Located by the Vitosha mountain in Bulgaria, at the very heart of the Balkans, Sofia is equally distant from the Black, Adriatic and Aegean Seas. Having a history that goes back millenia, Sofia is the perfect place to explore the history behing Greeks, Thracians, Romans, Bulgars, Ottomans and Communists.
Table of Contents
Investigate the Largo
The Largo was built as a piece of Socialist Classicism to host the Party House and other government offices related to the communist regime. Nowadays, the main building hosts the Bulgarian National Assembly, while the lateral buildings contain the Council of Ministers and the President’s Office.
It is one of the most iconic pieces of architecture in town, and marks the very center of the city. It makes for a very good first stop, since there are many things to see around, such as churches, museums, ruins, malls and restaurants.
Watch the Change of Guards
Close to Largo you will find the President’s Office, where routinely the guards who protect the entrance change shifts. The regular change of guards is done every hour, five minutes before the full hour. But if you wish to see the full ceremony, come on the first wednesday of the month at midday, where you will see the official changing of guards, including music, shouting and weapon brandishing.
Explore the Serdica Ruins
Sofia not always had this name. To the Emperors of the Roman and Byzantine empires, it was called Serdica. Emperor Constantine himself used to say Serdica Mea Roma Est (Serdica is my Rome), as he considered shifting the capital of the Byzantine Empire from Constantinople to Serdica.
While the Bulgarian government did escavations to build their new subway system, they surprisingly found the ruins of this ancient Byzantine city. Although the subway was effectively built, the ruins remained exposed to remind locals and foreigners of the might and history of Bulgaria.
Visit the Cyril and Methodius Library
Cyril and Methodius are the two brother theologians and missionaries responsible for the creation of the Cyrillic alphabet. Although they did not come up with the modern version of it, they designed the Glagolitic alphabet, which is a proto-version of the Cyrillic, which was eventually created by their students following their instructions.
This library, created to their homage, contains works important not only to Bulgaria, but to the whole of Slavic nations. An example to that is the 1.700 volume original collection of Slavonic scriptures, dating from the 11th to the 17th century. Apart from that, there is a quite nice bar on the underground of the library.
Pay Respects to Vasil Levsky
Know in Bulgaria as the Apostle of Freedom, Vasil Levsky founded the Internal Revolutionary Organisation, which had the goal of fomenting a nation-wide uprising. He was the engineer behind the creation of the ideology and strategy that would eventually be responsible for freeing the Bulgarian people from Ottoman rule.
In 1872, he was captured by the Turkish police and put on trial. The court rules him guilty of his ‘freedom-seeking’ crimes and sentenced him to death by hanging. The place where he died is where the monument to his memory resides today. Six years after his death, with the help of the Russian Empire, Bulgaria rose against the Ottoman empire, and became the Republic that Levsky dreamt about.
Admire the Ivan Vazov National Theater
Ivan Vazov is another hero to Bulgaria. He turned into novels the plight and suffering of the Bulgarian people under Ottoman rule, contributing for raising the awareness of the nation about their slave-like condition. His most notorious book is called “Under the Yoke”, a Bulgarian idiom for being oppressed.
The National Theater was built by his friend Ivan Shishmanov, and the plays based on Vazov’s works were overseen by Vazov himself. So you can trust the authenticity of anything Bulgarian you watch here.
Pay Respects to Tsar Samuil
One of the most important figures in Bulgarian history, Tsar Samuil was responbible for maintaining the territory of the Bulgarian Empire at its largest extension and defending it from Byzantine invasions.
Tsar Samuil was considered by his enemies an “invincible in power and unsurpassable in strength“, managing to hold the gigantic Byzantine empire out of Bulgarian soil for five decades. He is until today a Bulgarian symbol of indendendence and strength in will.
Train and Perfect Your Aim at Gerena
Weaponry is not strange to Bulgarians. After communist rule, most people in the country were used to handling weapons and it became routine. After the fall of the communist dictatorship, somehow the activity remained as a fun thing to do to pass the time.
The Gerena Shooting Range is the most popular places in town for shooting. It is relatively far away from the city center, but nothing that a cheap taxi drive cannot solve. There you will be personally assisted by a professional shooter on how to pick your weapon, reload and perfect your aim. Just keep in mind that you will need to bring your passport and register for security reasons.
Shop at the Vitosha Boulevard
Vitosha Boulevard is the place in town for shopping and enjoying a nice meal with a view. It has an almost endless assortment of shops and cafes, as well as a beautiful view of the Vitosha mountain on the background.
There are two types of shops in Vitosha Boulevard: branded and outlets. If you go to branded stores, you will sure find some expensive items that are unnafordable for the average Bulgarian, but somehow accessible to foreigners. Outlets will be extremely cheap, even for Bulgarians, so take your pick. Vitosha Boulevar is also one of the best picks for buying rose oil and cosmetics, so you will see a lot of shops related to that throughout the street.
Get Yourself Bulgarian Souvenirs
Sofia has one of the best assortment of souvenirs I have ever seen in any city. I think you can attribute this to the fact that the country has a very strong traditional culture, and people really enjoy propagating it through handicraft. Here you can buy handmade Orthodox icons, Rakija barrels, embroideries, and even Kukeri miniatures (my favorites).
Do not buy ushankas and matrioshkas, as those have nothing to do with Bulgarian culture. You will commonly see tourists around town parading socialist symbols on their shirts and ushankas, but be aware that Bulgarians literally see those people as bozos.