The city of Sofia lies at the foot of Mount Vitosha, which not only provides a scenic backdrop to the bustling city below, but also provides an easily accessible way to escape the urban environment and retreat into nature. And after two days battling extremely itchy bug bites and staring wistfully out of hostel room window, we were pretty anxious to get out of the room and finally see Sofia from a different angle.
Although Vitosha is accessible by bus or a short taxi ride, getting there can be a confusing challenge to unfamiliar visitors. Bulgarian uses a Cyrillic alphabet, so everything looks like this: Туристическа е забавно. Huh, what? Street signs and maps are hard enough to decipher, so good luck with those bus signs and timetables. And while it is just a short taxi ride away, city guides for many destinations, including Sofia, warn visitors to stay away from cabs as drivers are known to take advantage of naive tourists.
So what’s the easiest and safest way to get out to Mount Vitosha from downtown Sofia?
Enter Sofia Green Tours. Their free guided hike on Mount Vitosha are offered daily and allow tourists a way to get out to the mountain without having to decode Cyrillic timetables or deal with untrustworthy cabbies.
The hike starts at the base of the mountain with a brief visit to the UNESCO protected Boyana Church, a Bulgarian Orthodox church that was originally constructed in the late 10th century. This church and its colorful frescoes are one of the most complete and well-preserved monuments of medieval art in all of eastern Europe. As an art history enthusiast, I found the church and it’s frescoes to be absolutely fascinating. Every surface is covered with immense detail, including the dome and ceiling. (No photos allowed, so unfortunately, we don’t have any images for this.) Our tour guide did a great job of explaining the historical significance of the church and the surrounding area, so if the admission cost is an issue and/or you are not interested in medieval religious art, then you won’t miss much by skipping this attraction. (Visiting the church is not free and is an optional part of the hike. Entry to the church is 10 lev/$7 USD.)
The hiking tour then continues up the mountain along a shaded trail to up the mountain. The trail is moderately steep, and does involve a teeny tiny bit of rock climbing, but our guide stopped frequently for water and snack breaks. And in the end it’s totally worth it because lunch is spent relaxing at the base of the Boyana Waterfall. The challenging hike is obviously not intimidating to Sofians as our picnic spot was quite popular, even on a muggy Thursday afternoon.
Various groups of teenagers smoking cigarettes and splashing each other. A couple barbecuing some chicken over a small fire (not an uncommon Bulgarian picnic lunch according to our guide). An older couple that was obviously on a date (at least that’s my best guess, because I can’t think of any other reason why she’d wear heels on a hike). A line of worn out hikers waiting for their turn to shower under the falls. Our lunchtime break was practically a cultural experience in itself.
After lunch, the hike then goes back down the mountain along a path that offers some really stunning views of Sofia and the Balkan mountain range.
Our guide was really knowledgeable and truly excellent. He was kind enough to share some tomatoes fresh from his mother’s garden with us during our break at Boyana Lake. (More on this later, but garden fresh tomatoes are simply life changing.) And he had some great tips on what to see, do, eat, and drink while in Bulgaria.
Hiking Mount Vitosha was the best way for us to augment an already really great experience in the city of Sofia. The views were incredible, the hike was fun, and we met some new people. Basically, if you’ve got a few days in Sofia, you definitely do not want to miss this hike.
Do you like hiking when you’re visiting a city? What city has the best hikes nearby?