“The Bulgarians are coming! The Bulgarians are coming!” Had you listened to the more excitable sections of the British media in the first flushes of this year, you might have believed that a tsunami of migrants was speeding to the UK, in the wake of the lifting of employment restrictions on Bulgarians new to the European Union.
It takes me little more than five minutes in Sofia to confirm what was always an obvious truth: not only do a lot of people live in the Bulgarian capital without exhibiting any sign of wanting to dash away in search of some ethereal ‘better life’ (the city’s head-count is a decidedly healthy 1.3 million) — but there are countless reasons to wish to remain. Sofia is an inviting place, wholly capable of sustaining the sophisticated urban population that fills its bars and restaurants, and just as intriguing for any visitors prepared to venture east.
And ‘east’ it certainly is. Sofia lies far further afield than many of the other capitals — Prague, Bratislava, Budapest, Warsaw — that were once lumped together as Eastern Bloc citadels. It’s practically a neighbour of Istanbul, though it sits firmly in the west of Bulgaria, and is more part of the Balkans than an outpost on the Black Sea.
In a way, it’s a small city masquerading as a big one — small in that its centre is compact and easily explored; and big in its history. It has been on the map of Europe since it appeared as the tribal settlement of Serdica in the fifth century BC, and has survived the incursion of myriad invaders and empires ever since — most notably, Macedonians, Romans, Ottoman Turks and Soviet troops.
Stand in Ploshtad Sveta Nedelya (formerly Lenin Square and now Holy Sunday Square, named after the neo-byzantine church located there) and you can still glimpse most of these eras — the archaeological shards of Roman Serdica; the broad dome of the Banya Bashi Mosque, created under Ottoman rule in the 16th century, and still a functioning house of religion; and the Stalinist-Gothic pomp of the TZUM department store. Then there’s the grand former headquarters of the Bulgarian Communist Party (now part of the National Assembly) — a reminder of Bulgaria’s four austere decades behind the Iron Curtain.
Yet in the same history-laden square, you can also spy 21st-century Sofia, from the commuters hopping onto the modern metro system at Serdika station, to the evening revellers heading south towards the cafes pinned along the pedestrian portion of Vitosha Boulevard — the city’s key commercial avenue. Look upwards, and you’ll see the hard outline of Vitosha, the mountain massif which frames Sofia, offering opportunities for skiing in winter and hiking during summer.
In other words, this is not a place that you leave in a hurry — whether traveller or resident. Sofia is a place to linger and savour for as long as you can muster.
Aleksandar Nevski Cathedral: This huge Orthodox temple, one of Europe’s finest, was built during the wave of euphoria after Bulgaria was freed from Turkish control in 1878. Finished in 1912, it looks older, a century of smoking candles giving its ornate frescoes the semblance of faded medieval survivors. Ploshtad Aleksandar Nevski.
St Sophia Church: Adjacent to the cathedral, St Sophia is the genuine elderly article, its sturdy walls of red brick dating to the sixth century (527-565) — though there were earlier incarnations of the church on this site. These can be seen if you descend into the crypt, where a museum showcases third century foundations and Roman tombs. Ulitsa Parizh 2.
National Art Gallery: In what was briefly a royal palace, this complex of echoing ballrooms and mirrored chambers salutes the luminaries of Bulgarian art. The names — Anton Mitov, Vera Nedkova, Karl Yordanov — will not, perhaps, be familiar, but their scenes of country life and summer days reward lengthy viewing. nationalartgallerybg.org
Sofia City Art Gallery: This smaller institution focuses on striking flashes of Bulgarian art from the 19th century onwards. Home to a collection of over 3,500 paintings, it stages rotating exhibitions on the likes of painter Sirak Skitnik (the name translates as ‘orphan wanderer’), a visionary who pushed the cultural boundaries in the early 20th century. sghg.bg
Monument to the Soviet army: Debate rages about the future of these po-faced statues, an unloved tribute to Sofia’s Soviet ‘liberators’ of 1945. Pitched in the north-east corner of Borisova Gradina Park, the site has received regular graffiti makeovers — notably in 2011, when its troops were redaubed as Superman, The Joker and other US comic-book figures.
National Palace of Culture: There is also a distinct whiff of the communist epoch about the National Palace of Culture, a weighty concrete bastion built by Lyudmila Zhivkova — the daughter of Bulgaria’s main communist leader Todor Zhivkov — in 1981. Nonetheless, this is a fine exhibition space, staging the annual Sofia Film Festival every March. ndk.bg
National Museum of History: Poised four miles south-west of the centre in Boyana, Bulgaria’s best museum is well worth the taxi ride (from BL10/£4.50) to reach it. Here, a vast communist-era government hall — an architectural wonder in itself — displays Roman mosaics, Crusader swords and Second World War artefacts. historymuseum.org
Boyana Church: Sofia’s most precious gem is concealed down a residential street a short walk from the National Museum of History — an address so unobserved, it saved this 10th-century church from Ottoman destruction. It has UNESCO status thanks to its astonishing 13th-century frescoes that pre-date the Renaissance. boyanachurch.org
As with many cities of the former Eastern bloc, Sofia is bursting with grandiose hotels with their long corridors and stately ballrooms — but it has more idiosyncratic retreats, too.
£ Hotel Les Fleurs: Boutique hideaway on Vitosha Boulevard that flirts with art deco — from mosaics in the lobby to a facade illuminated in soft pink at night. And with just 31 rooms, it’s a pretty cosy affair. lesfleurshotel.com
££ Grand Hotel Sofia: A towering landmark at the heart of the city, overlooking the Gradska Gradina (City Garden), with its summer-day chess players and National Theatre. The paintings for purchase in the reception give the hotel an arty edge. grandhotelsofia.bg
£££ Sofia Hotel Balkan: The glittering prize in Sofia’s hotel accommodation announces itself via the epic chandelier twinkling imperiously in its entrance hall. It’s home to 184 luxurious rooms, many of them gazing across Ploshtad Sveta Nedelya. sofiabalkan.com
Sofia doesn’t always shout about its culinary options, but possibilities for dinner stretch from the cheerfully unfussy to white-linen gourmet — if you know where to look.
£ Happy: This Bulgarian chain of restaurants is spectacularly popular, and the menu goes far beyond fast food, with chunky meatballs in a rich tomato sauce and bowls of creamy potato soup. There are several outlets, including one on Ploshtad Sveta Nedelya. happy.bg
££ Pri Yafata: A homely eatery using recipes from rural Bulgaria, from ‘Shepherd’s Salad’ (tomatoes, onions, cheese) to that old favourite braised pork dirnik (pork braised with carrots and potatoes). T: 00 359 2 980 0250.
£££ Moskovska 15: The address is in the name of this attractive establishment to the rear of the National Art Gallery. Dishes include beef with herb potato puree, while the cellar acknowledges the upper echelons of Bulgaria’s thriving wine industry. moskovska15.com
Tsentralni Halite: Life burbles and babbles in this covered market hall, which was restored in 2000. The many food traders inside include Eko Mec, with its cured meats, and Vinopolis, which deals in Bulgarian wines. Boulevard Maria Luiza 24.
TZUM: You can still find fashion shops and perfume counters in the Central Department Store. Yet there’s also a palpable air of sadness to this gilded Soviet-style giant — opened in 1957, it once hosted some 120,000 visitors a day, but is now half empty. tzum.bg
Flea Market: At the western end of Ploshtad Aleksandar Nevski, this burst of stalls touts art in myriad forms, from lovely reprints of the frescoes and icons adorning the cathedral to voluptuous female nudes. Ulitsa Oborishte.
Iskra: Artworks — swoops and swirls of the modern, along with thick metallic jewellery and other assorted 21st-century nuggets — are also on sale at this independent gallery, just off Ploshtad Bulgaria. iskraart.com
Sofia doesn’t have a particular area for evening high-jinks, but amble along Vitosha Boulevard as the sun sets, or pick one of its little bars, and there is merriment to be had.
Streetbar & Co: The middle section of Vitosha Boulevard is Sofia at its most exuberant. This crowd-pleasing fixture is arguably the best of the bunch in operation here, with an alluring phalanx of bottles behind its long bar. facebook.com/streetbarco.sofia
Dada Cultural Bar: Filed away near the National Art Gallery, this louche hotspot exudes a cosmopolitan vibe with bright slashes of art on the walls, live music performances on most evenings, and a menu specialising in whisky and cocktails. dadaculturalbar.eu
The Apartment: Wander inside this under-the-radar drinkery and you may feel you’ve stumbled into someone’s flat. With its armchairs and beers on sale from the fridge in the kitchen, this is exactly the idea. T: 00 359 87 878 7123.
Like a local
Public transport: The centre of Sofia is small enough to be navigated on foot, but the metro system is quick and efficient. Line 1 cuts roughly from north-west to south-east, while Line 2 runs north-to-south, the pair meeting at Serdika station (a third line is in the planning stage). Single fares cost one lev (43p). metropolitan.bg
Skiing on Vitosha: Sofia’s massif is just six miles away, so a day of downhill adventures is entirely possible. There are two ski zones, Konjarnika-Vetrovala and Aleko — the latter is the larger, proffering the fabled Stenata (‘The Wall’) piste amid a variety of gradients. skivitosha.com; bulgariaski.com
Caffe Memento: Sofia whiles away its afternoons in the arms of this coffee stalwart, which has three cafes around the city. The busiest sits midway down Vitosha Bulevard. facebook.com/mementocafe
Did you know?
Much of what is now Bulgaria (including Sofia) was once Thrace, the region of the Ancient Greek world that flourished between the fifth and third centuries BC. This era of early civilisation is visible at the National Museum of History, where the Panagyurishte Treasure — a cluster of gold goblets and vessels from the fourth century BC — is on show.
British Airways and Bulgaria Air both fly from Heathrow, EasyJet flies from Gatwick, Stansted and Manchester, and Wizz Air offers a service from Luton. ba.com air.bg/en easyjet.com wizzair.com
Average flight time: 3h.
Sofia Airport is located five miles east of the centre. Line 1 of the metro system (see ‘Like a local’) is being extended to the airport, but the project is not due to be completed until April 2015. Bus 84 runs from the airport to the centre, while cabs (OK Taxis are recommended) to town should cost around BL12 (£5).
When to go
As with most European cities, Sofia basks in pleasant temperatures of around 25C between May and September, and often falls to freezing during the winter. The ski season on the Vitosha massif generally lasts from December to March.
Need to know
Currency: Bulgarian lev. £1 = BL2.35.
International dial code: 00 359 2.
Time difference: GMT +2.
How to do it
Cox & Kings offers three-night breaks at the five-star Grand Hotel Sofia, including flights from Heathrow, private transfers and B&B, from £530 per person, based on two people sharing a double room. coxandkings.co.uk
Published in the June 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)