Things to Do in Sofia
Rila Monastery, Bulgaria’s largest religious structure, is the most visited site in the country. Its cobblestone courtyard, winding balconies, picturesque mountain views, and brightly colored frescos transport you to a place that is almost otherworldly. The fortress-like complex has been a spiritual center for more than 1,000 years.
The UNESCO-listed Boyana Church is made up of three distinctive sections, which reflect the architectural styles of the 10th, 13th, and 19th century respectively. The Orthodox church is held in high esteem throughout Europe due to its collection of 89 hand-painted frescoes, which depict 240 individual figures in various religious scenes.
Sofia’s landmark cathedral was built to commemorate the lives lost in the Russo-Turkish War. Named after a 13th-century Russian prince, the Bulgarian Orthodox cathedral is a fine example of neo-Byzantine architecture and one of Sofia’s most recognizable symbols. The decadent interior features iconoclasts made from marble and onyx, while the crypt boasts Bulgaria’s largest collection of religious art.
Also known as the St. George Rotunda, Sofia's early-Christian Church of St. George was originally built by Romans during the 4th century, making it one of Bulgaria’s oldest buildings. Today, the church attracts visitors with its medieval frescoes, varied architecture, and Roman-era ruins that surround it.
Just outside of Sofia, Vitosha Mountain reaches an impressive height of 7,513 feet (2,290 meters). As the Balkan’s oldest national park, Vitosha offers plenty to see and do throughout the year. The area surrounding the mountain is also home to the Boyana Waterfall and Duhlata Cave, and close to Pancharevo Lake, making it a favorite among nature lovers.
The Rila Mountains offer outdoor enthusiasts a perfect play land for exploring Bulgaria’s highest mountain. Nestled within the boundaries of National Park Rila, this area is home to the hottest spring in the Balkans, glacial lakes, four nature reserves and endless stretch of scenic landscape. Avid hikers will find easy access to two of Europe’s longest trail routes—the E4 and E8—which pass through some of the Rila Mountains’ 29 peaks. And hikers hoping for a shorter distance can participate in popular one-day excursions, like walks to the Seven Rila Lakes and Mount Musala, which both typically depart from Sofia.
Less intrepid travelers can still enjoy the beauty of this epic mountain range at one of the family-run hotels located in foothill villages like Govedartsi, Mala Tsarkva and Madzhare. Visitors can soak in the medicinal hot mineral waters of Sapareva Banya, a popular public bath, or venture to the Rila Monastery—not only the largest in the country, but also the most-visited site in the nation.
Named after one of Bulgaria’s most esteemed writers, the Ivan Vazov National Theatre has been drawing audiences since 1907. The national theater is also the country’s largest and oldest, and is known for its productions, neoclassical architecture, and history. Cementing its status as a national icon, the theater’s colonnaded façade can be seen on 50-lev banknotes.
The core structure of St. Sofia Church, one of the oldest churches in the Bulgarian capital, dates back to the sixth century, although it has evolved over time. Excavations have revealed the remains of several earlier churches plus a Roman-era necropolis under and around the Byzantine basilica, and the site is now an underground museum.
One of the star attractions on Mt. Vitosha, the massif just outside Sofia, Boyana Waterfall tumbles 82 feet (25 meters) down a stark rock face amid shady forest. It’s a tranquil, unspoiled spot that makes an excellent focus for a walk in the national park. One popular route goes by way of Boyana Church, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Europe’s third largest synagogue was built in 1909 for Sofia’s Sephardi Jewish community. Based on the Leopoldstädter Tempel, Friedrich Grünanger’s design blends Venetian and Secessionist features with Moorish revival architecture. The synagogue is also home to Sofia’s Jewish Museum of History.
More Things to Do in Sofia
The Sofia National Gallery is Bulgaria’s largest art museum, boasting a collection of more than 42,000 pieces. First established in the early 20th century, the gallery moved into the former Royal Palace in 1946, and has since grown to several branches across Sofia, including the Kvadrat 500 and Museum of Socialist Art.
Often known as “Vitoshka,” Vitosha Boulevard is Sofia’s main commercial street. Partially pedestrianized, it runs from the historic center to South Park, with most of the action concentrated at the northern end. Vitoshka is home to higher-end stores and cafés, St. Nedelya Church, the huge Communist-era TSUM store, and more.
Discovered in 2004 in the center of Sofia, the Amphitheater of Serdica was a Roman amphitheater built in the third and fourth centuries. Just slightly smaller than Rome's Colosseum, the amphitheater was one of the largest in the eastern Roman empire. Seating 25,000 spectators, it lay outside of the city walls of the ancient city of Serdica and hosted fights between gladiators and a variety of wild animals, including crocodiles, bulls, bears, tigers,and lions.
The amphitheater was discovered in the early stages of construction on the Arena di Serdica Hotel and was subsequently built into the architecture of the hotel. About one-sixth of the arena can be seen today on the ground floor of the hotel, which is freely accessible for tourists. Visitors can also see a small exposition of coins and ceramics that were discovered on the site, which are thought to come from the reigns of Emperors Diocletian and Constantine, as well as animal footprints left behind in tiles.
Founded in 1973, the Sofia National History Museum is Bulgaria’s national museum of history. Housed in the former residence of dictator Todor Zhikov, the museum has more than 650,000 objects, although only about ten percent are on display. The main exhibition is spread throughout five halls. The first covers the development and culture of the people who lived on Bulgarian lands as early as the 6th millennium B.C. The second hall continues that theme, focusing on the end of the 6th century B.C. to the 6th century A.D. In the third hall, visitors see exhibits on the Bulgarian State in the Middle Ages and in the fourth hall, the focus shifts to the period of Ottoman rule, from 1396 to 1878. The fifth hall showcases the Third Bulgarian Kingdom, from 1878 to 1946.
Items on display include a variety of weapons, traditional costumes, furniture, tools and household objects, coins, artwork, documents and photos. The museum courtyard showcases a collection of Greek, Roman and Byzantine columns and monuments from various periods.
Standing in Knyazheska Garden in the center of Sofia, the Monument to the Soviet Army was built in 1954 to commemorate the liberation of Bulgaria by the Soviet Army. The monument itself portrays a Soviet Army soldier holding a gun above his head, standing between a Bulgarian man and a Bulgarian woman holding a child. Several hundred feet away from the monument are additional sculptures depicting battle scenes, one of which has become a focal point for vandals who have painted it in protest on several occasions, including the anniversary of the Prague Spring and to show solidarity with the Ukrainian revolution.
The monument and surrounding park are also popular with local skateboarders and a skating half pipe and several quarter pipe ramps can be found around the monument. In recent years, the monument has become quite controversial with various groups calling for its removal.
The Museum of Socialist Art in Sofia focuses on the art and history of Bulgaria during the communist period from 1944 to 1989. The museum was opened in September 2011 and includes a statue park and indoor exhibition space. More than 70 statues and busts of former socialist leaders, including a giant statue of Lenin that once stood in the center of the city, have found a new home in the park. The statues generally include only the title, creator, and in some cases the town where the statue came from. There is also a red star that once topped the Socialist Party headquarters.
The gallery has art on display that focuses on the socialist period. There are 60 paintings and 25 easel representations. Some of the art depicts life during World War II while other pieces show socialism in the country, including some scenes of happy life under party rule. There is also a video hall for screening documentary films and newsreels from the communist times.
Browse orderly shops and stalls of Central Sofia Market Hall (Halite) in search of souvenirs, snacks, and bargains. Pay attention to the structure, opened in 1911, as the market is widely considered to be architect Naum Torbov’s finest work, blending neo-baroque with neo-Byzantine features, in a neo-Renaissance structure.
One of Bulgaria’s premier ski resorts, Borovets was purpose-built in the 1980s, although it has its origins way back in the 19th century when a hunting palace was built there for the Bulgarian Royal Family. Today it is a low-rise, largely wooden Alpine-style resort with all modern amenities; it sprawls over the northern flanks of the Musala ridge in the Rila Mountains at an altitude of 1,300 meters (4,265 feet), with the highest runs up at 2,600 meters (8,530 feet).
The ski season lasts from December through to early April and the resort has 24 runs stretching over 58 km (36.25 miles) of marked pistes, ranging from easy blues to extremely challenging black runs, many through scenic pine forest. Borovets also offers two terrain parks for snowboarders as well as 35 km (22 miles) of groomed cross-country trails for Nordic skiers. Ski lifts are modern and efficient, with a mix of gondolas, chair and drag lifts; night skiing is available daily until 10pm. The resort’s family-friendly credentials include two snow parks for toddlers, ski schools, equipment hire, shops and plenty of cafés, restaurants and hotels that cater for kids. Non-skiers are well taken care of with swimming pools, spas, ski-doo snow safaris and horse-and-carriage rides and the late-night après-ski scene is jumping, with bars and clubs open until the wee hours.
Operated by the National Archaeological Institute with Museum, Sofia National Archaeological Museum is housed in the largest and oldest former mosque in Sofia. The building dates to around 1474 and has been home to the institute and museum since 1905. Museum exhibits are spread throughout five halls, starting with the Prehistory Hall, which displays items dating back more than a million years B.C. The Treasury Hall displays treasures from the late Bronze Age to late Antiquity, including two famous Bulgarian treasures: the Valchitran and Lukovit Treasures. The Main Hall features a wide range of items from ancient Thrace, Greece and Rome through the late Middle Ages, while the Medieval Hall includes a variety of books, drawings and metal objects from medieval times. There is also a hall that often hosts temporary exhibitions.
The highlight for most visitors to the National Archaeological Museum is the life size replica of the Madara Horseman near the main entrance. The original was sculpted in rock 23 meters high sometime in the Middle Ages and currently sits in the town of Shumen, just east of Sofia.
Variously written Kvadrat 500, Quadrat 500, or Square 500, Kvadrat 500 opened in 2015 as the largest museum in the Sofia National Gallery collection. Twenty-eight separate rooms house a wealth of artworks from around the world, with a special focus on Bulgarian art from the 19th and 20th centuries.
Set on 10 acres (4 hectares) on the outskirts of Sofia, the National Museum of Military History pays tribute to Bulgaria’s past glories. An impressive selection of mainly Soviet-designed military hardware includes tanks and fighters. Inside, displays cover art, weapons, uniforms, and insignia, alongside a bookstore, a café, and a library.
The rolling hills and scenic landscapes of Koprivshtitsa attract plenty of travelers looking to explore Bulgaria beyond Sofia. Deep historical roots and a thriving population of merchants and artisans have made this town popular among tourists who find the town’s impressive collection of architectural, historical and artistic landmarks (388 in total!) worth a visit.
Travelers can experience the lifestyle of Koprivshtitsa’s early elite at the Oslekov House. Built in 1856, this popular museum showcases not only the rich interiors of a highbrow family, but some of its clothing and heirlooms as well. The unique rosewater fountain at The Lyutova House Museum, where authentic Koprivshtitsa wool, hand-painted murals and ornate woodcarvings are all on display, offers visitors a look at some of the region’s most impressive arts and crafts. Those who want to learn more about the area’s colorful history shouldn’t miss the birthplace of Gavril Gruyev Haltev, who played an influential role in the famous April Uprising. Travelers can explore collections of memorabilia, family photographs and historical documents that help frame how this single event dramatically shaped the nation’s past and future.
A former Royal hunting lodge perched in the Rila Mountains close to the modern-day ski resort of Borovets, Tsarska Bistritsa was completed in 1914 by architect Petar Koichev for King Ferdinand and combines Art Nouveau styling with simple Alpine influences such as carved wooden balconies. Its interior is ornamented with wood-paneled interiors executed by the craftsmen Petar and Luka Kunchev and brightened with patterned rugs, photos of the Royal Family covering the walls and display cabinets full of hunting trophies. Confiscated by the Communists in 1945, the palace was returned to Simeon Saxe Coburg Gotha, the grandson of Ferdinand, in 2006 but has again been subject of legal proceedings over rightful ownership.
Approached by a winding lane lined with pine trees, the palace is surrounded by a forested park with many rare and exotic trees planted by Ferdinand, through which the River Bistritsa runs and powers a hydroelectric station that was built in 1912 and still supplies the estate’s electricity. The lovely Orthodox mini-church of Saint John of Rila is also open to the public, crammed with glittering silver and gold icons; a small museum is located in the wooden former stable block adjacent to the palace, which houses memorabilia of the Royal Family including paintings from their private collections and hand-embroidered national costumes; two smaller hunting lodges can be found nearby, dating from 1904 and designed by Romanian architect Georgi Fingov.
Built on land acquired by Tsar Ferdinand I in the late 19th century, Vrana Palace (Park-Museum Vrana) was the preferred residence of the Bulgarian royal family until their exile in 1946. Previously home to a working farm and a zoo, the grounds of the 247-acre (100-hectare) estate now make for an ideal getaway from the hustle and bustle of Sofia’s urban center.
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