Sofia - the Capital of Bulgaria

Sofia is a city of many colours. Green in the summer and the spring, white in the winter, and all sorts of red, brown and yellow in the autumn, it always offers something new, refreshing and unexpected to its visitors and keeps them entertained throughout the whole year. Its rich political, cultural and religious past is reflected through its monuments, buildings, museums, galleries, theatres, and temples. The big boulevards, the small alleys, the restaurants, the cafes, and the bars speak for its present. Its parks, mineral springs and Mount Vitosha demonstrate its natural grandeur. All this makes Sofia a must-visit destination and also the perfect place to start your tours around Bulgaria from. So hop on board and join this tour around the biggest city in the country… and remember: no matter how you feel or what the weather is like, you will always find something fun to do there.

St. Alexander Nevski Square is where the tour should begin. This is where you will find one of the most imposing buildings in Bulgaria – Alexander Nevski Cathedral. Its golden domes attract the sunrays and charge your batteries with positive energy. St. Sofia Church, a small red-brick basilica, is right next to it. The neo-Renaissance-style National Assembly Hall, the rector’s building of the Sofia University and the National Library complete the list of attractive buildings in this region. If you feel like having a refreshing drink or salad, sit in one of the cafes or restaurants across from the Russian Church on Tsar Osvoboditel Blvd. There, together with your coke, you will get the greatest views of the impressive Orthodox Christian temple. Oh, it’s almost noon! If you hurry up you will get to the Presidency on time to see the change of guards. It starts at 12 o’clock sharp. The Church of St. George, the oldest building in the city, lies in the inner yard of the Presidency. Get more information about it in the Archaeological Museum right across the street.

By now you are either thinking: "Oh, this sightseeing thing is getting kind of boring", or: "Wow, this place is full of amazing architectural and historical monuments"! I want to learn more about its history and culture! The former kind of thinking will guide you directly to Vitosha Blvd. - one of Sofia’s most popular shopping streets. It is also a pedestrian zone so you will be able to forget about traffic for a while.The latter, on the other hand, will get you straight to the most popular museums and art galleries of the country’s capital or to Slaveykov Square, Sofia’s open-air book market. Let’s go back to Vitosha Blvd. now. From here you have two options, again. If you go south you will get to the National Palace of Culture. Alexander Nevski Church may be imposing, but this building is colossal. It was constructed during the Communist regime in Bulgaria and its main purpose is to host different cultural events including concerts, exhibitions and fairs.
Going north, you will reach Knyaginya Maria Luiza Blvd. where the soul of Sofia is hidden. On this spot Orthodox Christianity and Catholicism meet Judaism and Islam. Yes, that’s right! Each of these religions is represented by a temple and all four of them are situated on a territory of just a couple of hundred square metres. These are the Orthodox St. Nedelya Church, Banya Bashi Mosque, the Catholic Cathedral of St Joseph and the Sofia Synagogue. Every single one of these temples demonstrates the peculiarities of its respective religion and provides rich account of the culture that created it. Next to them lies another important landmark – Sofia’s Central Baths. The water gushing from the taps outside the building is mineral. This is just one of the 40 mineral springs you will find on the territory of Sofia and the only one located in the city centre. The capital’s emblematic Central Market Hall lies near the Central Baths and just opposite Banya Bashi Mosque.
Soon you will be able to marvel at yet another remarkable historical landmark in the neighborhood. Not long ago the remains of the ancient Roman town of Serdika were discovered in the region. They are now being explored and transformed into what will become the largest open-air museum in the capital city. According to plan it will sprawl over an area of 19 000 sq m and is expected to open for visitors by 2014. However, even before that everybody who is passing by the spot will be able to watch the development teams' progress and take a peek at the impressive stack of 2nd-century AD archaeological findings. 
It is time for a break. Sofia’s got bucketloads of green parks with shady benches and venerable trees where one can find peace and calm. Borisova Gradina, the largest urban park in the country, is one such place. Yuzhen Park (South Park) is another. In addition to these two, there are also many other neat little gardens, such as Doktorska Gradina (Doctor’s Garden), the one behind the National Library, and the garden of Ivan Vazov National Theatre, that are just ideal for recuperation and quiet contemplation. But most importantly, Sofia’s got Vitosha Mountain. It is cool and inviting and provides shelter from the noise of the big city 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days of the year. Plus, it is perfect for picnics, hiking and mountain biking and is just 30 minutes away from the city centre. During the winter season it turns into the best spot for skiing and snowboarding in the area. Before you enter its pine forests, though, make sure you visit Boyana Church, the beautiful medieval Bulgarian church located at the foot of Vitosha. It is on UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites. Impressive, huh?
So what would the perfect ending to this tour be? Well, you can go see a play in one of the many theatres on Rakovski Blvd. or watch a ballet in the Sofia Opera House. Alternatively, you can just slip in a random music club and listen to some mellow jazz music. For dinner you can try some traditional Bulgarian dishes in one of Sofia’s most popular taverns. After that it is time to hit the bars on Shishman Street. Just order a refreshing cocktail and enjoy the warm urban idyll of the Bulgarian capital. And if you are a real party person and you don’t want to go to bed at 10 pm, then check out the capital’s night clubs and discotheques. They are top notch.

One-day escapes:

If the traffic and the crowds begin to ruin it for you, then it is time to get a little break from the big city and see what the surrounding countryside has to offer. And it offers a lot. 
Let’s start with a short hike or a one-day tour around Vitosha. The mountain is perfect for trekking in all four seasons. Then come the fishing and rowing in Pancherevo Lake, lying just 30 minutes away from the centre of the city. The keen golfers can head for Ravno Pole Village, 10 km southeast of Sofia, and its world-class golf course. The admirers of history and culture should take the road to Koprivshtitsa. Nature lovers must drive up north to the Belogradchik Rocks and the Magura Cave or west to the astounding Tran Gorge on Erma River near the town of Tran. And those who are all about the spiritual experience have to go down south to the Monastery of St. Ivan of Rila, the biggest and most impressive monastery in Bulgaria. And of course skiing in the winter - go to Borovets or Bansko
Photos by: D.Alexov, E.Bliznashka, A.Tanev