The capital of Bulgaria, Sofia is one of Europe’s most affordable destinations. It consistently appears on top budget travel destination lists both for Europe and the world. But just because it is affordable, is it worth visiting?
After spending quite a bit of time in both Bulgaria and Sofia, we think both Sofia and Bulgaria are great places to visit. Read on to find out what makes Sofia one of Europe’s most affordable destinations.
Bulgaria’s overall population is about 7.5 million and roughly 1.4 million of them live in Sofia. Like so many countries around the world the overall population is in decline.
But we met a lot of young Bulgarians that are very proud of their country and city and very enthusiastic to share it with you. (More on that below).
There is a perception of Bulgaria as dull and drab from the Communist era, but modern Sofia is lively, cosmopolitan, full of beautiful, municipal parks and still Sofia somehow manages to remain one of Europe’s most affordable destinations.
If you like cafe dining that is so popular throughout Europe; you won’t be disappointed in Sofia. Vitosha Boulevard the pedestrian street (paved in yellow bricks!) that runs through the middle of town is full of vibrant, trendy cafes and all the latest shops. The coffee scene is not bad, you can find a good coffee shop in Sofia without much effort.
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What to Do and See in Sofia
Sofia was founded over 7,000 years ago. And you might recall from our first post, Bulgaria is rich in both history and historical ruins and Sofia is no exception.
The vast majority of the things we recommend are free, which is one of the major reasons I think Sofia is one of Europe’s most affordable destinations.
The Changing of the Guard at the Presidency
You can watch the daily changing of the guard at the Presidency (government building). It includes all the pomp and circumstance you would expect. It happens on the hour, so if you can, time your visit accordingly.
The Archaeological Museum
Okay, this is the only paid activity on our list! This very unassuming-looking museum is definitely worth a visit. From the outside, the building, which was built in 1494 as a mosque gives no hint of the treasures inside.
You will recall from our first post about Bulgaria, that Bulgaria has a very long and rich history of civilization and many of the world’s oldest and finest gold artefacts from the Thracians were found here. Well this museum is the opportunity to see them.
The quality of some of the museum’s artefacts are astounding, especially given their age. You can see bottles, pottery, gold work, paintings and much more in this museum. So don’t be deceived by the outside, it is definitely worth a visit.
The churches, mosques and synagogues have stood the test of time and all are free to enter. The Bulgarian Orthodox religion is the oldest Slavic religion in the world.
A couple of churches in Sofia not to miss:
- Aleksander Nevski Cathedral-This large church completed in 1912 was built in memory of Russian soldiers that died fighting for Bulgaria’s independence during the Russian –Turkish War.
Make sure you look up in the very large, main dome to see the spectacular frescoes. The crypt within the Cathedral is part of the National Art Gallery and has religious artwork and icons from all of Bulgaria.
There is a large souvenir market outside the church. Try to resist, you will find the same items cheaper elsewhere.
- The Rotunda of Sveti Georgi (St. George) which was originally built on this site in the 4th century, then rebuilt in the 6th. The golden murals inside are stunning. This church was once a mosque, which is quite common. (Visit it after watching the changing of the guard at the Presidency.)
- The Church of Sveta Nedelya has a long and tumultuous history. The site was originally used as a medieval church. In the mid-1860′s a church was built here. That original church was the site of Bulgaria’s largest terror attack, an attempt in April, 1925 to kill then Tzar Ferdinand. Over 200 people were killed and most of the church was destroyed. It was rebuilt and remains an active congregation today.
Explore Sofia one of Europe’s Most Affordable Destinations with your Choice of Free Tours
Many cities now offer a free walking tour and we have found the quality of them to be quite good. Sofia is somewhat unique in that it offers a range of free tours, walking, biking, pub crawls, hiking and even a free food tour.
Remember those young people I mentioned that are proud of their city and country, they are behind these initiatives. Many of your guides are University students sharing their knowledge and love of where they live.
The Free Sofia Tour
This is a walking tour that will take you through all of the major landmarks in and around the city center. The Free Sofia Tour is a good one to do early on your trip to learn your way around. It includes many of the landmarks and churches I have mentioned above.
The Free Sofia Bike Tour
The bike tour and the hiking tour (yes they take you on a hike to the mountains near the city) are run by Sofia Green Tour. The bike tour is free of charge if you have your own bike, or the first stop is the local bike shop where you can rent one for the tour for 10 lev. It runs every day from April to November (and other times of the year by prior arrangement).
We really enjoyed this tour. It takes you a bit further out than the walking tour and provides a great opportunity to explore the many parks (several of them quite large) near the city center including Borisova Gradina Park, Loven Park and Uhzen Park. It is largely on bike paths and other than a few road crossings you are not near traffic.
Free Food Tour
And yes, there is even a free food tour! Complete with samples and tastings. This tour will introduce you to some of Bulgaria’s classic dishes as well as introduce you to some of Sofia’s best cafes and restaurants.
The tour is run by Balkan Bites. And if you eat, we recommend you take this tour! It is a great way to learn about the food and culture and will definitely add some depth to your eating adventures in Bulgaria.
Festivals and Theatre
There are a number of festivals that seem to always be happening in the parks around the city. In addition the Ivan Vazov National Theater has a regular program of shows. Unfortunately while we were there, none of the performances were in English so we did not attend an event.
We did however attend the Opera at the Sofia Opera and Ballet Theater which is located near the center. For a European Opera house, it was very affordable. The show was high quality and the theater itself is magnificent. We bought our tickets at the theater ticket box office.
If You Go to Sofia
Getting to Sofia One of Europe’s Most Affordable Destinations
Sofia is surprisingly well serviced by both international and budget European airlines including Ryan Air, Easy Jet, and Wizz. Affordable and reliable air service helps keep Sofia one of Europe’s most affordable destinations. It is easy to fly direct from a number of cities into Sofia. It can also be reached by train. Your visa, which enables most tourists to stay for 90 days (depending on where your passport is issued) is stamped in your passport upon arrival at the airport.
Where to Stay in Sofia
There are a range of accommodation options to fit any style and budget. Luxury hotels, budget and hostels are all available. We used AirBnB and rented a very affordable apartment close to the center, which enabled us to shop at the local markets, try all the local dishes and walk to everything. The price for both food and accommodation will help reinforce the position of Sofia as one of Europe’s most affordable destinations. If you have not yet tried AirBnB, this post about how to use AirBnB might be of interest and this referral code for a discount off your first stay.
If you are looking for a hotel, we use and recommend Booking.com.
Sofia One of Europe’s Most Affordable Destinations
In closing, we really enjoyed Sofia. It has loads of the charm of any other European capital city and has plenty to see and do to keep you busy. Add to this the fact Sofia is one of Europe’s most affordable destinations and I am sure you will have a great visit.
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