Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, is stunningly situated at the confluence of three rivers in the west of the country. The city is surrounded by mountains, the largest of which, the imposing massif Vitosha, extends almost into the suburbs themselves.

The Vladayska, Perlovska and Iskar Rivers cut valleys through the surrounding mountains. These paths have made the Sofia valley a meeting place for European travellers for millennia, as a result Sofia is one of Europe’s oldest capitals. Originally named Serdica, the city was founded by Thracians as long ago as the 8th Century B.C.

The city became an important Roman town, flourishing under the Emperor Trajan it became the capital of a Roman province and was dubbed 'my Rome' by the Emperor Constantine.

The city’s subsequent tumultuous history saw it as a centre of the first Bulgarian Empire, a vassal state of the Ottomans, the capital of an independent kingdom and a satellite of the Soviet Union. After the collapse the Soviet Union, Bulgaria rapidly westernised and hopes to gain EU membership in 2007.

As you might expect this chequered history has left its mark on Sofia, especially the city’s varied architecture. Walking around the relatively small city centre one can see a tremendous range of building styles - from Roman basilicas, through Ottoman baths, neoclassical palaces and brutalist blocks of flats to modern glass and concrete skyscrapers.

Always a city of culture and learning Sofia now boasts 16 universities and a correspondingly large student population. This gives the city a feeling of youth and vitality as well as a vibrant nightlife, full of bars, clubs and live music venues.


Sofia offers a host of cultural attractions, both ancient and modern. The Rotunda of St. George is the oldest building in Sofia. It is a red brick basilica dating from Roman times and features 3 metres high frescoes of some intimidating Old Testament Prophets.

The most imposing building in Sofia is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, it was built after 1878 in honour of the 200,000 Russian soldiers who died freeing Bulgaria from Ottoman rule. Its dimensions are huge, built in the grand, neo-byzantine style it is topped with six golden domes that sparkle in the sunlight.

The Sofia Synagogue is a marvellous site. It is the biggest synagogue in the Balkans and it’s certainly eye-catching. Built in 1909 in the Spanish-Moorish style, it is completely different from every other building in the city. It has a huge onion shaped dome, beautiful interior carvings and it’s lit by the largest chandelier in Eastern Europe.

The valley in which Sofia sits has always been famous for its pure mineral springs, both cold and hot. Today the mineral water is bottled and sold locally but you can also visit traditional springs in the city centre and surrounding suburbs. Soon to be reopened as a museum/hydrotherapy centre are the city’s old Turkish Baths. Covered in decorative mosaics and beautiful gilt work, an afternoon at the baths is a truly decadent and relaxing experience.

Outside the city centre the suburbs of Boyana and Dragalevtsi can give the visitor a taste of less touristy side of Sofia. Full of family restaurants and pubs these suburbs offer a good chance to see the squat wood framed houses of old Sofia. In Boyana the local church is a protected UN World Heritage site as it houses some exquisite murals, thought to be one of the oldest examples of East European medieval art.

In the outskirts of the city lie the Sofia Zoological Gardens, a pleasant, well-stocked zoo and Sofialand, a theme park full of roller coasters, fairground rides, fast-food restaurants and family picnic areas.

No visitor to Sofia can miss the Vitosha mountain range that towers over the city. Its slopes are so close to the city that they offer the perfect opportunity for skiing and snowboarding in winter or hiking in the summer. There are cabin lifts at Knyazhevo and Simeonovo which take passengers to the ski resort of Aleko (open December to late spring) and Cherni Vrah, the highest point on Vitosha, which offers stunning views of the city and its surroundings. In summer the local tourist office can provide information about hiring hiking or horse-riding equipment.


Throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium more and more western chain shops and supermarkets entered the Bulgarian market. These large stores are located on and around Vitosha Boulevard. The imposing Central Department Store (TsUM) is a large shopping centre on three floors which sells everything from household goods, to souvenirs and sporting goods.

Smaller back streets around Shipka Street host boutiques and chic luxury shops. Worth a visit is the giant Central Halls (Halite) on Maria Luiza Boulevard. This huge food hall has more than 100 stalls selling all kinds of fresh food. A whole afternoon can easily be whiled away here just gazing at the stacked display cases and munching on a kifla (jam-filled croissant) or piroshka (stick of dough, filled with cheese and fried).

A bit of a wander around the old alleys of central Sofia can yield some great finds. There are lots of antique shops in the city. Some are quite upmarket showrooms but the 'Old Curiosity Shops' dotted around the city are much more fun and there are plenty of bargains to be found among piles of knick-knacks and broken furniture.

There are some outdoor markets that operate all year in Sofia, mostly specialising in tourist souvenirs and fast food. There is an outdoor book market on Slaveikov Square which stocks a variety of foreign language books.

Nightlife and Eating Out

Sofia is full of students and boasts a healthy nightlife centred on pubs, bars, live music and nightclubs. Traditional pubs and restaurants are best found in the suburbs. Here you can taste Bulgarian specialities like Monastery Gyuvetch (a spicy beef stew), mince meat kebabs, or the light and delicate shopska salad.

Millet Ale is a popular drink in Sofia. It is a rather thick beer that comes in both sour and sweet varieties but you’re going to have to have a strong constitution to keep up with the locals who drink it by the litre. East European wines are often derided but Bulgaria does produce some fantastic, thick and earthy reds which are a perfect accompaniment for the hearty, meaty cuisine of the city. The centre of Sofia is a great place to find more modern bars and clubs. Many have live music ranging from traditional folk to guitar rock. Even the national library becomes a gig venue once a week.

Over the past twenty years Bulgaria has developed one of the most prolific and exciting film industries in all of Europe. The city is full of cinemas showing the best new home-grown cinema but any enterprising tourist will have to brave them without subtitles. Most multiplexes also show the latest releases from abroad, usually screened in their original language with Bulgarian subtitles.

Tourist Information

Bulgarian State Agency for Tourism1, Sveta Nedeliya Sqr.1040 Sofia,Bulgaria

Tel: +359 29 335 811, +359 29 335 845 Fax: +359 29 896


Sofia Airport, also known as Vrazhdebna, is a small airport originally built outside the city in the 1930s. The subsequent growth of Sofia means it is now stuck right in the suburbs. The benefit is that it is only a 15 minute drive to the centre of town but lack of space has made expansion of the airport difficult.

There is a project undewrway to build a second terminal and runway but the development has been plagued with underfunding and delays. The upshot is that, while Sofia takes regular flights from most major European capitals and carriers (especially Air France and British Airways) it hasn’t sufficient capacity to accommodate many budget airlines.