At the foot of Mount Vitosha, with Roman ruins on display at the metro, a yellow brick road in the capital of city Sofia, Bulgaria, is much more than a city with a huge church (Google it, you’ll see what we mean).
We spent a week exploring Sofia and discovered many spectacular places to visit around the city. But the real reason you should make the trip is Sofia’s close relationship with nature. Parks are actually forests, pristine turquoise lakes, and mountain hikes. If this sounds like the perfect vacation for you, read on as we’ve compiled all of our favorite and unusual things to do in Sofia. Hold out for the last one; it’s our favorite!
St. Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral
Okay, let’s start with the huge church.
The Nevsky Cathedral is Sofia’s most recognizable landmark and one of the largest Eastern Orthodox Churches. The best time to visit and capture all impressive angles is early morning to avoid the parked cars obstructing your view. And to get those top-notch instagramable photos.
To capture the Nevsky Cathedral adorned in its night lights from the rooftop bar of the Sense Hotel accompanied by Bulgarian wines.
Yellow Brick Road
You’ll find Sofia’s yellow brick road in front of the Nevsky Cathedral. The origins are debatable, but the road connects famous landmarks, so you can literally “follow the yellow brick road” to Sofia’s hotspots.
Serdica Metro Station
If you cannot make it to Plovdiv during your trip to Bulgaria to see the Roman ruins that would give Italy a run for its money, don’t be disheartened. While Sofia is no Plovdiv, you can still get your fair share in the most unexpected place.
The Serdica ruins were discovered during the metro build in the center of Sofia, hence the name of the station where you’ll find them. And in true Bulgarian fashion, they are fully exposed and accessible to the public.
Lion’s Bridge in Sofia, Bulgaria
This bridge, over the Vladaya River, is adorned by four majestic lions.
Any guesses if John restrained from joking about putting them on our logo’s bridge this time? #ifyouknowyouknow
The lion symbolizes Bulgaria, embodying power, bravery, and freedom. The lion is represented on Bulgaria’s coat of arms, and the currency “lev” also means lion.
Also known as Vitoshka, it is one of the main pedestrian streets in Sofia, Bulgaria. This is where you come for good food, to take breaks between sightseeing, and people watching. The outdoor seating floods into the boulevard, which you should take advantage of – the Vitosha Mountain backdrop is jaw-dropping.
Shtastliveca in Sofia, Bulgaria
Here you can visit Shtastliveca, a local favorite with an extensive menu of traditional dishes. No, you do not have déjà vu; it’s the same restaurant as in Veliko Tarnovo (link). It originated in Veliko Tarnovo and spread all over the country. See below…
Hambara is one of the best bars in Sofia. But not only is it sought-after for unique mixology, but it is also a quest to find, which makes it even more appealing.
There is no sign on the door, no clear indication if you’ve made it to the right place. Except for one thing – candles. Lots of them. Old wax cakes the walls, tables, and even stairs. It can seem a bit hazardous but makes you feel like stepping into a Secret Supper Club of Sofia’s Creatives. So if you find it, stay for a drink before heading to dinner.
Cosmos restaurant came highly recommended by Sofia’s locals. It’s a peculiar combination of traditional cuisine with a modern twist and a Michelin star presentation in a futuristic setting. We thoroughly enjoyed our experience, but it helps to have already tried all the traditional dishes in their original form elsewhere. Overall, it was one of our favorite dining experiences in the Balkans!
The Bells Monument
The Bells Monument is located outside the city, at the base of Vitosha Mountain. The communist-era monument, dedicated to children and world peace, comprises bells brought from countries all over the world. Every bell has an inscription. If you spot your language in the pictures, we would love to know what the inscription says.
Unbelievable that with just a 30-minute ride out of the city, you can be one with nature. Vitosha’s summit reaches 2,290 meters and is a popular ski and snowboarding destination during the winter. But we visited in August and loved hiking it. You can take the chair lift to the base of Cherni Vrah, then hike to the peak and have lunch at the tea house there. The experience makes for a great day trip out of Sofia.
Belogradchik is a town 3 hours away from Sofia famous for its peculiar rock formations surrounded by a fortress. You can spend the day hiking the various trails in the area, enjoying the views of the outlandish rocks, and exploring local caves with prehistoric paintings.
Rila Monastery, located two hours from Sofia, was founded in the 10th century and is the biggest monastery in Bulgaria. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site and popular tourist destination, as well as a finish point for pilgrims trekking through the Rila Mountains.
If you wish to spend the night at the monastery, it offers dormitories and private rooms for tourists. You can book by calling the monastery or taking your chances as a walk-in guest.
Rila National Park
At last, the place we enjoyed the most during our stay in Sofia! Well, technically, Rila National Park is located a couple of hours away from Sofia. The National Park is home to the famous Seven Rila Lakes trail, which can be equally enjoyed by seasoned hikers and nature lovers with less experience.
The best time to do the hike is between June to September. It stretches over 10km, with the highest lake sitting at 2925m and the highest point in Bulgaria. At the top, you can see six lakes at once, which is a stunning sight. The whole trip may take up to 6 hours, so aim to start early or opt for spending the night in one of the charming chalets in the area.
The lakes were named according to their particular shapes or location. Here are the names in order of their appearance: The Lower Lake, The Fish Lake, The Trefoil Lake, The Twin Lake, The Kidney Lake, The Eye Lake, and The Tear Lake.
Pro tip: while there is little information on the internet, if you visit the lakes in mid-August (19-21/08), you might encounter a big festival. Hundreds of people near Kidney Lake gather at sunrise dressed in white. Then, they dance in huge circles to commemorate their spiritual teacher and Bulgarian philosopher Peter Deunov.
This is why we love exploring destinations like Bulgaria that often don’t make it to your scroll feed. You arrive with little expectation, other than to see a spectacular Cathedral, just to be surprised at every corner.