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Greetings Internet Stranger! So you want to spend a perfect 24 hours in Sofia Bulgaria? Good for you! Even some Sofia natives downplay the charms of their city. They say it’s not as cute as Plovdiv, it’s not as smart as Plovdiv, etc. (Plovdiv is Bulgaria’s second largest city.)
But Sofia shouldn’t feel any kind of inferiority complex. It’s an ancient and historic city with lots of beautiful churches, yummy treats to eat, and tons of feels about all its neighboring countries. Want to learn more about all the drama? Then come with me for an exciting 24 hours in Sofia!
24 Hours in Sofia
Where to Stay?
Sofia is a charming and very walkable city, so you’re going to want a location right in the center of town for your 24 hours in Sofia. I strongly recommend the Rosslyn Thracia Hotel. The staff is super friendly, the room is comfy, there’s a yummy breakfast spread every morning, and it’s within walking distance of lots of cute coffee places and shops.
24 Hours in Sofia
What to Pack?
You’ll need comfy shoes for all the walking we’re going to do today on our 24 hours in Sofia. If it’s summertime, I love my special pink Birkenstocks. These aren’t your grandpappy’s Birkenstocks anymore. They come in every shade, and I always get compliments on my electric magenta shoes.
Sofia is hot in the summer, so don’t forget the sunscreen. My favorite is the Neutrogena spray bottle because it’s so easy to apply. And as a solo traveler, I can actually use it myself on my own back. I just put it in my purse and re-apply throughout the day.
Finally, if you’re American, you need a universal adapter if you’re going to plug in electronics. European electrical outlets don’t work with American plugs. I suggest the NEWVANGA travel adapter. It’s usable with any electrical outlet in the world, so you won’t need to keep buying new adapters. I always carry two with me, just in case something happens to one.
24 Hours in Sofia
Morning: Sofia Walking Tour
It can be a little tricky to figure out the best things to see in Sofia because it’s not an obviously stunning city like Bruges, nor does it have many world-famous attractions. That’s why I recommend getting a tour guide! You’ll learn how to get around the city, and you’ll learn a little about how to avoid making a non-Bulgarian angry, which is very important. So without further ado, I bring to you…
Approximately Top 5: 24 Hours in Sofia
1) Alexander Nevsky Church
Like many things in the Balkans, Alexander Nevsky Church is both beautiful and rife with controversy. It is named in honor of a famous Russian prince in thanks for Russian assistance in the Bulgarian war of independence against the Ottoman Empire…or so it is claimed. But my guide, whom I shall call Krum, said that Russia is Bulgaria’s curse. He believed Russia only helped because they wanted to partition Bulgaria and gain control over part of it for itself.
In fact according to Krum, Bulgaria’s neighbor North Macedonia only exists because of this partitioning. I’m sure the North Macedonians would have a different take on the situation, but that’s the fun of travel. You get to hear every side of every story.
Bonus fun fact! Krum said the fastest way to make a Bulgarian mad is to call their alphabet the “Russian” alphabet. Bulgarians had it first! We will learn another easy way to make a Bulgarian mad later on the tour and it involves yogurt.
2) Saint Sophia Church
No, I didn’t misspell that, Internet Stranger! This is indeed the Saint Sophia Church in Sofia. Krum said that this church, not the gaudy and flashy Alexander Nevsky, is the real heart of Sofia. It’s also the oldest church in Sofia–dating all the way back to the 4th century. You could tell how important it was because when we approached they were holding a funeral for a famous Bulgarian rock musician who had recently died. (I am sadly not up on my Bulgarian rock, so I wasn’t sure who he was. And no, I didn’t take photos of the mourners because that’s gross and tacky.)
This church is not named for a woman named Sophia. Sophia in this case means Holy Wisdom. Krum explained it as being like the female version of Jesus Christ. Don’t let Jerry Falwell catch you saying that! Also Krum said that when you pronounce it, you should emphasize the first syllable like SO-phia, not So-PHEE-a. Aren’t you feeling more and more Bulgarian by the minute? I know I am.
3) Viennese Architecture
I had never heard Sofia mentioned as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe before I visited, but as you can see from my photos, the city is full of charming architecture. Krum said that the city was designed to look like Vienna. (This is much like Bucharest, the capital of Romania, was planned to resemble Paris.) After many Balkan cities like Sofia got their independence from the Ottoman Empire, they wanted to look like other European cities, so it made sense to copy the architectural style of some of Europe’s most famous cities.
You might also have noticed the striking yellow brick around Sofia. This has nothing to do with The Wizard of Oz. When Franz Josef of the Austro-Hungarian Empire visited Sofia, he was worried about the quality of their streets. So he sent these stunning yellow bricks for their roads. You can tell they are top quality because they’ve lasted to this day. Well, always go to the Austrians if you want top-notch bricks, as my grandmother always used to say.
And here is the breakfast part of the Breakfast With Sofia tour. Although technically I already ate breakfast at my hotel, so for me it was more like Early Lunch With Sofia. You get to snack on a banitsa, which is a savory Bulgarian pastry filled with white cheese and perhaps other things. I am tragically not the Mistress of the Banitsa, so I can’t say for sure what you can or cannot fill a banitsa with. But the cheese is definitely essential.
If the tangy cheese weren’t enough excitement in the morning, you can wash this down with a salty yogurt drink that’s popular in most places that used to be part of the Ottoman Empire. Krum told me that Bulgarians get feisty when they hear people calling the thick kind of yogurt “Greek yogurt” because it’s actually Bulgarian. In fact, one of the bacteria strains that is used in this kind of yogurt is actually called Bulgaricus.
And sure enough, the very next day I noticed at my breakfast table that the yogurt was labelled “Bulgarian yogurt”. But I don’t recommend that you run around the grocery store relabeling all the Greek yogurt Bulgarian yogurt with a magic marker. The cops won’t care about the history of the Bulgaricus.
5) National Theater
I think the National Theater is one of the prettiest buildings in Sofia. It’s really done in the classic Viennese style. I’ve traveled in many former Communist countries in Eastern Europe and one thing that surprised me about Sofia is that there’s not as much Communist architecture as you see in cities like Warsaw, Riga, or Bucharest. According to Krum, the Communists wanted to knock down all these beautiful buildings too, but the Bulgarians wouldn’t allow it. I feel like many ordinary people didn’t like it in other Communist countries either, only they were too scared to let the authorities know.
Krum said most people in Bulgaria prefer life now than under Communism. However, there are some who are very young and don’t remember Communism and say they would have preferred it back then. Of course, there are also people who were Big Deals in the Party who also liked life back then as well. (This is obviously not a scientific poll, just one Bulgarian’s opinion, but I always like to pass along what my tour guides tell me as close to verbatim as possible.)
6) Statue of Slaveikovs
This statue is a perfect place to take your pops for Fathers Day. That’s because the two gentlemen pictured above are the Bulgarian poet Pencho Slaveikov and his father, Not Pencho Slaveikov. I have sadly never read anything by Pencho Slaveikov, but I can assure you his name is very fun to say.
Speaking of Literary Bulgarians, obviously the reason I have been calling my guide Krum is in homage to Viktor Krum from the Harry Potter series. I asked Guide Krum about this and he explained that Krum is the name of a famous Bulgarian ruler from the Middle Ages and Viktor is a common Bulgarian man’s name. But the problem is that they are both first names! So it’s like naming a character Elizabeth Samantha. Maybe JK Rowling should have tried naming him Pencho Slaveikov instead.
24 Hours in Sofia
Afternoon: Bulgarian Archaeological Museum
Bulgaria is an ancient and noble nation that has history dating back to ancient times. (Back then it was known as Thracia.) So the Bulgarian Archaeological Museum is definitely a Must See when you are in Sofia. The building itself is historic because it is housed in a former Ottoman mosque. And inside the building, you can see artifacts from every period from the Stone Age through Roman times. You can even spy many examples of Bulgaria’s adorable mascot. Allow me to lead you through this museum with…
Three Fun Facts: Bulgarian Archaeology
1) Why is Looking at Old Things Interesting?
Well, that’s all in how you approach the subject, Internet Stranger! The Archaeology Museum has artifacts from prehistoric times, like the rather simple goodies pictured above. They might not be especially beautiful but you can bet they were sturdy and functional. After all, back then they didn’t have Amazon Prime, so you couldn’t just order a replacement and have it in two days if something broke. Plus they have more modern and glamorous antiquities so you can see how ancient Bulgarian artifacts went from old and busted…
To new hotness.
2) Were there Romans in Ancient Bulgaria?
Oh, this was the ancient world. The Romans were everywhere. That’s why they say that all roads lead to Rome and not all roads lead to Thracia. I loved seeing how the style of the artwork changed once the Romans arrived. Who would have expected to find Roman-style mosaics here all the way in Bulgaria? Imagine the patience it took to make a work of art out of so many little tiles. But my grandmother would have told the people in this mosaic to stand up straight because that angle has to be bad for their back.
I wonder if it was a Roman or a Thracian buried in this fancy sarcophagus. You gotta assume it doesn’t really matter to the dead person anymore. They don’t even remember that they’re buried in a fancy stone box with a bunch of grapes and bulls on it.
3) Can I Play Any Games in the Museum?
Well I don’t recommend bringing a basketball or anything. This isn’t Lithuania. But you can go on a lion hunt if you want! The lion is a symbol of Bulgaria and you can find lions both large and small all over Sofia. I tried to take photos of as many lions as I could find. (No worries, there are no wild lions on the prowl in Bulgaria’s capital as far as I know.) Try and see if you can beat my record. To make it challenging, I will not tell you what my record is.
But I got at least four in the museum including this majestic beastie above.
And these guys who had their faces eaten off by a bigger, meaner stone lion. So that should be enough to get started with.
24 Hours in Sofia
Evening: Dinner at Cosmos
So sometimes when I travel in Eastern Europe, I can overdose on peasant food. Don’t get me wrong, my ancestors were Romanian and Irish, so I am all about peasant cuisine. But every once in a while it’s nice to try something else. Well, we won’t have that problem in Sofia because we’re dining at Cosmos, which serves traditional space cuisine. (Yes, that’s what it says on the website.) So put any preconceived notions about Bulgarian food aside and get ready to chow down on:
Approximately Top 5: Cosmos
1) Tomato and Cheese Salad
A lot of the food at Cosmos seemed to be upscale versions of Bulgarian classics. Many restaurants in Sofia had some sort of tomato/white cheese salad on the menu, but none were as gorgeous and yummy as this one. And truly it does look like some sort of asteroid the way it is plated. I guess that’s what they mean by space cuisine.
2) Smoked Fish
Whether we are Jewish or Gentile, one thing people of Eastern European ancestry can agree on is that a properly smoked fish is a beautiful thing. And as you can see from my photo, this cherry smoked sturgeon is beautiful on the outside and beautiful on the inside. (While I adore eating smoked fish, it is generally…how shall I put this gently…fugly.) The cherry refers to the type of wood used to smoke the fish, not the actual fruit. I highly approve of experimenting with the woods used in Fish Smokery.
3) Unsmoked Fish
Feast your eyes on this glorious sea bass! Marvel at how the golden color of its skin matches the root vegetables with which it is served. But my favorite thing about this dish is that it contains barley. Yes, even this humble peasant grain can be turned into something chic when you’re indulging in space cuisine.
This was really lamb two ways because the tender young lamb meat was paired with some savory and pungent lamb offal. Offal, which is just a fancy word for animal organ meat, is the ultimate peasant food that has gone upscale. People used to eat it because it was the meat no one else wanted, and now eating it is a sign that you have an adventurous and sophisticated palette. (PS. Offal is delicious too.)
Also I like how the gelee over on the left hand side of the plate looks like moon rocks. That’s a true commitment to space cuisine!
What’s a Bulgarian tasting menu without quality Bulgarian yogurt? I noticed that in many Bulgarian restaurants they use a pasta straw to cut down on plastic. It’s less mushy than paper and less likely to murder you than a metal straw.
6) Gin and Tonic
Yes, in space, gin and tonics are adorably refreshing ice creams. Everyone knows that.
Baklava is apparently a popular dessert in Bulgaria. But we’re not just going to have regular baklava. That’s right, it’s time for Space Baklava. That’s baklava ice cream with crispy filo dough and a yummy saffron sauce on top. It’s way better than the dehydrated ice cream that I had at the Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. (Wait, does this mean that the Bulgarians are the real winners of the space race? Probably. Getting space ice cream just right is more important than landing on the moon.)
That’s a Perfect 24 Hours in Sofia!
What would you do with 24 hours in Sofia? Have you ever dined on space cuisine? And what else makes a Bulgarian mad? (Perhaps making lists of things that make Bulgarians mad? Who can say?) Please leave your thoughts below!
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend 24 hours in Sofia.