A relic of Sofia’s Soviet era towers above us, the nearly 12-foot-high Monument to the Soviet Army. On top stands a Red Army soldier flanked by a Bulgarian man and woman, while an array of figures lines the base — Bulgarians greeting soldiers of the Soviet Red Army, who invaded the country in 1944.
The monument, erected in 1954 to honor the role of the Soviets in defeating fascism in World War II, stands guard in the middle of Borisova Gradina, or Boris’ Garden, one of the largest parks in Sofia. It is also the first stop on our tour of Bulgaria’s capital city — a stark reminder of the Communist control over Bulgaria from 1946 to 1989.
The park is where my partner, Panos, used to jog every day during his three-year stint helping build the country’s infrastructure in the mid-1990s after the fall of the Iron Curtain. This is the Sofia he remembers from his past and, for me, the Sofia I expect, as we take a break from a business trip to witness the changes in the city.
Reminders of that era still stand, from weathered buildings to Soviet-style apartment blocks outside downtown, but in 21st-century Sofia, this monument feels out of place. Over the last decade, Bulgaria’s rapid transformation and more recent embracing of its place in the European Union render its Soviet past a fading memory.
Today, the area around the statues is a gathering spot for young skateboarders, while downtown Sofia spills with bars, upscale boutiques, nightclubs, beer pubs, trendy restaurants and sprawling shopping malls.
We head from the statue through the park, constructed in the late 19th century, and stroll the trails and walkways, passing dog walkers, babushkas deep in conversation and students from nearby Sofia University glued to their smartphones.
Many of Sofia’s highlights lie within walking distance of the park or else are easily reached by tram, metro train, bus or trolley. We stop at the 1897-built Battenberg Mausoleum, its single copper dome reflecting the sunlight. This is the mausoleum and final resting place of Prince Alexander I, the first head of state of modern Bulgaria.
Sofia’s most famous Bulgarian Orthodox church, the gold-domed St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, is an icon of the city. Built in the early 20th century in memory of the 200,000 Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian and Bulgarian soldiers who died in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878, the structure stands as one of the largest and most important Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world. A crypt below the cathedral houses the old Bulgarian art collection of the National Art Gallery, depicting Orthodox church art — namely, icons.
The cathedral sits adjacent to St. Sophia Bulgarian Orthodox Church, the church for which the city of Sofia is named. Built in the sixth century at the site of an ancient Roman theater, it was temporarily converted into a mosque by the Ottomans.
Behind the cathedral, the National Gallery for Foreign Art, housed in the former Royal Printing Office, holds a unique collection of Christian sculpture of the Indian province of Goa, among other works from afar.
Running south and west of the cathedral, most of Sofia’s other important buildings are linked by Sofia’s “Yellow Brick Road,” including the 1914-era revival-style Russian Church (aka the Church of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Maker), known for its colorful frescoes and crypt housing the remains of Russian Saint Archbishop Seraphim. The Viennese yellow cobblestones are believed to have been a wedding gift to Bulgaria’s Prince Ferdinand in the late 19th century.
We stop at the Antiques Market and sort through odds and ends, from dusty old cameras to Russian lacquered dolls. Adjacent small streets are also filled with hawkers selling Communist-era memorabilia, among other items.
Past the Yellow Brick Road, the Central Synagogue, the second-largest Sephardic synagogue in Europe, rivals the grand exteriors of Sofia’s myriad churches. As we arrive, we are fortunate to find a worker to let us in and take us on a tour. Built between 1905 and 1909, the design was based on the Sephardic synagogue in Vienna, which was destroyed during World War II. Its large menorah inside and brass chandelier as well as other items were imported from Vienna. Although the bombing of Sofia in 1944 partially destroyed the synagogue, it has since been restored to its former grandeur.
Our guide takes us inside to the Jewish Museum of History-Sofia, where we learn about the history of the Jewish community in Bulgaria. Special attention is devoted to the rescue of the Jews in Bulgaria during World War II, who were protected by the government from deportation. About 50,000 Bulgarian Jews were rescued, most of whom left when the State of Israel was established in 1947.
Completing the Western religion triad, nearby is the Banya Bashi Mosque, one of the oldest mosques in Europe, completed in 1576.
While we pass the days taking a break from business to sightsee and relive some of Panos’ past, we spend our evenings with his resident friends, sampling the local food and nightlife.
Our first night, I am introduced to Bulgarian cuisine at the tourist-friendly Manastirska Magernitsa, a mehana, or traditional restaurant, with an overwhelming menu of local dishes. We start with shopska salad and other veggie options, paired with some potent rakia, the traditional Bulgarian libation served with the first course.
Following a long and hearty dinner, our next stop is Bar Up, a cozy spot for a fruity cocktail before heading to Sofia’s notorious late-night clubs. The bar sits at the edge of Rakovski Street, Sofia’s version of Broadway, with its multitude of theaters.
I had read about the chalga clubs in Sofia, Bulgarian pop folk music with hints of Serbian, Turkish and other Middle Eastern influences. The club Sin City is a hot spot for chalga, where the scantily clad young nouveau riche take to the dance floors well into the wee hours of the morning.
Looking for a more classic cultural experience during our stay, we try to squeeze in as many museums and historic attractions as possible. At the Bulgarian Council of Ministers, where Panos worked decades ago, an underpass houses the archaeological remains from the East Gate of the ancient fortress of Serdica. With all the Soviet reminders, Sofia’s Roman connection is often forgotten. The Thracian tribe originally founded Sofia about 2000 B.C., whose settlement was called Serdica.
In a courtyard of the Presidential Palace and Sofia Hotel Balkan lie more remains of Serdica, as well as the restored Roman Rotunda of St. George — Sveti Georgi — currently housing St. George Church. Also impressive is the ancient amphitheater in the Arena di Serdica Hotel.
Nearby, the National Institute of Archaeology with Museum at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, located in a former Ottoman mosque, displays relics of the Roman past and other eras from Thracian treasures to ancient tools and sarcophagi.
The highlight of the National Art Gallery, our next stop, is the building itself, which takes residence in the former Royal Palace of Bulgaria. There are rooms full of medieval paintings and modern Bulgarian art, as well as more classic works dating to Ottoman times.
We make a detour to the booksellers’ square, or Slaveykov Square, named after father and son poets Petko and Pencho Slaveykov. Panos recalls the endless tables of pirated CDs and computer programs once sold here, but that era is long gone. Instead, some 40 stalls overflow with everything from sci-fi to travel guides.
On our final day, we make an excursion to Boyana Church at the foot of Mount Vitosha, a UNESCO World Heritage site renowned for its icon paintings and frescoes. The site with three buildings, the oldest dating to the 10th century, is considered one of the most complete and perfectly preserved monuments of Eastern European medieval art.
At the nearby National Museum of History, more than 650,000 exhibits comprise one of the largest history museums in the Balkans. The museum occupies the former residence of the country’s last Communist leader, Todor Zhivkov, which seems a fitting end to my tour of a city keeping its sightlines on the future rather than lingering in the past.
Sofia Info to Go
Although there are no direct flights between Bulgaria and the United States, travelers can connect through major European gateways such as London, Rome, Frankfurt or Paris. Bulgaria Air, the national carrier, operates out of Sofia Airport, the main international airport. The No. 84 and No. 384 public bus lines connect the airport to the central city, as well as to underground metro stations.
Where to Stay in Sofia
Arena di Serdica Hotel The 63 guestrooms and suites at this hotel and spa sit on the site of a Roman amphitheater. A section of the ruins lies within the lobby. 2-4 Budapeshta St. $$$
Grand Hotel Sofia The sophisticated 105-room hotel draws celebrities from Antonio Banderas to Scarlett Johansson. Patrons luxuriate in the hotel spa solarium while food connoisseurs dine at upscale Shades of Red Restaurant. 1 Gurko St. $$$
Suite Hotel Sofia Located in the Student City area of Sofia, this 122-room contemporary hotel offers free WiFi and panoramic views from its Zest Restaurant. 1A Yordan Yossifov St. $$
Restaurants in Sofia
Hadjidraganovite Kashti Enjoy traditional cuisine served in a complex of restored 19th-century houses, each in the architectural style of the towns they represent: Bansko, Melnik, Zheravna and Koprishtitsa. 75 Kozloduy St. $$
Pod Lipite Restaurant Priding itself as one of the oldest restaurants in Sofia, the eatery serves up mainly locally sourced Bulgarian dishes, including homemade yogurt, cheese, bread and jams, along with live folk music. 1 Elin Pelin St. $$
Thirsty Dragon Inn The cozy, understated spot serves local food and Czech lager in what feels like an old house with its homey wooden décor. Ulitsa 13 Marzo 2 $$
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