Krista the Explorer
The Best Things To Do in Sofia
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When it comes to capital cities in Europe, you’d be hard pressed to find one like Sofia. The Bulgarian capital was built on top of Roman ruins, part of which you can see throughout the city, but its rich history predates even the Romans, going back as far as 7000 BC. As you walk through its streets, you’ll be met with not only Roman ruins but also a mixture of beautiful religious buildings, communist era architecture, and many unique shops and restaurants too. Some of the best things to see in Sofia may not necessarily be on the standard tourist route though, so keep your eyes peeled!
The thing I loved about Sofia, besides its history, was how walkable the city was. Many of the main attractions in Sofia were either next to each other or only a short walk away, meaning if you only have time to spend one day in Sofia you can easily see all of its key points of interest. Following our road trip near the Central Balkan National Park, and a short stopover in the ancient city of Plovdiv, we could only spare two days in Sofia. We found that it was a great budget friendly city in Europe to visit and the locals were more than happy to answer any questions we had, so I couldn’t recommend planning a trip to Sofia enough. Keep reading to find out what the best things to do in Sofia are!
Things To Do in Sofia
There are many unique things to do in Sofia to keep you busy, and plenty of historical attractions to visit too. The Bulgarian capital is very easy to navigate by foot, and there are even free walking tours in Sofia that you can join, including a free food tour of Sofia as well! Whether you're planning a self-guided tour of Sofia or want to join a larger group, here are some of the best things to do in Sofia and the best sites that you can't miss.
St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Let’s start off with the top tourist attraction in Sofia: St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Built in the early 20th century, St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is one of the largest Orthodox cathedrals in the world, and was at one point the largest in the Balkans. Out of all of the free things to do in Sofia, visiting this cathedral is the best one. Entry to the cathedral is completely free, but if you want to take photos there’s a small fee. In my opinion, the outside of the church is much more impressive than the inside, which was quite dark and didn’t have the best lighting for photos. If you’re only spending one day in Sofia, make sure you come here first!
National Gallery for Foreign Art
At the rear of the cathedral, sitting in Alexander Nevsky Square is the National Gallery for Foreign Art. It’s a one-of-a-kind museum in the Balkans, housing many unique and rare objects from this region of Europe as well as Asia and the Middle East. There is a separate art gallery which showcases Bulgarian art if you’re interested in seeing that instead. If you don’t have enough time in your Sofia itinerary to go inside the museum, it’s worth walking towards to take a photo of its beautiful architecture.
Sofia Opera & Ballet
Tucked away down a side street near the cathedral is the Sofia Opera and Ballet, also known as the National Opera and Ballet. The institution dates back to 1890, but the columned building it sits in today was built in the mid-20th century. No shows were running when we visited, but if you enjoy going to the theatre I would highly recommend researching the shows before arriving in Bulgaria as the tickets sell out fast!
St Sophia Church
St Sophia Church is the oldest church in the city, and was built on top of Roman ruins - surprise! The church was originally built in the 4th century but its current name wasn’t chosen until the 14th century. Its name was meant to reflect the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, as it was during this time that the Ottomans ruled the city. The church sits opposite the main cathedral, so it’s slightly overshadowed by it, but it’s one attraction in Sofia you won’t want to miss if you love history.
National Art Gallery
The National Art Gallery, also referred to as Kvadrat 500, sits in the former royal palace of Bulgaria, and houses over 50 000 pieces of Bulgarian art. The building dates back to the late 1800’s and was built in the second empire style. Following the abolition of the monarchy after World War II and the rise of communism in the country, the palace was given to the National Art Gallery since their original building was destroyed in the war. It’s a very popular place to visit in Sofia with both locals and tourists.
Church of St Nicholas the Miracle-Maker
One of the best things to do in Sofia is to visit the stunning Church of St Nicholas the Miracle-Maker (the Russian Church), which sits next to the National Art Gallery. This church is one of the most picturesque buildings in Sofia, and although it was built in 1914, it’s meant to resemble Russian churches of the 16th century. The crypt is the main attraction here though, as it’s the final resting place of Bishop Serafin, and locals often put hand written messages in a box next to his tomb, hoping that their wishes will be granted.
National Assembly of the Republic of Bulgaria
While not one of the top things to see in Sofia, the National Assembly Building is quite impressive to look at, and is located near a number of popular shopping streets in Sofia. Due to the lack of space inside the assembly building, the government relocated their parliament to a communist era building further down the road. But earlier in 2021 the parliament then decided that it didn’t want to have ties to its communist past so they are back in the National Assembly Building. It’s not open to the public but it’s a nice building to look at.
Ivan Vazov National Theatre
The oldest theatre in Bulgaria is located right in the heart of Sofia. The Ivan Vazov National Theatre can be found in the Sofia City Garden, and is one of the most important tourist attractions in Sofia. It was founded in 1904, but the building was heavily damaged during World War II, so much of it had to be reconstructed. The park itself is very nice to walk around on a sunny day, and there are plenty of benches lining the paths to sit on as well. Seeing a show at the Ivan Vazov National Theatre is one of the best things to do in Sofia, and people come from far and wide to catch a performance.
Church of St George Rotunda
A unique thing to do in Sofia is to visit the Church of St George Rotunda. This unimposing church can be found tucked away among modern buildings, but its history is very fascinating. Dating back to the 4th century, the church was originally used as a Roman bathhouse, but eventually became an early Christian church. It’s one of the oldest buildings in Sofia and its rounded shape makes it a unique attraction to visit in Sofia as well. If you have time, the inside is home to some very impressive religious frescoes which have been well maintained over the centuries. The Church of St George Rotunda is one of the most important landmarks in Sofia, so it definitely needs to be on your itinerary.
St Nedelya Church
Another must-see attraction in Sofia is St Nedelya Church. This wasn’t originally on my list of things to do in Sofia, so I’m glad we walked past it by chance on the way to our hotel. This medieval church, most likely from the 10th century, is considered to be the very centre of the city, and until the 19th century would have been constructed from stone and wood. It’s only a short walk from several of Sofia’s main tourist attractions so it’s worth visiting briefly. As you may be able to tell by now, Sofia is home to many churches and no two are the same!
Tsar Ivan Shishman Street
One of the best shopping streets in Sofia to walk along is Tsar Ivan Shishman Street. If you enjoy visiting quirky parts of cities then you’ll love this area! The street is quite long, and is full of unique shops and restaurants, so you can easily spend a couple of hours here. The Elephant Bookstore seemed to be extremely popular as there was always a queue outside of it whenever we passed by, so it may be worth poking your head into if you come across it!
Seven Saints Church
Along Tsar Ivan Shishman Street is where you’ll find the Seven Saints Church. It’s one of the less popular things to see in Sofia, and is overlooked by tourists in favour of other more notable churches in the area, but if you enjoy visiting off the beaten path locations then you might enjoy stopping here. This church was built at the start of the 20th century, but it was converted from a 16th century mosque known as the Black Mosque. The original purpose of the mosque was to outshine Christian churches in the city, and it got its name from the dark granite that its tower was constructed in. Visiting this church is a very unique thing to do in Sofia if you’re exploring this part of the city.
The Eagles’ Bridge is another unique thing to see in Sofia, as it’s one of two symbolic entries into the old city. It was built in 1891 and the eagles are meant to symbolize the longing for freedom, which is maybe why you can often find protests taking place here. The strange thing about this landmark is that the bridge doesn’t cross anything. It simply looks like a bridge. On the other side of Sofia you can find the other symbolic entry into the city in the form of lions rather than eagles.
Monument to the Soviet Army
Since the Eagles’ Bridge is a bit further away from the city centre’s main attractions, I would recommend visiting the controversial Monument to the Soviet Army which stands facing the bridge. It was built in 1954, ten years after the liberation of Sofia by the Soviet army, and depicts a freedom fighter surrounded by Bulgarians. The monument is situated in Knyazheska Garden which would be nice to stroll through on a warmer and dryer day.
Slaveykov Square is a very popular square in Sofia, and has been expanded upon since the Bulgarian liberation. The square was first recorded in the 16th century and today is regularly used for outdoor markets, although there were sadly none on when we visited. It’s named after a pair of Bulgarian writers who have been immortalized in the form of statues sitting on a bench at one end of the square. There are many coffee houses and restaurants in this area so it may be worth your while to take a look around.
Cathedral of St Joseph
The Cathedral of St Joseph is very modern compared to other religious buildings in Sofia, but visiting it makes my list of the top things to do in Sofia because of the ruins in front of it. The ruins, like many around Sofia, are completely open to the public and are free to access as well. These ruins in particular run right up to the modern reconstruction of an older cathedral that was destroyed by bombs in World War II. The Cathedral of St Joseph is now the largest Catholic cathedral in Bulgaria, so there’s that too!
Statue of Sveta Sofia
In the middle of a busy intersection in the centre of Sofia stands the Sveta Sofia Statue. The statue was placed at the top of this pillar in 2000 to replace a statue of Lenin that had once stood there. In her hands she holds wisdom and success, and the crown placed on her head symbolizes power. This statue is a symbol of the city of Sofia and is an interesting attraction to look at as you make your way further into the old city.
Church of St Petka of the Saddlers
Opposite the Sveta Sofia Statue, below the level of the modern day city, is the Church of St Petka of the Saddlers. It’s very easy to locate as it marks the entrance to one of the city’s major metro stops. This medieval Bulgarian Orthodox church was first mentioned in the 16th century, and was built on the site of a former Roman religious building. This was a time when Bulgaria was under Ottoman rule, so the building of new churches was only tolerated if the height didn’t exceed the height of a soldier on horseback, hence why it’s partly underground. It’s a very unique thing to see in Sofia and is surrounded by other key attractions in the city too, so it won’t take much effort to locate it.
Ruins of Ancient Serdica
Next to the Church of St Petka of the Saddlers is this incredible archaeological complex of the Ruins of Ancient Serdica, which was the ancient name for Sofia. Walking around these ruins is one of the best free things to do in Sofia, which were only uncovered when the new metro line was built. Further along the road, you can look down through glass panels to see more ruins of the ancient city, and if you happen to be staying in the Arena di Serdica Hotel you can take a look at the ancient Roman amphitheatre which the hotel has incorporated into its structure.
If communist era architecture is your thing, you’ll enjoy visiting the Largo. These buildings were constructed in the 1950’s to mark the start of a new Bulgarian government and are still in use today, although their communist past has been stripped away as much as possible. The glass dome in the middle of the Largo allows visitors to view more Roman ruins from ancient Serdica, making it one of the top places to visit in Sofia for tourists. The Largo is also where you’ll find the “yellow brick road” which stretches to other points of interest in Sofia and is a very unique feature of the city.
One of the most unique things to do in Sofia is to visit the President’s Building and watch the changing of the guards. I’m not entirely certain what time of the day this happens, but if you’re in the Largo anyways it’s worth taking a look to see if you’ve timed your visit correctly. The building itself isn’t open to the public, so the most you can do here is take a quick photo outside.
National Archaeological Museum
Facing the President’s Building is the National Archaeological Museum. This is a must-visit in Sofia if you want to learn more about its ancient past, and the building it sits in was once the largest Ottoman mosque in the city, dating back to 1494. The museum itself was opened in 1905, and all archaeological exhibits that were spread out around Sofia were eventually moved here. Visiting the museum is a great thing to do in Sofia when it’s raining!
Zhenski Pazar (Women's Market)
The oldest open-air market in Sofia, Zhenski Pazar (Women's Market), was first established almost 150 years ago and quickly became one of the main trading centres in the city. The origins of its name come from a time in the Ottoman period when women were only allowed to shop in this area and only on a Friday. Today there are a lot of souvenir shops and fresh produce stalls here, so it’s quite pleasant to walk around if you have time in your schedule. The souvenir shops are slightly overpriced though, so try to do some haggling before you buy!
Looking for parking in Sofia? Parking on the street is very confusing because you need to text money to a certain phone number, so to avoid all of that I would recommend paying in cash to park in one of the many secure parking lots. We chose to park here because it was easy to access, open 24/7, and not as expensive as other places. It’s located very close to the market and within walking distance of the other major attractions in Sofia as well.
A short walk from the Women’s Market will bring you to the Sofia Synagogue. It’s not at the top of the list of things to see in Sofia, but it’s an important building in the city and worth stopping at. It’s the largest synagogue in southeastern Europe, and the third largest in Europe. It was built in 1909 by an Austrian architect who wanted to replicate, though on a smaller scale, a synagogue in Vienna which was eventually destroyed in World War II. What’s interesting about its location is the close proximity to a catholic church, an orthodox church, and a mosque, which lead this area of Sofia to be known as the Square of Tolerance.
Central Market Hall
Next to the synagogue is the Central Market Hall, another important landmark in Sofia. This covered market is one of the most important trade centres in the city and has a great mixture of stalls to shop and eat at. It was originally opened in 1911 but was closed in 1988 to undergo a series of renovations in order to modernize it. The market is open quite late into the evening, so you should have plenty of time to pop in for a quick look.
Banya Bashi Mosque
One of the most important things to see in Sofia is the Banya Bashi Mosque. It was built in 1566 during the Ottoman reign of the city, and its name roughly translates to many baths. The mosque was built on top of thermal springs, so you can still see some of the steam from those springs coming up through the vents outside. Today it stands as the only functioning mosque in Sofia and is a hub for the city’s Muslim population. We didn’t go inside the mosque as there seemed to be a lot of people going inside to pray and we weren’t sure what the protocol was for tourists.
Central Mineral Baths
Behind the mosque is where you’ll find the former Central Mineral Baths, now used as the Sofia History Museum. As early as the 16th century, Sofia has always had public baths in existence, but this particular building was opened in 1913 and was used as the city’s public baths until 1986. There’s a beautiful garden space known as Banski Square around it which is nice to walk through on a sunny day, but if you’re interested in the history of Sofia then this museum is a good bet - especially in the rain!
You can’t leave Sofia without taking a walk along Vitosha Boulevard. It’s one of the best things to do in Sofia, and is where you’ll find many of the city’s best and most popular restaurants as well. Even on a rainy day, this street is bustling with activity as people hop between shops, cafes, and restaurants. Since it’s one of the best things to see in Sofia, Vitosha Boulevard needs to be at the top end of your list. If you’re planning on staying for three days in Sofia or more, you’ll be able to explore this main commercial shopping street at a leisurely pace.
Where To Eat In Sofia
Sofia is the perfect city to visit in the Balkans if you’re a food lover. Many of the best places to eat in Sofia are close to popular attractions or within walking distance from them, so you won’t have far to walk to find a good meal. There are a lot of unique restaurants in Sofia to choose from, whether you’re looking for traditional Bulgaria food, modern cuisine, or simply want to grab something quick yet tasty. We came across quite a few Vegan restaurants in Sofia as well, so there really is something for everyone. Here are my top recommendations for the best places to eat in Sofia:
Social Cafe is one of those restaurants that serves practically everything you could ever ask for, and is open from breakfast until late. It’s situated on Vitosha Boulevard, but its central location doesn’t make it overpriced and the quality of the food is fantastic. We visited Social Cafe for breakfast on our second day in Sofia, and were impressed with both the food presentation and the flavours. Everything was freshly prepared and came to our table quickly too, which was great since we were in a bit of a rush. They have some traditional Bulgarian pastries available to order as well, such as banitsa, which I would recommend. It’s the perfect place for breakfast in Sofia!
Looking for the best burgers in Sofia? Boom! Burgers is a great option and is located across the road from the Russian Church, so if you’re looking for a quick meal I’d recommend stopping here. All of their burgers are freshly prepared in an open kitchen so you can see the chefs at work, and they also have vegetarian options available, which is what I chose and thoroughly enjoyed. You can find different gourmet burgers on their menu quite regularly, so you never know what you’ll come across. Upgrade your burger with a side of fries and you’ll be full enough for the rest of the afternoon!
Take A Cake
Fancy a sweet treat? Take A Cake can be found in several locations across the city and offer a delicious selection of cupcakes for you to take away. We ordered ahead of time from their location near the airport, so it was our first stop after picking up our rental car. All of their cupcakes and other desserts are made daily, and they often switch up the flavours depending on the season. These are some of the best cupcakes that I’ve tasted, so if you want to treat yourself to a snack in Sofia I would highly recommend visiting Take A Cake.
Cupcakes aside, it can be hard to eat healthy while you’re travelling, which is why we were really excited to come across Magic Food. They make the most magical smoothie bowls, consisting of fresh ingredients and no artificial sweeteners, which is a nice change if you’ve been eating heavy meals during your trip. They have an English menu available which shows what the different smoothie bowls look like so it’s easier for you to choose. You can also purchase fresh juice, protein bites, and jars of extracts to add to your own smoothies at home. It’s a great healthy place to eat in Sofia!
The Rainbow Factory is one of the most popular brunch spots in Sofia, so it came as no surprise to us that we needed to wait for a table. There’s no queuing system, so as soon as a table becomes available you need to jump on it. Whether you want to sit in or take away, there are plenty of options on their menu to choose from, including traditional Bulgarian food, pastries, and fusion dishes too. I opted for their scrambled eggs with feta cheese and bacon and it was definitely more than enough to keep me full for a few hours. Rainbow Factory uses only the freshest food available which you can tell by the quality and taste in every bite.
Simple Taste the World
We came across Simple Taste the World by chance, while we were walking along Tsar Ivan Shishman Street looking for somewhere to eat. I would say it’s an Italian based restaurant from looking at their menu, but the restaurant is very open and roomy, with modern furnishings so it’s difficult to say for certain. They pride themselves on using fresh and local ingredients and leaving a small footprint on the planet. I would recommend trying their pizzas out as it seems to be the most popular thing to eat there - plus it was very tasty!
Mezza Grill is a unique restaurant in Sofia to eat at, and is relatively new to the food scene in the city. They serve authentic Middle Eastern food, most of which is grilled on a large handmade charcoal grill from Istanbul, and the flavours of all of their dishes are incredible. This was our first time trying out a Middle Eastern restaurant and we really couldn’t fault it. The staff were very friendly and paid a lot of attention to detail, even helping us with recommendations on what to eat and drink. The majority of the dishes are meat based, but you can find some meatless dishes under their starters which come in very large portions. We can’t wait to come back here when we visit Sofia again!
Q-Ftetaria serves traditional Bulgarian food with a modern twist, and are very well known for their meatballs. The meatballs aren’t served how you’re probably used to seeing them, in a sauce, but instead they’re flattened and grilled on a barbecue with lots of seasoning added to them for extra flavour. They also have tapas dishes on their menu which are a great way to start off your meal. The restaurant is a bit tricky to find as it’s located on the second floor of a building, so you need to walk upstairs to access it, but there are signs pointing you in the right direction. All of the food here was amazing, and we would have loved to try the dessert but we were very full. It’s the perfect restaurant in Sofia to visit for some authentic Bulgarian dishes.
Restaurants To Avoid in Sofia
Unfortunately, as much as I don’t like to call out restaurants in my blog, I feel like I need to save everyone a lot of time by saying don’t visit MoMa Restaurant. Online, it seems to be one of the top restaurants in Sofia, but in reality it’s horrible. We waited 45 minutes for our starter, another 2 hours for our main dishes, and eventually ended up leaving without hardly touching our meal because it was heavily undercooked and inedible. The waiter never offered us napkins, left our dirty plates on the table even though he walked past several times, and never asked us if we needed anything or how we liked the food. The manager eventually saw us leaving and spoke to us, and he apologized but quickly followed that up with a number of ridiculous excuses considering the restaurant wasn’t even full. Avoid MoMa Restaurant at all costs!