Sofia, Bulgaria – the Surprise of Eastern Europe

A tall, gaunt man limped toward me as I dragged my luggage down the steps of the train that had just arrived in Sofia.

“Where are you going?” he asked shyly, bowing his head in deference.

He wanted to ‘guide’ me in return for a fee but I was fairly certain I could find my way, so I waved him off with a smile. Inside the station I exchanged my few remaining Romanian leu for Bulgarian lev, hit the ATM for additional money, then stepped outside and looked around for the tram or the Metro. Finding neither, I returned to the station, searching for an information booth.

He was waiting for me. “Can I help?” he asked.

Tired from a long train ride, I capitulated and allowed him to lead me to the tram station a block away, where he learned that line was under repair and not in service. “You take taxi,” he suggested. Immediately, my radar kicked in. Was this some sort of a scam?

“No, I take Metro.”

Beckoning me to follow, he limped across the street and descended a stairway leading to an underground tunnel. Growing more suspicious, I followed cautiously, wrinkling my nose up at the stench of urine. “Maybe I’ve made a mistake scheduling a week here,” I thought. At the end of the reeking, litter-strewn tunnel he again motioned for me to follow through double glass doors into the Metro office. After helping me buy a ticket and pointing out my destination on the map, he stepped aside, asking for nothing. Gratefully, I gave him a few lev for his time and proceeded through the turnstile, into a sleek, brand new, spotless Metro station.

Sofia's Vitosha Street, a broad pedestrian walkway, leads through the city's historic center Bulgaria
Sofia’s Vitosha Street, a broad pedestrian walkway, leads through the city’s historic center

Moments later I boarded a train for a quick trip to NDK station, where I emerged onto Vitosha Street and stopped dead in my tracks. The wide pedestrian boulevard was filled with people out for a stroll or enjoying lunch at curbside cafes. Children played in fountains and a crowd had gathered around break-dancing street performers. Luxuriant baskets of flowers hung from every street lamp, bursting with color in the bright afternoon sunlight. “Maybe a week in Sofia won’t be long enough,” I mused.

Performers attract a crowd on Sofia's Vitosha Street pedestrian walkway Bulgaria
Performers attract a crowd on Sofia’s Vitosha Street pedestrian walkway

Having just come from sterile, impersonal Bucharest, Romania, I expected more of the same from this neighboring country but my first impression of Sofia was only a harbinger of things to come. The owner of the Canape Connection Hostel welcomed me warmly, handed me a map of the city, and gave me a brief orientation that included directions to nearby vegetarian restaurants. Later that evening he asked if I would mind checking in a late arrival, as the owners depart at 10 p.m. each night. I had been in Sofia for less than 12 hours and suddenly I was in charge of a hostel!

For the next seven days I reveled in all that this attractive capital city offered. Though I had thoroughly enjoyed my time in Hungary and Romania, meals had been difficult, as they consisted mostly of carb-laden dishes heavy on meat, bread, and potatoes. Vegetarian selections were invariably some sort of fried cheese. On my first foray into the cuisine of Bulgaria I was pleasantly surprised to find an array of salads on the menu, including a ‘stacked’ salad with alternating layers of fresh bibb lettuce, thick tomato slices, grilled vegetables, and haloumi cheese, all drizzled in a delicious vinegar dressing and garnished with garlic rounds. I swooned when I bit into the tomato. Unlike the tasteless varieties found in supermarkets across the U.S., this was rich and juicy and bursting with a flavor that reminded me of my childhood, when my sisters and I carried salt shakers into my grandfather’s garden, picked enormous beefsteak tomatoes, and ate them on the spot, red juice dribbling down our chins.

Typical street in Sofia Bulgaria city center, with shops, cafes, and fruit stands
Typical street in Sofia’s city center, with shops, cafes, and small markets selling fresh fruits and vegetables

A highlight of my visit was the free Sofia Walking Tour, an English-language sightseeing tour conducted by in-the-know volunteers. We set off from the Palace of Justice promptly at 11 a.m. and two hours later I had seen all the major landmarks. Along the way our guide wove fascinating historical details into his narrative, including the story of how Bulgaria saved its 48,000 Jews from being deported to concentration camps during World War II. Bulgaria agreed to support Adolf Hitler because the country had limited military resources; resistance would have been futile. But when Hitler demanded that Bulgaria turn over its Jews there was a huge public outcry, led by clergy from the churches. The King of Bulgaria devised a plan to foil Hitler. Each time he demanded the Jews, the King promised to deliver them, but not until they had completed construction of a new highway, government building, or bridge. In the end, he stalled so long that every single Jewish resident of Bulgaria survived the war, a fact of which the country is rightly proud. Today, Catholic, Islamic, Jewish, and Eastern Orthodox churches face one another in the city center, a reminder that people of different faiths can live together in peace and harmony.

Gold iconostasis at Saint Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral separates the sanctuary from the main part of the church Sofia Bulgaria
Gold iconostasis at Saint Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral separates the sanctuary from the main part of the church

Over the next few days I returned to many of the sites on my own. At Ivan Vasov Garden, one of the city’s most popular meeting places, I listened to a Bulgarian band play New Orleans jazz and watched in fascination as a man in a maroon suit jacket and herringbone checked fedora set up a chess board on a portable table and sat down to wait patiently for a contender to appear.

Man in Ivan Vasov Garden waits for an opponent to challenge him to a game of chess
Man in Ivan Vasov Garden waits for an opponent to challenge him to a game of chess

I examined the ruins of an ancient Thracian city, precursors of Bulgarians, and filled my water jug at the mineral fountains fed by hot springs beneath the city. Those same springs had for years been the source for the Central Mineral Baths, where elite and commoners alike gathered to take the waters. Though the baths are no longer active, the gorgeous Vienna Secessionist style building, which incorporates Byzantine and Eastern Orthodox elements, is currently being restored for use as a museum.

The Old Central Mineral Baths building is being renovated for a museum Sofia Bulgaria
Sofia’s Old Central Mineral Baths building is being renovated for a museum

One afternoon I discovered the Tea House on Benkovski Street, which hosts live music performances and poetry readings. I sank into an overstuffed armchair and rested my aching feet as I sipped Earl Grey. The bulletin board at the door overflowed with notices of apartments for rent, dog walking services, and Yoga classes. This was definitely a city I could live in.

Tea House on Benkovski Street in Sofia's historic center is popular gathering place and venue for entertainment
Tea House on Benkovski Street in Sofia’s historic center is popular gathering place and venue for entertainment

I thought my attraction to Sofia would wane, as so often happens, but the opposite occurred. I grew so enamored that I checked into the price of apartments and learned that a fully furnished, one bedroom apartment in the city center could be rented for $300 per month. Is Sofia destined to be my summer place? Perhaps, though there are so many places I haven’t yet seen. Only time will tell. I plan to continue my European tour next summer but for now, Sofia remains the most delightful surprise of Eastern Europe.

Check prices for accommodations in Sofia at Booking.com, Hotels.com, or HotelsCombined.com. Read reviews about hotels and guest houses in Sofia, Bulgaria at TripAdvisor.

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links to hotel booking sites. If you click on any of the links and make a booking, I may earn a small commission, which keeps this blog free to read.

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100 thoughts on “Sofia, Bulgaria – the Surprise of Eastern Europe”

      • Barbara, Slavi: you’re both absolutely right, it’s just that your viewpoints are different. It is one thing to be a tourist in Sofia and enjoy the historical sights and lovely cafes, for example, and it’s a totally different story, if you have to struggle with the city’s problems on a daily basis…
        Still, I’d recommend visiting Sofia and Bulgaria to anyone who hasn’t been there yet, and I’d recommend you do it asap, here’s why: http://ntripping.com/5-reasons-to-visit-bulgaria-right-now/
        Cheers,
        N.

        Reply
        • NTripping,

          Slavi is surely not right. He is one of the many Bulgarians who feel the perverse need to lower Bulgaria in any way possible. It is VERY difficult to explain to a foreigner how it’s possible but it is. On one side it’s because not all Bulgarians traveled and know how durty Paris, London or Brussels or other European cities can be. But you will never see a French or a Britt answer to a praise in a blog the way Slavi did. The other reason is that many Bulgarians have a very unrealistic expectation of what a “decent” life should be or is in the West. And the third reason may seem very bizzare but I noticed it because I literally grew up outside Bulgaria in one of the richest and most multicultural countries in the world and could be in touch with many realities of different cultures. So, the third reason is a continuous political brainwashing during since 1944/5 and the dictatorial regime establishment. Even in our school we were thought negative things about Bulgarians and Bulgaria, imagine what was happening in the state-controlled press and the society as a whole.

          So, I have a small advice to everyone considering visiting Bulgaria- ignore the opinion of the locals. And yes, I get the irony that I am also a local but as I said, I grew up and developed as an adult abroad in a very different environment.

          Greetings and enjoy Bulgaria, it is a real hidden gem worth exploring before the rest of Europe discovers how little they know about it ๐Ÿ˜‰

          Sofia is a very clean city. What it lacks is neatly done streets and

          Reply
  1. Yes a great account of the city. I was there for a few months and like you it grew on me over time and I liked it to start with. I’m British and I want to live in the naturally rich country of Bulgaria. It’s a shame that the locals don’t appreciate it as much as they should, looking at moving to countries that pay better, but just as importantly charge more for living costs. I have been to many places, Hawaii included, but Bulgaria is the most amazing place to look at

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  2. i am women garments and scarves exporter from india mumbai i want set up bussniess in sofia

    please guide me about residence permit and other legal formalities.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Online Lesson 1 – Topics: Foos and Travel:) | ??????? – ?
  4. Thanks for sharing such a nice thinking, piece of writing is fastidious, that’s why i have read it completely

    Reply
  5. Dear Barbara,

    what a lovely article! Thank you so much for this, it absolutely made my day. I am from Sofia but moved to Germany 10 years ago. Sadly, people have very wrong impressions about Bulgaria…mostly connected with mafia and gypsies and God knows what else. I became so emotional while reading your article, it makes me so happy when someone actually gives a chance and finds out how fascinating our country is! Thank you so much. I hope Bulgaria will continue to pleasantly surprise you .

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    • Hi Lin: I’ve had such an outpouring of love from residents and former residents of Sofia that it’s been heartwarming! I hope I’ve done my part to let people know how wonderful your home city. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment.

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    • Dear Barbara,

      here is a very interesting read about Bulgaria. It’s a new blog but the information is very useful. May be for your next trip to Bulgaria:

      http://www.kashkaval-tourist.com/

      If you are ever in Dรผsseldorf, Germany or Bulgaria again, let me know ๐Ÿ™‚
      I follow your blog and looking forward to your next adventure. Thanks for sharing! Enjoy your trip.

      Reply
  6. Actually about 13,000 Jews were deported by Bulgarian authorities and murdered by the Nazis at Treblinka. Bulgarians like to glaze over that little tidbit.

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    • Hi Truth Be Told: Yes, you are correct. Bulgarian authorities permitted Germany to deport the majority of the non-Bulgarian Jews residing in Bulgarian-occupied parts of Greece and Yugoslavia (Greek Thrace and Eastern Macedonia) to the killing camp at Treblinka. However, the fact remains that they saved nearly 50,000 Jews residing in Bulgaria proper, for which they are rightly proud.

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      • Truth Be Told Even More Precisely: the Jewes from Macedonia (in Yugoslavia) and Aegean Thrace (in Greece) were not Bulgarian citizens. The Bulgarian authorities tried (and succied) to save all 50 000 Bulgarian Jews, who were citizens of the Kingdom of Bulgaria.

        The Jews from Greek Thrace and Yugoslavian Macedonia were not Bulgarian citizens. Unfortunately, they were under other regulations, as citizens of states, defeated by Nazis. Germany allowed to Bulgarian state to take the administraive governance in these territories , but the real decision-maker of what will happen was Hitler.

        This explains why the Jews from Yugoslavian Vardar Macedonia went to Treblinka, and the Jews from Bulgarian Pirin Macedonia (with Bulgarian passports by birth) were saved.

        Reply
  7. Dear Barbara,
    It is so rare for a foreigner to write something so enhancing and kind about our country. I live in the UK and have been living here for the past 6 years, but every time when I pick up a newspaper or check out a program about Bulgaria, all I see is crime, corruption, misery and pain. Frankly that is not the way I see my country. Thank you for giving us a chance and writing this piece, you brought tears to my eyes…

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    • You are very welcome, Martin. I so loved my time in Bulgaria and thought the people were lovely. I hope to go back to see more of Bulgaria someday soon.

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    • Dear Barbara,

      Thank you for the wonderful and true portrayal of Sofia – through your writing and photos. As an American who has lived in Bulgaria for 4 years (and probably another 10)…, it is nice to have a fresh-eyed perspective of Bulgaria – particularly its local people and culture. Thanks again.

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      • You’re very welcome Jesse. I’m always on the lookout for great places that are little known in tourism circles. I hope my article coninces many more travelers to visit Bulgaria, and especially Sofia.

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  8. Hi Barbara, thanks for sharing such wonderful writing and photos about Sofia. My husband and I both served as Peace Corps Volunteers in Bulgaria (I from 2002-2004 and he from 2004-2006โ€ฆ that’s how we met), in a small town about 6.5 hours northeast of Sofia. Bulgaria is a wonderful country, filled with natural beauty, great people, and rich culture. Sofia has changed so much in the last 10 years. It really is a cosmopolitan city with so much to offer (I would have LOVED to have a tea house like that to visit when I was there!). It saddens me that Bulgaria is often a country that people overlook in their travels, never stopping to think that it could be a destination on its own. Thanks for explaining that here, and I do hope you get a chance to visit again and see some of the smaller and more off-the-beaten path places!

    Reply
    • Hi Deena: How lucky that you got to serve in Bulgaria! I am certain that I will go back and see more of the country. I have visited Sozopol, Burgas, and Rila Monastery in addition to Sofia, but I know there is much more to see.

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  9. What a wonderful, glowing description of Sofia and its delights. I lived and worked in Pazardjik, east of Sofia near Plovdiv, in 2002 and 2003. Going to Sofia, “the big city,” always brought new discoveries and surprises. It’s amazing how you gained so much insight in just a short stay, from overcoming that first impression (oh how I could identify with that!) to finding such charming places and people to describe. Your photography is stunning, too — makes me almost ache to see those places again.

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    • Hi Bruce: What a lovely compliment – thank you so much for taking time to leave a comment. I’m quite certain that Bulgaria is one of the few places in the world to which I will return. I certainly captured my heart!

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  10. Thanks for the article, I really enjoyed it! My American husband and I moved to Sofia (from Boston) five years ago and we love it. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  11. Hey! I am happy you enjoyed your stay in Sofia.
    If you ever have time to come back which would make me very happy, try visiting some other places like Plovdiv, Nessebar, Koprovshitica, Rila monastary, the sevel Rila lakes… Although I am from Sofia and love the city I think that the real beauty of Bulgaria is in the smaller cities and the nature ๐Ÿ™‚
    Best regards!

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  12. Hi Barb,
    Thank you so much for sharing with us your visit in Bulgaria. It makes me proud to be Bulgarian and the same time very sad. I have been away from my country for years now. You bring back a lot of great memories. It is amazing how I see things through your eyes now, that i could not see when I was living there.
    Busy with our daily routine we often forget to slow down and look around, we miss so much of our life. I have been living in Orlando, Fl for the last 7 years, beautiful city, it is clean, very well organized, people from all over the world visit Disney, Universal studios, Sea World e.t.c. , but you know what nothing can compare to the Beauty and History of my BULGARIA.
    Keep up with the great job and enjoy very second of life and travel!
    Thanks again!!!

    Reply
    • Hi Fani: I am so glad I could bring back cherished memories with my story! It’s definitely true what you say about how we don’t see the things that surround us in the places where we grew up. I was born and raised in Chicago but never realized what a spectacular city it is until I left it. Bulgaria is now officially one of my favorite places in the world and I hope to return to see more of it.

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  13. Hi Barbara, Equally delighted as all the rest who have commented on your article seem to be! Of course it warms my heart that you like our capital city because I’ve been away for 5 years now:( and miss it so much but it’s also a very well written material, wish there were more of the kind!! Loved the way you arrived from Bucurest on the train:), not many people would be brave enough to do it nowadays. Especially with the bad reputation we Bulgarians and Romanians seem to have in the UK these days, for some reason or another, not deserved surely but the world has never been fair. We’ve never been good at advertising ourselves either so we should be very grateful to people like you and I am. My hometown is in the south-east and yes, capitals aren’t very popular normally;), Sofia isn’t either but of course it’s a beautiful city. A Cypriote lady told me once that she finds it as beautiful as London, why not:).Thanks and keep on travelling in such a sweet, old-fashioned and proper way and writing in your sincere, positive and beautiful manner. Loved it! PS: Uncle;) Bulgaria is character from Wombles, some English cartoon, hope it’s not a bad one, haven’t watched it yet.

    Reply
    • Hi Valia: Thank you so much! I was very curious about your comments regarding taking the train from Bucharest to Sofia. It was an older train, for sure, but totally safe. And I was surprised to hear that there are rumors about Romanians and Bulgarians having bad reputations in the UK. I found the people totally friendly and willing to go out of their way to help me. Of course, there is a bit of pickpocketing that goes on, but that happens in many large cities around the world. As far as I’m concerned, Bulgaria is one of the best destinations in the world at the moment.

      Reply
  14. Bulgaria is a beautiful country and there is so much more to see in it than Sofia.

    I would recommend Ruse, Burgas, Sozopol, Ahtopol, Shumen, Plovdiv, Veliko Tarnovo, Balchik as must see towns.

    There are small towns and villages in the mountains that are not to be missed, too!

    And I am sure you will enjoy visiting the Seven Rila lakes and the Krushuna waterfalls in spring/summer.

    There is much more to see in Bulgaria of course, but these are the first that come to mind ๐Ÿ™‚

    Reply
    • You neglected to mention Velingrad as well which is more known as the Balkan Spa capital city. Velingrad has an awesome nature surrounding it and the cleanest air of all Bulgarian towns, so I’d say it’s a must see town.

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    • Hi Ina: I spent almost a month in Bulgaria and, in addition to Sofia, visited Burgas, Sozopol, and Rila Monastery. I loved every place I visited and hope I can get back son to visit some of the other places you mentioned. Veliko Tarnovo has been especially mentioned to me by many people.

      Reply

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