Sofia Bulgaria

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When we mentioned back home in the United States that Sofia, Bulgaria was our next travel destination we found it wasn’t on top of most people’s to-do lists. In fact, many weren’t even sure where it was.

But Sofia beckoned us to delve into its rich tapestry of history and culture. A place where yes means no and no means yes—Bulgarians nod their heads for no and shake them for yes, seeming to break universal norms.

Being a relatively compact city, we passed by many of the same places daily. However, each day revealed new hues of Sofia’s storied past and vibrant present against the backdrop of ancient streets, historic buildings and newer monuments. One era’s style overlayed another in this multicultural city.

Detail of Sofia's Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Detail of Sofia’s Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Photo by Eric D. Goodman

Our refuge amidst the urban hustle was the Art Hotel 158, a short walk from the old town city center and pedestrian street. Adorned with vibrant artwork and avant-garde furnishings, our home away from home set the stage for an immersive exploration of the city’s multifaceted charm.

Fortified with a hearty breakfast of eggs, tomatoes, potatoes and the unique Bulgarian cheese (with the consistency of feta but the flavor of cream cheese), we embarked on our Bulgarian adventure. The city of Sofia welcomed us with its architectural tapestry—a juxtaposition of austere Soviet structures and ornate Byzantine buildings.

The City’s Saint

Statue of St. Sofia
Statue of St. Sofia. Photo by Eric D. Goodman

Walking from our hotel into the heart of old town, one of the first sites we noticed, after passing the city’s main Catholic church, was what we later heard a local describe as the “sensual saint.” A statue of St. Sveta Sofia stands atop a tall column.

The city’s namesake holds a scepter in one hand and a laurel wreath in the other with an owl perched upon her arm as a symbol of wisdom. Crafted from bronze, the statue exudes a timeless elegance, inviting visitors to contemplate Sofia’s rich cultural heritage as they stand in her shadow. However, this is a modern installation, replacing a statue of Lenin in 2000.

Visiting Vitoshka

Aerial view of Vitosha Boulevard
Vitosha Boulevard Image from Canva

A day in Sofia didn’t pass without a stroll or two along Vitosha Boulevard. Affectionately known as Vitoshka, the boulevard is Sofia’s premier pedestrian street. It’s a bustling thoroughfare lined with chic boutiques, trendy cafes, somewhat touristy restaurants and souvenir shops. The city’s Palace of Justice is also on this street as are lively street performers.

As we strolled along its cobblestone lanes, the majestic silhouette of Mt. Vitosha loomed in the distance. Its snow-capped peaks rise against the azure sky. At the street’s end, a panoramic view of the mountain unfolded before us. It is a breathtaking vista that reminded us of the natural beauty beyond the city’s borders.

Nevsky in Sofia

Sofia's Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Sofia’s Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Photo by Eric D. Goodman

Sofia is a walkable city and we soon found ourselves at Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, its golden domes gleaming under the sun.

This masterpiece of Byzantine architecture was built in the late 19th century to commemorate the lives lost during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. It was commissioned by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church to honor the memory of Russian soldiers who fought for Bulgaria’s independence.

The cathedral stands as a symbol of gratitude and solidarity between the two nations. Completed in 1912, it remains a place of worship and a cherished landmark that draws visitors from around the world.

Stepping inside Nevsky Cathedral, we were immediately enveloped in a sense of reverence. High ceilings adorned with ornate chandeliers cast a warm glow over the marble floors below.

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Frescoes adorned the walls, each telling a story from the Bible or depicting a saint or biblical figure. The iconostasis at the front of the church featured paintings of St. Alexander Nevsky. Also displayed were paintings of John the Baptist, The Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ and other apostles, angels, archangels, saints and martyrs.  

Descending into the depths of the cathedral, we discovered the icon museum. Here, a treasure trove of religious artifacts awaited. Ancient icons lined the walls, their gilded frames glinting in the soft light.

“This is a huge collection of icons,” I said after about forty minutes of examining them, one by one.

“This is just part of it,” Nataliya said, having peeked ahead. Sure enough, there was another huge section to the display.

We marveled at the intricate details of each piece, from the delicate brushwork to the rich symbolism embedded within.

Sofia Beside Nevsky

Saint Sofia Church
Saint Sofia Church. Image from Canva

The diminutive Saint Sofia Church is nestled just a stone’s throw away from the grandeur of the Nevsky Cathedral. Standing in stark contrast to its towering neighbor, Saint Sofia Church’s weathered façade bore the scars of time like badges of honor.

In a tree across the sidewalk from the church, a bell still hangs. It was likely hidden there in the 1400s, when many church bells were confiscated by the Ottomans.

Founded in the 4th century AD, Saint Sofia Church is the namesake of the city and a symbol of its enduring legacy. Originally constructed during the reign of Emperor Constantine the Great, the church has borne witness to centuries of triumphs and tribulations. It has withstood fires, invasions and political upheavals.

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A washing woman yelled at tourists as they stepped on the wet floor at the church’s entrance. We avoided her wrath by walking off to our left and entering from a side passage.

Flickering candlelight cast dancing shadows across the ancient stone walls. Intricately painted frescoes adorned the ceiling. An iconostasis was filled with icons of Christ, saints and biblical figures.

Below the church, walking through the crypts felt like walking through ancient ruins. Stones and rocks lay all around us as we witnessed individual, family and group tombs in the rubble.

Sofia’s Majestic Mosque

Sofia's Banya Bashi Mosque
Sofia’s Banya Bashi Mosque. Photo by Eric D. Goodman

The heart of Sofia’s old town is dominated by the juxtaposition of an ancient church, mosque and synagogue. These stand as a testament to centuries of peaceful coexistence and cultural diversity.

As a local put it, “We have a mosque, church, synagogue and golden arches all within view in one spot—we’re truly a multicultural people.”

Venturing into the heart of Sofia’s historic quarter, we encountered the Banya Bashi Mosque. This remnant of the city’s Ottoman heritage is still alive and working today. Its minaret pierced the skyline in contrast to some of the surrounding architecture. We paused to admire its intricate details.

Built in the late 16th century during the reign of Sultan Bayezid II, the mosque served as a focal point for the city’s Muslim community and a symbol of Ottoman influence in the region.

The name, “Banya Bashi,” translates to “many baths,” referencing the nearby thermal mineral baths, once a popular gathering place for locals and travelers. Its architectural style reflects the eclectic blend of Ottoman, Moorish and Bulgarian influences. Intricately carved arches and geometric patterns adorn its façade.

Stepping through the mosque’s arched entrance, the interior was bathed in soft light, filtered through stained glass windows that cast colorful patterns across the prayer hall. Ornate chandeliers hung from the ceiling, their gentle sway adding to the tranquil atmosphere.

As we explored further, we marveled at the intricate details that adorned every corner of the mosque. There was elaborate calligraphy on the walls and ornate tiles that lined the areas of the floor not covered by rug.  

For centuries, Banya Bashi Mosque has stood as a symbol of Sofia’s cultural diversity and religious tolerance. It welcomes visitors of all faiths to experience its beauty and tranquility.

Sofia Synagogue Safety

Sofia's Synagogue
Sofia’s Synagogue. Photo by Eric D. Goodman

Just steps from the Banya Bashi Mosque stands Sofia Synagogue, an architectural gem and a cherished landmark. Solemn and reverent as the synagogue is, its view is cut off by an imposing metal fence. To pass through the protective gates, we had to provide our passports and pass through security. A guard explained, “These measures have become necessary given current geopolitical situations.

Inside, the synagogue captivates with its elegant architecture and ornate sanctuary, illuminated by elaborate chandeliers and vibrant stained-glass windows. After seeing the mosque and churches, the synagogue provided a deeper appreciation for Sofia’s spirit of coexistence and tolerance.

Better Than Bottled

water fountain
One of the many water fountains in Sofia. Image from Canva

In Sofia, nestled amidst bustling streets and historic landmarks, lies a hidden gem cherished by locals and visitors alike—the public fountains. Tucked away in quaint squares and leafy parks, these fountains serve as oases of refreshment in the heart of the city.

One such gathering place is just across the street from the Banya Bashi Mosque. Here, dozens of public fountains naturally flow, nonstop, with warm mineral water from underground thermal springs. Locals and tourists alike come here to fill their bottles—from small drinking bottles to large five-gallon jugs.

We filled our bottles every morning and evening. As we did, we looked around at the surrounding shops selling bottled water and wondered why anyone would make such a purchase when a far healthier and tastier option flowed freely in this statue-decorated square. The tram passed by every few minutes with the old Turkish bathhouse and Mosque in view across the street.

Many locals believe in the healing properties of this water. Visitors come from far and wide to sample its unique taste and purported health benefits.

The water comes out hot, but after a few hours exploring Sofia on foot, it was the same temperature as cold water would have been. And it tasted so much better than water found at the stores.

Sofia’s Museums and Galleries

Interior of Sofia's archeology museum
Interior of Sofia’s archeology museum. Photo by Eric D. Goodman

With our actual thirst quenched, our thirst for knowledge led us to Sofia’s cultural sites. At the National Archaeological Museum, we marveled at artifacts spanning millennia, from ancient Thracian treasures to Roman relics.

Among the most interesting and impressive items were the Golden Burial Mask from Shipka and the beautifully detailed bronze head of a bearded king with expressive stone eyes from the Hellenistic age. 

The National Gallery of Foreign Art, nestled behind the grandeur of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, offered a journey through European masterpieces. From Renaissance classics to Baroque splendors, each canvas spoke volumes of human creativity and expression.

In contrast, the Sofia City Art Gallery celebrated the work of local artists, showcasing bold strokes and innovative concepts. Amidst the vibrant canvases and thought-provoking installations, we found ourselves immersed in Sofia’s contemporary art scene.

Parks and Presidency

Sofia's City Garden
Sofia’s City Garden. Image from Canva

Sofia has several green parks—some featuring monuments within the trees and gardens—within the city.

The first time we strolled past the statue of a giant head in Sofia’s Crystal Gardens, I casually referred to it as a crackhead. Little did I know, that this striking monument honors Stefan Stambolov, a pivotal figure in Bulgaria’s history.

Erected in 1995, the monument pays tribute to the prominent politician, journalist, revolutionary and poet who played a crucial role in modernizing Bulgaria. The fractured design of his head symbolizes the brutal manner of his assassination by Russian-hired hitmen in 1895. The statue stands as a stark reminder of the turbulent political climate of his era.

Sofia City Garden, with its shaded pathways and tranquil ponds—not to mention Bulgaria’s national theater—offered a welcome respite from the bustling streets. Amidst the rustling leaves and the chirping of birds, we discovered a touch of nature within the urban landscape.

Yet, the vibrancy of Sofia was just a few steps beyond the foliage. The city seamlessly blends history, culture and the natural beauty of places like Borisova Gradina Garden and its poignant monuments.

Nearby, the Presidency Building with its neoclassical façade welcomed us to witness the changing of the guard, a ceremonial display of tradition and pageantry. It’s not as elaborate as the one in London, but it is repeated every hour during the day. There usually wasn’t much of a crowd when we happened to pass by on the hour.

Presidential Back Yard

Church of St. Petka of the Saddlers
Church of St. Petka of the Saddlers. Image from Canva

Behind the Presidential Palace lies the Church of St. Petka of the Saddlers. This small medieval Orthodox church stands amidst a courtyard of fallen ruins. Believed to have been built during the 14th century, it is one of the city’s oldest surviving churches.

Despite its modest size, the church boasts a wealth of architectural details. These include intricately carved stone reliefs and faded frescoes that depict scenes from the Bible and the lives of saints.

Adjacent to the church, visitors can explore the ancient ruins that lie scattered throughout the park. These remnants of ancient walls and foundations are from the Roman city of Serdica, upon which modern Sofia was built.

Dating back to the 2nd century AD, these ruins offer a tangible connection to Sofia’s Roman past. Archaeological excavations reveal insights into the daily life and customs of the city’s previous inhabitants.

Remnants of the Communist Era

The Party House in Sofia
The Party House in Sofia. Image from Canva

Once the epicenter of communist power in Bulgaria, the Party House is a stark reminder of the country’s tumultuous past. Its imposing facade, characterized by stark lines and austere architecture, exudes an air of authoritarianism and control.

The Palace of Culture, a grandiose structure nestled amidst Sofia’s historic quarter, is a testament to the city’s cultural heritage and artistic legacy. Designed in the neoclassical style, its imposing façade is adorned with intricately carved reliefs and majestic columns, evoking a sense of grandeur and elegance.

Within its hallowed halls, a myriad of cultural events and performances take place. Everything from classical concerts to theatrical productions attracts art enthusiasts and patrons from near and far.

Another large park in front of the Palace of Culture was alive with people eating and drinking, meeting and talking, playing and kissing. But unlike the other city parks, there was no shade to be found in the wide-open space. All the easier for Big Brother to watch.

Sofia After Dark

Inside a traditional Bulgarian restaurant
Inside a traditional Bulgarian restaurant. Photo by Eric D. Goodman

As night descended upon the city, the people of, and visitors to, Sofia were ready for lights and laughter. Vitosha Boulevard came alive with the chatter of revelers and the aroma of street food.

We ventured into its pulsating nightlife scene, where bars and lounges beckoned with libations and live entertainment. One night spot featured a band offering live 90s covers. Others played live Bulgarian jazz and traditional Bulgarian folk music and dance. One bar even had a DJ curating songs (mostly American and British) from old to new.

As with the architecture and culture, Sofians seem comfortable navigating from oldies to new hits and back again, like tracks off one solid playlist seamlessly put together as though an original album.

For Westerners visiting, another appealing thing about the nightlife is the price. A large mug of beer out in a club won’t cost any more than a canned beer from the store back home in the US. So, we let ourselves live it up as we enjoyed live music—both local and international.

A Multilayered City

The Turkish Baths behind Sofia's Mosque
The Turkish Baths behind Sofia’s Mosque. Photo by Eric D. Goodman

As our time in Sofia drew to a close, we bid farewell to this enchanting city with a mixture of nostalgia and gratitude. From its ancient landmarks to its vibrant cultural scene, Sofia left an impression.

Breakfast at the hotel was virtually the same every day: a hearty breakfast of eggs, tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, kielbasa and that delicious Bulgarian cheese. By the end of the week, we had eaten our fill and were ready to return to our usual breakfast back home. As much as we enjoyed our visit, a week in Sofia felt like just the right duration.

Sofia is a city of ancient echoes and Balkan beats, where multicultural heritage layers the city streets. Old discoveries are unearthed nearly as frequently as new buildings are being constructed.

In this multilayered city, a new layer is being discovered even today. 

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Author Bio: Eric D. Goodman is the author of seven books. His most recent is Faraway Tables, is a collection of poems focused on travel and a longing for other places. Learn more about Eric and his writing at

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