Hot Travel: Sofia, Bulgaria

An atmospheric city with a fascinating history and myriad cultural attractions, the Bulgarian capital is one of the gems of Eastern Europe.

Where exactly is it?

Sofia is the capital city of Bulgaria and it’s the nation’s largest conurbation, with a population in excess of 1.7 million. It’s situated in the western region of the country and the border with neighbouring Serbia lies less than 50km to the west. Due to its geographical location, Sofia is also within 200km of the Greek, Macedonian and Romanian borders. This ancient settlement is situated at the apex of three mountain passes, routes that once connected the Adriatic, Aegean and Black Seas, making it an important strategic hub in bygone days. The mountainous Sofia Valley surrounds the city on all sides and the majestic Vitosha Mountain rises on the city’s northern edge.

How do I get there?

The best value option is to fly direct from Dublin with Ryanair, which has a flight time of 3.5 hrs. However, alternatives include flying Lufthansa from Dublin to Sofia, via Frankfurt. The stopover in Germany varies from one to four hours. A comparable service is operated by Air France, via Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport. Likewise, the majority of major European airports connect to the Bulgarian capital. If time isn’t an issue, why not fly to the Austrian capital, Vienna, and travel by train to this historic Balkan city? It’s a wonderful way to experience a magnificent slice of Eastern European countryside.

What language do they speak?

The official language is of course Bulgarian, a Slavic tongue based on the Cyrillic alphabet. Bulgaria is a homogenous society, with over 90% of its citizens of Bulgarian extraction. Sofians converse in the distinctive western dialect. Native tongues are also in use amongst the minority groups of Turkish, Roma and Greek immigrants. Mercifully, the bulk of the city’s signposts also carry an English translation.

What is the local beer like?

Bulgaria boasts a flourishing beer industry, with a number of home-brewed lagers controlling the local market. Amongst the favourite brands are Astika, Zagorka and Kamenitza. A particularly interesting brew worth sampling is Kamenitza Dark, a rich tasting amber lager. However, the milder tasting and smooth Zagorka is the more popular with Sofians. However, possibly the pick of the bunch is Stolichno Bock. It’s a dark, malty brew, with a wonderful caramel flavour and plenty strong at 6.5%.

What is the transport like?

Sofia is well connected to neighbouring states by both an extensive rail and road network. The enormous adjoining central train and bus stations connect Sofia with Belgrade, Bucharest and other key cities. Ticket prices to neighbouring countries are well-priced and it’s possible to connect directly to multiple cities in Romania, Serbia, Macedonia, Hungary and Austria. Unlike many European capitals, taxi fares are very reasonable and an affordable way to get about. However, some of the city’s roads are in dire need of an upgrade and severe traffic congestion is a daily occurrence. Recently, efforts have been made to improve this situation. The inner-city is also linked through a series of tram and trolleybus lines, whilst the Sofia metro continues to expand with a third line now completed.

What’s the food like?

Bulgarian cuisine is very diverse and has been broadly influenced by neighbouring Turkey, Romania and Greece. A large selection of herbs and spices are used in hot meals, while an opening salad course, served with a shot of rakia, is a common starter. The food is generally excellent, prepared using fresh, locally grown vegetables, which are added to a variety of meat stews. Amongst the most common dishes are kavarma, a gorgeous tasting pork and vegetable stew, and kebapcheta, a spicy grilled mincemeat dish.

Shopska is a popular salad-starter consisting of tomatoes, onions and cucumbers, topped off with grated white cheese. This is often served with snezhanka, a yogurt flavoured with garlic, gherkins and garnished with chopped nuts. For something completely different try the yogurt and cucumber based cold soup dish, tarator. All matter of skewered grilled meat and fish dishes are available, usually served with a choice of yogurts and spicy sauce accompaniments.

What’s the nightlife like?

The Vitosha boulevard area comes alive in the evening with its myriad of bars and cafes. The city is full of nightclubs, many playing all matter of cheesy local pop and international hits. Fans of techno need look no further than the huge Escape club. If the night’s balmy there’s no shortage of beautiful courtyard bars and late-night restaurants. One of the city’s most popular late haunts is Caramba, a Latin themed club specialising in live Cuban music.

However, you just never know what’s going to happen in a Sofia club, where table-top dancing and striptease are par for the course! Live music is widely available and varies from traditional to old-school punk bands. Amongst the best venues are the Swinging Hall and Back Stage. For something a little different, check the listings for a performance by a local gypsy orchestra.

What are the touristy things to do?

Sofia has plenty of sights for history buffs. The National Museum of Military History gives a detailed and informed account of the country’s struggles from its earliest times. Housed in the Royal Palace, the National Art Gallery showcases the best in Bulgarian art from every era, while the nearby Gallery of Foreign Art has eclectic displays of everything from Japanese prints to African tribalism. It’s also home to some significant works by Degas, Renoir and Van Dyck.

The sumptuous Sveti Nikolai church was built nearly a hundred years ago by Russian immigrants and features classic, onion-shaped gold domes and mosaic outer walls. The tenth century Boyana Church, meanwhile, is renowned for its intact frescoes and has Unesco status. Fans of football, basketball and volleyball are also well catered for in Sofia. Bulgarians are fanatical sports fans and the city boasts a number of fierce rivalries, especially football matches between CSKA and Levski. Not for the fainthearted!

Anything else?

Take a trip to Sofia in the winter and enjoy some of the cheapest skiing anywhere in Europe. With slopes situated about an hour from downtown, it’s possible to try your hand at some winter-sports and still make it back to city before the party really gets started. An easy way to dip-your-toe without the weeklong expense...

What should I bring home?

A bottle of premium grape rakia will certainly not go to waste. Sofia is also one of the best destinations for collectors of Soviet-era kitsch. The Halite market is full of stalls selling broad selections of food stuffs, including Bulgarian wines and cheeses. If you’ve a penchant for religious iconography, then you’re certainly in the right place.

When should I go?

It all depends on what you’re after. If wrapping up and the sight of snow-covered mountains are to your liking, then January is the time to visit. Temperatures plummet to sub-zero and ski season is in full-flight. The summer months are very hot, often reaching close to the 40 degree mark. At this point, the city is transformed into a full outdoor experience, full of vibrant street-side bars and cafe-lined boulevards.

What’s the currency?

The local currency is the Bulgarian Lev (BGN). Bulgaria is expected to join the eurozone in the next three years.

What’s my challenge?

Soak up the unique atmosphere of this fantastic city. Immerse yourself in its fascinating history, sample the varied styles of cuisine and mingle with the friendly locals over a few drinks. Sofia is a city to be embraced and enjoyed to its fullest.

 

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