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Authored by Naddya Wagner

Have you ever visited a city where layers of history, different religions and cultures, modern vibes, and welcoming people mix in a colourful union?

Are you ready to explore the most unexpected sights and activities in the Bulgarian capital? The following are unexpected things to do and see in Sofia.

Things To Do And See In Sofia

For the History Buff

Sofia History Museum

With over 7,000 years of history, Sofia is a place which should be on every history lover’s map. Be sure to visit the Sofia History Museum.

You might think that there’s nothing unexpected about a history museum, but you should think again! Hosted in the former Central Bath building, this masterpiece in Vienna Secession style was abandoned for decades, though you can now step foot inside.

Admire Orthodox icons in the former therapeutical pools, a Louis XIV carriage, clothes and home decors of the high society of the 18th century, and even a whole street completed with a tram.

With over 7,000 years of history, Sofia is a place which should be on every history lover’s map.

Go Underground Below St. Sofia Church

One of the oldest churches in Sofia, the 6th-century Byzantine basilica St. Sofia hides in its basement not only the remains of three previous churches, but also a necropolis with around 50 tombs from 5th – 3rd century BC.

Visit the Communist-era Complex Kambanite (The Bells)

The concrete complex, erected in 1979 for a UNESCO children’s festival, hosts over 100 bells from all over the world.

Some of them are from countries which no longer exist, such as Yugoslavia and the two separated German republics.

The concrete complex, erected in 1979 for a UNESCO children’s festival, hosts over 100 bells from all over the world.

For the Night Owl

Crawl the Bars and Walk Back to Your Accommodation

The newest trend in the Bulgarian capital is to organise your bachelor party and drink the night away on the streets of Sofia. Partygoers from all over Europe and locals mingle in the pubs and bars, share beers and shots, swap stories, and party till the early hours of the next day.

Walking back to your home or accommodation afterwards is only for the bravest. Navigating through unlit back alleys, skipping obstacles on the sidewalks, and avoiding unexpected company are only a few of the challenges you’ll have to face.

Still, the pride and satisfaction you’ll feel when you reach your bed will make up for any previous discomforts.

Walking back to your home or accommodation afterwards is only for the bravest.

Hike Vitosha Mountain in the Dark

A night hike in the mountains might be actually less extreme than walking back to your accommodation after a night of drinking!!

Make sure you take enough batteries for your flashlight and a friend who knows where he’s going. The view of Sofia, peacefully sleeping at Vitosha’s foot, and the night sky above you are indescribable and will make for a great memory.

For the Shopping Queen

Find the cheapest deals at Ilientsi Bazaar

Ilientsi Bazaar in the outskirts of Sofia started out in the 1990s as a market for everything imaginable made in China.

Fake electronics, fake sports goods, fake everything – you could all find it here. Half of the stalls were illegal and only placed there on weekends.

Since then, the place has been transformed into a mall-like shopping centre. One thing remains from the 90s, though: the prices you’ll find here are still unbeatable.

Richly decorated earthenware pots, Bulgaria

Shop for Souvenirs and Local Brands in Pirotska Str.

Pirotska Str. in the heart of the Bulgarian capital is another perfect shopping area. Especially if you’re not comfortable with travelling to the outskirts of Sofia to visit Ilientsi, this is the right place for you to shop.

The 350 m long section of the street offers traditional Bulgarian souvenirs, covered bazaars and boutiques, supermarkets and drugstores, street food stalls and cafés.

Most local brands for shoes and clothes have their shops here, and you’ll get the best value for your money in whole Europe.

Tired of shopping? Walk into one of the eateries and try traditional Bulgarian food, a cuisine that should be on your bucket list.

For the Culture Aesthete

Catch a Concert in the Bulgaria Hall or a Ballet in the Sofia Opera and Ballet

Bulgarian musicians and singers are famous for their talents. Young rising stars as well as establish performers act together on the scenes of the Bulgaria Hall and the Sofia Opera and Ballet.

You can enjoy a concert or a performance of an excellent quality. The best part? It will only cost you a fraction of the ticket price in Milan, for example.

Bulgaria's oldest and most authoritative theatre and one of the important landmarks of Sofia.

Discover the Street Art and Graffiti Scene

Street art installations and graffiti are becoming more and more popular in the Bulgarian capital in recent years, and you’ll find a great diversity of styles at unexpected places in Sofia’s streets.

Don’t be afraid to look up and discover huge figures watching over you from the side of a concrete residential building or waving at you from a parking lot.

Buy a New or Used Book at Slaveykov Square

At the square, named after the Bulgarian poets and writers, father and son, Petko Slaveykov and Pencho Slaveykov, you’ll find books from every possible genre in multiple languages.

Some are brand new and have just left the publishing house. Others have been read by generations before landing on a stall at Slaveykov Square.

Even if you don’t buy anything, don’t miss to take a photo with the bronze statues of the writers.

Do you think you can handle a visit to Sofia? What’s the first thing on this list you’d like to do?

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Naddya has lived in Germany for 12 years before returning to her home country Bulgaria. Learn more about the dazzling Bulgarian capital and how to best experience Bulgaria, as well as other destinations she has visited, on her blog NTripping | Trips & Stuff.

You can also connect with Naddya on Facebook and Google+ where she regularly posts tips about Sofia and Bulgaria.

Photo credits: Featured header image by niki georgiev. Pinterest image of Gold-plated Iconostasis by Dennis Jarvis. Sofia streets at night by Juan Verni. Decorated pots by Ali Eminov. Ivan Vazov National Theater by Ava Babili.

    31 Comments

  1. How interesting that you can actually see Orthodox icons in the former bath’s areas! We often relate public baths to mosaics and ornaments in accordance to Roman and Orient tradition, but to find an Orthodox icon on the wall of such construciton is totally new to me. :)
    The fact that the whole building is the history museum makes it even more alluring.

    • Absolutely Danijela – Sofia is a very culturally rich destination, and the history museum is definitely a stop you shouldn’t miss :)

  2. Of particular interest to me is the Sofia History Museum and the amazing Bulgaria Hall – I should enjoy the architecture as much as the content I imagine! Sofia is now on my list of places to go! Also, full marks for using the word ‘Aesthete’ in a post ;-)

    • Hi Hannah! If you enjoy architecture, Sofia is definitely the place for you! And the nice thing is that it’s really not a touristy place, so you can actually wander the streets and enjoy the buildings and structures without being elbow to elbow with intense crowds.

      Haha and yes, re “Aesthete”, Naddya did well!

    • Hi Hannah,

      I think you’ll also love the National Theatre “Ivan Vazov” building and the area around it as well :) Often there are open-air concerts with one of the most beautiful buildings in Sofia, in my opinion, as the background!

      Cheers!

  3. Wow! Something for everyone in Sofia – but weirdly, the activity that appeals to me most is the night hike up Vitosha mountain – viewing the city by night would be such a memorable way to experience it. Then I’d hit up Slaveykov Square – coming home without at least one book as a souvenir would just be wrong :D

    • Absolutely Marion! Vitosha mountain is an awesome activity – you’re right, the views of the city by night are incredible, it’s a great hike, just take a flashlight!

      Totally with you on returning with at least one book – we’re a little obsessed with adding to our library, which is unfortunate since books weigh the most in our luggage, but what are you going to do right! :D

    • Hey Marion,

      that’s not weird at all :) I have photographer friends, who love to hike in the dark to capture the rising sun over Sofia! The resulting photos are unbelievably staggering.

      Cheers!

  4. I prefer history and ruins while making my travel itineraries.
    But Sofia does cater to other interests too.
    A great place for photo opportunity too.

    • The Sofia History Museum would definitely be a stop for you then :) Hope you have the chance to travel soon!

  5. Ooooh, I would love to explore the underground below St. Sofia Church, how fascinating to be stood in SO MUCH history, 3 previous churches and tombs from 5th-3rd BC. I’d love to know if it felt eery down there? Did it smell weird?

    And this little food blogger would be leaving with suitcases full of that beautiful pottery pots and plates, wow, just gorgeous.

    • The underground sounds pretty fascinating doesn’t it! I’ve found every crypt I’ve been to has had a certain eeriness to it, knowing that you’re sharing the same space as century old tombs!! I’ll ask Naddya to circle back and comment on the smell – I think they usually keep those spaces pretty well maintained.

      You would be in heaven at the markets here!

    • Hey Anna,

      I honestly don’t remember much about the smell, I think it smelled like earth down there. I remember feeling like Indiana Jones, though ;) And I was fortunate to be almost alone underground so it felt like I was discovering the place all by myself! Definitely a must see in Sofia for every adventurer!

      Cheers!

  6. Wow! I didn’t realize Sofia was that old. I wonder whether you can also see any of B.C. remains of town?

    Happy continued travels!
    C

    • Yep, Sofia was built thousands of years ago; the first settlements here were from the 5th or 4th century.

      A lot of remains of the old city have been unearthed over time, and most artifacts from the excavations are shown in the Archaeological Museum and in the National History Museum. So definitely stop by if you visit Sofia :)

    • Hey Carola,

      I think the oldest excavation sites are from the Roman Empire, 4 – 6 AD. But you should definitely check the Sofia History Museum to learn more as well as the National History Museum and the Archaeology Museum for artifacts from BC.

      Cheers!

  7. Great place. I was there this summer and if you go on a sunday you almost have the whole city for yourself. It was totally empty. I also recommend you visiting the mountains or even book your accommodation there. Its often cheaper and gives a great view over the skyline of Sofia. :)

    • So glad to hear you had a fabulous time in Sofia Niels – thanks for the tip on visiting on a Sunday, guessing this is maybe a religious observance if everything closes down?

      Staying in the mountains sounds incredible, definitely something I would love to do. Thanks for the tip!

    • Hi Niels,

      it’s definitely true that accommodations in the mountains are cheaper than in the centre of Sofia!

      On Sundays, especially if the weather is good, you’ll find more people at the Vitosha mountain than in Sofia ;) And in summer everyone tries to escape to the other mountains or the Black Sea coast.

      Cheers!

  8. Sofia sounds fantastic! I would love to go to a ballet or concert, especially since it would be less expensive than in places like Milan. I enjoyed the story about what Ilientsi Bazaar was like in the 1990s. I’m surprised that you could find the Chinese knock off stuff there so long ago!

    • Definitely less expensive in Sofia than other European capitals and hot spots which is nice – you can include amazing cultural experiences at prices which are super affordable.

      I swear the Chinese influence has been everywhere since the beginning of time lol!

    • Hey Jen,

      I still have a radio CD-player at home, which I bought back in 1993 from Ilientsi Bazaar ;) And it works… well, at least the radio does.

      Cheers!

  9. I was sold when I saw the ware of the Ilientsi Bazaar! So vibrant! :) Bulgaria is such an off beat destination and I am glad Sophia has everything of my interest (history, architecture, nature!)
    I’d love to go on the night hike. Super adventurous!! :) A whole street completed with a tram! That is something worth witnessing! Thanks for sharing this Meg. Great options! Bookmarking this:)

    • Aren’t those pots and plates just beautiful! Definitely travel with extra space in your bag so you can head home with some authentic wares – shopping is such a great experience here!

      Sounds like you would really love Sofia, and have a great time with everything Naddya has suggested. Hope you have the chance to travel sometime soon!

  10. I love architecture and history so I think that the history museum would be first on my list. Then I would go on a hike to experience the outdoor environment. I’m also interested in sampling Bulgaria’s cuisine!

    • Sounds like you would have a great time in Sofia Alice! Hope you have the chance to visit in the future :)

  11. People often forget places in Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia when they do Euro Trips but omg – These places are so beautiful, and rich in history! The quirky architecture in Bulgaria talks of the changing times of the Byzantine Empire and Sofia is like a gold mine for it. Sofia just seems to have something for everyone – whether you like history or not, Sofia knows how to charm you :D

    • Absolutely Vaisakhi – I think these are the countries too which are most memorable because people travel without many expectations and are richly surprised. There’s a genuineness and authenticity which you don’t really find anymore in the west. Almost like tourism hasn’t touched it yet.

      Sofia definitely sounds like it has something for everyone, hope you have the chance to travel soon!

  12. Exactly :) I couldn’t have said it better!

    Cheers!

  13. I hiked the Vitosha Mountain during the day and I would it is grueling but totally worth it.

    • So glad to hear you had a great trip! Not a region may people have been to :)

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