Welcome to my home city and one of the oldest capitals in Europe – Sofia! The history of the capital dates back ca 7000 years and it has been a long and (for sure) not an easy way for Sofia to become and remain as European capital from the beginning to what it is and how it looks like nowadays. Sofia, as the city where the Middle East and Asia meet Central and Western Europe, has one of the probably most strategic positions in Europe. Sofia’s history is overly rich and shaped by endless cultural, religious and territorial wars during the years of its existence.
My city has gone through many changes and difficult epochs and it even changed its name (minimum) five times. Its first name during the First Bulgarian Kingdom was Serdica, followed by Ulpia Serdica, over the years of Roman rule. Sofia has been also called Triadica and during the whole Middle Ages, the city has been known as Sredets. Sofia has been named after the second oldest church in the city “St. Sofia” somewhere during the 14th century and since then the capital proudly enjoys its beautiful name.
Sofia is a unique city, which offers something for everybody. There is nothing you cannot find here, accept of sea and ocean side. Forget the life at the beach – the capital of Bulgaria is the only capital in Europe with a ski resort (Vitosha Mountain, 2290 m). Furthermore, with its location of 550 m above the sea level, Sofia is one of the highest capitals in Europe! And last but not least: as a foreigner, you probably got the name Sofia wrong – we, the locals, call our city with the emphasis on the first syllable. If pronounced with the emphasis on the last, as in the female name “Sophia”, you’re not doing it well in Bulgarian.
Today we will have a walk through my city and I’ll show you the best locations you SHOULD and can visit even for a one day trip to the capital of Bulgaria. I hope you’ll love it as much as I do! And if you need any tips – just ask! It will be my pleasure to help you anytime 🙂
Let’s start our city walk from the Bulgarian Orthodox church of St. Petka of the Saddlers which is located at the entrance of the Serdica metro station. This small, hidden and half-buried sanctuary graces the very centre of Sofia since the 14th century. The holy place was built under the Ottoman occupation and is named after Petka Ikoniyska – a Bulgarian saint from the 11th century. Inside the church, there is no natural daylight but with the help of some candlelight, you can spot three layers of paintings from the 15 th, 17 th and 19 th century.
Many Bulgarians believe that the most-loved by the nation revolutionary Vasil Levski (1837 – 1873), who was killed by the Turks during the emancipation war, was re-buried in St. Petka of the Saddlers church. Anyhow, this hypothesis has never been confirmed.
But why is the church partially dug into the ground? Orthodox churches and Christianity as a whole was not tolerated during the Ottoman occupation. Therefore, building a church was only possible if its height does not exceed that of a soldier on horseback.
Exiting the metro station of Serdica you will also catch the sight of “Complex Ancient Serdica” – noteworthy remains of the Roman city, discovered during the construction of Sofia’s metro system between the years of 2010 and 2012. Back in the days, Serdica was the capital of the eastern province of Dacia Mediterranea and part of the Great Roman Empire. The remaining fragments of streets, a Christian basilica, houses, baths and even an amphitheatre with an arena that dates from the 4th and 6th century. You can see some of the remainings (like coins and pottery) in the metro station which looks like an archaeological museum with all the vitrines inside of it. This place is unique because the Arena of Serdica, built by Emperor Diocletian and completed by the Emperor Constantine the Great, is the only one in the world which combines a Roman theatre and a late antique amphitheatre.
Yes, one of the architectural remains for what my country and nation have been through during the Ottoman occupation. The Turks built the Banya Bashi Mosque in the 15th century during the years when the Ottomans had control over Serdica.
Why the Turks chose this location to build the mosque? Very simple – this location has many natural, thermal spas with mineral water from which also came the name “Banya Bashi” (“Many Baths”). Nowadays the building is the only functioning mosque in the capital of Bulgaria and is the holy place for the Muslim community who lives here.
Behind the Banya Bashi Mosque, you can visit the Central Mineral Baths of Sofia – a place that I used to visit with my grandfather. I remember, back in the ‘90s, it was kind of duty to visit the thermal spring with 10 l plastic canister in order to “supply” the family with fresh and hot mineral water.
The Central Mineral Baths were built in the early 20th century and they had functioned as a bath till the year of 1986. I have heard the stories from my Grandmother, that it was common to visit the Central Baths with the family and friends on Sunday, just to take a shower. Probably this period gave the birth of the popular Bulgarian slogan (which nowadays is used more as a joke) “Chestita Banja” which means something like “Congratulation for the Bath”, after taking a shower on Sunday.
You probably cannot miss the rising behind Serdica metro station Statue of Sveta Sofia (The Statue of Saint Sophia), erected in the year of 2000. The statue (ca 7.5m high) is made from bronze and copper; symbolizes power, fame and wisdom (crown, wreath and owl) and is a patron saint of Sofia city.
Since the 10th century the Eastern Orthodox Cathedral of St. Nedelja (The Holy Sunday Church) has suffered through the long history of Sofia (Ottoman occupation, World Wars, Communists, etc.) and it has been reconstructed many, many times. Nowadays the St. Nedelia is considered as the centre of Sofia and is a favourite place for weddings in the city.
Another interesting place to visit is the Christian red brick rotund, called St. George which is also considered to be the oldest preserved building in the capital of Bulgaria and like the Church of St Petka of the Saddlers it still remains the ancient town of Serdica. The Church of St. George was built in the 4th century by the Romans during the time of Constantine the Great. The rotunda is located in “Constantine district” of Serdika-Sredets and is part of the large complex of ancient buildings. During the Ottoman period the church was “used” as a mosque, but nowadays you can still find Christian frescoes dating from 10th, 12th, 13th and 14th century inside of it.
You can also visit the National Archaeological Museum!
The most colourful church (and for many the prettiest one) in Sofia is definitely the Russian Orthodox Church. As officially known St. Nicholas Church was inspired by the Russian churches from the 16th centuries and was built by Russian guest workers in the year of 1914.
The most interesting fact, that many do not even know, is that inside the church lies the tomb of the former St. Serafin. Not interesting enough? It is believed that St. Serafin makes your wishes come true! You can write a message, put it into the box (which stands right to the tomb) and believe!
The Monument to the Unknown Warrior was opened on 22.09.1981 as a celebration for the 1300th anniversary of the establishment of Bulgaria as a country. The monument is located between St. Sofia church and Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (Alexander Nevsky Square). It honours all numberless Bulgarian warriors who died in the endless war against Turkey and the Ottoman occupation. Here you can also witness the ever-blazing eternal flame, as well as the sculpture of a giant lion (which is also the national symbol of Bulgaria. You can even find three of them on the Coat of arms of Bulgaria.) and a stone inscription of the most famous writer in the country – Ivan Vazov.
Although the bronze monument of Tsar Samuil (opened on June 8, 2015 ) is one of the newest in Sofia, it is one of my favourite! The monument commemorates 1000 years of anniversary of Tsar Samuil’s death and is located in front of the church St. Sofia. And not important, but interesting to know: his eyes are shining in the night!
But why opening a monument of Tsar Samuil? Each Bulgarian child learns the terrifying story of Tsar Samuil at an early age and remembers it till the rest of its life… The story is about the Battle of Kleidon against the Byzantine Empire, as all Samuil’s soldiers were apprehended and completely blinded: only one of every 100 men was left one eye, so he can lead the army back home. Tsar Samuil died of a heart attack, two days after seeing his blinded army (6 October 1014).
The second oldest church in the capital of Bulgaria is Saint Sofia Church (Bulgarian: „Sveta Sofia“). It was built during the 6th century (during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I) in the council of Serdica and 10 centuries later the church gave its name to the city, previously known as Serdica and Sredets. And guess what, during the Ottoman occupation the churched turned into a mosque. The Turks destroyed the original frescoes and putted some minarets which replaced the Christian crosses and symbols.
Since 18th century the building functions as a church again, it restoration work began in the year of 1900 and reopened to the public in 1999. Nowadays the Saint Sofia Church is one of the most important pieces of Early Christian architecture in Southeastern Europe and for the people of Sofia is a symbol of endurance and eternity.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (named after the Russian Tsar St. Alexander Nevski ) is the biggest church in Sofia, the second biggest cathedral located on the Balkan Peninsula and one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world. The Holy Place was built in Neo-Byzantine style in the years between 1904 and 1912 in memory of all soldiers, who died in the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878) in the name of Bulgaria’s liberation from Ottoman rule.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral has an area of 3,170 square metres which means that ca 10.000 people could pray inside the building. The gold-plated dome is about 45m high and the bell tower reaches 53m. There are 12 bells inside the church and the interior is pretty unique: Italian marble from Sienna and Carrera, stained glass windows and finest Venetian mosaics, onyx from Brazil, alabaster, and gates from Vienna. And a lot of gold! You won’t miss this place when visiting Sofia for the first time!
Meet my first university “St. Kliment Ohridski” (although I have studied here less than one semester before starting with my studies in Innsbruck). Founded on 1 October 1888, Sofia University is the oldest one in Bulgaria. Thanks to its major investors, the brothers Evlogi Georgiev and Hristo Georgiev, the building was finished between the years of 1924 and 1934. Nowadays, Sofia University is still among the best 4% of Universities around the World.
My favourite garden in Sofia is named after the Bulgarian Tsar Boris III – Borisova Gradina (translated Borisova Garden). Opened in the year of 1884 it is the oldest and the most famous park in Sofia in 1884. On a sunny day, the best thing you can do is to buy a beer, take a blanket and enjoy the nature in the middle of a big city!
This is probably the only one church who has been converted from Ottoman mosque to a church, without being a church before becoming a mosque … What?! Yes, the history of Bulgaria is very, very long and recurring and you will be reminded of it wherever you go. Unfortunately. Before becoming the “Sveti Sedmochislenitsi church” in 1901 (means the church of the Holy Seven Saints) the building was known as Koca Mehmed Pasha Mosque. The building has been even used as a military warehouse and prison in the year of 1878.
Books, books, books, … more books, please! There is nothing, you cannot find here! Located in the heart of Sofia, this square is the most favourite and well-known place among the people of Sofia, when it comes to finding some new, old or rare books! Slaveikov Square is named after the famous Bulgarian writer Pencho Slaveikov, who can be spotted on a bench sitting right next to his father Petko Slaveikov (also a very famous writer in Bulgaria).
Vitosha Boulevard (knows as such since the 1883 year), better known as Vitoshka, is the most famous and expensive Commercial Street located in the middle of Sofia. Here you can choose among numerous high-end shops, boutiques, restaurants and bars to spend your money in. Or you can just enjoy your ice while walking and staring at all kind of different people. According to Cushman & Wakefield, Inc. study, Vitosha Boulevard is the world’s 22nd most expensive trade street in the world!
At the end of Vitosha Boulevard, you can visit the Aleko Konstantinov monument – my favourite traveller, storyteller, opinion leader, lawyer, the founder of organized tourism in Bulgaria and writer, He was the first Bulgarian to write about his journeys to Western Europe and America! So to say – a travel blogger from the 19th century.
The monument is perfect – the hansom Aleko, as a dreamer and idealist, standing in the right place while having an eye on Vitosha Mountain… There are also several symbols of a traveller soul: the suitcase, the destination boards from the places, which Aleko has visited, a book… and his never-ending look of a dreamer…
Built in the year of 1981 as a celebration of the 1300th anniversary of the Bulgarian State, the National Palace of Culture in Sofia, or better known as NDK, is still the largest multifunctional convention and exhibition centre in South-eastern Europe. Although the building host different types of events, exhibitions, concerts, TV shows and many, many more – it majorly reminds me of the communism with its architecture and style (don’t tell anybody, but I hate this building…). Anyway – its gardens and landscape are just perfect for spring or summer walk, meeting with friends, visit some of the coffee shops and basically having some fun when the sun is shining!