Put Sofia On Your Radar

The overnight bus is the cheapest and easiest way to travel overland between Budapest, Hungary and Sofia, Bulgaria. So, despite our better judgement (and our general desire to avoid all overnight travel), we took that bus. Two border crossings (the bus traveled through Serbia) meant that sleeping on the bus wasn’t any more successful than sleeping on the train. So basically, nope, we didn’t get much sleep that night.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Sofia’s famous Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.

It was hot and the city was already awake and buzzing when we arrived at 7 AM. With bags strapped to our backs, we began to maneuver our way through the square buildings and broken sidewalks in search of our hostel.

Sofia is the capital of Bulgaria and the country’s largest city. It is compact and very easy to discover on foot. As one of the oldest cities in Europe (it was founded more than 2,500 years ago), Sofia has a fascinating and complex
history. It is also one of the cheapest cities in the world according to TripAdvisor’s TripIndex Cities list. Despite its walkability, rich history, and incredible value, Sofia doesn’t have a booming tourism industry.

As the capital to the poorest member of the European Union, Sofia can be rough around the edges. So, it’s understandable why people would pass up the city in favor of a beach vacation at the Black Sea, or a trip to the mountains for some world-class (and dirt cheap) skiing. However, these folks are really missing out.

Sofia has an abundance of free activities.

roman ruins sofia
Fun fact: The Roman ruins are almost a nuisance in Sofia. Construction on a new subway line has been delayed indefinitely because ruins were discovered while digging the tunnel.

It is obvious that Sofians love their city and are eager to share their story. There are more than five independent organizations offering free city tours. Walk or run, bike or bite, there is a free tour for everyone.

We went on the Free Sofia Walking Tour on our first full day and it was the perfect way to kick-off our time in Sofia. We got to see some of the city’s main attractions, and the history lesson provided by the passionate volunteer tour leaders added some much needed context to these sights. The tour covers up to 35 attractions within the 2 mile (3.5 km) radius of the city center.

St. George Rotunda Sofia
The St. George Rotunda is the oldest building still intact in all of Europe. And it’s still an active church.

From hidden Roman ruins to monstrous, concrete communist statues, Bulgaria’s history is on display in Sofia – and it is fascinating. The tour was enlightening and we learned some truly unforgettable facts. For instance, Bulgaria was able to save almost all of its Jewish citizens from deportation and death during WWII, despite its alliance with the Third Reich. Protests that took place across the country in March of 1943 helped to persuade the Bulgarian government to halt a train carrying 48,000 of the country’s Jews before it crossed the border. If you’re in Sofia, this tour is a must.

We also did the Sofia Green Tour, a free hiking tour that explores Vitosha Mountain. (More on this one soon.)

Even the budget traveler can eat like a king in Sofia.

Dining out won’t break the bank in Sofia where a nice meal can cost as little as 5 Lev ($3.50 USD). Our first meal in the city was at Dream House, a nice little restaurant in the center of town. They offer a wide selection of vegetarian food from traditional Bulgarian to Mediterranean to SE Asian. Bonus: they have an English version of their menu! We also loved Confetti Gelato which has a great selection of tasty gelato. It’s the perfect treat after a long day of sightseeing.

L: Confetti Gelato | R: That slice was only 2.50 Lev ($1.75 USD), by the way.
L: Confetti Gelato | R: That slice was only 2.50 Lev ($1.75 USD), by the way.

In Sofia we were also introduced to three Bulgarian culinary staples: sirene, banitsa, and beer in 2-liter bottles.

Sirene is a brined white cheese that tastes a bit like feta. Bulgarians put in many of their dishes and it tastes delicious on pizza as well. Banitsa is a traditional Bulgarian pastry made from layers of filo dough and a stuffing of some kind (usually sirene, meat, or spinach). Banitsa is delicious; it’s flaky and buttery, and makes a great snack. You can find vendors all over the city, and many have a walk-up window for convenience. Oh, and we were pleasantly surprised by the 2-liter bottles of beer. Totally prepared to hate it, the beer was actually pretty good.

This hostel in Sofia is the best deal ever.

Hostel Mostel came recommended to us by other travelers, and we are glad to have stayed there; I can’t imagine that there is a better hostel in Sofia. The staff is super friendly and provides better customer service than we experienced almost anywhere else on our trip. Plus staying at Hostel Mostel is just a great deal. Each guest is treated to an all-you-can-eat breakfast that is 10 times better than any hotel continental breakfast I’ve had Stateside. (The breakfast includes fresh fruit and veggies, as well as fresh waffles. It is heavenly.) Additionally, each guests is invited to a free pasta dinner and glass of beer (yes, from a 2-liter bottle). The hostel is in a great location as well and we were able to walk just about everywhere. Hostel Mostel is just a great place overall and we would recommend it to anyone traveling to Sofia.

The Bulgarian capital exceeded our expectations. We ended up staying there for almost a week and could have stayed longer to do some day trips or more museum visits. If you’re looking for a budget location that still has a lot to offer, then you should definitely consider Sofia.

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Have you been to Sofia? What other cities are on your radar?

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