Lots of my website visitors are reaching out with the question – what to see and do in Sofia within a limited time, usually up to 3 days? What are the best sights in Sofia, where to start with, to get as good as possible understanding of what the capital of Bulgaria has to offer.
Here are my tips on getting the most of a short stay in Sofia.
1.Start with a free tour
Any time I myself visit a foreign country, I try to join the free city tour (if any) the soonest possible. Free tours (donation-based) give you just the right overview of the city sights, history, bets places to eat/drink, what to do in a short stay and – you can even ask them specific questions in the end.
Free Sofia Tour is no exception and, having personally joined it, I can say it’s one of the best I’ve visited. In approx 2 hours they take you through all major sights in Sofia, give you an overview of Bulgarian history, customs and may even pinpoint some major events happening in the capital and worth joining. The tours are held every single day, 3 times throughout the day (times varying depending on season, check their site freesofiatour.com).
Sofia Bike Tour is another option to explore the capital, but on a bike. You can rent a standard bike from them (6 EUR) or an electric one, and explore either the landmarks of Sofia or landmarks + parks. Even though the center of Sofia is not very much bike-friendly (yet), they do pick good and safe biking routes.
The Free Balkan Bites Food Tour is a another great free tour option (hardly available anywhere else in Europe) and I recommend you to take it after any of the above two. This free tour (donation-based) will get you familiar with many delicacies from the local cuisine in a pretty short time (so, you will have some tips on where and what to dine during your stay 🙂 All food you taste during the tour is free of charge!
The next list of Sofia sights will be listed in the order you can visit them, making yourself a complete route.
2. Visit Alexander Nevsky cathedral
The Nevsky cathedral is maybe the monument Sofia has been most famous for. Built in honor of the Russian solders who gave their life for the liberation of Bulgaria, this is one of the largest orthodox churches in Europe, with 12 bells. Its domes have been recently covered in gold. If you are a fan of Orthodox art – visit the Crypt to the left of Alexander Nevski church entry (to your left when facing the entry). The Crypt had been initially planned to be a tomb place for the Bulgarian kings, but none of the kings was buried there and eventually it became an icon museum, storing more than 200 icons dating as far as the 13th century.
3. Visit St Sofia church and the necropolis beneath it
This is a favorite place of mine in Sofia, not just because it gave the name of the city. There is a specific spirit of this spot, given that there were several earlier churches built on this spot, as well as a Roman necropolis. In the 16th century is was converted to a mosque but two earthquakes destroyed it severely, hence the ottomans decided god was punishing them and abandoned the mosque. In 1900 started the restoration of the church to its present state. Since the church has no bell tower – its bell is hung from a tree in front of the church.
When entering the church, look at the glass floor – you will see there the remnants from the previous churches. Also, on the left side (after you enter) you will see steps taking you down to the Roman necropolis. I would advise a guided tour in the necropolis – very informative and creating a completely different impression from this sight..
4. Visit the Russian church and wish for a miracle
The Russian church is also known as the Church of St Nikolay the Miracle maker. St Nikolay was the patron saint of the ruler of Russia at the time the church was built, Emperor Nikolay II. The church has been constructed by Russian architects, has 5 gold-plated domes and its bells were donated by Nikolay II.
Most people visiting the church also head to the grave of St Seraphim located in the underground floor of the church (look for a small door to the left of the main entrance, when facing the entrance). It is believed that if you write a wish on a piece of paper and put it beside the grave of the saint, your wish would come true.
5. Visit the archaeology museum of Sofia, enjoy the fountains of the National Theatre
The archaeology museum is located right in the heart of Sofia and features collections of historical findings from all over Bulgaria. Frequently they have thematic exhibitions. Again, a guided tour here is highly recommended so you can get the best idea of Bulgaria’s historical past.
Just behind the museum, in a lovely green area is located the National Theatre with its lovely fountains (during the winter they usually stop them though). The National Theatre is a must-see during the evening, when the lights illuminate the exquisite decoration of the building, including the statues on its roof. Also near the fountains is the so-called Reading Room – a small green circle building where you can take a book if you leave another book. For visitors of the capital, its more important function is that of a Tourist center working during the weekends as well (none of the other tourist centers are open during the weekend which seems illogical but..). So, you can grab tourist maps of Sofia or make any inquiries about tourist sights here.
6. Stroll the remains of Serdica ancient city
Sofia is built upon the remnants of the ancient Roman city of Serdika. As they are building the metro or demolishing old buildings, new and new remains keep being found. It is said that there is a big Roman stadium lying beneath major central buildings but unfortunately it’s not likely that they would be demolished to uncover the history underneath..
Serdika ruins are mostly free of charge to visit, though those close to the Catholic church have a paid entry. Especially nice are the ruins in the Presidency subway, which are covered with roof and can be explored even during bad weather. You may also decide to visit Arena di Serdica hotel – in its underground part you can visit (free of charge) a well-preserved part of a Roman amphitheater.
In Serdica metro station you can find one of the tourist centers of Sofia and take maps of the city or find out about trips you can make in the country (open only during working days, until 6 pm. For a tourist center open on weekends – see p. 5 above)
7. Get introduced to the history of Sofia in Sofia History Museum
Sofia History museum is a fairly recently built museum, hosted in the building of the old public baths (hence you will see many mineral water taps around the museum and people filling big bottles to take away home, enjoy, it’s free :).
The museum shows the history of Sofia mostly after the liberation with many curious artifacts. There is also some examples of orthodox art from churches near Sofia. Love the very informative guided tour here so recommend you to take it.
8. Visit the square of religious tolerance
This square is very close to Sofia History Museum. It’s a small area where an Orthodox church, a Catholic church, a Synagogue and a Mosque are located. Bulgaria’s geographical position and historical past explains why there are so many cultures and religions represented in the country. But, good is we all live in peace and tolerance, respecting each other’s beliefs and traditions.
9. Enjoy the leisure atmosphere of Vitosha shopping street
Vitosha is one of Sofia’s major pedestrian streets, full with shops, nice cafes and restaurants. Even during the winter the covered and heated street cafes are bustling with life. Here you will find shops selling traditional Bulgarian souvenirs and some shops for Bulgarian-made clothes and shoes. There are also many small streets starting from Vitosha street, where you will find nice places to eat or small shops. In general this is a very peaceful and beautiful area of Sofia, with authentic old buildings and things to do, and on summer evenings you will find many street artists performing there.
10. Relax by the fountains of the National Palace of Culture
The National Palace of Culture (also abbreviated NDK from its Bulgarian name) is a key sight in Sofia, displayed on most cards from the capital. It is especially attractive in the evenings when it gets illuminated by lights of different colors. As the name speaks, many concerts and other cultural performances take place in this building.
The recently built fountains in front of NDK are also amazing, especially on evenings (they usually run spring to autumn) and the peaceful pedestrian area is a favorite place for strolling around for residents of the capital. Grab a coffee from the coffee shops at the base of the building and enjoy.
11. Visit Boyana church
Boyana church is a truly amazing church located in the outskirts of Sofia, with mural frescoes dating back to 11th century. Due to the antiquity of the frescoes, the site has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site. You are only allowed to stay 10 minutes inside the church, to avoid damage on the artifacts by the human breathing. But even those 10 minutes make it absolutely worth to make a visit.
If visiting between April and November, you may join Sofia free hiking tour and combine the visit to the church with a hiking visit to Boyana waterfall. Or, take a taxi to the church (recommend using TaxiMe app to avoid being surcharged by the taxi drivers, 5-7 EUR one way from Sofia center, cards accepted).
12. Explore Vitosha mountain
There are few capitals worldwide where the mountain is so close to the city center. Climbing Vitosha mountain will let you enjoy amazing city views and take a gasp of fresh air, among beautiful nature.
If coming during the weekend, you can hop on Simeonovo lift, taking you to Aleko hut on Vitosha mountain. To reach the starting station of the lift, go to Vitosha metro station and take bus number 122. Or, get a taxi. Once on Aleko hut, you can take a walk round the many tourist trails there and have delicious lunch at one of the huts up there. Go back by the lift again, make sure to check the time of the last run down.
During weekdays, you can visit the mountain with the Free Hiking Tour
Tip: for a 3 day stay, it is totally worth it to get the 3 day Sofia Pass. For 20 leva it offers free public transport + 10-16% discounts on most museums + up to 10% discounts on some food places and also 20% discount on Simeonovo lift (p.12). So, if you are actively exploring the capital, it will surely pay out. Once central place the card is sold is the Ticket office just across the Serdica metro station entry.
So, hopefully the above will help make a complete schedule for your stay in Sofia! Walk the small streets, explore as much as you can – Sofia is a pretty safe and diverse city and has a lot to offer, enjoy it!