Sofia – The Bulgarian Capital at the Fourth Time of Asking

Almost five years since my first attempt at visiting Sofia and two further failed attempts later, I had finally made it to the Bulgarian capital on the fourth time of asking, having flown in with Wizz Air from Luton (read about that here). Having caught the shuttle bus between Sofia Airport’s two terminals, I headed to the metro station adjacent to Terminal 2 to head into the city.

A Sofia Metro train at Sofia Airport

Sofia’s metro system was quick and easy to use, with trains every 5 minutes from the airport and the end of line 4. From here to the Sofia University station (the closest to the National Assembly and my hotel), it was about 30 minutes and cost approximately 70p (1.60lv) for a single ticket. You can buy either day (4lv) or 3-day (20lv) tickets, however given the relative compactness of Sofia city centre, I mostly walked around the city.

Exiting the metro, I was brought out into Knyazheska Garden where the Monument to the Soviet Army is located. Constructed in 1954, it commemorates the 10th anniversary of Bulgaria’s liberation by the Soviet Army, which is the general Russian interpretation of Bulgaria’s history during WW2. The monument and surrounding statues have frequently been used as a canvas for political movements, having been painted over in support of various protests. Recently the monument got painted in the colours of the Ukrainian flag to show support for Ukraine against the inexcusable Russian invasion.

Sofia’s Old Parliament Buidling

With a 10-minute walk to my hotel, the first thing that struck me about Sofia was the heat, with the city being fairly unique as a capital in not being located near a major river or body of water. The walk took me past the Old Parliament House, which since the 2021 elections has once again become the home of National Assembly. Constructed in the mid-1880s, the Neo-Renaissance building has been proclaimed a monument of culture and is also depicted on Bulgaria’s 20 leva bank note.

Opposite the Old Parliament House is the Monument to the Tsar Liberator, an equestrian monument constructed between 1901 and 1903 to commemorate the Russian Emperor Alexander II who liberated Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-88. With the general anti-Russian feeling around Europe at present, it was interesting to see a number of pro-Russian statues and monuments, showing just how complex European history is.

Chips and a beer accompanied my burger at Boom! Burgers

Having arrived at my hotel I opted to have a quick nap which ended up lasting longer than planned (clearly the 5am start had got to me) and woke up to find it was now evening in Sofia. Deciding to find some food and then explore around the area for a while, I headed back towards the Old Parliament Building and discovered ‘Boom! Burgers’, an independent chain of gourmet burger restaurants with branches in Sofia and Vilnius (an odd combination of locations!). With a chilled atmosphere and the ability to have a beer with my burger, Boom! Burgers definitely met my criteria for dinner and the ‘Stoner’s Delight’ burger was excellent.

Having recharged with an excellent dinner, I headed back outside to explore the area and intended to head down to the Old Parliament Building and then up to Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. When I had exited my hotel earlier, I had been slightly confused by the previously busy main road being closed to traffic and the groups of people walking freely down the middle. Initially assuming that it was something to support the restaurants and bars (similar to the closures in the UK), however walking down to the Old Parliament Building I discovered that the closure was in fact due to a protest taking place.

Sofia’s Russian Church

It turns out the protest was actually in support of the current government, with one of the coalition parties having recently decided to withdraw, putting the more progressive government at risk. Deciding to head it the opposite direction to avoid accidently spending the night in a Bulgarian jail, I made my way past the Austrian and Italian embassies before rounding a corner and discovering the stunning Russian Church, officially known as the Church of St. Nicholas the Miracle Maker.

Built on the site of the Saray Mosque which was destroyed following the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Church was constructed between 1907 and 1914 and was the official church of the Russian Embassy and the Russian Community in Sofia. Named after the patron saint of the Russian Emperor at the time, Nicholas II, the church’s construction was supervised by architect A. Smirnov who was building the nearby Alexander Nevsky Cathedral at the same time. The outside of the church was recently refurbished by the Russian Government and with the golden domes glimmering under the nearby lights it does look absolutely beautiful.

Sofia’s National Theatre

Having called it a night and headed back to my hotel, I woke refreshed the next morning ready for a day of exploring the city. Following the tradition for the majority of my trips, I was booked onto a walking tour and so headed across to the City Courts from outside of which the tour would begin. Enroute I stumbled across the National Theatre and City Garden, with the latter providing some temporary shade on what was a glorious morning.

The walking tour initially took us into the ‘Square of Tolerance’ an area which includes Orthodox and Catholic churches along with a Synagogue and a Mosque, showing the city’s, and country’s, nature of tolerance. During WW2, whilst Bulgaria was part of the Axis powers, it did not deport its Jewish population to concentration and extermination camps despite pressure from its allies, and whilst life was made difficult for Bulgarian Jews, they were supported by the general population.

Sofia’s Banya Bashi Mosque

Passing some of the city’s many Roman remains, of which some have been ‘restored’ to protect the original remains, we were shown the Sofia History Museum, formerly a public bath house and taken across to the Hot Springs, a series of public water fountains that provide hot spring water with supposed medicinal properties. In the centre of the city, just down from the monument of Saint Sofia, is the Largo, a trio of ‘Socialist Classicist’ buildings constructed in the 1950s. Built as the headquarters of the Bulgarian Communist Party and other government buildings, the buildings are now home to the Council of Ministers, President’s Office and Ministry of Education along with a department store and hotel.

The large red star that was situated on a pole on the roof of the central building was replaced by a Bulgarian flag following the fall of Communism, however a helicopter was required due to the sheer size of the star. Along with being impressive buildings themselves, the President’s Office is also a site to visit due to the guardsmen located outside the main entrance, with a ‘Changing of the Guard’ ceremony every hour (although with less pomp and ceremony than some countries).

The central building of the Largo, with the Bulgarian flag replacing a large Red Star

Hidden in the square behind the President’s Office and Sofia Hotel Balkan is the 4th century church of St. George Rotunda, a stunning building which has somehow survived multiple wars including the wide-scale bombing of Sofia during WW2. Its worth noting that all the churches in Sofia are free to entre, although there may be a small charge inside if there a museum area, so if someone tries to charge you to enter it’s probably a scam!

The final stop of tour was Alexander Nevsky Square outside the Cathedral of the same name and the Church of Saint Sofia. The latter is one of the most important pieces of Early Christian Architecture in South-eastern Europe, whilst the Alexander Nevsky Carthedral is possibly the most recognisable building in Sofia and is the largest cathedral in the Balkans, with construction having taken 30 years in the late 1800s/early 1900s.

The Church of St. George Rotunda

With the walking tour complete, I decided to look in the small booklet of recommendations we were given to find somewhere to have lunch. In the booklet, Tavern Izbata’s menu is described as having “forgotten and authentic national culinary recpices” and so I headed just south of the Old Parliament Building intending to try some Bulgarian dishes. Starting with the ‘Traditional Sausage with Porcini’ which was delicious, although the sausage was much tougher than British sausages so took some effort!

For my main I had the ‘Chicken Kavarma’ which essentially seemed to be a kind of stew or casserole with an egg on top, whilst for dessert I opted for a lighter option and went with a traditional yogurt with honey and nuts. Everything was excellent and freshly cooked, with me having to wait for a few minutes to allow my main to cool, showing how quickly the food made it from the kitchen to my table. The service was also excellent and attentive, so I’d certainly recommend a visit if you can.

St. Sofia Church

Unfortunately, with Wizz Air’s recommendation to get to Sofia airport three hours before my flight, my time in Sofia itself was limited and so following lunch it was time to head to the metro and onto the airport. Having barely touched the surface of the city, I’m definitely going to have to revisit, especially as I would like to get the cable car up Sofia’s Vitosha Mountain. In fact, with the amount I didn’t do, the city might need a few more visits!

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