Our time in Sofia flew by, as I expected it would. After all, we were only there for 16 days. For “normal” travelers, that might seem like an eternity – but for us, it was just enough time to explore a bit of the city and discover a number of strange and funny features that make Sofia unique. Here are some of our favorites – and some of the things that made us laugh, ponder, or shake our heads.
Highlights and Standouts
Food and drink
Cava: the best meal we had in Sofia. Period. Excellent and attentive service, soulful, light, and flavorful food, and comfy and stylish interior. Four dishes + dessert, three glasses of wine, water, and amazing experience – all for under $30. Can’t be beat.
Craft Bistro: our other favorite meal. Tucked into a remodeled old house, this adorable and cozy bistro serves incredible salads, flavorful and tender main dishes, and delicious wine. Also extremely affordable (sensing a theme, here?).
Daro: our favorite spot for breakfast. The owner is the chef, and the guy who takes your order is friendly and helpful. Super fresh and delicious food that feels home-cooked, and is unbelievably cheap. An omelette stuffed full of veggies and cheeses, a huge plate of brioche french toast drizzled with berry syrup, fresh squeezed lemonade, and water set us back all of $7. The best.
Kanaal Craft Beer Bar: our experience at this lovely, chic little bar is still making me smile. Their beer selection is wonderful and the atmosphere is perfect – but the people truly made it memorable. The owner was very helpful and shared stories about several of the breweries as we ordered our first round. And the bartender, Ivan, was an absolute sweetheart. We bonded over sour beers and American football and could’ve stayed chatting with him all evening. This place is not to be missed.
The Friendly Bear: another restaurant/bar in a cute little house, this hidden gem offers lovely cocktails, a decent wine selection, and a quirkily romantic environment for a post-dinner drink. We felt comfortable and right at home sitting at the bar and didn’t want to leave.
Checkpoint Charly: yes, it sounds strange and corny. We just left Berlin! But their large and varied menu, creative and high-quality food, excellent wine list, and funny servers made our experience unexpectedly enjoyable.
Ale House: this underground brewpub was right across the street from our apartment. Buried deep beneath the streets above, here you can pour your own local lager from a tap at your table. They offer a nice variety of Bulgarian dishes, and the food was tasty.
1001 Beers: if you want an incredible variety of craft beer from around the world, this is your place. The shop is located just to the side of the National Palace of Culture Park, and many locals grab a beer or two and sit outside drinking and people watching (although there’s no official seating – it’s basically an overblown beer convenience store). Definitely an experience worth having.
Bulgarian wine: simply put, it’s delicious! We tried a number of local varietals (like Mavrud and Rubin), mostly from the Thracian valley, and were quite impressed. Add it to the list of incredible wines from this area of the world that don’t usually make it to America.
Sights to see
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral: it’s massive, it’s beautiful, and it’s definitely worth seeing. Buy the photo pass – you’ll want pictures. We’d never seen anything like it.
Temple Sveta Sofia: most people visit this large, brick church for the crypt underneath. Many tombs and a lot of architecture are well preserved and definitely worth seeing.
National Historical Museum: it’s quite a bit outside the center of the city, but the #2 trolley bus takes you almost right to it. Housed in a former palace, this museum boasts numerous beautiful and historically significant artifacts (as well as some lovely gardens outside). Definitely worth the hike.
The Russian Church: it looks like a frosted cake and is set in a lovely, tiny little park. Good for a quick stroll-by.
Sveti Sedmochislenitsi: the wall paintings inside this church are incredible – every surface is covered with brightly painted saints and other figures. It has an interesting history as well (converted into the “Black Mosque” – so named because of its black tile roof, served as a school, etc).
St. George Church: the oldest building in Sofia is now surrounded by large, modern structures. But it has carved out its place and isn’t going anywhere. The setting and context are almost more interesting than the interior, but some 10th century wall paintings are worth seeing inside.
City Garden and Knyazheska Garden: Sofia is all about the parks, and these are just a couple of our favorites. Stroll, sit, take a picnic, people watch. The trees and flowers, interesting sculptures, and meandering paths never get boring.
Things we wanted to see (but ran out of time)
Quirky, Funny, and Strange Things
Tiny window shops: instead of going into a convenience store, you simply go to a tiny window – either at eye or pavement level – and ask for what you need. Most items are displayed in the windows.
Extreme specialty stores: there are stores that only sell nuts, and others that only offer yarn. Some only sell milk and yogurt, and others only purvey honey. The level of specialization in these tiny shops is impressive.
Pizza toppings: pizza is extremely popular in Sofia. At any given moment, you’ll see several people walking along eating a slice. But they top their slices with some unusual condiments, like ketchup, mustard, and, most popularly – mayonnaise. And pickles often hide under the cheese! Joe was not impressed. I was – I got all his pickles!
Ubiquitous book stalls: people must read a lot of used books in Sofia. Book sellers set up their rickety stalls in every little park and along many sidewalks.
Patchwork (dangerous) sidewalks: the quality of the sidewalks here leaves a little to be desired. But not only are there large holes in the paving and multiple access doors sticking up out of the cobblestones, but on small side streets each shop front seems to be responsible for paving their own patch of sidewalk. So any given block will piece together several to many different paving methods along its length. You don’t find many people texting and walking here.
Google maps’ deficiencies: the subway, tram, and trolley bus routes do not show up as a transportation option on Google or Apple maps. The stops are there, but you can’t search for a way using those vehicles, as nothing will come up.
Polite drivers: if you’re in a crosswalk, just step out into the street. They’ll come screeching to a halt for you, even as they barrel down the road. Being a pedestrian never felt so good.