“With just 48 hours this itinerary gives you a flavour of all the main sights of Sofia, an understanding of the complex history of the country, a taste of its communist past & an opportunity to get out of the city to discover the beautiful area of Rila.”
Sofia, Rila Lakes & Monastery in Bulgaria
This summer, I decided to explore a few of the largely unvisited gems of Europe, namely Bulgaria, Macedonia & Albania. My first whistle-stop tour was to Sofia, Bulgaria. Although I was only there for a few days, here I have put together my recommendations if you have a limited in this gorgeous city.
With just 48 hours this itinerary gives you a flavour of all the main sights of Sofia, an understanding of the complex history of the country, a taste of its communist past & an opportunity to get out of the city to discover the beautiful area of Rila.
What do you need to know?
Here I have listed some important points to know before you visit Bulgaria.
The currency used is the Bulgarian Lev (BGN) although some tours & more expensive items are quoted in Euro (€). For the most part, Bulgaria is a very cheap country to travel. Most bars & restaurants take cash & credit cards & there are numerous ATMs across the city & at the airport.
The language spoken is, of course, Bulgarian, but most people involved in tourism speak excellent English.
My recommended transport for your time in Sofia is the Metro. It is cheap, clean, easy to navigate & efficient. Each journey costs 1.6BGN. You can purchase tickets from the machines or kiosk at the entrance.
You can download the “Yellow Taxis” App to order a cab in Sofia. The app works in the same way as Uber in terms of booking & tracking but once it arrives you pay cash at the end of your journey. Make sure they use the meter, so you are not overcharged & ask before you move how much it is likely to be, just in case.
In addition, there is tram system but I didn’t get experience with using these as the Metro was so convenient. Buses are generally better for longer distance journeys.
What is the perfect itinerary for 48 hours in Sofia?
10am – Walking Tour with Free Sofia Tours.
Meet at the Palace of Justice (near Serdica Metro) for 10am to join the free walking tour of the city. The guides speak excellent English & have a wicked sense of humour, as well as a wealth of knowledge on their citys history. No pre-booking is required & the tour takes 2 hours. Tip whatever you feel is appropriate at the end, but I would suggest at least 5-10BGN per person. These guys work hard!
The tour also takes place at 11am, 2pm & 6pm. I visited in August when it was blue skies & 30 degrees each day. By starting early we missed the harsh heat of the day. There were about 15 – 20 people on our tour but this was after the group was split at the start & each group allocated a separate guide.
What can you see?
There were numerous stops throughout the tour but these were my favourites:
1. Roman remains
Across the city are the remains of the old Roman walled town. Sofia has a history built into the layers of its foundations. The lowest of these layers are Roman. As a result, many of these sights are incorporated into the Metro & subway systems…more or less sympathetically depending on where you are!
2. Tolerance Square
Not far from Serdica station you will find the Mosque. The square it is located in is fascinating. Through history, tolerance & understanding of religion isn’t a strength of most regimes. However, just steps away from each other & built at different points throughout the history of the city you can see a mosque, a synagogue, a catholic cathedral & an orthodox church. Throw into this the old Communist rule & it’s even more surprising that all these iconic sights still stand so close together. Hence the name, Tolerance Square.
3. Museum of Sofia, formerly Central Public Baths
The mountains around Sofia were created by the movement of the tectonic plates, thus indicating volcanic activity. Under the city, they actually have a host of natural, hot mineral springs which used to be the source for many public baths across the city. Unfortunately, these & all other public baths in Sofia have now been closed. As a result, this is now the location of the Museum of Sofia.
Just near the baths, you can sample the water coming from a host of water fountains. This can mess with your head as the water coming from the taps is hot! In addition, you can refill your water bottle with cold fresh drinking water wherever you see the fountains across the city.
4. The Presidency
Parliament in Sofia is comprised of 2 twin buildings. They mirror each other on either side of the road, separated by the former Communist Party Headquarters. In one sits the Council of Ministers (Parliament), while the other forms the home of the President. Outside you can view 2 guards in their finery (white coats with very big feathers in their caps) who change duty with a small ceremony every hour.
“In addition, you can gain access to the courtyard which again contains the impressive St George Rotunda, more roman ruins, a hotel & a casino…not usual for a president’s home!”
5. National Theatre Ivan Vazov
6. National Art Gallery, Formerly the Royal Palace
The impressive yellow building on Battenberg Square was built back in Ottoman times & designated as the Tsars Palace. Apparently, the park outside was once a walled garden solely for the use of the Tsar & his family. It is now the National Art Gallery.
7. The Yellow Brick Road
Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard is the main road through Sofia. It passes the palace & many of the sights along this route is actually made of yellow bricks. In the early 1900s, the mayor at the time had a desire to build a road which was impressive & different. The bricks are made of ground yellow stone & were imported from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They moulded the powdered stone to make each individual brick. Bulgaria went into massive debt to pay for it (35 million BGN) but the government of the time told the people it was a wedding present!
When I visited it was a beautiful sunny hot day but apparently the bricks can become lethally slippery in rain or snow, therefore please tread carefully!
8. Hagia Sophia
This site has been a burial ground since the 3rd Century & the current temple (although reconstructed) has been here since the 6th Century. The Basilica of St Sophia gave the city its name & is now an Orthodox temple.
9. St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
This is THE cathedral in the centre of Sofia & a must-do for any visit. The structure is stunning from the outside with gold & green domes shining under the sun. Inside is an impressive display of paintings, sculptures & giant golden chandeliers. Dress conservatively, keep quiet & no photos are allowed inside.
Free Sofia Tours also offer a number of other tours across the city. Some need to be prebooked & paid for, others are free. Check out their website for more details if you have longer to explore.
Following the tour head over to Vitosha Boulevard in Serdica where you have an opportunity for a quick bite to eat & drink before your next activity.
1.30pm – The Red Flat
This interactive museum is located in a reconstructed 2nd floor flat. You will be provided with an audio guide which takes you through the experience. Basically, you follow the story of the family who lived here.
In finding out more about the family’s everyday lives, you get a feel for life back in the days of communist rule. In addition, it is a great nostalgic journey for anyone who fondly remembers the 1980’s.
“On arrival, you are offered an option to change your footwear into slippers & encouraged to interact, examine & play with the exhibits as you learn about their function in the family’s day to day activities.”
In conclusion, it is an excellently curated & observed museum & a fun way to better understand the history of the Bulgarian people.
3.30pm – Museum of Socialist Art
If you are still interested in taking in some more of Bulgaria’s socialist history then this is a great place to end your first day. The museum contains a TV presentation of the propaganda used at the time, along with a gallery of art & posters. The highlight however for me was the Sculpture Park. A red star marks the entrance which used to sit on the top of the Communist Party Headquarters in Sofia.
“You can find numerous statues of key figures from the country’s history with several of Lenin (one used to sit on the column in the centre of the city) & Che Guevara. It’s both beautiful & haunting rolled into one.”
The museum is open every day except Monday from 10 to 17.30. Entrance fee is 6BGN. Nearest Metro is GM Dimitrov.
For food & drink suggestions for the evening please see my section below. Also, pick up some food & make sure you are well stocked for water & a little cash as tomorrow you have an early start!
Please make sure you have booked this in advance to ensure your place. The tour takes you out of the city to explore the stunning Bulgarian countryside. It costs from €159 for 1 person but they reduce the price as your group size increases. It starts at 6.55am at St Alexander Nevski Cathedral. You will return at 6.30pm.
The day began with a 1 1/2-hour drive to the start of our morning discovering the 7 Rila Lakes. From here we had a fun 20 minutes on a chair lift (an additional 20BGN per person, in cash).
The walk itself is 4 hours & described as moderate. In other words, you start with a climb for 20 minutes, then a flat section. You finish off with a much more challenging climb, 30 punishing minutes up to the peak. As you move through the walk the lakes appear as you ascend. The elevation along the way is around 500m from 2100m above sea level at the lodge to 2600m at the peak. As a result, ensure you have plenty of water (although there is a handy spring partway along the 2nd climb for a refill). Don’t forget to use sunscreen, especially in summer as it was incredibly hot. Extra layers of clothing & wet weather gear are also advised, just in case. It is well worth the effort as the view from the top is spectacular!
The Seven Lakes
The Rila Lakes are numbered from top to bottom & named after the shapes they most closely represent. Among them, you have the most famous Babreka (the Kidney), Okoto (the Eye), and Salzata (the Teardrop).
If you decide not to take the tour & to go it alone, please bear in mind that the route can be very busy. We started hiking before 9.00am which was perfect due to the comparative lack of people & the heat of the sun. To go much later would be very hard going & coming down was even more challenging due to the number of hikers heading up.
After 20 minutes enjoying the incredible views & taking plenty of photos we headed back down the same way, via the chairlift. To conclude the day we got back in the bus, we had another 11/2-hour drive to Rila Monastery.
This is well worth seeing on a trip to Sofia but we were very glad that we combined it with a hike to get the most out of the day & the best of both worlds. The Monastery is in the mountains & its setting is incredible.
A monastery has stood on this spot since 10th Century AD. However, due to numerous fires & theft, the building has been reconstructed numerous times throughout history. As a result, the current structure has been in place since 1870. It is still a functioning monastery despite its appeal to the tourist market. In the past 200 monks called Rila home, but now it is more like 30.
“It is important to make sure you cover up in a respectful manner when entering the complex. For women, this means no exposed shoulders or knees.”
The church itself is vividly painted under the arches, depicting most of the stories from the bible. Inside, this painting continues along with gold-covered structures & a spectacular display of chandeliers. They do not allow photography inside.
You can climb the Bell Tower for an extra 5BGN if you want to see the views from the top of the monastery.
Overall, we stayed in the complex for an hour which was perfect timing for us, before heading back to Sofia in the bus for another 1 1/2 hour journey.
This is an amazing day & a fantastic way to see a different side of beautiful Bulgaria. No doubt, like me, you will be exhausted & need a well-earned drink & some food.
Where I stayed, ate & drank:
I suggest staying in the central Serdica part of the city which will allow you to be within easy walking distance of all the main sights, the Metro & meeting points for any tours. In addition, there is a wealth of choice for bars & restaurants to choose from.
R34 Boutique Hotel
This is centrally located, close to all the key sights for this itinerary in Serdica. Don’t expect any frills but it is a very practical & stylish choice.
Mekitsa & Coffee
A perfect breakfast stop where you have to sample the traditional Bulgarian Mekitsa (deep-fried pastry) with your choice of toppings. We kept it traditional with blueberry jam & Bulgarian yellow cheese. A delicious way to start your day!
A very busy & very traditional restaurant which is a MUST to visit during your time in Sofia. Definitely make sure you book as this place is understandably popular.
Delicious pasta, pizza & salad dishes along with a bakery
The Little Things
Excellent food in a small but popular restaurant. Book ahead to avoid disappointment!
Another lovely restaurant & I recommend the risotto!
Great spot for a bit of refreshment, close to the main sights & overlooking a park for avid people watchers.
The Cocktail Bar
Busy place & for good reason. This small bar is located in a square & is a great place to sit watch the world go by.
In conclusion, after my short visit to Sofia, I loved Bulgaria & put this itinerary together to help you get the most out of your time here too. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did & please leave any further recommendations in the comments below.
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To see more of my photos from Bulgaria please visit my Gallery page!