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Visiting Sofia on a budget: things to do in the capital of Bulgaria

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Are you looking for any advice about the ideal destination for a budget cultural weekend? One of the last tourist trends is Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. Small, easy and pleasant to walk around, Sofia has an astonishing cultural and historical heritage, along the scenic natural landscapes in the surroundings - very appreciated by travelers who keep an eye also to the wallet. It is surely one of the cheapest city breaks to have in Europe. Sofia is a city rich in art with ancient monasteries and beautiful churches - Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is one - giant parks and lovely restaurants.

Interesting, right? Make a note of our suggestions on what to see in Sofia and some useful tips to enjoy your budget getaway to the wonderful capital city of Bulgaria at the fullest.

Useful information for visiting Sofia: Climate, currency and language

In Sofia different cultures and religions coexist peacefully. You will have a chance to take very suggestive and pleasant walks from the orthodox churches to the synagogue to the mosque, all within a few hundred meters. You will be surprised by the cleanliness and the quietness of Sofia, a city full of contrasts - not only cultural ones - where you can still breathe the post-communist air.

Did you know that Sofia is the third oldest capital of Europe after Athens and Rome?

Best time to visit Sofia? Most visitors choose Sofia as a weekend getaway from May to October because of the sunny climate, ideal for walks and excursions outside the city. Even if you have chosen to visit Sofia at Christmas or New Year time, don't worry: the Bulgarian winter is not "freezing". In this period, you have plenty of events and things to do in Sofia to enjoy your short break in Bulgaria. A series of unbeatable events awaits you: concerts, festivals, Christmas markets. Sofia is a very good option even for who wants to have a  skiing holiday or use ice sports facilities.

What about the language? The Bulgarian alphabet is Cyrillic. Locals welcome foreign visitors in a friendly way, but not everyone speaks foreign languages; in addition, most road signs are written in Cyrillic.

  • So, if it happens you want to ask for information to people on the street, you'd better address to the young ones, who are more likely to speak English.

What currency is used in Bulgaria?

The currency of Sofia is the Bulgarian Lev, which is worth approximately 0.50€. You can change Euros into Lev almost anywhere in the city or, alternatively, you can withdraw directly from ATMs.

Withdrawing from ATMs is always the best solution. If you have planned a few days holiday or a weekend in Sofia, it is not worth looking for exchange offices in the city with favourable rates; we suggest you to avoid changing at the airport, in hotels and station offices.

Good to know: it is possible to limit the use of cash because many shops, restaurants and hotels in Sofia accept payment by card (before leaving from your country, we recommend that you always check with your bank that your card is enabled for foreign transactions other than in euros).

Things to do in Sofia: The "must see" things are Churches and Cathedrals

There are many reasons why you should visit Sofia. One of them is the history that you can "touch" in this city, literally. Everywhere you turn you can find a piece of history to wander through, be it an old Ottoman Empire Mosque or a modern Soviet-style palace or a charming Roman Catholic Church. Religious buildings are the highlight of Sofia and almost all of them are absolutely worth a visit. Entry is free to almost all of them.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral: Free entrance but no photos!

cattedrale alexander nevski sofiaOn a weekend trip in the capital of Bulgaria, a stop at Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is among the first things to do in Sofia. Mystical atmosphere, magnificent interiors enriched by mosaics and paintings, green domes covered in gold shining with the sun's reflections. Besides being the tourist landmark of the city, it is a reference point for citizens.

Visit to Alexander Nevsky Cathedral: Two pros and two cons

Entry to the Nevsky Cathedral is free. Luckily, many points of interest in Bulgaria are free of charge. The second pro is that the Cathedral is located in the historic center of the city, close to other places of interest, so you can easily see many attractions of Sofia on a pleasant walking tour. Given the artistic depth of the site, it may be worth taking part in one of the many guided tours of the capital which also include a stop at Alexander Nevsky Church.

BOOK A SOFIA GUIDED TOUR AND VISIT ALEXANDER NEVSKY CATHEDRAL

Many travelers say that the poor lighting inside the structure does not allow you to appreciate its beauty. In addition to this, the smoke from the candles has blackened paintings and frescoes over time. The second point, that many visitors dislike, is that you must pay a fee if you wish to take photos inside.

  • Would you like a gift to take home to your aunt? At the entrance of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral you will find a small shop where you can buy sacred icons, candles and handmade objects at a low price.

Boyana Church: A gem surrounded by greenery

Another one of the top things to do in Sofia is a visit to Boyana Church. It is located in the homonymous suburb at about 10/15 km from the city center. Surrounded by a green and relaxing natural park, the church is a small real gem: because of its size, access is allowed only by stacks and you can stay inside for a limited time. Since 1979, it has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Tips for visiting Boyana Church: Come in with a guide!

At first glance, the Church doesn't seem very special, but wait to get inside the building: you will remain speechless!

Boyana church SofiaThe interior structure of Boyana Church is divided in two areas, entirely covered with 13th century frescoes: a true wonder! The visit to Boyana Church does not last long (about 15 minutes) with a visitor flow of ten people at a time. This mode of entry is necessary to preserve the artistic heritage of the church. Almost all travelers agree on one thing: taking a guided tour of Boyana Church is the best choice to fully understand the beauty of the frescoes and the historical importance of the site.

There are a lot of Boyana Church tours options that you can purchase at good prices. In our opinion, the best solution is to book a guided tour that includes transportation to and from Sofia. Great comfort and low cost!

The small Boyana Church is the perfect destination for a day trip out-of-town. Many travelers have often combined the visit to the Church with another gem of Bulgaria: the wonderful Rila Monastery.

FIND BOYANA CHURCH GUIDED TOURS WITH TRANSFER FROM SOFIA

Two tips for self-organized independent tours:

  • Leaving from Sofia, the district of Boyana can be easily reached by taxi, with a 10/15-minutes ride. Those who prefer to rent a car in Sofia, can take advantage of the parking situated just in front of the park entrance.
  • Once you've finished visiting the church, don't miss a tour of the gardens. If it's very sunny you can stop for a few minutes on the benches in the shadow of a centenary redwood tree. A few steps away you will also find the grave of Tsarina Eleonore of Bulgaria, wife of Tsar Ferdinand I.

Rila Monastery: Art and mysticism among the Bulgarian mountains

Here is the third unmissable stop of a trip to Sofia: the Rila Monastery and the surrounding mountain area are things you should definitely see! We anticipate that the monastery is located about 2 hours from the capital so you will have to spend at least half a day there.

Tips to visit the Rila Monastery: Combine it with Boyana...

As mentioned, many travelers combine a visit to the Rila Monastery and to the Church of Boyana, two UNESCO World Heritage sites. This is because both are located outside the center of Sofia (the first is over 100 km away, the other in a suburb).

Rila Monastery BulgariaAfter a nice walking tour in the historical area of the capital, you may want to spend the third day in Sofia with two out of town excursions. We suggest the following itinerary: in the first part of the day leave Sofia and reach the Rila Mountains; on the way back, stop in Boyana before going back to the city centre.

...or give it a full day

If you spend a whole day in the area, you can fully appreciate this enchanting natural place nestled in the Bulgarian mountains. Those who have already been there call the monastery "a spectacle of art, mysticism and nature" and you can't really blame them: it is such an amazing place! Add a visit to the Ivan Rilski Cave, just a few miles away from the monastery.

Gourmet tip: after the visit to the monastery, have a break and taste some of Bulgaria delicacies in a kiosk, situated just behind the monument. It bakes bread continuously and sells good mekitsi, fritters with yogurt and icing sugar, typical of the area: you have to try them!

If you have the whole day and love hiking trails, you could also treat yourself to an excursion through the beautiful Bulgarian landscapes. From the Monastery area you can explore the Rila National Park, or two other natural "must-see" wonders of Bulgaria: the Stob Pyramids and Seven Rila Lakes, to be reached by chairlift.

CHECK THE BEST ONE DAY EXCURSIONS TO THE RILA MONASTERY


Churches of downtown Sofia

Most religious buildings in Sofia are concentrated in the city center and almost all of them have free entrance. Sofia is easy to be explored on foot so you will have no trouble getting around. Don't miss a visit to the beautiful Orthodox churches, the Mosque and the Jewish Synagogue. A few tips:

  • The most fascinating churches are undoubtedly the Church of St. Sophia, which houses the remains of the poet Ivan Vazov, and the Church of St. George, the oldest in the capital. The Church of St. George is located in the roundabout of the same name (Sveti Georgi) and houses a museum area (for a fee).
  • The Banya Bashi Mosque is the only working mosque in the whole country. It is located just a few meters from the Central Market Square of Sofia (Tsentralni Hali), in front of the Synagogue.
  • The way to access the Synagogue is not really intuitive and not everyone can get in. The entrance is from the side gate - if it is closed, just ring the bell.
  • Next to the Synagogue you will find the Women's Market: a dive into the most authentic Bulgaria. There is a little bit of everything, from food products to typical objects of the local culture. It is rather a real local market, not exactly a tourist area, but it could be a way to live a typical experience in Sofia.

National theatre, NDK and other places of interest in Sofia

For a dive into Sofia's artistic and political history we suggest three addresses: the National Historical Museum, The National Ivan Vazov Theatre, and the National Palace of Culture, for the locals simply NDK.

Named in 2005 as the "best conference centre in the world", the NDK is located right in the city centre and is a giant multi-functional complex hosting all kinds of exhibitions, conferences and international meetings. It is not always possible to visit the various halls inside the building, but the Palace is surrounded by a park with gardens, clubs and many fountains, so a pleasant walk is worth it anyway.

national theatre SofiaFollow your promenade to the National Theatre, just a stone's throw from Nevsky Cathedral. A masterpiece of architecture, located in the city's Public Gardens Square, with kiosks and street artists: one of the most beautiful frames in Sofia, it's worth taking a ride even just from outside.

The National Historical Museum is located a bit out of the center. An incredible art gallery with a collection of more than 650,000 objects, from the first prehistoric finds to the most modern ones dating back to the communist period. The visit should last about 2 hours.

  • The museum is not far from Boyana Church, you could visit them on the same occasion. Keep it as an option, if you have some time left.

Between relax and off the beaten track trails: Sofia parks and street art

Sofia is a "green" capital with numerous parks. In addition to public gardens - the most beautiful according to tourists and citizens is the Borisova Gradina - the park also houses a small lake and monuments of famous Bulgarian people: an ideal solution for a walk in nature.

  • If you are a soccer fan, you will enjoy a tour of the large city stadium, the Vasil Levski, situated near the park

And the Street Art? In the city you can admire fantastic graffiti and murals everywhere, but if you are looking for something really alternative to see in Sofia then you can choose to have a walk in the quarter of Hazdhi Dimitar, small suburb of the capital, or in the Tsar Ivan Shishman Street, one of the most interesting streets of the center dotted with small galleries, bars and shops in pop-art style.

How to organize a visit to Sofia? Guided tours and "do it yourself"

If you want to visit Sofia on a weekend, the best way to see the main attractions in a short time is to book a guided tour of the city. We strongly advice to book a guided tour of Sofia for 3 reasons: the tour guides are nice and friendly, they offer very much needed help with the language and, above all, tour rates are very accessible.

SEE THE BEST SOFIA WITH A GUIDED TOUR

If you have in mind to take a self guided tour of Sofia, you could plan the following itinerary: combine on the same day a visit to the religious buildings in the center and a walk on Vitosha Boulevard, Sofia's main street. You could spend the second day of your itinerary in Sofia at Rila Monastery + Boyana Church, then leave some relaxing activities to the end such as a walk in the parks or a visit to the national museums.

Glamorous apartments and restaurants: nightlife in Sofia

Vitosha Boulevard is the most exciting street in Sofia where to stroll and find bars, clubs and boutique shopping.

Sofia city centerLocated in the heart of the city. it is perfect for a pleasant afternoon walk. A dynamic and vibrant zone popular with young people. Picture yourself sit in one of the many cafes and relax and watch the people strolling around: you'll spend a few stress-free hours as a true citizen of the capital. In the background is the beautiful Mount Vitosha: this mountain on the outskirts of Sofia offers possibilities for hiking, climbing, trekking and mountain biking tours.

In the city you will come across lovely eateries at accessible prices. Where to eat Bulgarian food? Places to taste the typical food are Shtastlivetsa Restaurant, on the Vitosha Bul or Manastirska Magernitza, 10 minutes walk from the National Theatre.


Sofia and surroundings: Plovdiv and a crazy idea: Istanbul

Small and functional, Sofia can be visited on one or two-days trip. If you have more days of vacation, you could add to your itinerary in Bulgaria, a trip in the cities near Sofia or spend a few days to the Bulgarian beaches and explore the Black Sea.

Plovdiv old townPlovdiv is one of the most popular stops for tourists based in Sofia. There are plenty of guided tours departing from the capital. If you rather prefer to take a self-guided tour in the surrounding cities of Sofia, take advantage of public transport - trains and buses depart from the central station. A day trip is enough to visit Plovdiv, the city famous for its Roman ruins and its historic center in Bulgarian renaissance style.

Did you know that, together with Matera, Plovdiv was named 2019 European capital of Culture?

BOOK A TOUR TO VISIT THE ROMAN RUINS AND THE CITY CENTRE OF PLOVDIV

Where to go after Sofia? You have the opportunity to spend a few days in the wonderful Istanbul! The night train Sofia-Istanbul Express stops at Halikali station and takes about 10 hours.

Sofia and the sea: Beaches of Bulgaria and Black Sea resorts

If you travel to Sofia for a summer holiday of more than 3 days, also consider to book a cruise on the coast. Through a boat trip from Sofia you can reach Varna, Burgas and the main Black Sea resorts by car, bus, train or even by plane. Given the distance, we advice to book a stay.

Varna stone desertThe best compromise between trendy venues and beautiful landscapes is Varna: a seaside resort, the Black Sea pearl. Golden beaches, sparkly nightlife and a very nice old town to go around. Also not to be missed is Pobiti Kamani, the stone desert, a natural phenomenon north of the Bulgarian town.

DISCOVER THE BEST TOURS AND THINGS TO DO IN VARNA

How are the beaches in Bulgaria? The sea is not deep and the water appears a bit cloudy because of the sandy seabed. The Burga beaches are well equipped with bars and restaurants. In addition, from the beach, you can reach the saline of Burgas by shuttle bus where you can have mud baths. If you are looking for something touristy, I can't help but recommend the fashionable Sunny Beach and Golden Sands.

Car rental in Sofia: How useful is it?

To get around the center of Sofia you won't need a car at all but if you want to visit the surrounding cities or natural places around the capital or to get to the Bulgarian beaches, it might be useful to rent a car.

By hiring a car you can move around independently and not think of timetables and public transport tickets. A wise choice may be to use an online price comparator - such as Rentalcars: a very useful tool to quickly compare the most advantageous offers among different car rental companies.

Hotel in Sofia: Vitosha Boulevard is the perfect area to stay

As you will have understood, Sofia is a low-cost capital city so you will not find any particular difficulty to book a budget hotel. Since the main attractions are situated in the city centre, the tip is to overnight in a Hotel situated in the Vitosha Boulevard or nearby it. You will be able to reach the point of interest within walking distance.

How to reach the Sofia city center from the airport

The airport of Sofia is close to the center and can be reached by subway. Several companies offer convenient direct flights from many countries, which is good to plan a cheap weekend. By checking flight rates on a website that offer price comparison, you could take advantage of the available travel promotions.


After a visit to Sofia, you may want to head to another European capital perfect for a weekend getaway. Have you ever been in the marvellous Vienna?

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