When you hear the word “Bulgaria,” what comes to mind? If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you probably think of Viktor Krum. If you’re not a Harry Potter fan, you should put this article down and start reading the series.
Unless you grew up in Bulgaria or a neighboring country, you probably haven’t heard much about this part of the world and what it has to offer. Travelers will be pleased to find that both the people and the weather are warm, sunny, and welcoming in this country that belongs to the European Union. The capital city, Sofia, is home to 1.2 million Bulgarians, and some of its history is nearly three millennia old.
Because Bulgaria is less traveled than, say, France or Italy, kitschy souvenir stands won’t bog you down. The country offers five-star accommodations while being one of the most affordable destinations in Europe. A trip to Bulgaria cuts down on cost, but not on quality of experience.
If you’re short on time, the majority of must-see sites are in the capital. A free walking tour of Sofia runs twice daily, at 11 am and 6 pm. Tourists meet at the Palace of Justice, where a tour guide (usually college aged) who speaks English will direct you to 35 of the city’s most breathtaking sites in a two-hour time slot. Tourists can book a group tour or arrange a private tour online.
If you’d rather not spend your time on your feet, Sofia also offers popular bus tours that cost only seven euros for one hour or fifteen euros for two (children 12 and under travel free). Although these bus tours are not as interactive as the walking tours, they help you save your energy to shop the artisan markets. And the bus tour can also take you to more of the sites in a shorter time.
If you’d prefer to explore on your own and take in more of the city, the following seven attractions are a good base for any long vacation to Sofia:
1. Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
This is the must-see site in Bulgaria. The outside of the cathedral is impressive, with its distinctive Eastern Orthodox domes and neo-Byzantine–inspired architecture. But the true beauty lies within, where visitors can see superb paintings from the Russian Bible. Don’t forget to look up—God himself glares down at you from the vaulted ceiling. If time permits, check out the museum and crypt. You won’t be disappointed. The Cathedral’s hours are from 7 am to 6 pm, and during the summer, just about everything is open to visitors.
2. Ivan Vazov National Theatre
The real appeal of this theatre is the beautiful exterior. The theatre was built in 1904 to boast of Bulgaria’s wealth. But don’t worry; despite its expensive decor, the shows performed inside are more than affordable if you’d like a taste of the work of Bulgarian playwrights.
3. National Opera and Ballet
For non-Bulgarian-speaking visitors, a better bet for experiencing the culture of Sofia is the National Opera and Ballet. It’s no secret that Eastern Europeans know a thing or two about ballet. While Bulgarian ballet may not compare to Russian ballet, the Bulgarians offer an impressive lineup, and ticket prices are a steal. A night at the opera or ballet is well worth your time and money. Don’t bother buying tickets beforehand, though. Show times are known to change, so it’s safer to buy on the day of a performance.
4. Museum of Socialist Art
Sunny Bulgaria won’t remind you very much of the former USSR, but the Bulgarians have had their share of communist influence. For both the USSR history junkie and the average tourist, this museum is intriguing. Visitors can watch footage of Bulgarian communist leaders or admire the Soviet-style statues erected outside.
5. The Rotunda of St. George
This cathedral, built sometime in the fourth century, is the oldest building still standing in Sofia. The church itself is a small blip in the city, but the ruins surrounding it and the intact frescoes on the interior are more than worth the short trip to see them.
6. Vitosha Mountain Range
Don’t forget your hiking boots! Sofia is home to an impressive mountain range that is great for hiking. During the summer, you are welcome to walk or bike to the top. This hike takes only 30 minutes or so, but other trails go farther. From the top of the peaks, you will enjoy the view of the entire capital. During the winter, ski lifts are available for skiers of all skill levels.
7. Boyana Church
The charming 1,100-year-old church located at the foot of Vitosha is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Entrance to the church costs about 10 levs (about US$7) and includes a 10-minute tour. Be sure to spend some time studying the icons painted on the interior of the church.
Although you might not run into any Quidditch stars in Sofia, Bulgaria, the city is full of surprises. Perhaps the best travel advice is to take the city at a leisurely pace and enjoy every moment you have there. It’s worth the investment in an airline ticket.