Sofia isn’t the kind of city you fall in love with at first sight. It takes time to appreciate it and get past its rather rough exterior to truly discover it, layer by layer. One thing is for certain: the Bulgarian capital city sure has many layers.
Bulgaria is one of the oldest inhabited territories in Europe and Sofia is but the embodiment of this long, deeply-rooted history. It isn’t the oldest city in the country, since this title is claimed by the city of Plovdiv, which also happens to be the oldest city in Europe. Yet, Sofia has been shaped by a number of human civilizations over the course of its history, which dates back to at least 7000BC.
What is nowadays the fourth biggest city in the Balkan area, after Istanbul, Athens and Bucharest, first went by the name Serdica. It was a home for Thracian tribes before being conquered by the Romans, raided by the Huns and the Visigoth, then conquered again by the Slavs. Later on, the city was briefly part of the the Byzantine Empire before falling years later under the rule of the Ottoman Empire.
It seems every major civilization in the area left its footprint on the city, molding it into a real multicultural crossroads without taking away its core Bulgarian personality. With its Orthodox churches, Roman ruins, Ottoman mosque and mountainous environment, Sofia is the mirror that reflects Bulgarian identity like few other cities can. The mirror might be a bit shattered but it is worth piecing it together to get better acquainted with the history of this multi faceted country.
Sofia is many things but boring so here is our top picks to make the most of it on your first visit.
1. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral:
Sofia boasts many wonderful churches dating back hundreds of years but none is as iconic as the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and the funny thing is that this colossal building is one of the city’s latest constructions. For such a venerable city, the irony is real.
What it lacks in age, the cathedral makes up in sheer size and grandeur. It stands at the core of the city, right in the middle of a massive avenue, like an over the top cherry on the cake of all churches, drawing in pilgrims and tourists alike. All one can use to describe it is superlatives. The building was finished in 1912 and it can hold up to 5000 people inside, while ranking among the 500 largest church buildings in the world. It would be a pity to stop at its cover though since the inside of the Cathedral is equally as impressive, being adorned with beautiful frescoes. Too bad a fee is required to take photos inside the building.
The name Alexander Nevksy wasn’t chosen randomly. This Russian prince was canonized as a saint in 1547 and the Cathedral was built to commemorate the Russian soldiers who died during the Russo-Turkish war which ended in the liberation of Bulgarian from the Ottoman yoke.
2. Sveti Sofia:
Sofia is truly a city of churches. Some show off their opulence for all to see, just like the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral or the Russian Church. Others are more humble-looking, just like the Saint Sophia Church, known as Sveti Sofia.
Sveti Sofia stands a few miles away from the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, making the contrast between both holy places even starker. Yet, this one church is considerably more significant to the history of the Bulgarian capital city.
First, it gave its very name to the city we now know as Sofia. Indeed, Sofia used to be known as Serdica, then Sredets, before its current name was adopted in the 14th century. Second, this church is the second oldest in the city, dating back to the 4th century.
The history of the church reflects that of the city as it was converted into a mosque during the 16th century, resulting in the destruction of its 12th-century frescos and explaining why the inside of Sveti Sofia can appear quite bare. Its real masterpiece survived the turmoil of history though and remained well hidden, a few feet under the current ground of the building. Indeed, the ancient foundations of the church remained protected and can now be visited underneath the church. For a couple leva, you can now access the original structure of the church and even see beautifully preserved mosaics.
3. Sofia History Museum:
Such an ancient city with so much history to explore deserves a top-notch historical museum. In that regard, the Sofia History Museum is a bit lacking. The layout of its exhibitions could use a fresh, new perspective and the artefacts on display could be more varied.
Yet, the museum delivers a solid performance overall and remains an interesting insight into Sofia’s past. Its primary appeal lies in its location, within the city’s old baths, right next to the city’s major landmarks. It wouldn’t be fair to cut it down to its location though as the museum is genuinely informative, delving into the complex history of Sofia from the first human populations that chose to settle near the Vitosha Mountain to the legacy of the first Khans to rule over Bulgaria and that of the first monarchs who ruled over the Third Bulgarian State during the 19th century.
Some of the most interesting items on display date back from the 19th century indeed, including an old tram and an even older horse carriage that used to belong to Queen Marie-Antoinette.
4. National Ethnographic Museum:
The National Ethnographic Museum tends to be overlooked by tourists who walk by the building without stopping over. It is fair to say that this museum is not properly enhanced, to the point that I got confused when I visited it and actually bought tickets for the National Museum of the Bulgarian Fine Art, which shares the same premises and occupies one aisle of the building.
This turned into a welcome mistake since the art on display was a fascinating outlook into the so-called Bulgarian revival. This revival happened after the country’s liberation from the Ottoman occupation and was a time when Bulgaria started reclaiming its own traditions and by doing so, strived to get closer to Western Europe by art and style.
In that sense, visiting the National Museum of the Bulgarian Fine Art fits in with visiting the National Ethnographic Museum that displays the wide array of Bulgarian traditions, from clothing to handicraft, food habits, rites and customs. Both museums are actually quite small so I would definitely encourage you to visit them both in one go.
5. Sofia Ancient Serdica Archaeological Complex:
Sofia is a city that keeps on modernizing but its history goes so far back in time that constructing new buildings is often bound to unearth invaluable ancient ruins. The ancient ruins of Serdica fall into that category as they were excavated during the construction of the second phase of the underground.
It took time for the ruins to be uncovered and partially restored and they now can be explored on foot, part of it being left out in the open and another part being enclosed in a museum, which was unfortunately closed at the time of my visit. A few maps explain the layout of the ancient city, although a more thorough explanation could have been in order. Even so, the ruins are a must-visit to get a sense of the Roman past of the city. Plus, they’re only a stone’s throw from the 1566-built Bany Bashi Mosque.
Sofia is definitely worth your time if you visit Bulgaria. It is also an often overlooked European city trip, whose historical heritage, walkable city centre, cheap taxis and proximity to nature are just some of the perks you can enjoy in a couple days.
Let us know in the comments below if you’ve been to Sofia and which places you’ve liked the most!