During our first visit to Bulgaria, we spent ten days roaming around Veliko Tarnovo and the surrounding areas. Towards the tail end of our trip and before we flew back to the UK from Sofia airport we opted to spend a night and two days exploring Sofia.
Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria is a destination many holiday makers avoid, its unkempt, grimy and urban. Tourists want the sunny beaches of Varna or the epic scenery of forests and mountains in Veliko Tarnovo or the elegance of Plovdiv so sadly Sofia often gets overlooked.
However there is quite a bit of charm underneath the grime and Sofia is showing signs of revival, particularly in the arts scene and I do whole-heartedly believe you should visit this place as part of your Bulgarian holiday. Whether that’s an overnight stay and a day of exploring after your flight and before your coach journey to your main destination, a cheap city break or as part of your Euro trip.
A day or two is enough to explore this city. There is a wonderful and easy, little walking tour recommended by Lonely Planet that allows you to visit a few beautiful Orthodox churches, art galleries, The Ivan Vazov National Theatre, museums and the excavated site of the Rotunda of Saint George. A day trip from Sofia can take you to visit the famous Rila monastery and Boyana waterfall, and Borovets ski resort is only one hour away! We sadly didn’t have enough time to go see these places for ourselves .
The Rotunda of Saint George, built in the 4th century is an ancient Christian church, this is the oldest building in Sofia. incredibly well preserved and sits in a tiny little oasis in city centre. It also has great frescoes dating to the 10th century, We are fortunate this church is even still standing, during the soviet era, huge buildings were built around it to hide it, then the hierarchy, wanted to demolish it, for a car park, thankfully that didn’t happen!
This church was Built by Romans as part of the ancient city of Serdica, where Constantine The Grate grew up yet it is believed that it was built on the site of a pagan temple, though the original purpose of the building was for public use. The building is famous for the 12th-, 13th- and 14th-century frescoes inside the central dome.
Three layers of frescoes have been discovered in the rotunda, the earliest dating back to the 10th century. Magnificent frescoes of 22 prophets over 2 metres tall crown the dome. Painted over during the Ottoman period, when the building was used as a mosque, these frescoes were only uncovered and restored in the 20th century. Unfortunately at the time of our visit it wasn’t open to the public so we didn’t get to see inside. The site itself is very beautiful and set in a quiet location, surrounded by more modern architecture that dulls the noise from nearby traffic and city life. A real gem! I find it interesting it evolved from being a pagan site to Christian, then into a mosque and back to Christian again where it will remain since Bulgaria as a proud Christian Orthodox country.
The St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is a Bulgarian Orthodox cathedral in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. Built in Neo-Byzantine style, it serves as the cathedral church of the Patriarch of Bulgaria and it is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world, as well as one of Sofia’s symbols and primary tourist attractions. The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is a cross-domed basilica featuring an emphasized central dome. The cathedral’s gold-plated dome is 45 m high (148 ft), with the bell tower reaching 53 metres (174 ft).The temple has 12 bells with total weight of 23 tons, the heaviest weighing 12 tons and the lightest 10 kilograms (22 lb). The interior is decorated with Italian marble in various colours, Brazilian onyx, alabaster, and other luxurious materials. The central dome has the Lord’s Prayer inscribed around it, with thin gold letters.
Walking around this cathedral is worth your time. Free charge, and with stunning biblical murals and grand artifacts. You could spend a good half an hour if you allow yourself to be immersed in the architecture. The frescoes on the walls are spectacular and slightly worn with age however photography is forbidden inside. The building is breath-taking both inside and out. Do include this in your walking tour.
The Square of Tolerance features a mosque, a Catholic cathedral, an orthodox church and a synagogue, in the center of Sofia, within a few minutes walk from each other. With the current geopolitical climate featuring a backlash against multiculturalism, a visit here is an important reminder that diversity exists worldwide. Sofia is one of Europe’s oldest capitals and has a storied history of influence by Greeks, Arabs, Jews and others.
Whilst in Sofia we stayed in a guest house called Red House and it was an absolute miracle we found this incredible place. As budget travelers who are unafraid to backpack around and thus find a hotel upon arrival to said country we were in a bit of shock that Sofia doesn’t operate this way. Many hotels turned us away because we hadn’t made reservations, almost losing hope we found a guest house in what looked like the seediest part of Sofia and very nearly took the room however my gut reaction raised alarm bells and told Jon we need to keep on looking, although time was running out as it was getting dark.
By chance we found Red House, given the name because the entire building is red! This is a wonderful guest house and art gallery where many artists come to live as an artist’s residency. This was a former home of a very famous artist from the time of the last kingdom of Bulgaria.The interior is beautifully quirky and off beat, cozy and has a friendly vibe. I wish I had taken more photos of this place. It was just so lovely! I would definitely stay there again. The living quarters are above the art gallery below where they hold regular and very interesting exhibitions. If you are not staying there, do visit the gallery!
Sofia as a whole is worth seeing if you want to break away from the usual city breaks like Vienna and Prague. It’s cheaper and its up and coming. A little on the glum side, a diamond in the rough and it is definitely a city to add to your map perhaps as a weekend away or as part of your Europe trip, Sofia has much to offer if you are a history buff, lover of sacred religious sites, architect geek or fanatic about cities that are a little rough around the edges but have much personality. Add something different to your travel map, Sofia is a quirky choice for travelers.
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