One Weekend in Sofia, Bulgaria
Updated: Apr 5, 2020
If you are up to explore the Balkan peninsula then start with beautiful Bulgaria. A few months back I went to the capital city Sofia. This blog is all about another new destination Sofia.
Sofia is a charming city with large communist block buildings, contemporary art galleries, artsy shops, and greenery. It is a perfect gateway for those looking for 3-4 days short vacation. If you only concentrate on Sofia, you can visit the city over the weekend too.
Here goes my itinerary:
Day1: Arrive and explore nearby
Day2: City trip/ Walking tour, Communist tour if interested
Day3: Rila Mountain and Seven Rila Lakes hike
Day4: Visit Rila Monastery
Additionally, if time permits you could add Plovdiv or trip to Lovech, Devetaki cave and Krushuna waterfalls as a day trip from Sofia.
Next Comes Budget: I found Sofia is very much affordable. I think, apart from the flight ticket, we did not pay much for food, transportation, and shopping. Ryan Air and Wizz Air offer cheap flights to Sofia. Transporation is super cheap too. It just costs 1.60 BGN from the airport to the city center via public transport. You can find many good and very much affordable places to stay near the city center which is amazing. Basically, you are closed by all the places if you stay in the city center. We stayed 5 minutes walking distance from Vitosha Boulevard in a cool Airbnb.
When it comes to food, you can have a three-course meal or maybe a traditional meal in a fancy place at an affordable price. In one word, Sofia though a capital city is very much budget-friendly.
Instead of going through day by day, for a change, I thought of dividing my blog into a couple of interesting facts. Let's start:
1. Most asked Question, Is it worth a visit?:
People asked me: Why do you want to visit Sofia? Is it really worth a visit?
My experience: Sofia is often underrated by people.
But visiting Sofia is another experience considering other European cities. It has a very rusty vibe. It does not offer you the grandeur of the Louvre or Eiffel. But the gritty alley, rusty buildings speak more than 2000 years of history which is amazing to experience. You can see the cultural difference when you visit the churches which are very different from Catholic Churches. And If you have already visited any country in East Europe, it will definitely fall in love with Sofia.
Considering the budget, It is one of the cheapest places in Europe.
Also, it is very close to Macedonia or Greece. You can find overnight trips to Macedonia or maybe combine the places in your itinerary if you like. Another important point is Sofia is not so crowded comparing to the other cities. So you can take a deep breath, relax and start exploring Bulgaria starting from Sofia.
In the end, My conclusion is, it is definitely worth a visit.
2. Is it safe?
My experience: I felt very safe considering the normal travel safety measures that everybody takes. Even at night, I did not see any problems in the central area. Also, in the central area, I saw people speak English. So it is easy to communicate in case of need. But of course, knowing the local language always makes your life easy.
3. Most important places to see:
Starting with Vitosha boulevard: Huge pedestrian street with lots of shops, restaurants. A cool place to hang out.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral: The most iconic and second-largest cathedral in Balkan.
St Sofia Chruch: 2 mins walk from Alexandar Nevsky Cathedral and one of the oldest churches in Bulgaria
Boyana Church: Situated on the slope of Vitosha Mountain, it is a medieval church and Unesco Heritage site.
Saint Nikolas Russian Church: Very unique architecture and especially the tomb.
Baniya Bashi Mosque: Built-in Ottoman empire, it is the only mosque in Sofia.
Sofia history museum: It was supposed to be a mineral bath but as of now a history museum.
National Palace of Culture: Large multifunctional conference center in Sofia
Vitosha Mountain: Hiking in the Vitosha Mountain. There are a couple of hiking routes available. I found a nice information blog for myself here.
The Largo: Do not miss the Largo since it is the most important landmark which contains many administrative buildings including councils of the Ministers and President's office. We had our evening coffee in a terrace restaurant to enjoy the view.
Sofia has a complicated past. The old washed-out buildings are still holding the signs of the communist era. Side by side, the modern buildings are trying to evolve throughout the city. It is a unique mix of old and new, constant overlapping of each other.
*** I did not take any walking tour but explorer on my own. But there is also a guided tour and communist tour available. check here.
** Carry the local currency with you (Bulgarian Lev)
4. Highlights of Sofia Trip:
We froze in the chairlift!!!!!:
Yes, that was one of the memorable experiences I had on the Rila lake trip.
Before I start with my story, here is information regarding the trip.
Rila Mountain and Seven Rila Lake Hike: One of the most popular day trip or hiking trip from Sofia.
How to reach there:
Car: If you have your own car, then you are all set to go.
Public Transport: If you plan to travel via public transport, you have buses and taxies. You can take a bus from Sofia central station to Dupnitsa. From the city of Dupnitsa, you take another bus to Sapareva Banya. There is a shuttle but from Sapareva Banya to Pionerska hut.
Shuttle: Shuttle option available from Sofia. Check it here.
Guided Trip: This is the most hassle-free way to reach there. Book a trip with a tour company.
Once you reach Pionerska hut, you have three options:
a) Take the 25 minutes chair lift and upon reaching the top (Rilsky hut) you can start exploring Seven Rila Lakes.
b) Hike on your own till Rilsky hut and then start exploring Seven Rila Lakes. Keep in mind the time since it will take time to reach to the top and then only you can start hiking the seven Rila Lake Area.
c) I have seen people going to the top using a 4*4 vehicle. You can also find this option at Pionerska hut. I have no idea if it legal or not and also it is not nature-friendly. I do not recommend doing that.
My experience in Rila Lakes: Before traveling to the Rila, I checked out n numbers of stunning pictures. Needless to say, I was super excited about this hike. We booked a guided trip with Traventuria. We started on time from Sofia. Since it is a full day hike, we packed food on the way.
Pionerska hut is the point where you take the chair lift or hike to the Rilsky hut. The chairlift was a front open one and only for two persons. You need to buy separate tickets when you reach Pionerska. Everything was perfect until we reach Pionerska hut.
Upon reaching we heard the chairlift was suddenly stopped due to high wind. So we waited another 20 minutes for better weather. Once it started again we took the first one. In the beginning, all were going very smoothly. The problem started after 10 minutes because of the heavy wind and rain. Suddenly the chairlift stopped.
First, we started to cover ourselves but anyway the chairlift is open. So it was of no use. We were hanging there for 10 minutes and completely froze because of the cold. We could not feel our hands. We could even see the ending point but could not reach it.
Finally, when it started operating again, we rushed inside the hut.
Now the final disappointment came. Once everybody in our group reached one by one, we saw outside. The weather was getting worse. After 15-20 minutes, there was only fog and wind storm.
In the end, we had to cancel our hike due to safety reasons. I can not express how sad I was. I planned this hike and prepared for this so well. But what we can do when mother nature is not in our favor.
After waiting there for some time, we thought of re-routing our trip and hike to the Rila national park on the way, reach Pionerska hut and go to the Rila Monastery.
I got the impression that summer months would be better than fall keeping weather in mind.
We visited Rila Monastery on the same day and came back to Sofia.
Info regarding Rila Monastery: Largest and famous eastern orthodox monastery situated in Rila Mountains and created in the10th century. It is named after its founder Saint Ivan of Rila. You will be amazed to see the colorful fresco on the wall. The location of the monastery is simply stunning.
For both the trips I have a few important information:
a) Check the weather before you plan your hike. Though there is no guarantee of weather up in the mountain. Because I also checked the weather before my hike.
b) Take hiking shoes, hiking gear if needed since it is almost 5-6 hours hike.
c) Pack food for a whole day hike. Also, carry toilet paper for both the places. I thought of mentioning the second one because I normally do not carry toilet paper in Europe but up in the mountain, it would be necessary.
d) The chairlift is working until 16.30. Exploring the seven lakes (hiking) takes around 5 - 6 hours. So keep this in mind before you plan. Better to reach early in the morning.
e) Rila Monastery and Seven Rila lakes: The name probably gives the impression that both are in the same place. But they are not, especially if you hike. Better to plan those in two separate days.
5. Another thing I loved in Sofia: food. :D
I loved the traditional food. Surprisingly, there is a wok place in Vitosha Boulevard, which is awesome and it reminds me of the Indo-Chinese version of the Chinese food that I had in my home town Kolkata. I recommend the Hadjidraganov tavern for traditional food. If possible, try to reserve before and do not forget to try " lamb Hlebnitca".
6. Do not forget to visit the shops with Rose oil products and the cute dolls: Bulgaria is famous for rose oil productions. You can find all kinds of products from rose oil and it smells awesome. I found beautiful dolls that have rose oil perfume hidden inside as a surprise.
These are the most important facts of my Sofia travel. I hope you like it.. :)