Travel to Bulgaria

Cathedral of Saint Alexander Nevski

The first stop on my May 2018 tour of the Balkans was Sofia, Bulgaria. I had wanted to travel to Bulgaria for a long time, to see the capital and to try the local food. A good friend in high school came from Bulgaria and I remember her making the best salads! Of course, on my first night there I ordered a nice, fresh salad.

My flight from London Luton to Sofia was very lively. I sat next to a Bulgarian lady, Margaretha, who was a nurse with one son. She had lived many decades in the Middle East and London. She was nice but talked non-stop! I even saw some photos of her son and his three children. She gave me a few tips about Bulgaria, but mostly told me about her life. We shared a taxi to the city centre because she insisted. I think that was partly because she didn’t have enough money, but I didn’t mind. She got out first and gave me 8 lev and I had to pay 28 lev total. The driver immediately switched from Bulgarian to English. He said, wow that old lady talks a lot and asked if she had been like that on the whole flight. I nodded with a smile.

One memory I have of Sofia is the number of churches, a mix of Orthodox cathedrals, a mosque and a synagogue. There is a lot of interesting architecture. In addition, I loved the traditional food and wine experience!

This is a short guide on travel to Bulgaria, specifically Sofia and the surrounding area.

Saint George Rotunda Church
Saint George Rotunda Church
View from Pri Orlite
Sofia Central Market
Sofia Central Market

Highlights

  • Free Sofia Walking Tour– it is optional to tip but most of us did as the guide was knowledgeable and friendly! Meet at Palace of Justice near 2 lions
  • Beautiful churches including Saint George Rotunda, Saint Alexander Nevsky Patriarch’s Cathedral, Saint Sofia’s and catacombs, Cathedral church Sveta Nedelya, Sveta petka church and Russian Church “Sveti Nikolay Mirlikiiski”; Banya bashi mosque 
  • Old bath houses and hot mineral springs
  • Central Hall market or Tsentralni Hali
  • Underpass with Roman ruins
  • National Palace of culture 
  • Sofia university
  • Arena di Serdica Boutique Hotel which contains the Amphitheatre of serdica in the basement
  • Boyana Church Museum– a bus ride out of the centre but worth a trip to the UNESCO heritage site. Originally from the 10th century. The exterior is beautiful and the frescoes inside are stunning! Only 8 people are allowed inside at a time. No photos allowed but I remember the realistic religious figures and beautiful blue colour. 
  • National History Museum– located within walking distance of Boyana so can be visited on the same journey. I enjoyed browsing the Roman artefacts from the area, traditional Bulgarian costumes, and paintings by the Bulgarian artist Vladimir Dimitrov. 
  • Simeonovo cable car– I missed out even though I managed to get there via public transport. The hills are beautiful around there though!

Before you go

  • In Bulgaria, the official language is Bulgarian, and about half the people I met in Sofia spoke English. I recommend to have a translation app just in case
  • Visa not required for British or USA citizens for tourism visits up to 90 days
  • Be careful walking on the streets at night as some areas do not have a lot of street lights. My area was quite dark even in the centre.
  • The Simeonovo cable car doesn’t open for summer until 2nd June
  • I found the Bulgarian fashion to be unique and stylish. I bought a shirt from a local shop called Dika. A useful and wearable souvenir!
  • Zona Urbana is a store which makes goods out of recycled items. It was very cool, creative and stylish. An example were bags made out of plastic coated newspapers.
  • There is a post office within the Tsentralni Hali as well as many pharmacies
  • Sofia restaurant week is in May. Many of the restaurants have special, discounted menus. I was lucky enough to be there during that time and was able to book Club Pouchkine through the restaurant week app. There is also a similar event in the city of Varna in October.
  • Smoking still seems quite common. The airport in Sofia has a big smoking lounge.
Taxi and tram in Sofia, Bulgaria
Taxi and tram in Sofia, Bulgaria
Monument to the Soviet Army, Sofia
Monument to the Soviet Army, Sofia
Sofia, Bulgaria metro station
Sofia, Bulgaria metro station

Transport

  • The easiest direct flight from London to Sofia at the time was on WizzAir from Luton. It is a low-cost airline and comfortablefor the three hour flight.
  • Sofia airport is small and easy to navigate
  • I took a taxi from the airport to the city centre for 28 lev, which took about 20 minutes. The driver spoke in Bulgarian to my fellow passenger and switched to English for me.
  • To get to the Boyana church I looked up the directions on the internet, and found out where to take the bus 63. Luckily a passenger working in IT spoke English and asked the bus driver to tell me where to get out. The stop is not totally obvious so I recommend telling the driver “Boyana”. The bus driver did not speak English but he told me where to get out and pointed up a hill. A man walking by the bus pointed me in the right direction. I met some people who had taken a taxi from the city centre so that is an option. On the return trip I met the same bus driver! It’s easier to know where to get off the bus in the city centre. Also one other tip from the nice passenger- at kiosks in Sofia near the main bus stops, you can buy a day pass for transport which (in 2018) was only 4 lev
  •  There’s a free shuttle from the business park to the Sofia Ring mall, near the Simeonovo cable car

Accommodation

  • I booked via Booking.com and found the Top Center Hotel Apartment. The location is very central and the room was clean. It is also good value for money.
  • However, the bathroom was quite run down and damaged from damp. Part of this was due to the water running from the shower under a wooden door to the drains. It was fine for a couple of nights and there were some other friendly people staying there.
  • I received a code in advance for the main door and the key for my room was in the door. The kitchen and bathroom are shared.
  • The walls are thin so bring earplugs if you stay here
  • There is a metro stop, Serdika on line 4, nearby so you can get from the airport to the apartment by metro instead of a taxi
  • Try the local foods as there are many varieties of Bulgarian food. I love the fresh salads, cheeses and meat dishes. The wine was also very tasty and I don’t think I had had much Bulgarian wine before the trip.
Boyana Church Museum
Boyana Church Museum
Statue of Saint Sofia
Statue of Saint Sofia
View of Banya Bashi Mosque from Sveta Petka church
View of Banya Bashi Mosque from Sveta Petka church

Currency

The currency in Bulgaria is the lev. As of January 2022, one British pound was worth 2.34 lev.

I recommend to check the currency conversion just before you leave as this fluctuates

Bulgarian Lev
Bulgarian Lev
Pork and vegetable stew with eggs at Izbata Tavern
Pork and vegetable stew with eggs at Izbata Tavern
Russian salad with smoked salmon and red caviar at Club Pouchkine
Russian salad with smoked salmon and red caviar at Club Pouchkine
Escalope of foie gras at Club Pouchkine
Escalope of foie gras at Club Pouchkine
Dinner at Ashurbanipal
Dinner at Ashurbanipal- salad, cinnamon beef, and green beans and apricots in spicy tomato sauce
Shopka salad and red wine at Izbata Tavern
Shopska salad and red wine at Izbata Tavern
Lemon Tart at Club Pouchkine
Lemon Tart at Club Pouchkine

Food

I enjoyed a wonderful and friendly first meal at Ashurbanipal local restaurant. They have no physical menu because it changes every day so the lady just told me the options in English. I had salad, cinnamon beef, and green beans and apricots in spicy tomato sauce. All delicious! I also tried Chateau Karnabet Bulgarian red wine from a box (not bad!)

My second traditional meal was at Itzbata tavern, which had a lovely atmosphere. I had shopska salad which is kind of like Greek salad but the goat cheese was shredded. I tried more Bulgarian red wine and then had a pork and vegetable stew with eggs. It was all very tasty and hearty!

I used the Sofia Restaurant Week app to book lunch at Club Pouchkine, a fancy restaurant inside an old government building. The 3-course set menu for 29 levs (15 euros) seemed good value. I ordered the Russian salad with smoked salmon and red caviar, escalope of foie gras and lemon tart, plus a glass of Bulgarian red wine. The Bulgarian Merlot was deep and strong. The food was beautifully presented and delicious. Sadly I think this restaurant has closed down.

Pri Orlite is an18th floor panoramic restaurant and I was the only person there on a Friday afternoon. It seemed like it had once been popular, but may have gone out of fashion. The view was amazing! I had nougat ice cream with figs, which was so-so but also not expensive. I recommend going even just for the view of the city.

In addition to the meals, I also tried the local breads and snacks. There are plenty of bakeries around the city! I also loved the small kiosks that are located partially below ground. The service window is literally at sidewalk level! For example on bul. “Patriarh Evtimiy”

FAQs

Q: Do I need a tour guide?

A: No, not for the capital if you just want to wander around. However, I do recommend the free Sofia walking tour. There are some friendly and enthusiastic local guides and you can tip them at the end of the tour.

Q: Do people speak English?

A: I found about half of the people I met spoke English in Sofia, and even those who did not usually tried to help, such as a the bus driver.

Q: Can I travel solo?

A: Yes it seems to be a relatively safe city. When I travel alone I do not go out walking a lot late at night. However, during the day it seemed very safe to walk around.

Q: How easy is it to send postcards? The people in the post office were not very friendly nor helpful but at least I got some stamps for postcards.

A: See Sending Postcards from Abroad for details on cost and the time it took to reach the USA.

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