Neither Joe nor I knew quite what to expect when we got to Bulgaria. We’d done some research on Sofia, our home for about two weeks, but much of the country, its language, culture, and sights remained unfamiliar to us. We quickly learned that Sofia still resembles a Soviet bloc city, that about 1/3 – 1/2 of the letters in the Bulgarian alphabet are the same as Greek, and that there are more churches here than Starbucks.
As we began to explore the city and take in the sights, we stumbled across many churches. Some were tucked in small squares and on hidden side streets, while others conspicuously carved out a great deal of space. Most welcomed visitors with open doors, but many restricted photography (or charged for the privilege).
The majority of Bulgarians are Eastern Orthodox Christians, but the second largest religious group is Muslim. Numerous religions coexist in Sofia and throughout the country, with churches, synagogues and mosques standing peacefully side by side. I’ll share a bit about some of the more interesting churches we’ve visited so you can get an idea of the variety and beauty they represent.
Church of St. George
Built by the Romans in the 4th century, this structure is considered the oldest still standing in Sofia. You just can’t escape the Romans no matter where you travel in Europe – especially in Sofia. The emperors Constantine the Great and Galerius spent quite a lot of time here and left their mark all over the city.
This church preserves beautiful frescoes dating from the 10th-14th centuries inside its small rotunda. These wall paintings were covered up when the church became a mosque during the Ottoman period (14th-19th centuries in Bulgaria) and were only re-discovered in the 20th century. Other Roman remains can be seen around the church, framed by some very large and impressive buildings, such as the Bulgarian Ministry of Art and Science and the Sheraton Hotel.
Church of St. Nikolas the Miracle-Maker (or, The Russian Church)
This charming little church is nestled on the edge of a tiny, quiet park just down the street from its much larger, and much more famous neighbor, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (more on that below). It was built between 1907-1914 for the Russian embassy and Russian community of Sofia. Named for the emperor at the time, Nikolas II (the last to rule Russia), it was designed after Russian Muscovite churches of the 17th century.
Many people still visit the church today to leave messages for the saint, asking that their wishes be granted.
Church of St. Nikolai Sofiyski
This large, Bulgarian Orthodox church sits on the corner of an expansive park on the outskirts of the city center. We pass it every time we visit the outdoor gym to workout. It was built in 1900, and Nicolas II of Russia and Prince Ferdinand were invited to its first service. The outside is decorated with lovely tiled friezes, and frescoes adorn the interior (but it’s not usually open when we walk by, so we’ve never been inside).
The architecture seems to be quite representative of Eastern Orthodox churches in Sofia: a combination of brick and stone-patterned outer walls, multiple, metal-topped domes, and tile and fresco decoration.
Church of Sveti Sedmochislenitsi
We stumbled upon this imposing church while walking to visit another one – surprise, surprise! A lovely park stretches out in front, and a fruit and veggie market lines the street next to it. The inside was covered with extremely colorful and detailed murals, and its multiple domes stretched through the trees towards the sky.
The church stands on the site of a former, quite famous mosque – called “The Black Mosque” because of its black tiled roof – designed by Sulieman II’s renowned architect Sinan in the 16th century. It was then used as a school for Turkish priests and eventually destroyed in 1878 with the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Converted to a church between 1901-1903 – after serving as a prison for a few decades – the structure exemplifies the style of “Bulgarian National Romanticism.” It was super trendy around that time.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
And now, for the grand dame of all the churches in Sofia. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more impressive cathedral outside of Notre Dame de Paris. But this soaring behemoth is quite different than any cathedral or church I’ve seen. Its multiple domes climb up one on top of the other in seemingly endless layers. The top-most domes shine in splendid gold, while the rest are clad in oxidized greenish metal.
Inside the church, multi-colored paving stones spread out in dizzying patterns and huge chandeliers barely light the dim interior. Slightly smoky frescoes and murals cover almost every surface of the walls and domed ceilings, and carved Italian marble abounds. As with all these churches, many locals visit to light candles and say their prayers. Priests carefully monitor the candelabra – as well as the visitors – making sure that anyone taking photos has a permit. It was worth the $5 to be able to capture the awe-inspiring interior.
Like so many great buildings of the past, this cathedral took decades to build: it was started in 1882 and finished in 1912. It was built to commemorate the Russian soldiers who died during the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878 – resulting in the liberation of Bulgaria from Ottoman rule. Named after Alexander Nevsky, a Russian prince-turned-saint, the cathedral’s name was briefly changed during WWI as Bulgaria and Russia were on different sides. Today, it’s one of the largest orthodox cathedrals in the world, and the 2nd largest in the Balkan region.