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/index_en.htm).
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.
As of July 2007 there are four low-cost carriers traveling to Bulgaria. These are WizzAir (http://www.wizzair.com/) flying to/from Rome, London-Luton and Dortmund, SkyEurope (http://www.skyeurope.com) to/from Vienna, MyAir (http://www.myair.com) to/from Rome, Milan, Bologna and Venice, Air Italy (www.airitaly.it) to/from Verona.
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 10 BGN (depending on traffic, could be 12 BGN).
Be careful! There are many "touts" in the terminal that will try to ask you if you need a taxi as you exit the departures area. These guys will seriously overcharge you. Most planes are now arriving in the new Terminal 2. When you exit the customs/declarations door, turn to your right and exit the terminal. There you'll see a big queue of "OK" taxi's lined up. However, if you go straight out to the roadway rather than right, there are unregulated taxi's. These guys will seriously overcharge you as well (trying to charge you as much as 20 EURO!). The signage is poor, so make sure you take the right-hand exit and go towards the large group of yellow taxi's with "OK" written on them in blue writing.
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), 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.
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 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.
Souvenirs can be bought many small shops in the subways in front of the old Party House and in the metro station at the Largo. The Ethnographic Museum has a small shop tightly crammed with souvenirs of all kinds from all over Bulgaria (on the right, just as you enter the main entrance).Antiques and souvenirs can also be found in Alexander Nevski square, in stalls just opposite the church.
TZUM is a large shopping mall on the Largo of boutiques selling at European prices, in what was during communist-times a store owned by the state.
Opposite the Banya Banshi mosque there is a covered-market, the Halite, with plenty of stalls selling all kinds of food, drink and cosmetics. The second floor has various fast-food cafés.
Pizzeria-type restaurants and snack bars can be found all over Sofia. Although many are very uninteresting for the traveller looking for a meal with a local flavour, some include excellent Bulgarian dishes.
Mid to High End
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.
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 Bulgarian drivers do not yield right of way to those on foot.
Also, be wary of money exchange shops. Some of them exchange money for generally lower rates than displayed on the exchange rate panel. Go to banks, you can easily become a victim and if you want your money back the security guard might intimidate you and physically abuse you. One such change shop is on Maria Louisa as you walk towards the Lion's bridge (Luvov most) after the Halis and the street on which trams 20 and 22 run.
The main bus and railway stations are situated next to each other, at the end of Hristo Botev Boulevard. Bear in mind that there are three other bus stations for minor destinations.
The main railway station (Tsentralna Gara) can be somewhat confusing. Tickets for Lom, Vidin, Ruse and Varna are sold on the main floor, but for the rest you have to go to the basement. Platforms can be accessed from the main floor down the escalators at the far left corner. Platform numbering is somewhat confusing: Roman numerals indicate the platform number (I to VI), and Arabic numerals (1 to 12) indicate the actual track. Each platform is divided into East and West. Departures and arrivals are indicated on reliable electronic panels, but, beware, they indicate the track number, not the platform! In any case, leaving by train is mostly recommended if you want to travel overnight to destinations on the Black Sea, since trains for Varna and Burgas will leave late in the evening and get you there in the early morning (a couchette to Varna is 16 BGN).