We visited Sofia as a part of a wider route around the Balkans. We’ve got to be honest: Sofia isn’t Bulgaria’s best asset. It lacks the historical charm of Plovdiv or the outstanding natural settings of Bansko, Melnik or Kyustendil. Nevertheless, it is the country’s capital and its largest city. Hence, Sofia has some unique architecture plus Vitosha Mountain is just a step away. So one day in Sofia is definitely not enough to see its main highlights. Yes, most of them are in the city center, but it’s a relatively large area. Thus, at least one extra day is mandatory to visit the surroundings, including Boyana Church, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Sofia Architecture Highlights
When Bulgaria got its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1878 Sofia was just a small town of fewer than 12 000 people. Many foreign and local architects educated abroad were invited to design a European Sofia, a modern city with wide boulevards and pretty architecture. Unfortunately, during the Second World War most of said elegant buildings were destroyed. Since then, gray socialist-style blocks sprouted all around the city. Luckily, Sofia still has extraordinary historic landmarks, including churches, a synagogue, a mosque, and several museums. You will find most within 1 kilometer of Ancient Serdica, Sofia’s center.
People have been living in Sofia since the 5th century BC. However, the city came to prominence during Roman times. In the 3rd century BC, it was the capital of the Roman province of Dacia Aureliana, later Dacia Mediterranea. The roman city is the geographical center of Sofia, where the Presidential Complex stands today. In 2004, during the construction of the Sofia Metro, the most important Roman remains were discovered. The Amphitheatre of Serdica was built most likely in the 2nd century AD on top of an older roman theater.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
If there is one religious site you should visit in all Bulgaria, it should definitely be the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. This grand Orthodox Church is the Cathedral Church of the Bulgarian Patriarch and the largest temple in the country. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is a cross domed basilica with a giant central dome and a tall front bell tower. The central gold plated dome is 45 meters tall and the bell tower 53 meters. The church is dedicated to St. Alexander Nevsky, the patron saint of the Russian army that helped Bulgaria gain its independence from the Ottoman Empire.
Saint Sofia Church
The much older Saint Sofia Church is next to the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The temple stands over an older religious site, part of Ancient Serdica. The current church dates back to the 6th Century and has the shape of a Latin cross with a cupola at the intersection of the main nave and the transept. During the Second Bulgarian Empire, it was a Metropolitan church and during the Ottoman Empire a mosque. In fact, the church was so important that it gave the city its name in the 14th century: Sofia. Go inside and prepare to be dazzled by the Early Christian mosaics covering the floor.
Saint George Rotunda
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is the center point of a large open square. Saint George Rotunda is quite the opposite. This small historical church is between a closed block of buildings. Built in the 4th Century in the middle of Ancient Serdica, it is the oldest building in Sofia. The red-brick church is symmetrical with a domed circular nave and semicircular niches. Though the frescoes inside go back to the 4th century, the medieval ones depicting religious scenes like the Assumption are the most famous.
Saint Nicholas Russian Church
The Church of St Nicholas the Miracle-Maker is a Russian Church in Sofia built on the site of the Saray Mosque. The church was built at the beginning of the 20th century to serve the Russian Embassy in Sofia. Being a diplomatic church, they named it after the Russian Emperor of the time, Nicholas II. However, it soon became the entire Russian community’s temple in Bulgaria. The symmetrical building has 5 golden domes, the central one being 19 meters tall. The building is in the so-called Russian revival style, inspired by Muscovite churches from the 17th century.
To us, Sofia’s Synagogue is one of the city’s best highlights. What a beautiful building! The synagogue, one of the largest in Europe, is the largest one in the Balkan Peninsula. The Bulgarian Sephardic community commissioned an Austrian architect to build for them a place of worship. He modeled the synagogue after Vienna’s famous Leopoldstädter Tempel. He designed an essentially Moorish temple in Sofia, incorporating elements of the Vienna secession and Venetian architecture. Notice the large central dome and the four small ones that cover the rectangular main hall.
Banya Bashi Mosque
At the height of the Ottoman reign, there were 70 mosques in Sofia. Today only one stands, the Banya Bashi Mosque from the 16th Century. Its name comes from the Turkish word that means many baths. In fact, the mosque stands over natural thermal baths. The architect in charge was no other than Sinan, the Sultan’s architect that designed the Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul. What’s special about this mosque is its interior. Notice the beautiful aquamarine tiles that cover the lower parts of the walls. Additionally, the dome is full of calligraphic ornaments. It’s the only remaining example in all of Bulgaria of a cubic base mosque covered with a dome.
Ivan Vazov National Theater
Opened in 1907, the Ivan Vazov National Theater is Bulgaria’s biggest, oldest and most influential theater. Austrian architects Helmer & Fellner designed this impressive neoclassical building. Look for the pediment depicting Apollo and his muses that rests over six marble pillars on the main façade. There are towers crowned with sculptures of the Greek goddess Nike on both sides of the pediment. A fire destroyed the original interior in 1923. Fortunately, Bulgarians did a great job restoring it in 1929. The place is so big that the main hall can accommodate up to 850 people.
The National Archeological Museum is probably the most important museum in Bulgaria. Its collection includes archeological artifacts from the early Stone Age to the 18th century. Not only that, but the museum is the former Koca Mahmut Paşa Mosque. It was the first and the largest mosque ever built in Sofia. In 1893 the museum was established as part of the National Museum, but its collections were all over the country. It took some time until in 1905 everything was moved to the present location.
Central Mineral Baths (Sofia History Museum)
The former Central Mineral Baths are now the Sofia History Museum. There have been public baths in Sofia since the 16th century, including several in this particular area. The current building is from 1913. Once again, an Austrian-Bulgarian team combined Bulgarian and Byzantine elements with the Vienna Secession style. The public baths closed in 1986. From 2015 it is the Sofia History Museum. You will find all sort of historic elements such as a Neolithic house or a horse carriage from Marie Antoinette inside.
National Palace of Culture
As mentioned above, you need more than one day in Sofia to visit its main highlights. There is superb soviet architecture in Sofia too! The National Palace of Culture, also known as the NDK, opened in 1985 to celebrate Bulgaria’s 13th centennial. Within this monumental building, you will find several concert halls, shops, restaurants, offices, and exhibition space. Various events like concerts, art exhibits, fashion shows, and film festivals take place in the palace throughout the year. The main hall is so big it can accommodate around 4000 spectators.
We spent one day in Sofia just walking along its streets. Vitosha Boulevard is the city’s main street. Fortunately, the section between the St. Nedelya Church and the Palace of Culture is pedestrian. It’s the best place to see and be seen. Likewise, nearby Graf Ignatiev is another nice street to stroll. Beware of the trams that still pass through. On the other hand, Pirotska Street is less monumental but lined with trees. Shops here are more low-key but equally interesting. Finally, for a real Balkan experience go to the Women’s Market on Boulevard Stefan Stambolov.
If You Have More than One Day in Sofia
The best architecture in Sofia, one would even say its highlight, is far from the city center. The Boyana Church is actually a complex of three unique churches and the city’s only Unesco World Heritage Site. The central one contains mosaics with outstanding artistic value. Do not forget to check out the nearby National Museum of History. To get to Boyana take public bus no 64. Another great plan if you have more than one day in Sofia is hiking to Vitosa Mountain. On the other hand, if you prefer history and culture instead of nature, Rila Monastery is the country’s most important monastery and another World Heritage Site.
Though street art is somehow new in Sofia, a couple of works stand out. While most are far from the center, you can walk to a few. Start at the parking lot in front of the ruins of Ancient Serdica. You will see a piece depicting Saint Sofia (after the nearby monument). Bacho Kiro Street is another place to search for street art. Search for two large graffiti. One is on the corner with Iskar Street and another one on the corner with Ekzarh Yosif Street. If you have more time, go to Hadzhi Dimitar neighborhood, northeast of the center.
Where to Stay in Sofia
As you know, we like to feel history and architecture first hand. That’s why we stayed in the Sofia Hotel Balkan. The former Sheraton Hotel is now part of the Luxury Collection Hotels and is still the best hotel in town. It is a gorgeous early post-war building, part of the Presidential Palace complex and Ancient Serdica. Even more, the hotel surrounds Saint George Rotunda. We tried different rooms, both with beautiful views and tasteful decoration.
Another place that excels in hospitality is the Bon Bon Central Hotel. I stayed there on my last visit to Sofia and can’t praise it enough. Great location, wonderful views, and first-class service.