07 May 2024

How To Spend a Long Weekend in Sofia, Bulgaria

As March turned into April, it was time for me to go exploring again. My destination? Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria: a new city for me and the 49th country I've visited. During my four-day trip, I learned a great deal about Sofia's complex and fascinating history, admired striking and diverse architecture, took several excellent tours with passionate locals and ate delicious food. I even managed a side trip to a UNESCO-listed monastery perched high in the Rila mountains and to the city of Plovdiv. Read on to find out all of my recommendations for spending a long weekend in Plovdiv.

With a population of 1.25 million, Sofia (pronounced SOF-ya in Bulgarian, rather than soh-FEE-ah) is Bulgaria's largest city and it has been the capital since 1879. Originally named Serdica by the neolithic Thracian tribe who settled in the area some 6,000 years ago, Sofia has a rich historical heritage that is apparent after even a quick stroll in the city. The city centre is relatively compact and easy to explore on foot. If you only have three days to spend here, you can still see a lot of the main sights — and if you have a fourth day, you could also take a day trip to Mount Vitosha, Rila MonasteryPlovdiv or even Skopje in North Macedonia!


Take a free tour

I've long been a big fan of the 'free walking tour' concept. The idea is that although the tour does not come with an upfront charge, you pay the guide what you think it was worth (or what you can afford) at the end. The excellent guides of both free tours I took in Sofia did a particularly good job of explaining this concept. I really enjoyed both tours and I ended up tipping about £10 to £15 for each (my only wish is that there was an option to tip by card).

On the day I arrived, I took the Free Sofia Tour, a two-hour stroll through the main city centre sights, which covered some of the highlights (and low points) of Sofia's 6,000-year history and culture, dating back to the first settlement by the Thracians. Our guide, Slavyan, was knowledgeable and entertaining, keeping our large group engaged throughout. The tour runs in English two to four times per day, depending on the season. I was happy to join a 6 pm tour, as I'd only arrived in the city three hours earlier and it was great to get a head start on my orientation. The organisation also runs tours in Spanish and paid-for tours covering Sofia's Communist history and its Jewish community. It's recommended that you book a spot online in advance.

I also loved Balkan Bites' food tour of Sofia. I've taken a lot of food tours on my travels but never a free one, so this was a novel experience. If you are limited on time, you should definitely book a place in advance — I only just squeaked in from the waiting list! Our guide Daniela started with a quick overview of the history of Bulgaria, with particular reference to the interrelationship between culture and food — and the diverse influences on the cuisine, from Thracian winemaking and Turkish cooking, to Communism and contemporary organic and fusion styles. 

We stopped at five different places — with samples, of course. First up was rCurry, a Sri Lankan–Bulgarian fusion eatery, where we tried a curry croquette served with Bulgarian yoghurt — the secret to many Bulgarians' longevity, they say. We then went to BeWiner to taste some Bulgarian wine. I hadn't realised how big viniculture was in Bulgaria — the climate and rich, limestone soils make it ideal for wine-growing. Indeed, many people grow their own grapes, sometimes even on small Sofia apartment balconies! 

Next, we tried a banitsa, a flaky, layered Bulgarian pastry, usually featuring cheese although sweet versions are also available. For a sweet treat, we stopped at a bakery for a mekitsa (pictured above), a deep-fried dough usually served with sugar. It's the yoghurt in the dough (of course!) that gives it such a light and fluffy texture. Finally, we visited a traditional Bulgarian eatery, the atmospheric, subterranean Hadjidraganov's Cellars, to sample various Bulgarian dips — all featuring garlic, some spicier than others. If you want to know more about Bulgarian food or just want to know where to eat in Sofia, I'd recommend taking a Balkan Bites tour as early in your trip as possible. Check out my Instagram for some more photos.

Explore a Communist Era apartment

Managed by the 365 Association, which also runs Free Sofia Tours, the Red Flat is an apartment that transports you back to Communist Bulgaria of the 1980s. With the help of a self-guided audio tour, you can walk around the flat, learning about what life was like for typical Bulgarian families at the time. Along the way, you are encouraged to flick through photo albums, ride a Balkan Bike, play records and even peruse the liquor cabinet. If you've ever visited the Tenement Museum in NYC, this is quite similar — and a great way to learn more about the culture and history of the time. Entry costs 18 BGN and the tour takes about 60 to 90 minutes, depending on whether you listen to all of the recordings.

Admire the architecture — and archaeology

The many historical influences on Sofia over the centuries have all left their mark on the architecture. I enjoyed the juxtapositions from the brutalist style of the Largo to the grand, Neo-Byzantine Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The latter is beautiful in the afternoon sun, at golden hour and after dark. You can go inside for free but you will need to pay if you want to take any photos. Keep an eye out for the yellow-cobblestoned area called Independence Square — though the yellow bricks are very slippery when wet (I learned more about their controversial history on the Free Sofia Tour).

One of my favourite things about Sofia was the sheer quantity of ancient Roman ruins. They are pretty hard to avoid, in fact, especially in and around Serdica metro station, where you can walk along on old Roman road. 

I didn't have time to visit the National Archaeological Museum but I did stop by the Sofia Regional History Museum. The latter is housed in a grand building that used to house the public bathhouse — don't miss the fountains nearby, where locals fill up large bottles with the geothermal mineral water.

Visit a monastery in the mountains 

The UNESCO-listed Rila Monastery is one of the biggest attractions near Sofia. Located in the Rila Mountains, it's a two-hour drive from Sofia and several companies offer day trips, usually combined with a visit to Boyana Church. Instead, I decided to take a day trip with Rila Shuttle that first took us to the monastery and then drove us on to the city of Plovdiv. It was a long day (nearly 13 hours in total) with an early start, but it was an efficient use of time and our guide, Philip, was excellent. He had clearly taken on board a lot of feedback from past tours and it went very smoothly; I particularly liked that he sent us summaries via WhatsApp of the information he delivered orally — invaluable for bloggers like me!

One advantage of taking the Rila + Plovdiv tour was that we reached the monastery by 9 am and our group of 15 were pretty much the only people there. Although the weather wasn't the best (especially at 1,100 m above sea level), the clouds and the snow-capped mountain in the background added an ethereal beauty to the stunning, colourful monastery, which was first founded in the 10th century. We spent about an hour there, admiring the architecture and the stunning frescoes, and heading down along the river to the graveyard, for a short nature walk. After hiking back up the short slope to the monastery, I had earned my mekitsa, sold at a small bakery just outside.

Take a side trip to one of Europe's oldest cities

From Sofia, it's easy to take a day trip to Plovdiv, one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in Europe. You can either take a day tour or make your arrangements by train (three hours) or bus (it's about two hours' drive east of Sofia). On my combo tour, we drove there from Rila, which took about 3h30, but it was a scenic drive through the Bulgarian countryside. Like Sofia, Plovdiv has seen many peoples and cultures, from the Thracians and Romans, to the Slavs and Turks. Once called Philippopolis, it's currently Bulgaria's second-largest city.

We had about four hours to spend in Plovdiv, which was enough time to visit some of the Roman ruins, explore the pretty Old Town and get a bite to eat. All day, rain had been forecast but it was bright and sunny when we arrived so after a cursory look around the Old Town, I headed for (a very late) lunch at Smokini, which was excellent. To get a panoramic view of the city, I climbed up Danov Hill and then visited the Ancient Stadium and the Roman Forum of Philippopolis, 

I then headed to the Bishop's Basilica (12 BGN). The latter was recommended by our guide, Philip, and has a large and stunningly well-preserved collection of Roman mosaics. Unfortunately, the weather had turned and it was thrashing it down in the former Thracian kingdom, putting a damper on my plans to go for a stroll in the Old Town and the arty Kapana neigbourhood. Instead, I went in search of speciality coffee at SNACK!, across the Maritsa River.

It was still raining when I headed back to the Old Town and I was only able to peek in at the impressive Ancient Theatre of Philippopolis before meeting up with my group. If you have more time in Bulgaria than I did, a full day or two would give you the chance to explore Plovdiv at a more relaxed pace.


I ate very well in Sofia and found that eating out was generally pretty cheap. If you like garlic and yoghurt, you will probably enjoy a lot of the local dishes as many of them contain one — or both. A lot of menus were quite heavy on the meats — especially pork — although veggie and vegan dishes and eateries are growing in popularity.

I mainly breakfasted on those delicious Bulgarian pastries known as banitsa and mekitsa. The best banitsa of my trip was at Sofiyska Banitsa, near the City Garden. It's cash only and the staff don't speak much English, but the cheese banitsa I had was perfectly flaky and rich. I also had a lovely apple, cinnamon and walnut banitsa at Furna.

I had an excellent and very reasonably priced lunch at Urban Soul. The menu was only in Bulgarian but the friendly waiter translated for me. I started with a shopska salad a Balkantourist version of a Greek salad, whose red peppers, white cheese and green cucumbers are a tribute to the Bulgarian flag. Then I had some tasty spinach and nettle fritters with yoghurt. I paid about £10 for two courses and a soft drink.

If you're looking for a cosy spot for a relaxed dinner, Made in Home is a great option. Booking in advance is highly recommended and note that it's cash only. The fusion menu features Turkish and Middle Eastern influences and there are good choices for vegetarians. I started with hummus and crackers, followed by flavoursome slow-roast pork with rosemary roast potatoes. The food and service were both great.

For a special dinner, I went to Cosmos, an upscale, space-inspired eatery. They have a good value five-course set menu, but I wanted to try their signature dessert, the Bulgarian Rose, so I went à la carte. After a Milky Way margarita, I enjoyed an asparagus and prosciutto salad to start. My main course — pan-fried sea bream with broccolini and saffron — was tasty too although it arrived before I'd barely started my starter (they took it off the bill, in the end). The Bulgarian Rose was wonderful: sponge cake with yoghurt ice cream, pink pepper, strawberry and rose sorbet, and rose meringue, finished by blowtorch at the table.

To continue the space theme, I also visited Sputnik for top-notch cocktails. The Balkan Milk Punch (plum rakia, black garlic, Rooibos tea and milk) was absolutely delicious, and the Umami Manhattan (with pepper-infused Vermouth and Umami sauce) was unique and moreish. I was sitting under the ever-changing rainbow lights, which created magical effects on my drinks. The food here was good too (I had a pork kebab with potatoes).

And in case you missed it, I have a whole separate post with all of my Sofia speciality coffee and brunch recommendations.


I stayed at Art Hotel 158, which is located on a calm, leafy street a few minutes' walk north of Serdica station. I paid about £45 per night for a double room. I would say that the room décor was more functional than arty (there is an art gallery in the hotel lobby), but it was comfortable and quiet and had a nice view over the city rooftops. The location was great for exploring the city. The other hotel I considered was Sense Hotel, which looked lovely. It was, however, about three times the price of Art Hotel 158, so on this occasion, I decided to save my pennies (or Leva).


Sofia International Airport is about six miles east of the city. If you're staying in the city centre, I would highly recommend taking the metro from the airport. The metro station is right next to Terminal 2 and it only costs 1.6 BGN (£0.70) for a single journey. Better still, I could use my contactless card to swipe in through the gate, so there was no need to navigate the ticket machine (you don't need to swipe out on leaving the network). I took the M4 metro line to Serdica station (the main central station), which took just under 30 minutes; trains are very frequent during the daytime.

Central Sofia is small enough that I didn't need to use public transport at all while I was there, as I could walk everywhere. If you want to ride one of the rather fetching trams, you can also usually pay by contactless or else buy a ticket from the driver.


For packing tips for Sofia, check out my recommendations of tried-and-tested products for travel.

  • Electricity. Bulgaria uses 'type C' and 'type F' plugs with two round prongs (the latter having grounding clips).
  • Language. The official language of Bulgaria is Bulgarian — a Slavic language. Bulgarian uses a Cyrillic alphabet but in tourist areas, it's common to find English translations or romanised versions. Sofia (pronounced SOF-ya in Bulgarian) is spelled София in Cyrillic. Most people in tourism and hospitality speak excellent English, but it always goes down well if you learn a few Bulgarian phrases: Благодаря (blah-go-DAR-ya) is 'thank you',  Добър ден (doh-byr DEN) is 'good day' and Добър вечер (doh-byr VEH-cher) is 'good evening'.
  • Money. The Bulgarian currency is the Lev (plural Leva), abbreviated to BGN. At the time of writing, the exchange rate is about 2.3 BGN to the British pound or 1.8 BGN to the US dollar. I was able to pay by credit card (including contactless) almost everywhere, apart from one restaurant, one bakery and for tour guide tips.
  • Weather. Sofia has a temperate climate with cool, wet winters and hot summers. Spring and early autumn are often great times to visit, weather-wise, avoiding the chill of winter and the sticky high-summer days. It was around 15C and sunny during my visit in late April, although earlier in the week it had been around 30C!
  • Wifi/mobile data. I bought a 30-day 2.5GB eSIM package through Airalo (my eSIM provider of choice), which cost $6.50 (about £5.20). I was connected to the A1 network and had great coverage in both Sofia and Plovdiv. Want to try Airalo on your next trip? Sign up using my referral code — REBECC3024 — and we both get $3 credit.

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