Sofia is a one of the most amazing Bulgarian cities. Though it was not initially a capital, today it gathers everything under its roof – political life, commerce, events, and of course a great deal of the country’s rich historical heritage. There are a lot of things you should visit and try when you’re there, even if you only have time for a traditional Bulgarian meal at a local restaurant (look for a ‘mehana’ – a restaurant decorated with Bulgarian folklore items serving traditional food). But if you do have time to explore, go on a tour of the city with these places included – even if you don’t go in, you will remember the architecture forever.
Instead of a simple list of places, let’s make this a tour plan. Start at the outskirts of the city on Tsarigradsko Shose Boulevard (The road to Tzarigrad (Istanbul)), the largest boulevard in Sofia.
Along the road you will see the Inter-Expo Centre which is a modern building covered in glass. You might want to stop there – the expos are often worth the look. Continue along the Boulevard until you reach a traffic circle. To the right, you will reach Arena Armeec Hall.
This multifunctional building is only a couple of years old, but is already a gathering place for many events. It is a gigantic construction with numerous big halls. Important conferences are often held there, but more importantly, all world-class performers have their concerts there. For example, the amazing Carl Cox performed there at the end of April. And there is a party centre nearby – if you happen to be in Sofia on a Friday night, don’t miss it.
Go back on the Boulevard and continue straight until you reach Eagles Bridge (Orlov most).
Once Sofia’s downtown, now a heavy traffic point, this ornate bridge was built in 1891 as a crossing over Perlovska River and was firstly meant to be the gate to the city. The exquisite eagles sitting atop granite columns are an amazing sight but if you just cross it by car or a taxi you won’t even notice it is a bridge due to the traffic. Turn left on Evlogi Georgiev Boulevard.
This boulevard is often teeming with traffic, but that won’t bother you because along the left side of the road, you will be able to observe some amazing contemporary sculptures. Understanding them is not an easy task, but their appearances alone will take your breath away. At the end of the Boulevard, you will have reached the National Palace of Culture.
This enormous communist era complex aka NDK was first opened in 1981 and even though three decades have passed, it is still the largest exhibition, convention and conference centre in South Eastern Europe.
If you are doing your tour in the evening, drop by the Balkan jazz bar Studio 5.
In front of the palace, you will see a garden with magnificent fountains and comfortable benches, while on the other side you will be able to take a walk on the Lover’s Bridge. When you stand in its centre, you will get a great view of the city.
You can now go back to the Eagles Bridge, across the street of which you will find the enormous Borisova Garden. The garden has numerous places where you can relax; there are cafes, ponds and playgrounds; and there are also great sculptures and monuments that deserve to be seen. Just up the road from Eagles Bridge is Sofia University.
The oldest and most highly acclaimed university in Bulgaria, Sofia University educates more than 20,000 students every year. It’s central building was built in 1934 and it is exactly what you are going to see here. It is a massive building with several wings and beautiful statues of Evlogi and Hristo Georgievi at the main entrance.
Just across the street you will find The Cyril and Methodius National Library
The library is housed in a neoclassical building first opened in 1953. The exquisite design of the entire building was constructed to hold more than a million and a half books. In front of the library, there is a small well tended garden with benches, flowers and statues of the Cyril and Methodius brothers themselves.
In very close proximity to the library is the Alexander Nevski Cathedral
It is the largest church in Bulgaria, built in 1912. The inside is a complex masterpiece of murals made by the time’s best artists, and the exterior is a massive, but ornate marble creation with bright golden domes on top.
From there, you can follow the path of the yellow bricks to reach The Presidency, built in the 1950s and is a magnificent feat of architecture. The entraance is guarded by guards of honor who change every hour on the hour. On the first Wednesday in the month at noon, you can see the guard change in its fool pomp. The Presidency building is actually just a part of a much larger complex called Largo, which also houses TZUM – Central Department Store which is now a premier destination for upscale shoppers. If you get a chance to stay until night falls, you will see the entire complex light up beautifully. Very close to it is Halite – the central market hall. Ever since this building was first erected in 1909, its purpose has been to house food stores and markets. Go inside for fresh produce and delicacies, or just stand outside to enjoy the marvelous medieval architectural elements incorporated in the exterior.
An off-path, but must-see sight is Boyana Church.
This magnificent structure is listed on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage list. It was first built in the 11th century, but there have been several stages of upgrading and renovating since that time. Many of the frescoes, however, are completely original, which makes them an incredible sight. With an inside covered on ornate portraits and figures, and an outside surrounded by lush gardens, taking a tour of this church is mandatory.
If you don’t have time for planning and touring specific locations, just go into the city centre (don’t go with a car, though – it’s almost impossible to park). As the city is old and not first meant to be a metropolis, the centre consists of narrow alleys on both sides of which you will be able to see old buildings and decorative architectural elements. For those not keen on exploring on their own, I suggest to look for Free Sofia Tour.