Bulgaria’s capital has a lot of stories to tell, and each historic attraction will give you a new perspective on Sofia’s complicated past. Take the churches here that have spent several centuries of their existence as mosques, the overbearing soviet architecture or the Roman history that is still being uncovered and blends with the modern city.
Many of the buildings you’ll see are from the Bulgarian Revival in the late-19th century, when the country reclaimed its independence from the Ottomans. And always to the southwest looms the monumental Vitosha Mountain.
Here are the best things to do in Sofia:
1. St. Alexander Nevski Cathedral
The scale of this building will blow you away. Inside St. Alexander Nevski has room for 10,000 people and it’s the second largest cathedral in the Balkan region.
As with a great deal of Sofia’s grand architecture, the city’s cathedral dates to the 1880s.
This was directly after the Ottomans were overthrown and the state of Bulgaria was re-established.
It was originally dedicated to the Russian soldiers that lost their lives in the course of this liberation.
When you’re inside, look up at ceiling of the main cupola, which has a mural of the Lord God Sabbath.
The crypt here is open to visitors and has a big collection of icons.
2. St. George Rotunda
The heart of ancient Serdica and the oldest building in modern Sofia, this red brick church was built all the way back in 300s.
It’s a wonder that this building has survived unscathed for such an amount of time, and all around are interesting little details that hit home the great age of the site and civilisations that have passed though.
Step inside to view the detailed medieval frescoes that had been painted over by the Ottomans when the church was converted to a mosque in the 1600s.
These were only rediscovered and restored in the 1990s. Outside you can see the flagstones of a Roman street and other remnants of Ancient Serdica.
3. Vitosha Boulevard
The fanciest street in the city, Vitosha Boulevard is where all the posh boutiques and fashion houses are clustered.
If you’re not an upmarket shopper then you can just console yourself with those arresting views of Vitosha Mountain which is capped with a dusting of snow for much of the year and framed by the street’s tall buildings.
It’s a thoroughly pleasant place to spend a couple of hours; the cafes along the pedestrian street have outdoor seating and in recent years the lampposts, benches and kiosks have been redesigned into an elegant art nouveau style, recalling the early years of the Bulgarian Revival.
4. St. Sofia Church
It was this church that gave the city of Sofia its name in the 1300s during the Second Bulgarian Empire.
This unassuming red brick building goes right back to Byzantine times and was founded in the 500s on top of the ancient city of Serdica’s necropolis, as well as an older church from a century before.
When you visit you can see the remnants of this ancient church and the tombs that date back more than 1500 years.
For two centuries after the Ottoman invasion this was a mosque, but was abandoned after one earthquake in the 1800s brought the minaret down and another killed the Imam’s two son’s.
5. Boyana Church
On the lower slopes of Vitosha Mountain (which we’ll come to next) is this UNESCO heritage site.
The location of this medieval church is almost dreamlike, in a grove of tall softwood trees in a quiet suburb of the city.
Boyana Church was built in three stages from the 1000s to the 1800s, but the most important additions were made during the Second Bulgarian Empire in the 1200s.
This is when the fabulous interior frescoes were painted, depicting some 240 historical and biblical figures in a realistic style 200 years before renaissance artists were doing the same.
The paintings, by an unknown artist, include contemporary portraits of two Bulgarian rulers, Tsar Konstantin Assen and Tsar Koloyan, next to their wives.
6. Vitosha Mountain
Climbing to more than 2,200 metres behind Sofia’s southwestern suburbs is Vitosha, a monumental peak in a nature park, promising more adventure than you could ever cram into one trip.
The easiest way to access Vitosha is via Aleko, the mountain’s ski resort, which is where the Simeonovo gondola lift will drop you off.
From there the walk to Vitosha’s Black Peak is surprisingly light when then weather’s good in spring or autumn, as the peak is part of a large plateau that seems to go on forever thanks to its shallow gradient.
Of course, you don’t need to go that far for an incredible, vertiginous view of Sofia.
7. National Institute of Archaeology
Ferdinand I was on hand when this museum was inaugurated back in 1905 as a way of bring all of the important archaeological finds scattered around Sofia and Bulgaria under one roof.
And the roof they chose was that of the city’s former Grand Mosque, decommissioned following the Bulgarian Revival.
The main sections here are Prehistory, Main Hall (containing items from classical civilisations), Medieval Section and Treasury.
The last on that list has the Valchitran and Lukovit Treasures, two breathtaking hoards of Thracian Gold.
Discovered in 1953, the Lukovit Treasure dates to the time of Alexander the Great’s invasion of Thrace in 400BC.
8. National Historical Museum
This museum’s home is also a piece of Bulgarian history in its own right.
The National Historical Museum is housed in the former dictator Todor Zhivkov’s residence.
It’s a hulking slab of Stalinist architecture fronted by a massive open yard.
The collection at the museum is gigantic; the 65,000 items on display is just one tenth of what is held behind the scenes in its archives.
The variety of items here is also mind boggling, going from 20th-century space research equipment to treasures belonging to the Odrysians who held sway in Bulgaria until they were conquered by the Romans in the 1st century.
9. Ivan Vazov National Theatre
The Viennese architects Helmer & Fellner, responsible for a catalogue of extravagant buildings across Central Europe, built this theatre in 1909.
True to form the Ivan Vazov National Theatre is a grand neoclassical structure that remains the last word in Bulgarian culture to this day.
The building with its towering portico is an iconic sight for Bulgaria, appearing on banknotes, and is most famous for its drama productions.
Chief Director here is Alexander Morfov, responsible for acclaimed Bulgarian and Russian language adaptations of Don Quixote and Shakespeare plays in here and in Russia.
10. Borisova gradina
Sofia’s most famous park was landscaped in the 1880s right after the Bulgarian Revival, making it the oldest one in the city.
It was developed over the next 50 years by three different designers: the Swiss Daniel Neff, the Alsatian Joseph Frei and then the Bulgarian Georgi Dutev (when the park’s Soviet monuments were installed).
But what’s impressive is that all the landscapers worked within the original plan, and the upshot is a pleasing sense of coherence for such a big project.
It all makes for a refreshing afternoon amble, and if you’re here on a summer evening there are free concerts to catch.
11. Serdica Amphitheatre
Sofia’s own Roman amphitheatre wasn’t discovered until 2004.
In its day it was one of the largest in the Roman empire, holding gladiator fights and grisly battles pitting men against wild beasts.
What’s also interesting about this arena is the way it had three lives: First it was a theatre, then an amphitheatre that was sacked by the Goths.
In the 400s the arena was rebuilt but was abandoned not long after.
After it was unearthed it became integrated into the design of the Arena di Serdica hotel, but visitors off the street are free to look down at the ruins from the hotel’s specially-designed gallery.
12. Central Mineral Baths
Sofia has a lot of spring activity, and these waters have drawn visitors since medieval times.
The Ottomans developed their own hammam at this site, and when it was destroyed following the Bulgarian Revival a new city bathing complex was built.
The Central Baths date to 1913 and were in use up until the mid-80s.
It’s one of Sofia’s most photographed buildings, constructed in the neo-byzantine style with a large dome behind an impressive vestibule.
The gardens are open to the public and the fountain at the centre is fed by the hot natural mineral water. You’re free to try it if you’re brave enough!
13. Park Vrana
These are the grounds of the stately home of the aristocrat Simeon II, who was Tsar of Bulgaria from 1943-46 before going into exile.
After returning he was prime minister from 2001-05.
The estate is only open on weekends and you can’t enter any of the buildings, but the landscaped gardens are one of the most tranquil settings in Sofia.
Multilingual guided tours take place every hour and offer fun snippets about the palace and its grounds.
For instance the estate once had an exotic menagerie, including Bulgaria’s first elephants, which were used for yardwork in the grounds!
14. The Synagogue
Sofia has the largest synagogue in the Balkan region, and the third-largest in Europe.
It was built for Sofia’s sizeable Sephardic Jewish population in 1909 and Tsar Ferdinand I of Bulgaria was here when it was inaugurated.
More than 1,000 people can fit inside this cavernous building which is in the Moorish Revival style inspired by the old Sephardic temple in Vienna, destroyed in 1938.
Step inside to see the permanent exhibition about the history of Bulgaria’s Jewish communities.
15. Banya Bashi Mosque
If you arrive outside prayer times you can drop in to tour Sofia’s only mosque.
It was designed by Mimar Sinan, the epoch-defining Turkish architect responsible for spectacular works across the Ottoman Empire during this period.
Banya Bashi is from 1576, built at the very beginning of the city’s Ottoman period.
The name comes from Sofia’s mineral baths, which had attracted visitors throughout the region during the 1500s.
The mosque can fit 700 worshippers, and if you pass on Fridays you’ll notice many stragglers outside listening via the mosque’s external loudspeaker.