One lesson we’ve learned a few times during our travels is that the best-laid plans often go a bit off course—but not always for the reasons you might expect. When planning our trip through Bulgaria, we based ourselves in its capital city, Sofia, but we never intended to spend much time there. Bulgaria’s vibrant wine country was calling us, as was mysterious Buzludzha, so aside from a quick city tour we reluctantly agreed that we would leave the city largely unexplored until a future visit. As our luck would have it, a surprise flight cancellation extended our time in Sofia just enough for us to see some of the highlights—and allowed us to see what a huge mistake it would have been to skip it completely.
When it comes to travel, one of our favorite tips to share is that adding an extra day or two to your itinerary can be a vacation saver if something goes wrong. In our case, it not only ensured our trip remained on schedule, it provided us with a bonus free day we weren’t planning to have in Sofia. We originally planned to fly from Sofia to Bucharest early in the morning, with the balance of that day available for a free walking tour and a second free day for exploring museums and historic sites throughout the city. Instead, our morning flight was unexpectedly and unceremoniously cancelled, and it was 10 hours before we were on our way to Bucharest. While waiting for our airline to share information about our new flight, we scrambled to find a few things to keep us occupied, and Sofia proved to be full of interesting spots and fun things to do. Despite the hassle of the morning’s flight cancellation, when we were finally settled in our seats and ready to depart for Bucharest, we were sorry we didn’t have a bit more time in Sofia—and grateful the fates had given us a chance to enjoy the city at all.
Whether Sofia is at the top of your list of cities to explore, a stop on your Balkan itinerary, or a surprise layover, here are 10 things to do in Sofia that we know you’ll enjoy as much as we did!
Museum of Socialist ArtAs we have discovered during our travels through the Balkan countries, communism may not be the region’s future, but it is an enormous part of the very recent past. Sofia’s Museum of Socialist Art is a unique place to come face-to-face with the impact communism had on Bulgaria and the region. Bulgaria was a communist state from 1946 until 1989, and that time was illustrated by statues of regional and international leaders as well as everyday citizens working side by side as they fought against capitalism.
The museum itself has a number of interesting relics on display as well as videos featuring the propaganda that once echoed throughout the city. We found the sculpture installations in the museum’s exterior courtyard to be the most compelling. Dozens of unsmiling faces greeted us as we walked past, staring silently ahead as if completely fixated on goals from a time gone by. Some faces, like Lenin, were easy to identify. Others, like Todor Zhivkov—head of the Bulgarian Communist Party—were less known to us but clearly important figures from the era. Alongside their busts were sculptures of laborers, industrial and agricultural workers tasked with jobs that met the needs of a socialist society. The red star that was once displayed on the Party Building in Sofia now watches over the sculptures, which look as if time coated them in cement as the world progressed. If, like us, you grew up learning about communism but did not experience it, the Museum of Socialist Art brings the concept out of the pages of history books.
The museum is a bit outside of Sofia’s main city center, but it’s an easy walk from public transportation (the Dimitrov metro station is about 10 minutes away). The museum is a worthy addition to your list of things to do in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
If you have time for just one experience in Sofia, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral should be it. Although it isn’t a particularly historic church (it was completed just more than 100 years ago in 1912), it’s architecturally stunning and is one of the city’s most prominent symbols. World travelers may be especially interested in the cathedral, which is comprised of materials sourced and commissioned from cities throughout Europe. With mosaics from Venice and marble and metal from locations in Germany, both the interior and exterior reflect some of the highest quality artisanship you can find. Named for a 13th-century prince, the church stands in honor of the more than 200,000 people who died fighting for the country’s independence during the Russo-Turkish War, which ended in 1878; the first foundation stone was laid just four years later.
It’s hard to miss the cathedral’s enormous gold dome, and if the bells ring they are impossible to ignore: they can be heard from up to 10 miles away. While a visit to the cathedral’s interior is possible (and recommended!), you won’t be able to take pictures inside. As an orthodox church, visitors must also be appropriately dressed (covering your legs and shoulders before arriving is a good idea). Daily services are offered, and participating or quietly observing them can be one of the most memorable things to do in Sofia.
Changing of the Guard at the President’s BuildingWe love to incorporate a bit of local tradition into our travels, and we have seen changing of the guard ceremonies in cities all over the world, including London, Santiago, Budapest, and at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider in Washington, DC.
In Sofia, you can witness the changing of the guard ceremony every hour on the hour. If you’re looking for a memorable event rife with music, marching, and all of the pomp and circumstance you might expect from similar ceremonies around the world, you’ll find it on the first Wednesday of every month. Even if you only catch the quieter, less frilly version, it’s a notable item for your list of things to do in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Ivan Vazov National Theatre
Another key landmark in Sofia’s sprawling landscape is the Ivan Vazov National Theatre, the city’s most prominent theatre. Opened in 1904, the theatre offered performances as well as a theatrical school until 1943, when the building suffered extensive damage during the bombing of Sofia during World War II. Like so many buildings in Sofia, the theatre is as beautiful on the outside as it is on the inside. Even if you don’t have the time to take in a performance, if historic architecture is of interest it’s a great place to add to your list of things to do in Sofia.
Statue of Sveta SofiaWhen communism controlled Bulgaria, Sofia displayed a statue of Lenin in St. Nedelya Square; when communism fell, the Lenin statue was removed. In 2000, a new statue was erected in its place: the statue of Sveta Sofia. Sveta Sofia, or Saint Sofia, is not a saint, a historical figure, or even a real person; she is more conceptual, an amalgamation of traits and people thought to be more reflective of Sofia today. Based primarily on the concept of “holy wisdom,” the statue portrays a bit of both Athena and Sofia of Hellenic origin. Looking at Sveta Sofia, she stands with an owl perched on her left arm and clutches a laurel wreath in her right fist, symbols of wisdom and fame to the ancient Greeks.
Sveta Sofia was not widely beloved by locals when she was first erected, notably because she is not directly connected to the city’s history in any meaningful way. While there is a Saint Sophia, she has no ties to Bulgaria’s capital city. Additionally, the city of Sofia was not named for the saint; it was named for a local church that bears the name. In time, locals came to appreciate—or at least accept—Sveta Sofia, and when you’re looking for things to do in Sofia she will almost undoubtedly appear on your path.
National Art Gallery
Sofia’s former royal palace hosts Bulgaria’s National Art Gallery, an impressive collection that stretches across almost two millennia and includes masterpieces of some of the country’s most recognized artists. You’ll find quite a bit of orthodox artwork dating back to the adoption of Christianity as a national religion during the Roman Empire, but more contemporary works are also on display. More than 50,000 pieces are part of the museum’s collection, making it an unmissable stop for art lovers and a great item to keep on your list of things to do in Sofia if you have some unplanned downtime or are looking for an enriching indoor activity.
Even if you don’t have time to stop in for a full visit, walking past the former royal palace is worth a detour. The building is huge, ornate, and impressive, and it’s a fitting home for Bulgaria’s finest works of art.
Archaeological Complex Serdika
You may be surprised to find the ruins of an ancient Roman city in the middle of Sofia, and you wouldn’t be alone—construction workers building the city’s underground metro were shocked to uncover ruins that date back to the first century AD in the spot where they planned to route trains. Today, visitors can walk through several ancient streets that once comprised Serdika and explore the remnants of baths, houses, and even a church that were constructed between the first and sixth centuries AD and frequently hosted Emperor Constantine the Great.Located within and around the Serdika II metro station, the city made a terrific choice to integrate the artifacts they discovered into the train platform itself, meaning you’ll have plenty to see and learn about while waiting for a train. The platform itself is like a museum, with display cases lining the track. Even if you don’t plan to travel by train, it’s worth purchasing a ticket just to look around (and with tickets running just around 1 USD, it’s one of the most inexpensive things to do in Sofia!). Even without purchasing a metro ticket, there is plenty to see if learning about the ancient city is of interest.
Especially of note is the Church of Saint George, a red brick church with a notable rotunda that is thought to be the oldest building in Sofia. Located within the courtyard bordered by the President’s Building, a few other government buildings, and a luxury hotel, the church is surprisingly well-preserved and easy to visit. The church boasts a colorful history; it was a functioning church until the Ottoman Empire, when it was converted into a mosque. After Alexander of Brandenberg passed away in 1893 it served as a mausoleum until restoration work began in 1915. Today, it is a connection to ancient Sofia and a symbol of the city’s extensive history.
Monument to the Soviet ArmyAlthough the Monument to the Soviet Army was commissioned in 1954 to honor Soviet forces who died aiding Bulgarians in World War II, today it often serves a bit of a different purpose. Surrounded by a park that attracts a younger and more progressive demographic, over the years the monument has been painted to depict a number of different scenes as a sign of social protest.
Perhaps the most recognized of the vandalism events was the first, when in 2011 the statue was painted to look like popular figures including Ronald McDonald, Santa Claus, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Since then, it has been painted in an array of colors for various events in an effort to call attention to social issues. Although the Bulgarian people seem to have an appreciation for the monument’s occasional facelift, the Bulgarian government does not condone the vandalism and quickly restores it to its intended bronze. We weren’t fortunate enough to see the monument painted, but you might be luckier than we were when looking for things to do in Sofia.
Sofia History Museum
The Sofia History Museum is a must-see stop for history and architecture lovers alike. From the outside, you might think it looks historic itself, like a mosque or a Turkish bath complex—and you would be right. Open since 2015, the city converted an ancient Turkish bath house behind a mosque into a beautiful tribute to the city’s history. You’ll find more than 1,000 exhibits that reach back to 6,000 BC on display, covering almost every aspect of the events and people that contributed to the city’s development. The museum also covers a nice spectrum of facets of life in Sofia, with a few exhibits focused on clothing and lifestyle in addition to more typical looks at history and people.If you have time to just pass by, don’t miss the hot mineral spring taps on the building’s exterior. Natural mineral water can be found throughout the city, but we filled our bottles at the National Art Gallery, following the lead of a few locals on bikes who looked like they knew what they were doing. Like most hot mineral water, it smells and tastes terrible, but when it is cooled it’s deliciously pure and refreshing. Because we treat water like currency when we travel—meaning we’re always looking out for free bottles to keep us hydrated without needing to pay for a new one every time we’re thirsty—the hot springs were a welcome surprise while looking for things to do in Sofia.
Take a Free Tour
If you have a limited amount of time to spend in Sofia—or, like us, you find yourself with an unexpected day to explore—consider taking a free walking tour of the city. We took a terrific tour with Free Sofia Tour, a tips-based non-profit that offers up to four walking tours a day with English-speaking guides. Our guides were entertaining and engaging, and their knowledge of the city helped us to understand the significance of the buildings we saw as well as where we should look for local food, drink, and shopping. Free tours are one of our favorite activities when traveling; the only payment is offered in the form of a tip for your guide. Our tour ran close to three hours, and we had a terrific time exploring and learning without the pressure of putting together our own sightseeing tour of the city. If you have more than a day or two in the city, consider starting with a free tour, which can provide a nice overview of the city’s top attractions to help you plan how you’ll spend the rest of your visit.
More Information: FreeSofiaTour.com
Shopping in SofiaAlthough we hadn’t planned to spend much time exploring Sofia, we had plenty of time to explore its shopping scene—especially Vitosha Boulevard, the city’s main commercial street. We selected a hotel just a block away from the shopping, restaurants, and nightlife you’ll find there, and it’s a great location if you’re new to the city and looking for a souvenir or a place to eat.
When it comes to shopping, one item we noticed in most stores was rose oil. We’ve seen rose oil in many places around the world, including Turkey and Morocco, and Bulgaria is among the top producers in the world. Rose oil is not the most cost-effective souvenir you will find. It takes three tons of roses to produce a single liter of rose oil, so expect to pay quite a bit if you’re inclined to take some home with you. Rose oil is often used in cosmetics (such as facial spray), in medicine, and even in cooking, and several shops on Vitosha Boulevard sell authentic rose oil. If the oil seems inexpensive, it just might be—it may be diluted or otherwise inauthentic, so stay vigilant when making your purchase.
What to Eat in Sofia
Balkan cuisine is one of our all-time favorites, and Sofia is an incredible food city if you’re looking to experience it through a few great meals. When scanning menus, look for a few of our favorites:
► Shopska SaladA delicious, garden-fresh combination of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, peppers, and a white briny cheese called serene (which is reminiscent of feta), all topped with sunflower oil, shopska salad is a Bulgarian staple and can be found in just about every establishment. The vegetables in the salad were chosen for their hues, which represent the colors in the Bulgarian flag. It’s often served at the start of a meal, and it’s a reliably tasty addition to any dish you might select while in Sofia.
Bulgarian meatballs are delicious, and if you’re looking for a hearty meal they are a great choice. Often made from ground pork and beef, they are flavorful and filling.
Similar to ćevapčići, which we devoured in Croatia, Montenegro, and Bosnia, kebapche is a ground or minced meat dish that resembles a skinless sausage or even a hot dog due to its cylindrical form. Often inexpensive, kebapche is a terrific choice if you’re looking for local flavor. Served with French fries and beer, it’s hard to picture a better snack to keep you fueled while looking for things to do in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Places to Eat in Sofia
Sofia is full of great restaurants, and our limited time there left us with the chance to try just a few of them—and each of them was noteworthy. Here are a few suggestions to incorporate while looking for things to do in Sofia.
► Raketa RakiaThe communist-themed restaurant is worth adding to your list of things to do in Sofia just for its novelty, but the food itself is delicious. It’s most widely known for its selection of rakia, a fruit-based brandy that is Bulgaria’s national drink. The list of rakia available is lengthy, but the staff is more than happy to help you navigate it and select one you will enjoy. Additionally, the menu features some of Bulgaria’s most beloved food, like shopska salad and kebapche, so it’s a nice place for a local meal.
More Information: Facebook.com/RaketaRakiaBar
► Franco’s Pizza
On our first night in Sofia, after a day driving from Skopje, we were tired and ready for a quick meal before a good night’s sleep. We picked Franco’s Pizza because it was close to our hotel, and we found the food to be exceptionally good. The pizzas were made from fresh ingredients and perfectly cooked with crispy crusts. Although we often skip pizza when traveling because we can easily find it at home, sometimes a pizza after a long day of traveling is just what you need—and Franco’s Pizza delivered that for us.
More Information: Facebook.com/PizzaFrancos
► Social Café
On Vitosha Boulevard, close to our hotel, we stumbled upon Social Café while looking for a quick meal. Offering primarily Italian-inspired choices, like pizza and pasta, we enjoyed the atmosphere and wine list. The food isn’t quite Bulgarian, or even Balkan, but it’s really tasty and worth a stop if rigatoni or pappardelle would hit the spot.
More Information: SocialCafe.bg
Layover in Sofia? What to Do with Your LuggageOur unexpected layover left us with two issues: how to find things to do in Sofia on short notice, and what to do with our luggage while we explored the city. While finding things to do in Sofia was quite easy, we were also lucky that the city has a few storage options. There is no luggage storage at the airport, so we brought our suitcases back into the city and left them in lockers at Lockers Sofia, which is just a few blocks from the Serdika and Serdika II metro stations. For a reasonable fee, we left our suitcases and carryon backpacks safely and securely in an attended facility while we enjoyed the city. It was great to avoid carrying the bags all day—which would have meant we could see far fewer of the things to do in Sofia!
More Information: LockersSofia.com
Transportation in Sofia
Although taxis are quite easy to find, we were impressed with the Sofia subway system. Well-marked, inexpensive, and easy to navigate, the subway system consists of just two lines, one of which connects to the airport. If you’re plotting your journey, use Google Maps to map your route between subway stops, and note that many of the city’s highlights are within walking distance of one another.
Day Trips from Sofia
If you have more than a day or two in Sofia, you may want to see more of what Bulgaria has to offer. Here are a few spots that would be great additions to your itinerary.
► Rila MonestaryJust 75 miles south of Sofia, Rila Monestary is a destination in itself and is almost unmissable when visiting Sofia. The UNESCO World Heritage site was founded in the 10th century AD, and it is recognized as one of Bulgaria’s most significant historical and cultural treasures.
Many companies offer Rila Monastery guided tours from Sofia, and local buses connect the city to the monastery (although the trip can run three hours, double the amount of time it takes by car). If you have an extra day, a visit to the Rila Monastery is a perfect way to spend it.
► Bulgarian Wine Tasting
We love to incorporate wine tasting into our travels, and you may be surprised to find that Bulgaria offers a flourishing wine industry with some fantastic local wines to try. We had a terrific day learning about the country’s most famous grape, mavrud, as we sampled it and other wines on a fun and informative day trip with Bulgarian Wine Tours.
► BuzludzhaIf you’re interested in learning more about communism and its impact on Bulgaria, consider making the trek to Buzludzha, the location for the first congress of the Bulgarian Social Democratic Workers Party that now stands partially in ruins after years of neglect. Standing on a hilltop looking a bit like a spaceship, Buzludzha is a long daytrip but an interesting way to learn about a part of history not always taught in school curriculums. It’s not possible to get there via public transportation, so consider a guided tour—we loved our experience with Private Guide Bulgaria Day Tours, which provided door-to-door access to the monument as well as a few other abandoned locations.
Where to Stay in Sofia
When planning our initial trip to Sofia, we selected the Best Western Art Plaza Hotel because of its easy connection to Vitosha Boulevard. Ultimately, it was well-connected to all of the things to do in Sofia that made it to our list. We enjoyed our stay at the small but comfortable hotel; the rooms were large enough for us and our luggage, and breakfast was provided with our room rate and offered some nice variety.
More Information: Booking.com/Hotel/Bg/Kolikovski
We found the Best Western Art Plaza Hotel on Booking.com, which has become our go-to website when comparing hotels and selecting the right one for us. Take a look on Booking.com to see if they have a room that will be perfect for your next vacation, too!
We didn’t expect to spend much time in Sofia, but by the time our flight finally took off for Bucharest we were thrilled we had a chance to experience the city. Travel is full of uncertainty; hotel reservations go missing, weather ruins your plans, and planes have mysterious mechanical issues that lead to flight cancellations that threaten your itinerary. We made the best of what could have been a bad situation and found we got a memorable day in exchange. Sofia is a great capital city, and no matter how you come to find yourself visiting it we know there will be plenty of things to do in Sofia to capture your interest and ensure you have a wonderful time.
Looking for more fun places to visit in the Balkans? Here are a few more of our posts to check out!
* From time to time, our travels are directly impacted by a service or company. In this case, we visited multiple locations in Bulgaria as part of a tour and on our own, and this post includes our candid review of our experience. We selected these tours and locations based on our own research and travel needs; we were not offered and did not receive compensation of any kind from them or any other party in exchange for our review. Learn more about our travel philosophy here.