harness.

What pleased me most at the time was that Sveta Petka was standing right in the middle of the road, and it was dug in there almost to the very roof. No wonder the Communists were itching to tear down the church at first to make a proper road. The current priest tells the following story.

When they decided to demolish the church, the whole crew of workers had a dream. In it a voice said: “Tuk Kamiyak you can put down, but you can’t do that either”. That is, you can put stones here, but you cannot take them out. One worker waved his hand and said: “So what’s a dream like a dream, let’s go break it!” He took a pickaxe, hit the wall, and that’s when he was paralyzed. By the way, one of those workers is the grandfather of the current priest of St. Petka. Eventually the church was closed, but they decided not to demolish it.

In the very center of Sofia, on Independence Square, there is something like our Stalinist buildings. And indeed, 19. building “Party House” was completed in 1955. Now there is the National Assembly of Bulgaria and because of that there is confusion in our internets, in many reports and articles this building refers to 1928! And the fact is that in Sofia there is another old building of the National Assembly, and it was him who caused widespread confusion. Although, the authors should have been alerted to the atypical architecture of the 20s.

In contrast to the Stalinka in Warsaw, the Stalinka in Sofia does not dominate the city, although in some places it is visible from the center.

In general, the ensemble of 20 Independence Square is an integrated whole in terms of style and time of construction. On three sides it is flanked by the House of the Party, the Palace of the President and the Central Department Store. It is called a laryngo and looks very dignified. Lanterns inside the Central Department Store.

We pass through the arches from the previous picture and find ourselves at the Sofia 21. Mineral baths (1913). We are used to most cities being located on rivers. But in Sofia, in the historic center there are no rivers. And the solution is that in Sofia beats from the ground hot mineral springs. And it was in their place that the ancient Serdica was founded. I know two other such capitals on the springs: the Sulfur Baths of Tbilisi and the hot baths of Budapest.

Alas, Sofia baths have been closed for repairs for about 25 (!) years, but there are fountains with real warm mineral water on the square.

We turn your head to the other side and. end up in Istanbul! 22 The mosque Banya Bashi (1567) is the only functioning mosque in Sofia. The creation of the most famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan. The word “banya” in the name of the mosque is not accidental because the building is located directly on the mineral springs (see above). In the past, when the springs were not encased in pipes, there was steam coming out from under the foundation of the mosque.

Across the road from the mosque is a very nice building of the covered 23. Central Market (1911) with a clock tower.

The building of the Centralni Hali suddenly turns out to be metal from the inside.

We left the mosque, went through the market and ended up at the synagogue. 24. The Sofia Synagogue (1909) is huge, the third largest in Europe. At the same time the wiki says that its congregation (or whatever the Jews call it?) is only 50 people.

Next to the Synagogue and the market is the famous 25. pedestrian street Pirotska . It is now a little neglected, as the center of Sofia life has clearly moved to Vitosha.

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The balconies of Pirotska Street.

Dome 26. of the Romanian Orthodox Church .

We go back to the Central Department Store lanterns.

In three years, the urban environment has clearly changed for the better. But even in the very center there are still similar pictures. Three years ago I had exactly the same picture, so I decided to repeat the historic shot.

Remember, I wrote above about the Largo complex on Independence Square? At the end of it was an imposing statue of Lenin. However, Lenin did not survive the perestroika, and instead of him stands 27. Symbol of Sophia (2001). The intricate name of the statue is a tribute to the scandal that broke out after its construction. Just as in our days in Luzhkov’s time, without any competition or coordination the mayor of Sofia set up such a creative center of the city. It was all called St. Sophia. However, in people’s opinion, the deep cleavage, laurel wreath and handmade owl, somehow did not go well with the image of the saint. But the resourceful mayor was not confused and simply renamed the statue from Saint to Symbol.

28. Holy Week Cathedral (1863). Of course, there is no saint with that name; in Bulgarian “week” is resurrection. “Thoi e posveten na sv. velikomchenitsa Kiriakia (or Nedelya, in Slavonic).”

“The church was badly damaged in an explosion carried out by the VO BKP to kill military and political leaders gathered for the funeral of General Konstantin Georgiev in 1925, in which some 134 people were killed and more than 500 wounded.”

The church is very well located. Both from Vitosha Boulevard and from Maria Luisa, it has great views.

On May 9, Sofia was drowned in blooming chestnuts.

Chestnut and martenitsa.

So from the chestnuts we move smoothly to the local “Arbat” of Sofia – 29. Vitosha Boulevard.

Comparatively recently Vitosha Boulevard (or simply Vitosha) was made pedestrian. But not to the end. Cars are allowed to cross it, because of this I once almost got under the wheels, when a stream of cars rushed through the “pedestrian” street, while I was shooting something there. But overall the place is cozy without being too posh.

There are no special architectural beauties on the boulevard, it’s just a hangout. Well, except that the building 30. Court House on Vitosha. It is famous in particular for its lions, which, if you look closely, have a problem with gait.

Here we are done with the first part, the story is a little bit bloated. In continuation we will visit a little less known places of Sofia.

What to see in Sofia in one day

Most tourists fly to Bulgaria by sea. If bored lying on the beach, you can go to Sofia.

The city is located 380 kilometers from the coast. As in Bulgaria, there are few luxury hotels and expensive boutiques. But in Sofia is at home-like home cozy, quiet and comfortable. In a day in the city you can visit several eras: to see the walls of an ancient fortress of the 3rd century, to walk next to the Byzantine church, to visit a mosque of the Ottoman dominion and look at buildings in the style of Soviet constructivism.

I vacationed in Sofia in 2018 and made an itinerary for a walk through the main sights. It turned out to be long – 13 kilometers. The route starts in the center of Sofia at the ruins of the ancient fortress Serdica and ends in the southeast of the city at the children’s center “Museiko”. Along the way we will see the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, look at the National Museum of Military History, take a walk in the park “Borisov Gradina” and visit the Sofia Zoo. It is convenient to save the itinerary in your Tripadvisor account.

How to get from the airport to the center. In my opinion, one of the advantages of Sofia is the easy commute from the airport. You can take the subway to the center; the entrance to the station is to the left of the exit from Terminal 2, where most airline flights arrive. There is detailed information about this on the airport website.

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The official currency of Bulgaria is the lev, or BGN. 1 lev equals 100 stotinki. This is approximately 36 R or 0,5 €.

To get to the center of Sofia to the beginning of the route, you need to go ten stops and get off at the station “Serdika”.

The route

Vitosha Boulevard is the main street of Sofia, which is located between the metro stations “Serdika” and “NDK”. Streetcars ran along the boulevard until 2012, but then the rails were dismantled and the street became pedestrian. If you want to have a coffee on the open veranda and watch the locals, Vitosha Boulevard is the right place for it.

In good weather, the views from here are wonderful: on one side is St. Weeks Cathedral, on the other – Vitosha mountain massif. During the holidays there are processions and festivals, and during the weekdays there are street musicians playing on Vitosha Boulevard.

The architecture of the boulevard is eclectic: next to the buildings of the late 19th century there are modern apartment buildings and Soviet panel houses. The stores are also diverse: a tiny butcher’s shop for locals may be adjacent to a large chain clothing store.

The ancient city of Serdica was a Roman settlement of the 3rd and 4th century AD, which was located on the site of present-day Sofia. In Serdica was the imperial palace of Constantine I, several churches, residences and a water supply system. During the excavations have found and restored about 20 fragments of the ancient city: for example, the rotunda of St. George, the structure next to the square of St. Week and part of the fortifications in the area of the building of the Council of Ministers. They can be viewed for free.

The last fragment of the ancient city – the remains of the amphitheater – was discovered in 2004 when the Arena di Serdica Hotel was being built. The project was slightly adjusted and the hotel continued to be built directly on the excavations. The ancient masonry was partially used as a foundation for the new building, and the basement was turned into a museum hall. From the point of view of archaeologists and historians, it may be barbaric, but I think we got an unusual symbiosis of history and modernity.

The Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker was built in the early 20th century for the Russian community on the site of a destroyed mosque. Gilded domes gave the parish the last Russian emperor Nicholas II.

Near the church there are always a lot of Russian tourists: services are held in Russian. Inside you can place a candle and leave a note with a request for a prayer service. I had a special feeling while visiting the church – tranquility and peace.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is the most famous landmark of the Bulgarian capital according to Tripadvisor users. The neo-Byzantine style building was built in the early 20th century in honor of the country’s liberation from the Ottoman yoke.

The temple stands out from the other buildings and impresses with its size and majesty: its area is 3000 square meters and the main bell tower is almost 18 stories high. Inside, there is a piece of relics of St. Alexander Nevsky, and several icons painted by Russian artist Viktor Vasnetsov.

The entrance to the temple is free, but if you want to take pictures of the interior, you have to pay 10 levs.

A flea market is located next to the temple. Here you can find antiques, coins and awards of different epochs, jewelry and even musical instruments. Among the sellers and buyers are popular items related to the socialist past of the country: badges, flags, portraits of leaders and military uniforms.

The National Museum of Military History has a million exhibits – and this is not a figurative expression. Most of the weapons on display there are Bulgarian and Soviet weapons of the 19th and 20th centuries and German equipment from World War II. Tanks, planes, rocket launchers are on display right outside, and small arms and cold weapons, uniforms and awards are in the three-story building.

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The museum is huge. Its total area is 45,000 square meters – it’s like two Red Squares. To examine it completely you need several hours, and if you like history and weapons, then several days.

“Borisova Gradina” is the most famous and largest park in Sofia, named after the Bulgarian king. There is a lake with boats, a national stadium, a tennis court and the Sofia University Observatory. In some places, “Borisov Gradina” is falling into disrepair: paths are crumbling, infrastructure is deteriorating, and trees look ungroomed. But on a hot day, the park is an escape from the scorching sun.

Sofia Zoo has 2,460 animals: elephants, rhinos, tigers, deer. There are separate aviaries for birds, a terrarium and an aquarium. But the public favorites are the bears. They happily pose for photos and eat apples, oranges and other treats brought by visitors.

Many of the enclosures have artificial ponds and landscapes that resemble natural ones. Like “Borisov Gradina”, in some places the zoo seems undeveloped: the grass is not mowed, the fences are not painted, in some places the plaster is falling off. But this does not prevent you from looking at the animals. And children like it in the zoo: there are small attractions, a playground and several booths with water and snacks.

“Museiko. If you come to Sofia with children, be sure to go to the science and entertainment center “Museiko”. There you will learn about the world around you in an interactive way: how and what houses are built of, where mountains come from and what is interesting about open space.

The main advantage of “Museyko” is that children become participants in the process. For example, in the section devoted to construction, you can create an artificial earthquake yourself, and in the space section you can try on a spacesuit. Most children are fascinated by this.

And there is also a three-story-tall tree of knowledge – an art object made of cranes, gears, musical instruments and other inventions.

Details

How to reach Sofia. Aeroflot, “Bulgaria-Air” and European low-cost airlines, “Wizz-Air”, “Ryanair”, “Easyjet” are directly flying from Moscow to the capital of Bulgaria. It is possible to get to the capital of Bulgaria from Stockholm, Brussels, London, Madrid and other European cities for a few dozen euros. In late May – early June you can fly from Russia to Bulgaria on a last minute ticket.

Language. Most Bulgarians over forty years old speak Russian. Young people prefer English. But even if the person you are talking to doesn’t know Russian and you don’t know English, you will find common language anyway. Russian and Bulgarian have many words that are spelled and pronounced similarly: bus, address, luggage, store. Besides, in Bulgaria, like in Russia, they write in Cyrillic alphabet.

In general, Bulgarians are very open, friendly and always ready to help. It seemed to me that Russians in Bulgaria are especially warmly treated. Many people remember that the country gained its independence from Turkey thanks to Russia.

The soup with dumplings at Supa Bar

Vitosha mountain massif is a national nature park and ski resort 10 kilometers from Sofia. Here is also the highest point of the capital region – the mountain Cherni Vrah 2,200 meters high. In winter people ski and snowboard in the park, and in summer they walk and enjoy nature. There are many hiking trails of varying degrees of difficulty, several waterfalls, cafes and restaurants. In summer during the walk you can pick wild berries: raspberries and blueberries.

It is worth ascending Vitosha and then coming back down

Boyana waterfall. There is one more landmark of Sofia in the mountain massif Vitosha – Boyana waterfall with the height of 20 meters. To get to the waterfall is difficult: first you have to take bus number 64 to the bus stop “Boyanskoto Hanche”, then go on foot along the mountain path. A large part of the way will have to be overcome on the rocks through the forest, so wear comfortable clothes and shoes.

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