Is Sofia worth visiting? I’ve actually seen this exact question from people on social media and there are usually a lot of “meh” kinds of answers from past visitors. I just landed in Bulgaria’s capital city for the third time though, sticking around for more than a day this time, and I’d respond a lot more positively now than I would have a decade ago.
Sofia has never inspired the kind of loathing you hear about other cities that are downright unpleasant, the most polluted cities or the ones that are just one giant hassle. But it hasn’t inspired a lot of love either. I’d estimate that half the expats and nomads spending months or more in Bulgaria by choice are living outside of the capital.
When I compare how the city rates now though opposed to how it rated when I first visited a decade ago, it should definitely get entry into the “most improved” club. The food and cafe culture options are better. The streets are cleaner and although there’s graffiti, it’s not as bad as in many other European capitals. The public transportation system is one of the best I’ve seen anywhere on the planet. There are stores you’d actually want to shop in now.
Plus this is an easy city to navigate on foot and by public transit. You only need to get into the far-flung sprawl if you’re headed to a residential area to visit someone.
There’s Plenty to Explore and Visit in Sofia
I tend to be the kind of traveler that just wanders around a lot and soaks in a city, intentionally getting lost now and then and seeing what’s around the next bend. Sofia is a good city for that because it’s a very walkable one. The area where most of the attractions are is relatively compact and then there are interesting neighborhoods branching out from there.
It’s hard to walk more than a few blocks without hitting a park, so there’s always some pleasant green space around for watching the locals in their element and taking a load off on a bench. There’s usually at least one cafe in the park itself too if you want to grab a coffee or a beer.
Whenever there’s a metro station, there’s always a passageway that gets you from one side of a busy boulevard to another. That makes your walking time from A to B much shorter than it would be in many other cities because you go under the big streets instead of across them. Inside those passageways are grandmas selling yummy baked goods and a convenience store or two selling snacks and drinks.
I did a couple of organized activities on this trip though, both of which I’d highly recommend. On my own I did a Bulgarian wine tasting at a local wine shop, led by a very knowledgeable owner who spoke fluent English.
I learned a lot about the regions and what to look for and we sampled some really interesting wines while eating some artisanal cheese, bread, and olives. Book it here at Viator or check Airbnb Experiences, which is where I signed up.
I also toured the Red Flat, a communist-era apartment that was left as it appeared in those times, complete with the family’s goods and memorabilia. You don a set of headphones and listen to audio explanations in your chosen language while wandering around the flat. You can leaf through the old record albums, look at the family’s postcards, and sit on their sofas or beds. It’s an enlightening experience.
That’s also available to book online through their website or you can just show up and take your chances like we did. The same company runs a communist walking tour of Sofia, which I’ll probably go on next time I’m in town with my wife along. I’ll do a full post about communist-era Sofia later this year because I also had dinner at a rakia bar and restaurant place filled with memorabilia from that time, with a menu that’s very retro too.
Overall, tours in Sofia are quite reasonable. Admission to the Red Flat was 9 euros and a four-hour private city tour starts at 29 euros.
Great Public Transportation in Sofia
When I first came to Sofia a decade ago, I was taking pictures of the tram cars because they seemed so stuck in time. Some of the cars looked like they had been in use for 50 years. This time I was amazed at how modern and convenient the public transportation in Sofia was, with gleaming new cars and a convenient payment system.
I was in the city twice and the first time I rented an Airbnb apartment that usually required a subway ride to get to where I was going. I always had a pocket full of change, so I was just buying individual tickets at the machine to use up some coins. Each trip was less than a buck. You can just tap your debit/credit card at the subway gate though and pay that way. Or a transit pass card for a whole month comes out to around $30 if you live there.
The metro is just the start though. I also rode a few trams and a few buses on routes that the underground didn’t serve and they all use the same system: just tap your credit or debit card when you get on and the fare is deducted automatically. If someone comes around checking tickets, as happened once on a trip of mine, then they can tell from their card reader whether you paid or not. It’s slick!
The fares were between 1.6 and 2 lev, with a U.S. dollar being around 1.81 during my visit. Supposedly if you exceed 4 lev in a day they stop charging you, though I never rode enough to test that.
As I said, the tram cars are mostly new now and the whole system is admirably modern. An electronic sign on the street tells you how long you’ll have to wait for the next tram/bus/metro and which number of it is coming next. Signs inside tell you which station you’re at and what’s coming next.
Prices Are Reasonable in Bulgaria’s Capital
I can’t think of anything I paid for in Sofia that seemed overpriced. I was leading a group of travelers on a ski trip that started out in Sofia. On our first night we went out to a traditional Bulgarian restaurant near our hotel and had so much food that we couldn’t finish it all. The bill averaged out to $18 each. I picked up the cost of the drinks and with free-flowing wine, sodas, and beer going all night, that was $90 for 18 of us.
Another night one of the group members graciously picked up the tab when we went to one of the most highly-rated restaurants in town and this time with drinks included, the whole bill came to less than $300 with tip. For 17 people that time.
I only had to take a taxi twice and for a ride of 10-15 minutes, both times it was around $4. The airport is a different story, as usual, so try to set up something pre-paid or catch the metro to somewhere in the center before hailing a taxi and then they should be using a meter.
The Airbnb place I rented was around $35 per night for a nice studio with a washing machine and good WiFi. The two hotels my group used were between $38 and $65 per night depending on the room size. You can find hostel beds for less than $10.
To stay in Sofia, check cheap hotel prices here.
Drinks are a deal in Bulgaria, whether it’s good $2 coffees, 500 ml beers for a dollar in the store, or 500 ml carafes of house wine for a few bucks. You can find a loaded slice of pizza for $1.50, a good sandwich for $2, and lots of fruit and vegetable options for a buck or two per kilo. As in Turkey, there are lots of nut shops all over the place selling nuts and dried fruit. You can get 200 grams of what you want for a few lev coins in your pocket. See more here on travel prices in Bulgaria.
Is Sofia worth visiting for you? Well, pull up images in a search and you’ll find that there are plenty of interesting places to see while walking around the city. You’ll just be going down a random street and find something like that church pictured above. It’s still clearly a city in transition, with more than a few crumbling or abandoned buildings, but there’s a much more positive vibe of development than I’ve seen in the past.
I’ll be back again this summer after attending the Basko Nomad Fest a few hours away. There’s still plenty I haven’t experienced. Unlike Prague, Budapest, and Amsterdam, Sofia won’t be a crazy crowded summer destination.
For other things to do, including day trips from Sofia, Bulgaria, check the options here.
When you’re ready to leave the capital, use Omio to get tickets for a bus or train from Sofia.