europe, travel

Capitals of Europe: Sofia in a Weekend

In November 2017, having started dating my boyfriend, Davis, that summer, in the throws of young love we planned a trip away together. Sadly, nearing the end of the year, neither of us had the holiday days to spare with work and so we found flights departing London in the early hours of Saturday morning and landing back home around midnight the following evening. We found cheap flights to Sofia in Bulgaria, a place we both fancied visiting, so thought- well, why not go?

So if you too find yourself in Sofia for the weekend, feel free to follow these dos and don’ts!

Above all, prepare yourself for lots of walking, and history!

However, if you can spend more time there, I would suggest you do!

Language: Bulgarian

Currency: Lev (£1 = 2.25 Lev at time of posting)

Accommodation: We had found a 4 star hotel for very affordable prices, and my regret of not staying longer was that I could not take advantage of the free spa. Basically, it is easy to splash out on something fancy and still pay barely anything.

SATURDAY:

We landed in Sofia and made our way to the city centre from the airport via the metro, which was easy to navigate and access:

Metro to Serdika (main central hub in the city) – takes about 20 minutes and costs 1.60 lev

Bus – the 84, or the 184 taking 35 – 45 minutes. Tickets avaiable from machines by the bus stations and accessible in multiple languages. Tickets cost 1.60 lev

20 Minute taxi costing about 17 Lev but make sure you go to the taxi rank and arrange the taxi yourself, don’t go along with anyone coming up to hassle you.

In the city:

I really enjoyed strolling down the main boulevard, Vitosha Boulevard, with vibrant bars and food spots to either side while the beautiful mountains loomed in the background.

As a big coffee drinker (and someone who had had very little sleep) I enjoyed picking up delicious, strong espresso for 25p in the newsagents and grabbing some nice pastries and snacks.

Sofia contains many beautiful green spaces, and the city was great to just wander around and discover places. South Park and Borisova Grudina were lush and vibrant even in November, and contained great statues!

There were many interesting statues and monuments to see. The Monument to the Soviet Army, like in other former occupied nations under the USSR, remains but is constantly altered and protested. Often times, it has been painted in variety of ways (superheroes, supporting Ukraine, and such), when we went there were still leftover paint marks.

The National Palace of Culture’s looming presence near the Soviet monument can be seen from the outside. Unlike the taller Palaces as seen in places like Warsaw or Riga (check out the guide here!), it is short and wide. Built in 1981 to celebrate 1300 years of Bulgaria.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is, arguably, the most iconic image of Sofia. This stunning Orthodox cathedral’s construction finished in 1912, having begun in 1882. Situated in the middle of a roundabout, it is striking on the landscape with its large dome and vibrant colours. The inside is lofty and dark, full of icons of saints and relics. Please be respectful and dress appropriately (no shorts, exposed skin etc) and If you wish to take photos inside, you’ll have to pay but entry is free.

Outside the cathedral was an interesting flea market, just a few stalls and random goods being sold. My boyfriend picked up some Soviet era (and older) pin badges, and other nick nacks. Definitely worth a visit but if you are just there for a weekend and travelling light, try not to overstuff your bags!

Near to the cathedral St Sophia Church, from which the city gained its name. St Sofia church dates back to the 4th century, and a Roman theatre stood in its location in the 2nd century. St Sofia church has a fascinating history, giving its name to the city in the 14th century, and being converted into a mosque with minarets added in the 16th century.

Beneath the church, you can explore the necropolis, featuring an exciting array of tombs and mosaics from the structure’s long history. Entry is 6 Lev

That evening, we returned to the bolevard and stopped in various bars for cheap, strong cocktails, before having a nice traditional Bulgarian meal in a traditional themed restaurant. There are many of this kind in Sofia, and I highly recommend anything served in a bread bowl, as that is the superior form of serving food.

A place to check out is Raketa Rakia – a Soviet era style restaurant (similar to Soviet cocktail bar in my Cluj Napoca, Romania guide)

SUNDAY:

For day two of the weekend trip, I recommend this action packed session.

Check out – get some breakfast at a nice little cafe – pick up snacks and water – hit up the stunning and historical Boyana Church, get your legs ready for a long trek up (and down) to Boyana waterfall, then back into the city for a very fancy but insanely cheap meal before catching the metro/cab back to the airport to fly home.

IF YOU CAN FIND SOMEWHERE IN SOFIA TO SECURELY LEAVE YOUR BAG, I WOULD HIGHLY ADVISE DOING SO

Boyana Church

This truely stunning building is well worth the trek and admission. It is a short way outside the city, and short (around 15 min) cheap taxi can take you there, if not, the very cheap number 63 bus should take you to the Boyana area.

Built in the 10th century and enlarged in the 13th, the church contains beautiful medieval frescos. Predominantly decorated from 1259, there are some glimpses of the 10th century art as well as later. Due to the age and preservation of the frescos, photos can not be taken inside the church and groups are only allowed in for about 10 minutes at a time.

Entry is 10lv for adults and 2lv for students. If you go on the last Monday of the month at 3, it is free. Please book in advance.

There is a small gift shop to pick up professional photos of the inside of the church and other souvenirs, as well as the walled church grounds to walk around.

From the church, follow signs to get to the starting point of Boyena waterfall.

Please read this story if you would like a what NOT to do, and I shall advise after what I wish we did better:

With our flight back later that evening, we had checked out of the hotel early, and brought all of our gear with us, as well as all the food and drink we would need for the climb. We had opted to not leave out bags in the hotel or in a storage area and instead use them for the journey. I had also not overly planned a big hike for this planned romantic weekend with my new beau and hence was not in overly adequate hiking gear. We followed the signs and carried on towards the waterfall. After a short while, the part split into two with signs indicating ‘long path’ (1hr 30) and ‘short path’ (45 minutes). With our flights that evening and still wanting to have time in the evening for a nice meal, we opted for the shorter path, although we were aware that is was supposed to be tougher. Both of us archaeologists who worked outside in all weathers and all ground conditions, we felt the tough walk was just people complaining…

The short path carried along the eastern side of the mountainside, with rough terrain and steep climbs, with no real obvious access points at times. As we continued to climb, a sheer drop rose to our right side, the river below to fall into. Eventually, a military camp appeared, and soldiers with guns pacing along the chainlink fence. A bit of an unnerving sight but we carried on scrabbling up the uneven and very steep path, usually muddy roots to cling on to or smooth rocks. We began to get a bit nervous by how much we had not anticipated the treacherousness of the journey, and even more nervous when at one point I grabbed a tree for support, only to find there was a thick swastika carved into it. I was not keen on running into the kind of people who would want to carve those.

Despite my complaining, Davis kept high spirits, even though we weren’t sure how much further we could go, nor if there was any way to join the slow, easier path. A comfort was that we were not alone on the path and, when I wasn’t carefully watching my footing, it was nice to look down at the river to our right or turn to see the views amongst the dying winter trees.

Following the river, jumping over streams, we followed the commotion and finally came across the waterfall! It was nice, but my mind was occupied by how we would return for our flight. PLEASE GIVE YOURSELF MORE TIME THAN WE DID. We spent some time at the waterfall before carrying on up to the top where we knew there was a car park and small cafe.

Davis, having only dated me for a few months, had not learnt a cardinal rule of being around me: Don’t believe me when I say I know the route to a place, and maybe double check when I am convinced about something. In this respect, I was adament that I had read there was a bus or other transport back into Sofia from the top of the mountain and all would be fine when we got up there. So finally at the top, with a little cafe and parking spot, we looked around for any transport back and none was to be seen. We pop into the cafe and asked and they told us that, indeed, there was no transport. I was now panicking as it would be at least another two hours back down and it was getting dark and our flight was later that evening. Finally we see a taxi approach the top and we are estatic. The taxi driver and his female front seat passanger pull into a parking space and we approach the car, hopeful that once she leaves, we can use the cab to return to the city. Sadly, as I approached the cab, hand waving, face full of delight at our saviour, the driver turned his light off, him and the lady pushed their seats back, and they proceeded to get it on while I walked away dejected.

Luckily, as my panic was rising, we could use the free EU roaming to look up taxis in Sofia and some poor, amazing sod drove out to pick us up and took us back (about 20 minutes wait for them to come, 20 minute drive) and it came to about £15 which, for a 40 minute journey, wasn’t too bad. It also meant we had time to chill in the city and went for a good meal.

This July we will celebrate four years together. We luckily laugh about this moment. This is also not the first or last story of me getting lost in woods in foreign counties, though I am getting much better (See my Cluj Napoca, and Crete posts).

Whilst this is a cautionary tale, I still believe it is entirely doable to spend the day like we did, but please PLEASE don’t be idiots like us and actually pack well, take the route you are more comfortable with, and give yourself a lot of time. The walk was good, and coupled with the church, Boyana is a great way to spend one of your two days in Sofia.

To Do Advice: (so you may have happy memories)

  • Make sure you set off early if you plan to have a full day and a late flight.
  • IF your aim is to go up and down the mountain, make sure you have a lot of daylight hours, and give yourself about 2 hours to walk down.
  • If you plan to get a cab back down, see if you can arrange for a pick up, and make sure you have a cab company’s number to hand. We were lucky we had EU data roaming and hadn’t killed our phone batteries!
  • Find somewhere to store your stuff in town so you don’t have to carry it up the mountain.
  • Plan ahead of coming to Bulgaria if you are going to climb, and then bring sensible shoes.
  • Take trail snacks.
  • Only take the ‘short’ path if you feel comfortable on the more irregular paths, otherwise take the longer path/as the scrambling and unsure steps will make you take as long!

We had a fantastic meal a Shtastliveca, a stunning restaurant, and we treated ourselves to multiple courses and lots of drinks (I needed them after the waterfall debacle). I would highly recommend eating here as our money went very far and allowed us to have a fancy meal for very affordable prices.

With our new found affection for Bulgarian cabs, we got one back to the airport. However, if you heed the warnings and actually give yourself time, you can make it again cheaper by planning the bus times!

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