Sofia, richly historic & an emerging cultural gem

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral – majestic by night

Get here: Several airlines fly to Sofia direct from London in the UK, or from a wider range of local airports consider using KLM and travel via Schiphol, Amsterdam (normally using a codeshare flight for the final leg).

On arrival: No visa requirements are currently necessary for UK citizens – but who knows – if Brexit happens maybe that might change. If you know your ground, getting to the city from the airport is relatively painless using the efficient metro system. Know: we arrived at night and used the official taxi desk at the airport – nevertheless the driver still tried to (significantly) overcharge us. The journey to the city is only about 20 minutes, and should cost around £10 by taxi or less if you are savvy with the metro.

Stay: We chose a very pretty boutique hotel right on the central Vitosha Boulevard. Despite being so central, with many restaurants, shops and bars strewn along this huge boulevard, we didn’t experience night noise which can sometimes be an issue in very central city hotels. Rooms are well-appointed and for a capital city prices are reasonable. That said, if I’m honest, I would say that breakfast was a bit of a hit and miss affair for a hotel of this calibre, e.g. food left to go tepid or cold is never pleasant, pretty certain the same tray of pink donuts re-appeared each morning too! I think with a few tweaks this could be a great hotel.

We almost missed the Tsentralni Hali – Central Market Hall located on Marie Louise Boulevard – come here for a welcome taste of Bulgarian wine, foods, and traditional crafts. Indeed, Posh Mum was pretty chilled in here, clean, spacious, no hassle whatsoever, sometimes markets coerce potential customers but not here – everything clearly priced up too.

Get around: Much as you can cover a lot of the key sights here on foot, it is an awful lot easier if you buy a day card – which you can use on the metro, trams and buses – costing only 4 Bulgarian Lev. Asking for this at a kiosk might prove difficult due to the language barrier – we visited Tourist Information and the very nice lady there wrote down the request, which we showed to the kiosk operators each day – one smiled and shook her head and Posh Mum thought oh no, they are saying we can’t have one – until I remember that yes means a shake of the head, whereas no is meant by a nod. Just show this at the kiosk each day:
Мога ли да имам билет за 4 лева, моля

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral by day, this colossal work was begun in 1882 and can host 5,000 visitors, a tranquil space to reflect on life.

Sofia’s history is immensely ancient and this wondrous city is possibly the oldest European settlement. Discover the Serdikan fortress as a starter or learn more in the Sofia National History Museum (preferably both). The Serdikan settlement, established by the Thracian tribe around 7000 years ago, began to be restored some 20 years ago and work is still in progress. Sofia attracted the attention of the ancient Greeks in 4th Century BC, and then the Romans in 1st Century BC since when it became part of the Byzantine empire. The Huns desecrated the city in 4th Century but it was later rebuilt by the Byzantine emperor – again it attracted the attention of other tribes and became known as the Bulgarian Kingdom in 681 – although it again became part of the Byzantine empire in 11th Century – and throughout its history Bulgaria has drawn people from a variety of creeds and nations and thus very culturally rich. It became an important trades and craft centre in subsequent years, including intricate goldsmithery (that can be seen gleaming in cases held in the Sofia National History Museum).

Serdika excavation work, Sofia.

Eating: Here are a few of our favourites. Close to the National War History Museum, we found Victoria Restaurant, with a very pleasant verandah area we actually had Sushi, not exactly Bulgarian but it was such a hot day and we needed something light and fresh. The team were great too. Near to the Boulevard Vitosha, we found the India House restaurant, we were a little daunted as we meandered into the restaurant as it was deserted at street level – we wandered down the steep staircase and found a delightful haven, the food here was delicious, and so inexpensive, round about £12.50 each including a delicious Indian beer.

We tried Moma restaurant, just off Vitosha Boulevard, for a spot of traditional Bulgarian food, which I guess we got but this was clearly a stopping place for coach tours, that said, it was pretty tasty. Opposite is an image of a traditional Bulgarian dish, sort of a sourdough bread filled with chicken and vegetables – almost a take on the growing British trend of stuffing dinners into oversized Yorkshire puddings! The coziest restaurant we found by far was the delightful Craft Bistro Restaurant complete with excellent Bulgarian wine, fairy lights, superb food – try the pernod soaked prawns, and still totally affordable. Book ahead if you come at peak times as its small but perfectly formed!

Street food: Make sure you don’t leave Sofia without trying a Banitsa pastry, made from thin filo pastry layers and filled with a variety of crumbly cheese etc and will cost you maybe a couple of Lev or less. Grab a fresh slice of pizza with the locals at the top of Vitosha Boulevard.

Just Go Here: Take the Metro from Serdika Station to GM Dimitrov Station and lose yourself for a few hours in the Museum of Socialist Art (closed on Mondays). The exhibit consists of a vast garden full of sculptures, depicting activists and leaders from the Socialist period between 1944 and 1989, as well as an indoor art gallery.

Many of the sculptures depict activists as well as, of course, key Communist Leaders such as Stalin and Lenin.
This Red star, now gracing the entrance way of the Museum of Socialist Art once topped the Communist Party House – it now resembles a garish Christmas tree topper!

Go here too: the Museum of National Military History, set in large grounds containing a range of military vehicles and weaponry, with the interior covering vast periods of conflict, including art depictions, uniforms, and of course every known type of weaponry is well worth a visit. Expect to be greeted by staff in every gallery, doubtless to keep an eye on you and the exhibits as you make your discoveries.

Escape to the country: Fairly easy if you know how, you can of course hike to this point but preferable is to check bus times as there is a regular weekend and holiday service that will take you right to the foot of the Vitosha mountain peak park, where you can hike to the peak, take a picnic or have lunch at one of the mountain huts. The local unattached canines have the same idea though, its quite a dilemma I guess, when you might dearly like to give them a dental dog chew or something, yet not encourage them to steal your lunch – I saw one poor creature have water sprayed in his face for trying to muscle in on a family picnic!

Whilst you are touring the outskirts of Sofia, it’s worth visiting the ancient Boyana Church , reachable by bus, and designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. Dating to around 10th Century, it is most famed for its medieval frescoes, and was restored in 2006 with significant input from the National Museum of History in central Sofia.

Just a raw glimpse of a former Sofia decaying factory, Posh Mum never seems to fail to find joy in rust!

Interesting artwork in the Sofia National History Museum, this depicts the kind of treatment you might expect if you have not kept to the straight and narrow during life! the museum’s gardens are a shadow of their original glory but nevertheless refreshments at the al fresco cafe there definitely got the thumbs up.

And finally, all that glitters might well be gold, above is just one example of the fine goldsmithery exhibits to be found in the Sofia National History Museum.