We visited Sofia as one of many stops during a 7,5 month round-the-world journey in 2013. We had 1,5 day in the city, which we thought was more than enough time to see the sights that interested us most and relax in one of the many parks at the same time. Although Sofia is flying a little bit under the European city trip radar (mostly due to the lack of low cost airline connections we suppose), we think is can make for a rewarding weekend getaway, especially when a side trip to the stunning Rila Monastery is included.
Must see sights in Sofia
Alexander Nevski Memorial Church
The impressive Alexander Nevski Memorial Church should be at the top of every visitors Sofia to-do-list. The golden-domed edifice is one of the biggest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world. It took 30 years (from 1882-1912) to build this city symbol in memory of the 200.000 soldiers who died during the Turkish-Russo War in 1877-1878, which resulted in the liberation of Bulgaria from Turkish rule.
Sofia boasts some other nice churches that deserve a peek inside. We found the Sveti Nicolai Russian Church, which was completed in 1914, and the Byzantine-style Sveta Nedelya Cathedral the most interesting. Also of interest is the small 4th-century-AD Sveti Georgi Rotunda behind the Presidency Building. The church, which is partly underground, is dwarfed by the surrounding buildings. If you’re in the neighborhood you can watch the (not very spectacular) changing of the guard in front of the Presidency Building.
Communist era buildings
Relics of a communist past can be found throughout the city. The most noteworthy soviet-era structures in Sofia are the huge socialist-realist Monument to the Soviet Army erected in 1954, The Mound of Brotherhood (a 42 meter high obelisk) – both located in the vast Borisova Gradina park southeast of the city center –, the concrete hulk of the National Palace of Culture (NDK) and the Party House of the Bulgarian Communist Party.
Museum of Socialist Art
Most smaller reminders of the recent communist past have been removed from public life and destroyed, though, so you’ll search in vain for statues of for example Lenin. A small collection has been saved at the Museum of Socialist Art. An outdoor sculpture park features several sculptures and statues (including Lenin’s statue that stood in the city center), an inside gallery showcases paintings glorifying communism and old propaganda films. The museum is located in the Ministry of Culture building in the Iztok suburb, which can be reached by metro.
Day trip Rila monastery
For many people the city itself will have enough to offer to keep them occupied for a short weekend break, but it’s highly recommended to make a day trip to the Rila monastery, a 2,5 hour drive south of Sofia in the Rila Mountains. The 10th-century Eastern Orthodox monastery is the top cultural, architectural and historical site in Bulgaria. There’s one daily morning bus leaving from Ovcha Kupel bus station, returning at the end of the day, but there are also many day tours on offer, sometimes including a visit on the way back to 13th-century Unesco World Heritage listed Boyan Church, which has ancient murals. For more on Rila monastery see our separate picture post.
We visited Sofia in July 2013
Travel tips Sofia
Stay – We spent two nights at the poorly signposted Danish Hostel, tucked away at the back of a building, but in walking distance of the city center. We had a small room with a double bed. The shared bathroom was clean and a big communal kitchen could be used by guests.
Transport – All public transport lines in Bulgaria converge on Sofia, so it’s easy to get to other destinations in the country by bus or train from here. Information about departure times can be confusing and contradictory though, so prepare for some surprises and some waiting. Most tourists sights in Sofia’s city center are in walking distance of each other. Metro and tram can make things easier though. We only used the metro to get to the Museum of Social Art and the tram to get to Ovcha Kupel bus station.
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