Sofia is underrated among travelers in Eastern Europe. Many complain that it’s a boring city. But the naysayers are wrong. Sofia is one of Europe’s most low-key capitals. You’ll fall in love with its relaxed vibe, friendly locals, and gorgeous churches and monasteries. Like the rest of Bulgaria, it’s very affordable. And there are plenty of things to do in Sofia Bulgaria to keep you occupied for a couple days.
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Why visit Sofia?
Sofia is very different from the other cities in Eastern Europe. The majority of the buildings, aside from the religious institutions, were built in the 1960’s and later. The city doesn’t have the typical “historical center” so common throughout Europe. As a result, it feels very livable.
The first thing I noticed when I got off the train was how quiet it is. At 9 am on a Saturday, I had the downtown area almost to myself. The handful of tourists that are here are really spread out, so there is no “touristy” area to speak of.
But just because it’s quiet, doesn’t mean it’s dull. One of the best things to do in Sofia Bulgaria is simply wandering around the relatively empty streets and taking in a European capital that isn’t drowning in over-tourism. Add to that the fact that Sofia has one of Europe’s best hostels and great food, and you’ve got a pretty good reason to visit.
Sofia sightseeing may be more low-key than other capital cities — but don’t worry, you won’t be bored here! Read on for the list of things to do in Sofia.
The top things to do in Sofia
1. Take a day trip to Rila Monastery
Easily at the top of any list of things to do in Sofia is visiting one of Bulgaria’s most beautiful monasteries. The Rila Monastery is nestled in the stunning Rila Mountain Range, just outside of Sofia. As a religious center for over 1,000 years, it’s steeped in history. What’s more, the architecture is incredible.
The main appeal of visiting Rila Monastery is just wandering around and soaking up the history and the views. (Check out the balcony for the best photos into the mountains.) The monastery is free to visit and you can spend as much time as you like here — it opens at 7 am and closes at 8 pm.
If you want to learn more, you can visit two museums on the site, which charge separate admission fees. The history museum costs 8 leva, and the ethnography museum costs 5. Students can enter both for 1 leva.
Be sure to wear clothes that cover to your shoulders and knees when you visit Rila Monastery. Women should bring a scarf as well, in case you want to cover your hair. (It’s very common at Orthodox sites.)
The easiest way to get to the Rila Monastery is on a shuttle from Sofia. Rila Monastery Bus is the most popular option. It costs 60 leva, inclulding a guide, and picks up from the city center. If you’re on a budget, you are better off trying to catch the daily (10:20 am) bus from the west bus station. The bus takes two and a half hours and gives you two and a half hours to visit the site. It costs 22 leva for a round-trip ticket.
If you’re interested in a completely unique Rila Monastery experience, you can even stay overnight in the monastery. This is a great way to see it in the evenings, all lit up. It costs just 20 leva for a private room.
2. Visit the stunning Aleksander Nevski Cathedral
Sofia’s most iconic building, the Aleksander Nevski Cathedral honors the 200,000 Russian soldiers who died fighting for Bulgaria’s independence. The church contains elaborate murals and other ornate decorations. It’s one of the most important places to visit in Sofia.
Admission to the cathedral is free. Cover your shoulders and knees and women should bring a scarf. You can visit during services, which is a fascinating cultural experience.
Not far from here is one of Sofia’s oldest churches — Sveta Sofia. It’s far less grandiose, but still worth poking your nose into.
3. Walk along the “Yellow Brick Road” to see the changing of the guard at the Presidential Palace
The string of Soviet-style government buildings that make up central Sofia is affectionately known as the “Yellow Brick Road.” It got this nickname from the yellow cobblestone street connecting the buildings. The bricks were donated by the Hapsburgs before Sofia even had a single paved street.
The walk is pleasant, taking you past mostly very Communist-era, block-y, grey architecture. But the highlight of this part of Sofia sightseeing is the Presidential Palace. While visitors may not enter, you are welcome to watch the hourly changing-of-the-guard ceremony — one of the great things to see in Sofia.
It’s a very entertaining ritual whereby the guards march with their weapons and comically over-done costumes. Music often complements the ceremony. The whole thing takes all of five minutes.
4. Explore the many museums
Sofia’s museums get little attention compared to their better-known cousins to the west. But the city is at a cultural crossroads, and it has a fascinating history that is well worth exploring.
Start at the Archaeology Museum, where you can learn about not just the city’s Roman past, but also its Thracian history (which is unique to Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey). Admission is 10 leva.
Then, check out the Sofia History Museum. It shines a light on archaeological findings in the city, as well as the city’s development during the 19th century. An additional highlight is the gorgeous building it occupies — formerly a Turkish bath house, one of the top Sofia attractions. Admission is 6 leva.
Finally, any fan of Cold War history should pay a visit to the Museum of Socialist Art. Statues of Lenin, propaganda paintings, and even old USSR films are the main attractions here. It’s one of the quirkier things to do in Sofia. Admission is 6 leva.
5. Fill your water bottle at the natural mineral springs
When you visit Sofia, you have no reason to purchase bottled water. The city is at the center of a number of mineral springs — many of which have public access points where you can fill your bottle for free. The most accessible are right next to the Sofia History Museum.
The mineral springs are more than just a convenient water stop. They’re a public gathering place for many locals. You’ll find yourself chatting with students, old ladies, and even government bureaucrats while waiting to fill up! It’s one of the most fun and unique places to visit in Sofia.
Sofia travel practicalities
On top of the great things to do in Sofia, the city serves as a convenient transit point, with many traveler amenities to make your stay pleasant.
How to get to Sofia
Sofia is an increasingly common stop on the Eastern European rail circuit. Tickets to/from Belgrade, Serbia cost around 40 leva for a seat. For Bucharest, Romania, you’ll pay about 50 leva. You can now get to Thessaloniki, Greece for 35 leva. And to/from Istanbul in Turkey runs 60 leva. Most of these trains are in the 9-10 hour range. You’ll pay more if you want a sleeper berth on an overnight train.
International buses are often a better option. Prices run 50-60 leva for all the routes outlined above, plus Macedonia. These leave from the “Trafik Market” near the train station, not from the Central Bus Station.
If you’re going further into Bulgaria, Sofia is a good transit hub. You can get to/from almost anywhere else. Trains leave regularly for most domestic destinations, including Plovdiv, Veliko Trnovo, and the Black Sea coast. You can buy your ticket just before you want to leave. Give yourself plenty of time to navigate the (Cyrillic-only) train station. Similarly, buses go just about everywhere, mostly leaving from the Central Bus Station a short walk away from the train station.
Where to stay in Sofia on a budget
No Sofia guide would be complete without a plug for one of Bulgaria’s — and Eastern Europe’s — best hostels. Hostel Mostel gives you a dorm bed, breakfast, dinner, and a beer — every night — for 20 leva per night. If you’re only staying in Sofia for the day between overnight trains, you can also pay half that to use their showers, Internet, luggage storage, and comfy couches to take a nap on.
Hostel Mostel offers affordable single, double, and triple rooms as well, and even a whole apartment suitable for a family. So you have little reason to look anywhere else for accommodation. The only downside is it’s a bit of a walk from the main Sofia attractions, but very convenient to the bus and train stations.
Where to eat in Sofia
Bulgarian food is probably my favorite European cuisine — don’t overlook it! Sofia has lots of good places to eat.
A few small cafes around Hostel Mostel serve good salads and sandwiches. Bistro Pesto is a great option. Sun and Moon has awesome vegetarian food (a rarity in Eastern Europe!). Pri Yafata is the place to try Bulgarian cuisine. And of course, you can find Bulgaria’s second dish — pizza — everywhere.
While at first glance it may seem like there aren’t a lot of things to do in Sofia, I hope this Sofia guide has convinced you that it’s still well worth a visit. You may just find yourself staying longer than you expected as you soak up the chilled-out vibes and affordable travel. And you can do all that while seeing some of the region’s most spectacular churches and monasteries. What could be better than that?
Are you planning to visit Sofia? Any questions about these things to do? Leave a comment!
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