Hello fellow travelers! Alexx here from Finding Alexx. I'm on a year-long solo adventure in a new country every week for a year, with my route based entirely on the cheapest flight every Tuesday. Yes, it's as hectic as it sounds! This crazy adventure took me to Sofia, a beautiful hidden gem in the Balkans and in the Bulgarian capital. Here's everything you need to know when considering a trip to Sofia, what to do, where to sleep, how to get around, and more.
Accommodation options in Sofia
Let's start with good news … Sofia is the ideal place if you are on a budget! There are many cheap hostels in Sofia with dorm beds for less than $ 13 a night, or you can get budget hotel rooms from $ 32 a night.
I'm usually a big supporter of accommodations with full kitchens so you can save money on groceries, but eating in Sofia is so cheap (and good!) That, frankly, there is no need to have your own food Cook.
Some great options for overnight accommodations in Sofia are the Generaator Hostel, the Peter Pan Hostel, the 5 Vintage Guest House and the aptly named Hotel Cheap.
How to get around in Sofia
If you are in the city center and you don't mind taking your steps up, you can probably see the city on foot quite easily. Many of the major sights are within walking distance, and as I wandered aimlessly through the city, I found many of my top recommendations for eating!
If you prefer to get somewhere faster (and maybe drier), there are trams, buses, and the subway. A single trip costs BGN 1.60 (approx. 90 cents) or a day ticket with unlimited travel costs BGN 4 (approx. USD 2).
There is no Uber in Sofia, but there is a great local taxi app called TaxiMe that does the same. You can sign in with your UK number, add your credit card and welcome a ride through the app like anywhere else.
To get to and from the airport easily and relatively cheaply, I would recommend taking a taxi from the airport taxi rank. Only one company is authorized to offer taxi services at the airport and there are standard tariffs. So follow the signs to the official taxi area and you will be looked after. To get downtown, you should pay around BGN 15-20 ($ 8-12).
On a tight budget? You can take the subway from Terminal 2 at the airport to Serdika station for BGN 1.60 (cash only, so you need an ATM at the airport) and then change to a bus, tram, or other subway to get closer to get to your hotel
How much budget for Sofia
Yay for cheap goals! Like my week in Warsaw, Sofia was a real treat for my wallet.
If you're looking for a challenge, Sofia can actually only experience $ 15 to $ 20 a day. This would cover cheap hostel accommodation ($ 9 to $ 13) and supermarket or bakery food (up to $ 7). You can see many of the beautiful buildings for free, and with a little googling you can do a city tour yourself to learn more about the city's communist history.
To add a good local meal ($ 6 to $ 10), a drink ($ 3), and a free tour ($ 6) donation, I would budget around $ 40 recommend per day.
You can get freshly baked treats from local bakeries for less than BGN 1 (approx. 65 cents), decent sandwiches or salads for lunch from BGN 4 to BGN 8 ($ 1.95 to USD 4.50), or a more fancy dinner from 12 up to BGN 20 ($ 6.50) – $ 12). A local beer costs between BGN 2 and BGN 6, depending on where you are ($ 1.30 to USD 4).
The best things to do in Sofia
Although the city is not as well known as other Eastern European hotspots like Prague and Budapest, it has a lot to offer and there are endless things to do in Sofia no matter what you get involved with.
Gain an insight into Bulgaria's rocky past, buy second-hand treats at flea markets, eat your heart on all my trips to some of my favorite cafes, or escape the urban jungle and explore another nearby city. Here are five of the best things to do on your trip to Sofia.
1. Learn more about communist history
Bulgaria's political past is still interwoven throughout the city, with huge headquarters, architecture, museums and statues that represent the communist era from 1946 to 1989.
Whether you are an absolute newcomer to communist history or you all know how Bulgaria affects it, there are some places and tours that you can add to your communism class in Sofia.
When I came from New Zealand, where communism has never been touched near our little corner of the world and where I chose math and science classes on history, geography, and politics (nerd, I know), it was mine Limited knowledge of the communist regimes of Eastern Europe.
The first step is the free Sofia hike, which takes place three or four times a day (depending on the season) and is based on tips. Your local guide will take you to around 20 must-see attractions in Sofia, and get a good overview of the city's history and politics, as well as tips from a local on activities, food, and sights.
Free Sofia also offers a daily communism tour for just $ 11 that takes you on a three-hour walk through the city's communist landmarks and gives you an insight into the life of Sofia in those 43 years.
Do you want more? Visit the National Historical Museum or the Museum of Socialist Art, which houses the giant red star that was located at the headquarters of the Communist Party before it was overthrown in the late 1980s.
2. See the most beautiful religious buildings in the city
While the predominant religion in Bulgaria is the Bulgarian Orthodox (around 60%), there are some simply breathtaking churches, mosques, cathedrals and monasteries in the capital.
Start with the city's most epic building and one of the coolest buildings I've ever seen, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. This impressive Orthodox church was founded in 1882, but was only completed 30 years later. It is one of the most famous landmarks of the Bulgarian capital. It has a 45 m high gold-plated dome and an interior made of onyx, marble and other unusual elements materials.
Other Orthodox churches worth visiting are St. Nicholas Church (a Russian Orthodox Church), Sveti Sedmochislenitsi Church and Sveta Nedelya Church, which has a dramatic history, including a bombing the Communist Party in 1925, in which over 500 people were present, the Bulgarian elite politicians were injured and 150 killed.
Islam is the second most common religion after Eastern Orthodoxy. Up to 15% of the population identify as Muslims. Bulgaria was under Ottoman rule for almost 500 years, from the late 13th century until the Ottoman Empire was taken over by the Russian Empire in 1878. After the liberation by the victory of Russia and the declaration of independence in 1908, many buildings from that time were converted or destroyed. The 16th-century Banja Bashi Mosque is the only functioning mosque in Sofia and as such is a busy hub for the city's Muslim community.
Fans of ancient history should stop at Sveti Georgi, a 4th century Christian church built by the Romans in the ancient city of Serdica. It is the oldest building in the city and houses some breathtaking 10th century frescoes.
3. Devour all cheap food
I am a big proponent of cooking your own food while traveling on a tight budget, and I usually allow myself to spend a bit of money on a meal or two each week. Buttttt in Sofia, I have eaten every single meal throughout the week. Yes, I said every single meal!
The local food scene is not only cheap but also really impressive. From bakeries where you can get four baked goods or pastries for the equivalent of € 1, to instagramable brunch spots with next-level dishes, to traditional restaurants that serve homemade dishes, I would literally return in a second just for the food.
There is definitely a restaurant in Sofia that is perfect for any kind of food, but here are some of my favorites.
Bistro Pesto was my number one and I'm not ashamed to say that I had lunch there four days in a row! They are a super cute corner restaurant near the main shopping boulevard and serve Italian food day and night. The Panini menu is incredible; authentic Italian ingredients and a Bulgarian price. Win win!
If you're looking for a funky food photo (no judgment here), check out the brunch menu in Rainbow Factory or Boho. I didn't make it to the rainbow factory, but my roommates rave about it and I can personally vouch for the Oreo pancake stack in Boho. Mmmmhmmmm.
And for an inexpensive but delicious dinner, you should definitely visit the legends at Shtastlivetsa, a chain restaurant with a HUGE selection of homemade dishes. The prices are understandably a bit higher than at the local street vendors, but the service is fantastic, the meals are huge and there are lots of hearty Bulgarian dishes to choose from.
4. Go to the mountains
Sofia's landscape is rare in relation to European capitals because a mountain range is so close to the city center. The bottom of Vitosha Mountain is only about 10 km from the city and easy to reach by taxi, public transport or on foot if you want to spend a day.
In summer Vitosha is a popular hiking destination, to which city dwellers flee on the weekend to get some fresh air. The highest peak is 2290 m high, but there are also hikes around the lower half of the mountain to various rivers and waterfalls.
In winter the mountain is a ski area, perfect for all snow hares on a budget. Although it is significantly less developed than other European ski resorts such as Switzerland and France, your day pass and rental will be much cheaper and your money will go much further.
Vitosha is not only a hotspot for adrenaline activities, it also houses another must in Sofia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Boyana Church. Boyana is an 11th century Orthodox church and is famous for the many frescoes it houses, especially a collection from 1259.
5. Take a day trip
Outside of Sofia itself there are some pretty incredible places to see and experience. So if you have the time, I would recommend taking a day or two out!
My first choice for a day trip from Sofia is Plovdiv, another Bulgarian city and one of the two European Capitals of Culture in 2019. Plovdiv is a few hours by bus from Sofia and tickets cost around £ 6 each way. Once you're in town, I would recommend taking a free walking tour that is run by the same organization that did the Sofia tour. You have a daily city tour all year round and a free graffiti tour from October to April. And if you want to explore yourself, don't miss the unique colored houses that line the streets of the old town. They are different from any other European old town I've seen!
Fancy a workout? There is no better place to get around in Bulgaria than in the region of the seven Rila Lakes. As you guessed, seven Rila Lakes are home to seven glacial lakes in the Rila Mountains. All are between 2100 m and 2500 m high. It is possible, but it is difficult to get there by public transport. It is best to rent a car and drive (1.5 to 2 hours) or book an organized day tour or a shuttle bus. Bonus tip: don't miss the Rila Monastery, a 10th century Eastern Orthodox monastery and the largest in the country. Worth a visit!
And there you have it, a full travel guide for Sofia and beyond for your Bulgarian adventure! Book your flight to Sofia now with STA Travel. If you want to follow more of my adventures, you can find me on Instagram.