Bulgaria is one of the least visited countries in all of Europe, despite its size. Located between Greece, Turkey, and Romania, Bulgaria simply doesn’t draw in as many visitors as its neighbors. This shocks me, as Bulgaria is one of the most unique, inviting countries that I have traveled through in Europe, and I am very eager to go back.
While the country is very large, its biggest draw is easily its capital city of Sofia. Sofia is the second-oldest city in all of Europe, and those thousands of years have provided the city with a load of things to see and do.
Also, as the city is not touristy at all, you will hardly ever have to wait in a long line to visit a tourist attraction. That, and a pint of local beer only costs the equivalent of a couple of dollars! Sofia provides travelers with pretty much every reason that I included on my list of reasons to visit Eastern Europe instead of Western Europe.
This post is going to give you the inside scoop on everything you need to know to plan your trip to Sofia, Bulgaria, including the best things to do, how to get there, how to stay safe, and more.
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Best Things to Do in Sofia, Bulgaria
As the second-oldest city in Europe and the confluence of so many cultural and historical influences, Sofia is an incredibly unique and exciting city to visit in Europe. From massive Orthodox churches to enjoyable museums and laid-back parks, there is no shortage of things to do in Sofia. Here are the things you won’t want to miss while visiting.
1. Admire the Iconic Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is easily the most recognizable point in all of Sofia, with its many high-arching green domes and striking architecture. In fact, it is the biggest Orthodox cathedral in all of the Balkans, which includes countries such as Greece, Romania, and Croatia. The cathedral is absolutely stunning, and I recommend attending a religious service inside if you have the opportunity.
As devout Catholics ourselves, We think that religion is one of the most important aspects of any culture, and witnessing an Orthodox service while in Sofia is really a bucket list item that is worth checking out.
If you decide to attend, be sure to dress modestly and read up on how to participate ahead of time.
2. Tag Along on a Free Walking Tour
One of my favorite things to do whenever I travel is go on walking tours. While tour buses and other forms of tours are great, I feel like walking is the best way to truly experience and understand a city. I mentioned this in my Guadalajara travel guide, for example. If you are able to find a free walking tour, that is even better! Honestly, there is no reason not to go on a free walking tour if you have the opportunity.
Free Sofia Tour is a company that offers free walking tours every day in Sofia. Tours depart from the Palace of Justice every day at 11am, 2pm, and 6pm and there is no need to sign up or make a reservation ahead of time. While the tour is free, I highly recommend providing your tour guide with a tip at the end to thank them for their knowledge and time.
3. Visit the Sofia History Museum Located in a Bathhouse
If you are a a frequent reader of my blog, you know that I love a good history museum! The Sofia History Museum is the city’s top museum, and visiting it is definitely one of the best things to do in Sofia. This museum has been around for almost a century, and it is filled with exhibits ranging from the Neolithic era to the 1940s.
What really sets the museum apart is its location. The museum is located in the former Sofia Central Mineral Bathhouse, which was built in 1912. I doubt you have ever been to a museum in a bathhouse before! This is certainly unique, and it is one of the biggest draws to the museum. Entrance currently costs 6 Lev, which is about $3.
UPDATE: The Museum is temporarily closed as of OCT 2022.
4. Go for a Stroll along Vitosha Boulevard
Vitosha Boulevard is Sofia’s main pedestrian street, and there is simply a ton to do here. From fantastic dining experiences to some great shopping, Vitosha Boulevard is one street that you can’t miss while visiting Sofia. One of my favorite experiences in Sofia is from Vitosha Boulevard, when we ate at a restaurant called Vitosha Street Bar and Dinner on our last night in the city.
We had a bunch of cash that we wanted to burn through before we left, and we asked our waiter to curate a meal for us for the amount of cash that we had left. The cost of living is notoriously low in Bulgaria, and we had about $50 worth of Lev to spend among three people. A short while later, our waiter emerged with an absolute feast, including salads, meat platters, side dishes, wines, liquors, beers, and more.
5. Try some Local Rakia at the Raketa Rakia Bar
Firstly, what is Rakia? Rakia is a local Bulgarian liquor that is sort of like a brandy. It is very common in Sofia, and it is meant to be sipped like a fine spirit. In fact, it is the national drink of Bulgaria.
Raketa Rakia Bar is a bar that is styled as if Bulgaria were still under the Iron Curtain of the USSR. From communist propaganda on the walls to traditional, old school recipes, this restaurant is certainly unique. While Bulgaria has had a very complicated past with communism and the USSR, the restaurant is still very interesting to visit and is a favorite among tourists.
How to Get to Sofia, Bulgaria
Sofia is the biggest city in Bulgaria, and as such it has the country’s biggest airport. If you are visiting Sofia, your only real option is to fly into Sofia Airport (SOF). While I normally offer recommendations of airports in nearby cities or countries, there simply aren’t any better airports located within four hours of Sofia. The two closest major cities are Athens, Greece (8+ hours away) and Bucharest, Romania (5+ hours away). As a result, flying into another city or country and taking a train or bus to Sofia is simply not a practical option, and you should just stick to flying straight into Sofia. For help finding cheap or affordable flights into Sofia, be sure to check out my post on finding affordable airfare.
On a positive note, Sofia Airport serves many budget airlines, which are actually one of my favorite ways to travel. If you’re worried about traveling on budget airlines, be sure to check out my post on budget airline travel to alleviate any worries that you may have.
One of the best ways to get from the airport to the city itself is by booking a private transfer with our partners at Welcome Pickups. Welcome Pickups offers personalized, private, comfortable rides from the airport into the city for about the same price as a standard taxi. They monitor your flight status while you are in the air, and a driver will be waiting for you holding a sign with your name on it as soon as you arrive.
How to Get Around Sofia, Bulgaria
METRO | TAXIS |
Sofia is a big capital city, but most of the main things to do are pretty well connected. Sofia has a fairly extensive metro system, and it can be used to get just about anywhere in the city, including the airport. As I mentioned above, the metro is one of my preferred ways of getting from the airport to the city, and it is also my preferred method of getting around Sofia. Rides on the metro are extremely affordable, and the metro will get you just about anywhere that you need to go within the city – especially as a tourist. If you are comfortable with public transportation, there’s a good chance that you will never need a taxi while in Sofia.
If you are uncomfortable with public transportation, your only real option is to take a traditional taxi. There is no Uber in all of Bulgaria, meaning that you can’t just use an app that is already on your phone to hail rides. You can download a new one, though! TaxiMe is an app that works very similarly to Uber, except that it will hail a traditional taxi cab instead of a private driver’s car. Still, the rate is pre-negotiated and you can pay directly through the app, meaning you will never get ripped off.
Personally, I think that using an app like this is a must, as local Sofia drivers can see tourists a mile away and will likely charge you a premium to ride with them if you don’t utilize one of these taxi apps.
How Many Days Do You Need in Sofia, Bulgaria?
While Sofia is a major capital city, it is clearly not the most touristy place on Earth. As a result, its main tourist attractions can all be visited in a day or two. If you have enough energy to do a lot of walking and you do some planning before you arrive, I think you can check out most of the best things to do in Sofia in just one day.
Now, I would never recommend going anywhere for just one day. That is never enough time to really appreciate a city or its culture. I think that Sofia makes a perfect weekend trip for someone already in Europe, or a perfect 2-3 day addition to an itinerary for someone who is planning a trip through various parts of Europe. 2 to 3 full days in Sofia is enough time to see the major sights, try many local dishes and drinks, experience the vibes of the city, and really scratch Sofia off of your bucket list.
Is Sofia, Bulgaria Safe to Visit?
Many travelers to Sofia are unsure what to expect when it comes to safety. As the country is located near Greece and Turkey which both have questionable reputations for safety, it would be reasonable to assume that Bulgaria’s capital city might be unsafe to visit. However, these assumptions would be entirely wrong. Sofia is one of the safest capital cities in all of Europe, and violent and serious crimes are very rare.
Like any major city, you should keep an eye out for scams and pickpockets, but you have very little to fear outside of that. The worst you are likely to run into is a taxi driver that wants to overcharge you or a restaurant that might “accidentally” add an item to your bill. Sofia, Bulgaria is very safe to visit, and you should not worry particularly about safety when visiting.
Is Sofia, Bulgaria Worth Visiting?
Now, the big question: Is Sofia, Bulgaria worth visiting? While I wouldn’t put Sofia on my list of the best cities to visit in all of Europe, I did include it on my list of the best cities to visit in Eastern Europe, along with Ljubljana and its beautiful canals, Krakow and its magnificent castle, and Budapest and its stunning architecture. Sofia is a pretty obscure city with a very unique heritage. As it is located in the Balkans, you can see influences of many empires ranging from the Romans to the Soviets, and the influences that each empire have had on the city are very evident.
I think that Sofia has a lot to offer visitors, and I am very eager to return. The food is rich and tasty, the craft beer, wine, and liquor scene is incredible for such a small city, and the history is unlike any other major city in Europe. As Europe’s second oldest city, there is simply a lot to see. Couple all of that with the fact that very few tourists actually travel to Sofia, and you are left with a very rich, untainted, authentic experience in one of Europe’s oldest cities. How could that not be worth visiting?
That’s all we have for you about Sofia! If you were asking yourself “is Sofia, Bulgaria worth visiting?” before reading this post, hopefully your question has been answered. We would certainly say that it is!
If you’re planning a trip to Sofia, let us know! We’d love to chat ahead of time and answer any questions you have. Otherwise, have a wonderful day and stay present!