Sofia (София) is the capital of Bulgaria. It is also the biggest city in the country with about 1.4 mln citizens (including suburbs). Today, Sofia is a dynamic Eastern European capital, distinguished by its unique combination of European and Communist-style architecture as well as many beautiful orthodox churches. Furthermore, it claims to be one of the few European capitals with beautiful scenery and a developed ski-resort so close to it - the Vitosha mountain.
To get all information about Sofia, like history, restaurants, things to do,...(nearly everything) take "In your pocket" a free tourist guide. Ask for it in your hostel.
The cheapest way to get into Sofia, both from the countryside or from abroad, is by bus. With buses going several times a day in all directions Sofia is well connected to all regions. International connections are available to several locations in Greece, to Istanbul, twice a day to/ from Vienna, and several times a week to different cities of Western Europe. Example for bus fares (one way tickets: Thessaloniki: 68 levas (54 lv. for travellers younger than 26); Vienna 94 levas (82 lv. for travellers younger than 26). For bus lines see Airkona (http://www.airkona.com) and MTT (http://www.skgt-bg.com).
Allow up to three hours delay if travelling from Belgrade while the Serbian and Bulgarian customs officers ransack the trains due to cigarette smuggling. However, the cigarette smuggling is worth experiencing once.
The primary trains from Bucharest to Sofia, and back, run twice daily through the border city of Ruse. For example, recent trains are scheduled from Bucharest to Sofia in the daytime departing 11:35/arriving 21:30 and a night train departing 19:35/arriving 06:10. Passport control and customs takes place in Ruse, approximately mid-trip. Check local trainstations for updated information.
To İstanbul the train costs 25 euro (a bus-tıcket just 20), the train departing at around 18:30 (the bus at 21:00) and arrives at 9:00 (bus 6:00)
There are several flights a day to Vienna, and daily flights to some of the major European hubs. Tickets of traditional airlines can be pretty expensive, since there aren't that many carriers flying daily to Sofia.
Bulgarian flag-carrier airline is "Bulgaria Air" (http://www.air.bg/en) with Sofia as a hub, and for example two-way ticket to/from Madrid & Barcelona will be about 230 Euros. Another Bulgarian company "Viaggio Air" (http://www.viaggioair.com) can also be a bargain with two-way ticket to Vienna for 200 Euros.
Other traditional airlines with flights to/from Sofia are Air France, Al Italia, Austrian Airlines, British Airways, Czech Airlines, Helios Air, LOT, Lufthansa, Malev, Olympic Airways, Tarom, and Turkish Airlines.
Cheap charters to Varna and Burgas airports on the Black Sea coast are available (especially in spring & fall), and from there to Sofia (for about 60 euros one-way).
Sofia now has a new airport terminal (Terminal 2). There, as well as at terminal 1, the taxis are "regulated", and the only taxi company that is allowed to service both terminals is "OK Taxi." The fare to the city centre should be about 8 BGN (depending on traffic, could be 9 BGN).
The highway from Sofia towards Plovdiv is the best road to/from Sofia. It ends about 40 km after Plovdiv and from there to Istanbul, or a first-class road to Stara Zagora, Sliven, and the second-largest seaport Burgas.
Otherwise coming from Greece the road is in very good shape (thanks to a EU-led road-restoration programme) almost until Sofia (only the last 40 or so km after Dupnitza being hole-filled), so the 300 km from Thessaloniki are done fairly fast if you don't happen to fall into big waiting-lines at the border. Coming from Macedonia, the roads are in rather bad shape. From Central Europe you can drive almost the whole length on highways (via Slovenia-Croatia-Serbia or Hungary-Serbia), with only the last 100 km between Nis in Southern Serbia and Sofia being heavily trafficked mountain roads in not the best shape.
To get around Sofia you can use several means of transport: public autobuses, some trolley lines, many tram lines, a subway line and private mini-buses (mini-vans).
The public transport in Sofia works from 5 am to about 11 pm. Price per ticket is 0,70 leva (about 0,35 euro) if you buy it from a kiosk. Tickets should be bought before you get in the bus. When you board the bus, find the punches in order to punch the ticket. Unpunched ticked is invalid. The bus control rarely understand English and you might have problems with the security if you travel without a ticket or even with unpunched one. If you come to Sofia by plane, take bus#284 from the airport to the center, if you come by train or bus, to the center, take public bus #305, #213 or #214 (to Orlov Most) or tram #1, #7, (to Sveta Nedelya square) #6, #9, (to the National Palace of Culture) #12 (to Slaveykov square) or #19 (to Macedonia square).
Mini-buses stop if you just wave a hand and usually are fast way to go somewhere without need to change the car. You pay to the driver when you get off the car. Prices are 1,50 leva (about 0,75 euro).
Metro in Sofia is now under construction and a few more lines will be available in the next years. Now there is only one line from the city center to the suburbia.
Taxis in Sofia are yellow. There are many companies offering taxi services, some of them are OK Taxi, 1 Euro Taxi, etc. The taxi drivers should give you receipts. Usually they also should have stickers or similar with Taxi ID number and a customer care telephone number and they are required to have prices on a sticker on the window of the left front door and on the windshield. Prices vary but are about 0,70 leva (0,35 euro) per kilometer. (In May 2007 the standard fare generally was 0,49 levs per km before 10.30pm and 0,55 levs per km after that time until 6AM. Also make sure they have a driver id on the dashboard, that's quite important and also read the price on the stickers before getting in some will have outrageous prices on them and usually hang around hotels and tourist spots picking on unsuspecting customers, its the top line for the per km fares and bottom line for time you need to look at.
A bit more on taxi's: Taxi OK (the word "OK" being written in blue lettering on the trunk and sides) are generally reasonable (read: won't rip you off). Also, Taxi "92180" and "Rado Taxi" are generally very reliable as well. Other taxi's can really overcharge you significantly. Some taxi's also have a hidden "pump" (called Pumpa) that boosts the kilometers on the meter when you're not looking. It's a foot-pedal near the drivers other pedals, so can be difficult to detect. Generally the three taxi companies listed here will *not* use this technique, but it does happen from time to time (and certainly more often with other taxi companies).
Rent-a-Car is a good idea, but be prepared for traffic jams and disorganized traffic. Parking is major problem. To park you can use tickets for parking in the so called Blue Zone (Sinia zona). These tickets can be purchased usually by the people with bright green jackets, hanging around parking lots. The tickets should be clearly marked with pen and placed on the dashboard so they are clearly visible.
Sofia is one of the oldest cities in Europe with ruins spread across the city center. It was founded because of the quality of its mineral waters. In the city alone there are 7 independent mineral water springs. An interesting constellation can be seen in the city centre, where a Catholic church, an Orthodox church, a mosque and a synagogue are located at great proximity.
In the administrative center of Sofia the streets are covered with specific yellow pavement.
St. Alexander Nevski Church
Churches of interest are the largest St. Alexander Nevski (and one of the largest orthodox churches worldwide), the Russian St. Nikolay, and the old ones St. Sofia, St. Petka, St. Georgi rotunda, St. Sedmochislenitsi, St. Paraskeva.
The National Arcaeological Museum, 2 Saborna St., tel: +359 2 9882406,.
The National Museum of History, 16 Vitoshko lale str., tel. +359(0)2-955 42 80, .
The Earth and Man National Museum, 4 Cherni vruh blvd , tel: +3592 865 6639, .
Sofia City Art Gallery, Batenberg Str, tel: 00359 2 9872181, .
The National Palace of Culture, . The biggest congress centre on the Balkans (a huge massive monolith communist-style building).
Knyaz Batenberg's palace right in front of the city garden.
The nice building of the National Theatre "Ivan Vazov".
Borisova Garden (the "Lungs" of the city) with the Arianna lake, which is in reconstruction at the moment, but soon it should be refilled.
The first high-story buldings in Sofia (built in the end of the 19th century) around and behind the National Theatre.
The tall Monument to the Tsar Liberator, representing the power of freedom, and, on its back, the National Assembly and the building of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.
The Largo with the 12 flags of the EU (an ensemble of three interesting big socialist buildings, now housing the council of ministers, the national Sofia concert hall (the one with the spire) and the president's administration. All the ground there (and other places, too) is covered with yellow cobblestones.
The church of St. Sofia, which had given the name of the city. It has been built over an older one, it can be seen through a glass in the floor.
The ruins of the ancient town of Serdica, located in the geographical centre of the city - under the flags of the EU.
The interesting constellation of four nearby different temples right in the centre of the city: The Orthodox St. Nedelya church, The catholic St. Joseph cathedral, the Banya Bashi Mosque, and the Sofia Sinagogue (one of the biggest in Europe).
Go and see the huge Mall of Sofia, housing many shops, and a large IMAX 3D cinema.
The currency in Bulgaria is the Lev, plural Leva. One Lev is approximately equal to half Euro. The currency exchange offices are all around the city but to be on the safe side a new tourists would probably prefer to exchange their money in a big bank. Exchange rates are particularly poor at the airport.
Balbek, Near Slavekov Square (the book market). This is great Arab food. Downstairs is take-away kebabs and falafels, and upstairs a small eat-in. Excellent humous and salads, etc., and cold beer.
Mid to High End
Motto This place is always fairly busy with a trendy crowd. The decor is modern and cool, and the people typically good looking. The service here is usually pretty nice, and many of the wait-staff speak english. The food is consistent and enjoyable. Prices vary from about 5 BGN to 13 BGN depending on the dish. On some nights they have a DJ spinning house music (but not too loudly). The wine selection is adequate and not too overpriced, with a bottle of No Mans Land (a pretty good/consistent red wine from the Melnik region) going for about 38 BGN. Motto is on the street right behind the Radisson hotel, and then two blocks East (turn to the right on the first small street behind the Radisson if you are walking from the big horse statue) - it's kind of hard to find as the sign is a small black sign with white lettering.
Opera, off Rakovsky street near Dundukov street. Owned by the same owners as Motto, this place has a similar style and hippness. It's situation in the ground level of the Opera house.
Elia, Rakovsky street one block south of Crystal restaurant (which is next to Tambuk 2). Hard to find, but worth it. Walk about 20 meters and it'll be on your left; you need to basically enter a building enrance (it could be the same building as the fairly famous bar called "Alcohol") and walk straight back. It features Mediterranean fish. The service is excellent and the food is tasty (Try the salads and whatever fresh fish of the day they have). The wines are very good (try the Constellation whites). The decor is also tasteful and modern. High End
Tambuk 2, off Rakovsky street, about one block west. Generally speaking, the fish is good and the service is good, but it's also a bit overpriced. Some find the decor to be a bit dated as well.
Carerra A fairly modern restaurant over in the Lozenetz area. The decor is well done, the service good, and the food very good. Prices are in line with the quality and style of the place. The wine selection is excellent. They also have a nice summer/winter garden area.
Talisman, Macedonia square, near the City Centre Sofia Mall (across the street to the East, and then South a few bocks). Talisman has won a few awards for best restaurant, but some find it on par with Carerra personally. The food, service and wine selection is very good however, and you really can't go wrong here.
Sofia has quite a vibrant night life scene. You can find anything from big folk-pop (tchalga) or dance clubs to small rock clubs or alternative hangouts.
Apartamenta Popular among locals as well as foreigners is the "apartamenta", some sort of private club in the first floor of a turn of the 19th century mansion: after ringing on a not-descripted door, you ascend a flight of candle-lit stairs. There you find a series of rooms like in a real apartment, all in different stiles and wall-drawings, colourfull tapestries, etc. go to the right, get a drink in the kitchen (everything is 2 lv), and just pick and choose a room which looks cozy enough (shouldnt be too hard to find one with all the couches lying around). If you don't like the music, there are PCs in most of the rooms where you can pick something else out of the playlist. have a game of chess, or ask for tobacco for the water pipe. There is also a room which serves as cinema, if there is nothing running just go in, pick a dvd out of the collection and start the projection.
Bilkova A popular bar which can get vastly crowded but still remains a favourite is Bilkova on the Tsar Shishman street. No one knows how it is really named since there are no signs outside, but everybody calls it after the pharmacy in the next block. With two bars, rock musing playing most the time, B52s for 2,5 BGN and a cozy, oriental-style back room (locals ignore the non-smoking signs), it can get fairly crowded.
o'Shipka on the Shipka street near the main university building. On the first floor a normal pizza place, you might as yourself going in: "What the heck, this is supposed to be a club?" Well, just go past the bar, turn to the right, and you'll find a staircase leading down into the cellar: brick walls, several small rooms like in some catacombs, good rock music, and a stage room where, if you're lucky, you'll get quite a good live performance by a local rock group blasting on the small stage. Just the type of small little rock club you might be searching for. The club portion of this pizza place closed in the summer of 2006.
Lodkite In the huge "borisova gradina" park near the stadion (just ask you way around) you'll find this open-air place, located in an old leisure-park parcour (you know, that type of small water-channels where kid can drive around in little gondolas). The boats have gone and the channels serve as improvised sitting places (basic tables made out of wood planks put between the two sides of the channel). There are also some tables on the court and lights decorating the trees luminate the scene. The public sound system has experimental electronical music, ambiance, progressive rock, or whatever the DJs feel like. The later it gets, the more you'll find people sitting everywhere on the floor on the trees. On warm summer nights, this place is a must-be.
Escape If you like being searched for weapons at the entrance, this disco-type club might be your place. Once inside, you find quite a good two-storied dance room with side-rooms clothed in red. Music varies greatly, but the ambiance is still rather cool.
Alcohol a plesant disco with two rooms. One room offering popular music with high tables and chairs the other room decorated in oriental style and chill out atmosphere with Nargiles.
Tri Ushi a small club with brick walls and candles. Mostly new bands play here and drinks are around 1.5 lev.
Chervilo/Yalta/Lifehouse all these are fancy house-music clubs, where many popular house DJs haver played. If you like this kind of athmosphere, you should try them.
Crime rate in Sofia is rather high; even considered higher than the other Bulgarian major cities. If you travel by car make sure that you park in a toll parking. This is the best solution against auto theft. Parking in the center of Sofia could be troubling. Despite it is hard to find a free parking place, Bulgarian police tends to behave harsh since the license plate is not Bulgarian. You might see a long row under the non-parking sign, despite that it is for your own good not to park such areas.
Pedestrians should be careful since there are a lot of so called angry drivers and mobsters around.
Art Hostel provides cheap accommodation and a friendly atmosphere where tourists and locals mingle in the small basement bar. 9 euro (18 leva) a night, "The Guardian" says: "Probably the best youth-hostel in Europe"
Holiday Village Diplomat is near Vitosha mountain and 20 min away from the city centre. Spacious rooms, large park area and friendly staff.
Hotel Renaissance is situated in downtown Sofia, very close to the administrative and commercial center of the city.
Red Star Hostel. In the city center between main street Vitosha Blvd. and City Garden with National Theatre, and offers cheap and clean accommodation in a variety of private rooms and dorms.
Maria Luisa Hotel occupies an exquisite building dating back to the turn of 20th century and listed as one of Bulgaria's cultural monuments of national significance. Maria Luisa Hotel offers a combination of the standards and services found in a luxury hotel plus the privacy and independence of one's own home.
Scotty's Boutique Hotel is centrally located near the Zhenski Pazar and moderately priced, and looks to be very nice.
Sofia Guesthouse, . offers clean accommodation at the exact city center for EUR9 inc. breakfast.
Bulrest.com, . Holidays and accommodation for your vacation in Sofia. Offers for lodging in Sea, SPA, Hunting, Mountain and Ski resorts - hotels, houses, villas all around Bulgaria.
Dunav Apartment House Situated in the heart of the city this has one of the best locations in Sofia. Its central position allows immediate access to the center, 10 minutes from the cathedral Al. Nevski, the Bulgarian Parliament and the National Opera.
Sofia Backpacker's Inn, . A cozy hostel located 5 minutes from the centrail train and bus stations and 5 minutes from the center of Sofia.
Vitosha Sofias magnificent landmark mountain just rises south of the capital.
Lozenskata Planina Also a great possibility to hike an get away from the smoke of the city, this somehow gentler mountains are just a short busride or 15 minutes by car away from the center.
Rilski Monastir Bulgaria's most famous monastery, situated in the huge Rila Massive, is just an one hour and a half drive away.
Plovdiv Bulgaria's second largest city, an one-hours drive on a good highway away from Sofia, lies around three hills in the otherwise totally flat thracian plane. It's historical center, Roman remnants & relaxed feeling make it a great day-trip.