Monday Escape: Sofia, Bulgaria

Sofia Square

If you were expecting a dysfunctional post-Soviet city when visiting Sofia, Bulgaria for the first time, you are in for a pleasant surprise. Except for a few government buildings erected in the Stalinist style, you’d barely be able to guess that Sofia ever shared that past. And considering that it’s a city of 1.5 million people, you’ll also be pleased that the whole place has a mellow, unhurried feeling of a much smaller town.

Historians say that the city dates back around 6,000 years, and there are some Roman ruins visible in some underground metro stations, but otherwise Sofia feels quite modern. The fact that it’s quite out of the way for most people keeps it off most itineraries, though hopefully cheap flights will bring in more visitors from within Europe able to sample its charms.

The vibe in Sofia

Nevsky Cathedral SofiaAnother reason Sofia isn’t too well known is that it lacks any significant “checklist” tourist attractions. The Alexander Nevsky orthodox cathedral is the city’s biggest draw, and it really is lovely in person, but it’s not the sort of thing that has people buying plane tickets by itself.

For the reason above, Sofia is wonderfully non-touristy, yet it’s plenty international at the same time. Most people you’ll encounter speak enough English to communicate with you, if not a lot more, and all important or interesting signs are also in English alongside the Cyrillic Bulgarian text that can be a struggle for newcomers.

The city center is fairly compact, and it can be walked across in 30 minutes or less. On a stroll like that you’ll come across several large public parks, regardless of which direction you are going in, so the city feels very green and spread out.

While it lacks a permanent pedestrianized area, a long stretch of the main street in the center is off limits to cars in the evenings, so it’s taken over by outdoor cafes and bars. You can expect very cheap beer and house wine even at the fancier places, with the food being quite cheap as well. A few places specialize in Bulgarian cuisine, but just as many do pizza or grill or other European specialties.

There are several shopping malls in the city center as well, and plenty of trendy stores in the historic city center, but still Sofia doesn’t feel like a city dedicated to shoppers. Strangely, the city has small casinos every few blocks, but not the glamorous kind that are likely to attract tourists.

Sofia is an ideal place to just hang out for a few days, especially during summer when the weather is nice and most locals spend their evenings in outdoor lounges and cafes.

The cost of things in Sofia

This probably deserves to be in the intro, but a huge draw to Sofia is the fact that it’s literally the cheapest major city in Europe, so you might not expect it to be so pleasant. Hotels start at around US$20 per night, and for US$50 per night you can get a nice 3-star place even in the high season.

While it may not be too healthy, you can get a big slice of pizza from one of the many little pizza shops for under US$1, or a cheesy hot dog or a sandwich for the same price. Even a nice meal, like a salad and a main dish, can easily be found for well under US$10, including at some places that look a bit posh.

Perhaps better still, you can get a half liter of beer for around US$1.50 to US$2, even at nice restaurants. House wine can be found for similar prices, and all other cocktails and bottled wines are also great bargains by European standards.

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