When it comes to things to do in Sofia, the list is truly endless. There’s been settlements in this region for millennia, so in terms of architecture, culture, and history, there aren’t many better places in the world for sightseeing and soaking in the past. When you combine this with Sofia’s young population and how rapidly its modernised since the early nineties, there really is something for everyone. If you’re trying to plan your Bulgarian holiday and want some tips then look no further: this is our list of the top ten things to do in Sofia.
East Gate of Serdica Ruins
Although this unassuming wall might not look like much, in reality it’s an ancient ruin that harks back to Roman times. Underneath the famous yellow-brick road that runs through Sofia’s centre and connects the presidency to the minister’s council, it’s easy to miss but is worth a visit if you’re interested in history. The gate has been around for centuries, and the last time it was repaired was in the 6th century, so it really is an ancient structure. The gate was defended by two towers, and the end point of a very important road for the Roman Serdica, hence the splendour of the ruins.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
This stunning, Neo-Byzantine Bulgarian Orthodox church is a marvel in every way. Believed to be one of the fifty largest churches in the world, it can hold over five thousand worshipers, and until 2000 was believed to be the largest Orthodox church in the world. The cathedral is a cross-domed basilica with a large central dome, which is gold-plated and rises 45m above the ground. The bell tower is even higher at 53m. The exterior is gorgeous, with turquoise and gold domes shining in the sun, and the interior is just as beautiful. There, Italian marble makes up the bulk of this place of worship. A must visit for anybody who loves architecture.
The Sofia Synagogue
The Sofia Synagogue is the largest synagogue in the region and the third largest in Europe. It was originally built in the early 20th century on the grounds of an older, less grand synagogue. Located in the heart of the city, there are services but they aren’t overly well attended as Bulgaria’s Jewish population tends to be quite secular. However, the Moorish Revival style building is a wonder to look at, and if you go inside you’re greeted by a 1.7 ton chandelier – the largest in Bulgaria.
National Museum of History
Tucked away in the Southwestern corner of the city, the National Museum of History is a well-curated and vast museum that covers millennia of recorded Bulgarian history. With over 650,000 artifacts, there are endless ways to pass the time here, from wandering through Thracian gold and silver trinkets to reckoning with Bulgaria’s renaissance period. The building itself was home to former dictator Todor Zhivkov, so it’s not just the artefacts that are a historical marvel. Modern history fans might not be too impressed as the exhibitions tend to focus on the country pre-WW1, but there are sometimes exhibitions about more recent history. Entrance is BGN 10 (GBP 5).
National Art Gallery
Founded in 1948, the National Gallery is the largest art gallery in Bulgaria. There are over 41,000 pieces in the expansive collection, covering Christian art from the 4th century to work from modern Asian artists. The largest building is the new Kvadrat 500, opened recently. The main, original National Gallery is on St Alexander Nevsky Square, and there are a few others dotted nearby that constitute the rest of the gallery, notably Sofia Arsenal – Museum of Contemporary Art. The homes of various famous Bulgarian artists, like Vera Nedkova and Ivan Lazarov, are also under the purview of the National Gallery and can be visited if you want to find out more about them.
Museum of Illusions
The Museum of Illusions is all about shifting perspectives. Located in the centre of the city, it’s open from 10.00 – 20.00 every day, and costs BGN 21 (GBP 10) for an adult ticket. Tours are available and take around sixty minutes – these are included in the ticket price. You can also just wander around yourself. There are countless cool exhibitions that warp your view, as well as teaching you how the illusions work. All the senses can be played with here, and the interactive nature of the exhibits means the fun never ends.
The Bells Monument
This impressive monument stands in the shadow of the Vitosha Mountain, in a park just outside the sprawling centre of Sofia. Erected in honour of the 1979 UN Declaration that it was Year of the Child, this impressive tower was built and raised in under a month. Rising over 122 feet into the air, there are seven bells strung on the monument that represent the seven continents. They are mostly decorative but do occasionally chime out. At the base of the towering pylons are to walls with 95 bells in them, each from different countries or organisations, and all etched with messages from children.
The oldest and most central garden in Sofia, the City Garden is an oasis in the busy, car-heavy city. There are numerous paths to wander through, as well as plenty of gorgeous flora and a kiosk for musicians to play. It’s also a great spot to watch some high-quality chess, with regular games going on in front of the National Theatre. If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed by how bustling central Sofia is, then this is the spot for you to take some time and relax.
This massive, old park is a viridescent escape on the outskirts of the centre of town – but is still walkable from the bustling heart of the city. There are tonnes of different plants lining the paths that criss-cross through this vast expanse of green, as well as swimming baths, an observatory, a huge lake, and many other sporting sites. A truly wonderful space to spend an afternoon wandering.
Vitosha Mountain is seen as a symbol of Bulgaria, and climbing it is one of the best things you can do in Sofia. On the hike you’ll see stone rivers, caves, and wonderful plant life. The mountain is over 2k tall but you can get a gondola up so the walk is much shorter. As long as you take your time it’s not too taxing, even if you’re a novice. It’s also easy to get to: there are buses that take you to the base, where you can grab one of the cable cars to Aleko Hut, the start of most hikes. The path is well-marked, so no need to worry about getting lost!