None of my many trips to Europe garnered more quizzical stares from family & friends than when the Balkans landed as my summer destination of choice. My first stop was none other than Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria and one of Europe’s lesser-visited major cities.
I have to admit that I entered the city not expecting much. I’d always heard mixed things about Sofia from legions of other travellers who claimed it was “dull” and “boring” or “unworthy of a visit.” Fortunately, this wasn’t my experience at all.
While there might not be a ton of things to do in Sofia compared to other popular Eastern European destinations like St. Petersburg or Moscow, visiting Bulgaria’s capital could very well be one of the best surprises of your travel career. At its heart, Sofia’s a great place to walk around—whether you’re ducking in and out of laid-back cafés & restaurants or relaxing leisurely in its parks.
Get started digging into Bulgaria’s capital with these top Sofia attractions…
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What to do in Sofia: The top attractions & best places to visit
Ogle at St. Alexander Nevski Cathedral
No image of Bulgaria’s capital is more forceful than catching the setting sun reflecting off of the domes of St. Alexander Nevski Cathedral in central Sofia. Constructed in the early-20th century between 1904 and 1912, this massive Bulgarian Orthodox cathedral stretches out over an area of 2,600 square meters, taking up, what seems like at a least, half a city block.
The church’s handsome Neo-Byzantine exterior continues to its inside where beautiful stained glass windows and stunning murals painted by some of Bulgaria’s most famous artists greet you as you walk among its ostentatious marble, onyx and alabaster floors and columns. While visiting St. Alexander Nevski Cathedral also be sure to check out its crypt, home to an interesting collection of Bulgarian Christian art including icons and more eye-popping murals.
Getting to St. Alexander Nevski Cathedral: The closest metro station to the church is Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski. The cathedral is a short 5-minute walk through Sv. Kliment Ohridski Park from here.
Stroll along Vitosha Boulevard
The heart of modern Sofia beats around the city’s high street of Vitosha Boulevard. Concentrating Sofia’s best collection of upscale boutiques and hip restaurants & cafés, this pedestrian-only street is perfect for a relaxing stroll to get your bearings in Sofia.
Even if you’re not into dropping your lev on the latest fashions, enjoy a coffee or a snack along Vitosha Boulevard to dramatic views of its namesake mountain looming to the south of the city centre.
Street Bar & CO, a cool café with a distinguished Italian vibe, is a good choice for enjoying an espresso, cappuccino or gelato while watching Sofians saunter along the avenue.
Getting to Vitosha Boulevard: The main pedestrian section of Vitosha Boulevard stretches between the Cathedral Church Sveta Nedelya and the National Palace of Culture. To approach from the south, take the metro to NDK Station; otherwise, Serdika Station is one block away from the north end of Vitosha Boulevard.
Dig into Bulgaria’s past at Boyana Church
Often playing second fiddle to the more famous (but farther-flung) Rila Monastery, Boyana Church has an almost millennium-long history to draw upon to prove itself worthy among the top things to see in Sofia. Laying its foundations down in the 10th or 11th century, this UNESCO World Heritage Site dwells in the shadows of Vitosha Mountain among lovely forest scenery for a serene escape from Sofia’s bustling centre.
As stunning as its exterior is, the church’s main claim to fame is the 13th-century frescoes inside. These impressive religious paintings portray hundreds of important biblical figures with a staggering degree of realism uncommon for the time period. Among the most famous frescoes at Boyana Church are the Christ Pantocrator in the dome and these 18 scenes outlining the life of St. Nicholas in the church’s narthex.
Getting to Boyana Church: Located just outside of Sofia’s city centre, Boyana Church is relatively easy to reach via public transportation. The simplest way is with bus 107 from Kv. Pavlovo or bus 64 from the corner of bul. Bulgaria and bul. Akad. Ivan Evstatiev Geshov.
Get some fresh air at Vitosha Mountain
If you manage to carve out some time while visiting Boyana Church, don’t miss out on spending some time exploring Vitosha Mountain. Finding a European capital with such pristine nature at its doorstep is rare, and one of the major reasons why Sofia is a far better travel destination (and place to hang your hat) than first appearances would let on.
What you’ll want to do at Vitosha Mountain will depend on which season you’re visiting Sofia. In winter, Vitosha features a ski resort. Although less popular and less developed than other Bulgarian ski resorts like Bansko or Borovets, it’s prime location just 15 kilometres from the city centre keeps it busy with winter sports enthusiasts.
Perhaps even better than skiing are Vitosha Mountain’s hiking trails, accessible during spring, summer, and fall. One of the best hikes in Sofia (and one of the top free attractions in Sofia) is the 2.5-hour route up to Cherni Vruh (Black Peak) at the top of Vitosha Mountain. The route from Boyana Church, wandering past Boyana Waterfall to Zlatnite Mostove, is also super popular with locals & tourists alike.
Getting to Vitosha Mountain: There’s a number of ways to access the hiking trails of Vitosha Mountain. One of the most popular entry points is the ski resort, Aleko. From the city centre, take bus 122 near Vitosha Metro Station to the Simeonovo lift where you’ll be able to ride up to the resort and find the trailhead.
Marvel at the Rila Monastery
Carve out more than one day in Sofia so that you’ll have no excuse to miss out on Rila Monastery, one of the best day trips from Sofia. Nestled in the Rila Mountains around 120 kilometres south of Sofia, Rila Monastery is not just one of the top attractions in Sofia but one of the top things to do in Bulgaria—whether you’ve got just 10 days in Bulgaria or a month!
The story of Rila Monastery begins with a 10th-century Bulgarian monk, St. Ivan of Rila, who first settled the area in a bid to renounce his material possessions and live as hermit. Over the years, his eremitic lifestyle attracted students from far and wide who began to build the monastery as their study and living quarters.
Although the oldest buildings of Rila Monastery, including the Tower of Hrelja, date back to the 14th century, the most famous building in the complex is its 19th-century church. Featuring five domes, medieval icons, and Ottoman-inspired porticos, this church, set upon a misty mountain backdrop, will no doubt leave you in awe.
Getting to Rila Monastery: For such a famous attraction, there’s a surprising lack of public transportation options to Rila Monastery. One bus per day leaves to the monastery at 10:20 Ovcha Kupel Bus Station near Slavia Park. Far easier, quicker, and more convenient is to rent a car in Sofia and drive yourself or hop on a Rila Monastery Day Tour.
Where to stay: The best hotels for sightseeing in Sofia
Despite being one of the largest capital cities in Eastern Europe, choosing among the best places to stay in Sofia is relatively easy. Many of the top points in interest in Sofia hover in & around the city centre, making it the best area for most travellers. Start your search with these top-rated hotels…
- Central Point Boutique Hotel: One of the most budget-friendly options in Centrum, this popular hotel offers spacious rooms with a unique and funky design. Surprising for its price point, guests here get free access to an on-site spa with a hot tub & sauna.
- VIKO Boutique Apart Hotel: This elegant boutique hotel doles out modern apartment-style accommodations in the heart of city, less than a kilometre from NDK Station.
- Grand Hotel Sofia: Perched above the City Garden, this 5-star hotel is a lesson in Eastern European hospitality and elegance from its massive rooms to its regal furnishings. There’s a whole barrage of luxurious amenities to wallow in here including a café, restaurant, fitness centre, and summer terrace.