Having spent most of August roaming the Cyclades, the Balearics, the Aeolians and the Lofoten Islands, now we’ll be reviving our city guides with a fleeting visit to Sofia. Relatively off the tourist radar, the Bulgarian capital is a modern, dynamic and yet laid-back city packed with surprising sights. So put your summer outfit back in your bag (and perhaps a pair of skis) and let’s head east.
Our trip to Sofia naturally starts in the city’s old centre. Almost all of the city’s most notable historic buildings are located relatively near each other, including the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the Banya Bashi Mosque, the monument the Tsar LIberator, the central baths and the National Gallery. Wander around them as you please; you’ll be astonished by both the beauty of the buildings and the way they’re laid out. This is a relatively modern capital (dating back to the end of the nineteenth century), and it’s very easy to see the impact of the most important historic periods since then.
Paradoxically, the Sofia youth has splashed a lot of this old-school architecture with street art, and created its own visual language in the process. The Bulgarian capital holds all sorts of wonderful works of art: portraits and signatures scrawled all over alleyways, frescoes covering vast apartment blocks. The street artists of Sofia have also got into the habit of painting over certain monuments, the most famous of which is dedicated to the glory of the Soviet army. Sometimes covered in pink paint or the colours of Ukraine, or dressed up as superheroes, the sculptures of soldiers have been turned into colourful, subversive and imaginative works of art. Several street art tours will show you the best stuff the city has to offer.
Having soaked up all that art, we’d recommend grabbing breakfast at Pop Lipite, which translates as ‘Under the lime trees’, to discover the finest Bulgarian food. This local institution has been serving up traditional dishes for nearly a century. Better still, almost all the products (meat, charcuterie, veg and dairy) come straight from the restaurant’s farm. Note also that despite this emphasis on tradition, there are still loads of very decent vegetarian dishes.
Now it’s time to discover one of the city’s hidden treasures: the flea market by the cathedral. This place brims with history, its stalls overflowing with everything from old military medals and uniforms and household objects that go back to Soviet times. And since you’re in the area, you should definitely check out Art Gallery Natalie. The best places to see contemporary art in the city is home to works from the hottest new talent in Bulgarian painting and sculpture. Loads of cool events take place here too.
You couldn’t visit Sofia without making the most of all the lush nature that surrounds the city, which is located in the shadow of the Vitocha massif. Here you can go on spectacular hikes in any season, including one that leads to the Boyana waterfall. In winter, the area transforms into a marvellous seven-run ski resort from which you can see the city below. There are few more spectacular places to go skiing.
As always, we’ll be finishing off our trip with a meal. And our table of choice is Secret by Chef Petrov. The titular chef prepares everything before your eyes, leading visitors on a veritable gastronomic tour through time and space. As well as delighting punters with the best stories from his travels, your host also prepares his food using fascinating and long-forgotten techniques. An unforgettable experience, especially when teamed with such a formidable selection of wines.