If you could use one sentence only to describe Sofia to someone who has never been there, what would you say?
After visiting this city, I’d say something like this: Sofia is grand and charming and cozy and historic.
And it is definitely worth visiting!
With its history of 7000 years, capital of Bulgaria promises lots of exciting stories, interesting facts and enchanting legends.
Unlike some other places that reflect majority of their development and history within their old towns, Sofia actually doesn’t have one. History of the city is reflected in the layers of archaeological findings. During metro station construction, people found remains of old cities of Sofia. Layer upon layer shows long history of rise and fall of great empires that ruled this region throughout the history.
Allegedly, Sofia was founded by Thracian tribe and their settlement was called Serdica. Throughout its history, Sofia was under the rule of Roman Empire, Byzantine and Ottoman empire, with some short periods of independence in between. Bulgaria officially got the independence in 1879 after Russian-Turkish wars. The same year, Sofia became a capital of the country. After WWII, communists took over the authority and they ruled until 1989. After that, Bulgaria became People’s Republic of Bulgaria. Since 2007, Bulgaria is a member of European Union.
Churches, museums, monuments and other interesting sights spread around the city will tell you the story of Sofia and its people.
1. Sveta Nedelya Church
Despite the fact it was originally built in the 10th century, the church you see today was rebuilt in 19th century. It lies above the crossroads of ancient Serdica. Beautiful iconostasis you can see in the church are dating from the 19th century and some of the murals were added in 1976.
In 1925, communists tried to kill Tsar Boris III several times. Their attempts didn’t succeed so they decided to murder one of his generals instead expecting the tsar to come to the funeral. During the ceremony, the communists activated bombs in the church causing deaths to 200 people and serious injuries to 500 others. However, the tsar was late to the funeral and their plan failed yet again.
2. Cathedral Saint Alexander Nevsky
This cathedral is one of the most impressive monuments and tourist attractions in Sofia. It serves as a memorial to 200, 000 Russian soldiers who died in Russo-Turkish Liberation War. After the war, Bulgaria gained independence and they wanted to show respect to Russians. With its 12 bells of total weight of 23 tons and its 45 meters high dome, it is considered to be one of the largest Orthodox cathedrals in the world. Cathedral is decorated with astonishing murals and icons that represent Russian and Bulgarian saints and Biblical scenes.
It’s open every day from 7am to 6 pm.
3. Coat of arms of Sofia
You can see this symbol of the city on the facade of Hotel Sofia Balkan in the city center. Lion is a symbol of Sofia. You can see two of them holding the coat of arms from both sides. The coat of arms consists of a shield divided in four parts. On the top left side, there is the image of the Church of St. Sophia. On the top right side, you can see an image of ancient town of Serdica. Vitosha, the mountain right by the Sofia is on the bottom left side and on the top right there is a statue of Apollo Medicus representing mineral springs around the city. At the bottom of the coat of arms you can read city motto, “Расте, но не старее” – Raste, no ne staree (“Ever Growing, Never Aging”).
4. Saint Sophia Statue
The grand statue of Lenin from the communists era, Bulgarians replaced with the Saint Sophia statue in 2001. The statue of copper and bronze that is 8 metres high, stands on 16 metres high pedestal. The statue holds symbols of power- a crown, symbol of fame- a wreath and symbol of wisdom- an owl. The crown on her head is a reference to the Goddess of Fate- Tjuhe. Controversy revolving around this statue is not for political reasons only. Sophia was considered too erotic and pagan to be referenced as Saint Sophia.
Although considered to be one of the symbols of Sofia, Saint Sophia is actually an Italian woman from Roman Empire era. She was executed for practising Christianity, along with her three daughters- Faith, Hope and Love.
5. Church of St. Petka of the Saddlers
This incredible little church was found during the diggings for metro stations in Sofia. It dates back to the 14th century and since it’s built during the Ottoman rule it had to be below ground level. The second rule was to build it in a way it is of smaller height than a man on the horse. Yet, when you see its size you see it’s a bit higher than that. Facade of the church shows various materials used for building. Namely, the saddlers who collected money for the construction in the first place, needed to bribe plenty of Ottoman officials as well. At the end, they didn’t have enough money to finish everything as they have planned. That is why the construction had to be improvised a bit.
6. Sofia Synagogue
This is the largest Synagogue in the Balkans and the third largest in Europe, built in the beginning of 20th century. The architect was an Austrian, Grünanger, who projected it in Spanish-Mauritanian and Byzantine style. It can fit around 1000 people.
Inside the Synagogue, you can see a museum dedicated to Jews in Bulgaria. It is definitely worth visiting for the amazing permanent exhibition on saving Bulgarian Jews in WWII.
When the WWII started, around 50,000 Jews lived in Sofia. Bulgarians have joined the Nazi’s who requested them to send all the Jews to working camps. However, Tsar Boris III asked Hitler to leave the Jews for one contract in Bulgaria to work on the road construction. Germans allowed so and after the end of their first contract, Bulgarians asked to have Jews staying for another one. In this manner, Bulgarian Jews didn’t end up in working camps and all survived WWII.
Only about 4,000 Jews live in Sofia today. When the communists came after the war, they prohibited all religions and majority of Jews moved to the newly established state of Israel.
7. Banya Bashi Mosque
Banya Bashi Mosque is the only working mosque in Sofia. It was built in 1576 by Mimar Sinan, who also made the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and Selim Mosque in Edrine. As it is located close to the mineral baths, it is named after them. The mosque can fit around 700 people only so many believers stay and pray outside the mosque on Fridays or during the important religious holidays. The service is broadcasted on the loudspeakers for those who cannot get in due to the crowdedness.
8. Central Public Bathhouse
Charming building of Central Public Bathhouse, built in the beginning of 20th century, served all citizens of Sofia as a public bath. At the times, going to public bath was a ritual and kind of a social activity. Nowadays, local authorities plan to turn this space into a museum with one part of it turned into a spa center. Currently it is working as a temporary exhibition space. Building is located near the park where people can fill up mineral water from one of plenty mineral springs.
Mineral Water Springs
Bulgaria has many mineral springs and only in Sofia there are 42 of them. They have 8 different hydrothermal zones and temperature can go from 30 to 90 ℃. Water flow can be up to 480 liters per second. As they are deep under the ground they cannot be polluted. People believe this water is very good for kidneys, eyes and overall health.
9. Communist Party Headquarters
In this part of the city you can see how great the power of Communist Party was during their rule. The Central Committee was working here until August 1990 when it was set on fire by people protesting against their rule. At the top of the building there was a giant red star, a symbol of communism. Currently, it is displayed at recently opened Museum of Socialist Art. This building is right across the Statue of St. Sophia where was the statue of Lenin. This entire part of the city represents the power Communists exercised.
Interesting fact about the red star is that everyone believed it is made of ruby for decades. Even after it was taken down, and it was obvious it wasn’t made of ruby, people refused to believe so. Now, government offices are located here and the incredible Sophia hall is used for charity concerts from time to time.
10. Ancient Serdica Open Museum
During the metro station construction, ancient remains of city of Serdica were found. Serdica was the favourite city of Emperor Constantine the Great. He moved capital of Byzantine empire to the East but actually ruled it from Serdica. Many of the subjects found there can be seen on exhibitions throughout the metro station.
11. Rotunda of Saint George
This little church is the oldest preserved building in Sofia, dating back to the 4th century. However, it became church two centuries later. After grand restoration process, this church was opened for public in 1998. Nowadays there are small services held here, as well as the art exhibitions. Interior of Rotunda of Saint George shows three different layers of frescoes and is absolutely worth seeing.
12. Ivan Vazov National Theater
National Theater building is built beginning of the 20th century, in 1907 to be precise. It was the project of Austrian architects Helmer & Felner who imagined the building of 40 meters high facade with large pediment on front. Pediment is supported with six white columns that represent Apollo and the muses. Theater can fit 850 people but for most of the shows it is quite difficult to get the tickets due to their popularity. Twin towers on the theater have sculptures of the goddess of Nike on top of them.
13. Bulgarian Broadway
Georgi Rakovski Street, or simply Rakovski Street as Bulgarians say, is known as Bulgarian Broadway. Theaters became increasingly popular in the last 5, 6 years and more and more Bulgarians spend their nights in the theater halls. Theaters you can find are: Municipal Theatre Revival, Aleko Konstantinov Satiric Theatre, Funny Theatre, Capital Puppet Theatre, Ivan Vazov National Theatre, Theatre 199, Theatre Tear and Laugh, Bulgarian Army Theatre, National Opera and Ballet and others.
14. Hagia Sophia Church
No, we don’t think of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul now
This church was built on the highest point of Sofia and entire city was named after it in the 14th century. The church dates back to 6th/7th century and after it’s undergone major restoration it is opened to public again in 1999.
Under the church there is a Necropolis Museum where you can see remains of ancient buildings and tombs. In the Ottoman era, the church was turned into a mosque. However, after an earthquake in 1818 and an accident that happened 40 years later where 2 sons of Imam were killed, the mosque was abandoned.
15. National Palace of Culture
National Palace of Culture was built in 1981 for celebration of 1300th anniversary of Bulgaria. Today it serves as a congress center hosting various events- concerts, exhibitions, conferences etc. International Organization of Congress Centers awarded it for the best conference center in the world in 2005. Among many other important events, Sofia International Film Festival takes place here as well.
In front of it, there is a monument dedicated to 1300 years of Sofia. Currently the monument is being dismantled due to safety concerns. Constructors expect it to look better and be safer after the reconstruction.