We picked Sofia as our trip destination almost by chance. We had to work within the limits of a comfortable budget, last minute booking and an Iranian passport + Dutch residence permit.
This east European capital had been on my travel wish list for a long time and I can’t recall any real reason but my long lasting fascination for the word sophia, from the ancient Greek knowledge, wisdom. I just unconsciously thought that I place with such a powerful name could not be but worth visiting.
I was definitely pleased with this subconscious decision.
With its long history, Sofia was occupied, demolished, conquered, converted and rebuilt. In all these phases the city stayed true to its past resulting in a present collection of layers of great value.
In this specific case beauty really lays in the juxtaposition of elements and the general laid-back but yet energetic atmosphere of the city.
Sofia is one of those places that need to be read without relativity concepts. It’s a very special city and it can’t be compared to any other European capital, the risk is to be disappointed. If instead you pay attention to its specialties it can be a precious discovery.
This said; don’t expect it to be easy. Tourism may be shy but marketing and promotion about Sofia go a bit over enthusiastic at times. Before leaving I had read articles describing widely spoken English and bike friendly infrastructure. Well, I wouldn’t count on those and I would recommend to always double check your sources (including Lonely Planet and the airline free magazine). In 3 days we found ourselves in front of closed restaurant, impossible locations or not existing addresses. Sofia is young, underground and moving fast, places open and close or even look like they’ve never been there and this is all part of the fun.
OUR FRIDAY-MONDAY TOUR
Friday: the first impression
We arrived on Friday evening, queued for the passport control and queued a bit more to withdraw Bulgarian Levas (at a rate of 1euro = 1,95leva, it makes calculations quite easy). Once set, we decided to share a shuttle taxi to reach our accommodation.
I love going around by taxi in a new city and I love arriving at night, it gives the chance of having two first impressions. Sofia first memories are connected to techno music, fresh breeze and humble poor suburbs.
There was something cute in the way the driver took shortcuts through the poor areas near the airport. I immediately thought that in no other touristic capital the airport shuttle would chose the dodgy path, but it was honest and real and it gave us the chance to have an unfiltered look at the city. We were the last one to be dropped off and by the time we had reached our guest house we were already very happy with the choice of a super central accommodation. It was fascinating how suddenly the suburbs turned into the city center, just on the other side of a small hill.
We checked in at the 5 Vintage Guest House and it looked even better from the inside. The interiors were very well decorated and the shared facilities were perfect: small kitchen, free snacks, super clean showers and toilets and strong wifi signal. On the plus side everything looked exactly like in pictures. We dropped our backpacks and walked around looking for a place to eat at 10pm.
After a couple of false steps (K.E.V.A restaurant closed down), we arrived at the Soon and Moon, it was probably my favorite place: the waitress kept the kitchen open for us and suggested an amazing Bulgarian eggplant appetizer, the food tasted like home, the place felt like home. On top of all that, their deserts were the perfect combination of taste and healthy ingredients.
According to the time difference, it was already passed bed time, so we took the long way back to our accommodation and called it a night.
Saturday: Sofia’s art
We woke up early enough to enjoy the included breakfast and went back to bed for the perfect nap (yes, that was the mood for this weekend trip). Fully charged and aware of the not super positive weather forecast, we decided to walk along the main attractions and head to the National Gallery Square 500, where all the permanent collection of the National Art Museum has been moved to at the beginning of 2016.
But first, coffee.
We stopped at Bistro Pesto, a cute tiny restaurant-café where they served coffee out of a moka machine into handmade ceramics cups.
From there, we walked along the National Theater, the Temple Sveti Nikolay and the Cathedral Saint Alexandar Nevski to finally arrive at the National Gallery Square 500, a beautiful building, previously the royal palace.
We were the only visitors (except for a father with his young son) and that made the whole experience of the museum very particular. As Sourena said, “like this it doesn’t matter if you like the art or not, it’s a meditative experience anyway”. The collection is massive, divided between the royal palace and a modern extension, both beautiful and in perfect contrast. We were impressed by the beauty of some of these unknown art pieces and the way contemporary history gave a gloomy vibe to the paintings.
By then it was time for lunch. After another couple of false steps (Art Deco Bulgaria turned into a jewelry shop), we had the chance to try one of the most hip places in town: Supa Star. Bulgarians love soup so much that they have a soup fast food. The place is small and cozy, their soups nothing outstanding but indeed it’s the right place to meet a mixed crowd.
From there we walked to the metro station Sofia University and took line 1 direction G. M. Dimitrov. Close by is the Socialist Art Musem. It’s very interesting how, despite not being proud of their socialist moment, they didn’t destroy its traces. They decided instead to collect all the sculptures, propaganda posters and paintings and moved them far away in a museum. It was truly fascinating to learn about recent history of a country through its artistic production from that period. It’s definitely worth a visit.
On the way back to the center we walked along Boulevard Vitosha, the most commercial street of the city with a beautiful view to the mountains on the south.
After resting for a while, we went out for dinner at the Moma Bulgarian Food and Wine, the food was good and the décor of the restaurant was beautiful, but there were only tourist dining; not a good sign. It made the whole atmosphere very fake.
Satisfied and disappointed at the same time, we decided to head to Madara bar of which I had read in a travel blog. It was supposed to be in the Central Mineral Bath, but to our surprise it looked like it never existed. We kept asking people if they knew of a bar in the Central Mineral Bath and they all looked at us like if we were completely nuts (and just a little bit disrespectful). At the end we gave up and decided to go to The Cocktail Bar, a place we had seen in the morning right next to our accommodation. It was a blast, we were lucky to get a sit at the central bar overlooking the bar tenders serving cocktails at a surprising speed. Their drinks were so delicious we had to have 6 of them. Gladly we were very close to our bed.
Just slightly hangover we had breakfast and decided to grab a coffee at Daro, a small place right behind the corner. The coffee was very good and it felt like the kind of place where I could spend a lot of time: friendly, bright and easy going.
Recharged, we went for a walk in a sunny but very cold Sofia. Strangely we could not feel any difference between the vibe of a Saturday or a Sunday (and then later a Monday): it was busy, but calm and safe in any case.
We headed to the Rotunda, an extremely interesting example of preservation. This little church from the 4th century has been kept and surrounded by the Presidential Palace. Urban planning is fascinating in Sofia and since we are on the subject I would like to point out a funny detail that I noticed only in this city: the urban blocks are introvert, few accesses are directly from the street, most commonly instead the main entrance to a building is from its side or the courtyard.
Back to the walk, we passed the Cathedral Church Sveta Nedelya, sneaked picked the Ancient Ruins of the former city of Serdika, passed in front of the Central Mineral Bath (by day this time), the Temple Sveti Nikolay (again) and had a break at the Sense Rooftop Bar. That place was great. It has the best view over the city, luxurious interiors and great morning cocktails: we tried the detox with beetroot and the 4-20, a coconut water-banana shake and they were both very delicious. Their prices were slightly higher, but nothing extreme. This realization made us think that next time we should stay at the Sense Hotel.
While speaking about economics, we visited the Cathedral Saint Alexandar Nevski: it is a beautiful example of an old soul in a young body. Built only in the 1913, it has outstanding dark interiors with high ceiling and candle light illumination. We quickly realized that we were getting hungry so we walked along Tzar Ivan Shishman Str. and stopped at The Little Things. This is adorable place is located in a 2 floors house and every room is decorated with sweet details, but the layout makes it very difficult for the waitress to keep up with the requests. We had a salad and meatballs and they were both delicious.
We decided to have dessert at the next stop on the map. We kept walking along Tzar Ivan Shishman Str., one of Sofia most hip street, and headed to Made in Home. Even though many guides recommend it for dinner I really think that this place is a perfect day time spot. We had tea and a massive cheesecake and enjoyed the happy vibe of this place. Here we realized that, despite being window people, here in Sofia we prefer sitting at the back corner and watch the lively dynamics of the restaurant or café. Sofia’s streets are honestly not so beautiful while indoor the atmosphere is completely different.
After we managed to digest all the lunch, we went for aperitivo. We had the plan to enjoy another rooftop view from the 19th floor at the Pri Orlite, but once we went up it was so empty and outdated that we run away (sorry…). We just had time to overlook the also quite empty stadium during a match between Bulgaria and Belarus for the World Cup qualification. Confused by the missed potential of this unique place and by the empty stadium during such an important match, we went to One More Bar. There we had the perfect aperitivo: bruschetta with olive paste and citrus based light cocktails in a warm and young atmosphere. From the aperitivo we went for dinner at the Bottega all’angolo, even though I wanted to try as much as possible local food, I felt too much like having pasta. Well it was not a brilliant choice, the place is cute and homey while being modern, but the food was barely ok (with an exception for the pumpkin soup that was very good).
Monday: pure discovery
Having breakfast out is still something Bulgarians don’t embrace much, plus for them breakfast is strictly savory: there are some variations, but the base is bread and feta-like cheese. Aware of this, we wanted to test what would happen if we tried to have a sweet breakfast out.
Indeed when we entered the 100 Grama Sladki, the woman behind the bar looked very suspicious about our breakfast requests (even more when I preferred a sweet croissant with almond custard over a savory one). All in all, we managed to accomplish the mission.
We knew that at that point we had just a couple of hours before our way to the airport so we thought to follow a Wizz Air suggestion: the Culture Lab, a shared space for creatives and artists to produce and sell their products, plus indoor skate park, plus café. To this day, we are not really sure about where this place is or if it even exists. A very confused taxi driver tried to help us finding the address they promote, but eventually we gave up and decided to go for coffee instead.
I had heard of a neighborhood on the east of the city center and I just asked the taxi driver to drop us of there. That was a great idea. We stopped at the Hlebar, a hip bakery-café where they have the most amazing cakes and quiche and, not less important, it’s the place where we saw the first hipster while in Sofia.
From there we took it easy, enjoyed their wifi connection (I have to mention that everywhere you go in Sofia, a strong wifi connection is there waiting for you) and the good coffee. While Sourena was reading about the Bulgarian elections of the day before I ventured around the neighborhood. I walked along Oborishte Str. till the Doktorska Gradina, a public garden where ruins of the old Serdika are scattered around. This whole are of the city looked richer and more polished; a nice contrast to some decadent areas we had seen in the previous days.
We took a taxi to the airport and when we arrived we realized that we still had 10levas (around 5 euros) to spend, so we decided to gamble it and invest any profit in Bulgaria, when we lost our first 6levas we decided to use the remaining 4 to buy beer instead.