Bulgaria. A land of mystery, surprise and confusion for so many tourists. Unlike most believes, it’s not a savage Balkan country nobody goes to, people do have cable TV and WiFi, not everyone has dark skin, and danger is not hiding behind every corner.
The capital city of Sofia offers a pretty chilled vibe, loads of buzzing bars and cafes, an interesting mixture of old and modern architecture, an amazing cultural heritage, and some fantastic food. All of that for dirt cheap! (Surprise, surprise!) You might spend some time wondering what the hell did your waiter mean by saying “No” and nodding “Yes”, but hey, this only spices things up!
Due to the low cost airlines and the relatively small size of Sofia, exploring the city like a local is a piece of cake, so jump in for a weekend getaway.
Your plane just landed on a very unimpressive airport, but don’t worry. Just hop on the bus to the city center or get a cab, and check-in at your hotel. Unfortunately, Uber is currently not available, so make sure you exchange some “Lev” – the local currency. Even though a member of the EU, Euro is not officially used in the country, but you can get roughly 1.95 Lev for 1 Euro. The bus ticket costs 1.60 Lev and a cab should be not more than 15 Lev (7.5 Euro).
Where To Stay?
Sofia offers many different types of accommodation, based on your preferences and budget. Anything from hostels, home stays, mid-range hotels, AirBNBs to high-end classy hotels, you can find anything you need. Staying in the center makes exploring on foot really easy, but as you see, a cab to the outskirts is not expensive either.
Where to Eat?
On your first night in Sofia it would be great if you go to a traditional Bulgarian dinner with folklore show. Bulgarians still love to do it even without occasion – singing, dancing, upbeat music and the chances that you are dragged on stage. It’s an amazing way to experience the Bulgarian culture, food and traditions, and it’s loads of fun.
For the purpose, I’d recommend going to Bilyana Restaurant in Studentski Grad (Student city in translation – loads of Universities, campuses, restaurants and bars around).
Now, the art of eating Bulgarian style is that you should be able to eat a lot, drink a lot and be able to do it for a few hours. It’s a must that you start with a Shopska Salad and rakia, which is the local brandy. Order whatever appetizers you want, Bulgarian food is absolutely delicious! Bulgarians do eat a lot, so try as much as you can.
Don’t be a tourist and drink the rakia as a shot! This is probably the most dangerous thing about Bulgaria and should be treated with respect. You sip rakia. Enjoy it with your salad and the show. It’s ok to have a few, just not bottoms up as this fire water is from hell. Also the best way to learn Bulgarian is to drink rakia with the locals for a few hours.
When you’re ready, move on to the main course. Bulgarians are massive carnivores, and you can find all sorts of delicious meat stews, BBQs and delicacies. It could be trickier for vegetarians, but when you have 20 salads and 20 veggie starters on the menu, you’ll do just fine. Oh yeah, expect your menus to be a long, interesting and mouth-watering read. Now is the time to order a bottle of nice Bulgarian wine or beer as the country has a very nice own produce.
If you’re not in a food coma yet, go for a desert and coffee as well. If you don’t mind seeing the city with a hangover, you may move to the center and go to one of the many buzzing bars around. Cool spots in town are Memento, Raffy Bar & Gelato, Culture Beat, Switch, Petak (Friday) and many more. Shishman Str, Vitosha Str and the area around the National Palace of Culture have a lot to offer.
With or without a hangover, it’s a new day, so just go out and have a walk in the center. If you don’t have breakfast included in your hotel, go for a banitsa with cheese and airan from the local bakery. This is a traditional Bulgarian breakfast, very carby and very delicious. Airan is a yoghurt drink and a universal hangover cure.
A lot of the locals and foreigners alike go to Vitosha street, which is filled with many cafes, restaurants, shisha bars and shops. Sit down, have a coffee and do some people watching.
Walking all the way down Vitosha street will take you past the ancient St Nedelya church, all the way to the beautiful Statue of Sofia. Take right there and start exploring the lovely government buildings all the way to the National Theatre “Ivan Vazov”. This one of the most beautiful buildings in the city and many people chill around the fountain in the park in front if it, while different performers do their thing. One of my favorite spots in town.
Continue past the beautiful Russian church and towards St. Alexander Nevski Cathedral – the most poplar landmark in town. It’s absolutely gorgeous with its golden domes and once you get inside, you get the idea of how massive it actually is.
To kill the thirst from the walk, go down to Kristal park and enjoy a drink in the bar. It’s never too early to drink in Bulgaria. After all, It’s 5 o’clock somewhere.
If your tummy is roaring, it’s time for Happy Bar & Grill – one of the preferred restaurants in town. Great European food, drinks, service and atmosphere. And again, remember to take your time and enjoy the meal. There’s no rush.
Taking a walk in Borisova garden after lunch will do you good. The locals like to stroll on the beautiful alleys, chill on the grass or take pictures by the water lily lake.
When you’re ready, head back to the center to the National Palace of Culture – another popular landmark in town. This is where Vitosha street begins and your tour around the city is pretty much over. Wander around, chill, drink, do whatever you want until dinner time.
Dinner – eat and drink … again!
For dinner you may go to Shtastlivetsa Restaurant on Vitosha street as it’s another popular place in town. It’s named after one of the most famous Bulgarian traveling poets Aleko Konstantinov, and it means ‘The happy guy”.
In Bulgaria eating animal sub-products is normal, so if you’re feeling adventurous go for tongue in butter, chicken livers, chicken hearts or even lamb’s head. And Shopska salad with rakia, of course. For the vegetarians I can recommend stuffed peppers with cheese, mish-mash or vegetable hot-pot.
Fun Fact: Bulgarian cuisine is very meaty, but by tradition, all the meals on Christmas Eve dinner are vegan!
After dinner go for a drink in one of the cool bars around and maybe shake your booty in a night club. PM, Carrousel, Culture Beat and Terminal 1 are just a few of the popular spots in town. In some of them you might have to pay 10 Lev entrance just to get in – no drinks included. With an average price of 4 Lev for a beer and 10 for a cocktail though, you’ll surely have a good time.
Survival Tip! Whatever you do, no matter how drunk you get, don’t go a to a “chalga” club (something like a soft-porn, pop-folk, gold-digger type of music and culture). On the other hand, a lot of locals do go, so if you do, I apologize in advance for how the people will look and act. Who knows, maybe you like it 🙂
Just a glimpse of chalga culture
Late Night Munch
Chances are that by the time you leave the club, you’ll be hungry again or simply have the munchies. No problem! There’s plenty of places in Sofia which are open 24/7 or till very late. Ugo Pizza and Divaka Pub are among the most popular ones. If you go to Divaka, make sure to order the garlic and dill chicken wins – the ONLY flavor I miss as a vegetarian! Dink airan to sober up or get a beer to knock you out completely – both are quite normal.
Fun fact: Bulgarians nod the other way around to say yes and no. This can be very confusing, especially if you’re trying to order at 4am. The legend has it that while Bulgaria was under the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish would put a knife at their throats and ask them if the give up the Christian faith. This is when the Bulgarians decided to reverse the meaning of the nod, saving their religion and their lives.
Morning. Hangover. Maybe you have a flight to catch. Who cares, you must have had an amazing night as Sofia’s night life has a lot to offer.
Cure The Hangover
The hangover brunch for a lot of carnivore Bulgarians is Shkembe Chorba – a soup made from pig’s stomach, spiced up with garlic and vinegar dressing and hot chillies. It does sound gross and there’s a huge debate even between Bulgarians of it’s deliciousness, but combined with a beer it does cure a hangover (experience from my distant non-vegetarian years). I’d personally drink a few liters of airan and move on, as the people on your flight might throw you out (there’s a lot of garlic in the sauce!).
If you have more time, go for a hike or visit the National Musem of History, where you can see beautiful ancient Bulgarian treasures and craft.
If you fancy a hike, you may go to Boyana Waterfall and Momina Skala Hut to enjoy the sun (keep in mind it’s a long hike, so you’ll need more or less the whole day). In the winter even skiing is an option as you can get to the slopes of Vitosha mountain within an hour.
Whatever you do, I’m sure you’ll be pleasantly surprised by Sofia and everything it has to offer. The people are friendly, the food is awesome, prices are cheap and it has lots of nature.
Give this weekend plan a try and let me know what you think.
In the meantime, spread the word and share this post so that more people know how to explore Sofia as a local 🙂
Highlights from Sofia