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Greetings, Internet Stranger! Sofia, Bulgaria isn’t always the first city mentioned when people are discussing The Great Walking Cities of Europe. Yet I spent this one day in Sofia itinerary racking up a truly bold 30,000 steps on my step counter and loved every second of it.
Come with me for an amazing day of defunct Socialist art and Bulgarian commercials, a lion hunt in a park, and the finest snacks Bulgaria has to offer. We won’t even hear one person say that Plovdiv is better than Sofia. How is that for a good time?
One Day in Sofia Itinerary
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 one day in Sofia itinerary. 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.
One Day in Sofia Itinerary
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.
One Day in Sofia Itinerary
Morning: Museum of Socialist Art
Bulgaria, like many countries in Eastern Europe, was a Communist country following World War II. It is no longer Communist, but there are many traces of its socialist past. And one of the best places to examine these traces is the Museum of Socialist Art. That’s where we’ll start our one day in Sofia itinerary. Here you can see statues, paintings, and films from Communist Bulgaria and other Communist countries, even as far away from Bulgaria as China.
PS. Some people wonder about the difference between communism and socialism! This seems like a very controversial topic that is beyond the scope of this blog! But based on all my research, from what I can tell, communism is meaner. Also, neither system allows private ownership of the means of production. In any case, Bulgaria was run by the Communist Party for decades, so I feel safe in calling it a Communist country. And now that the controversy is out of the way, let’s move on to…
Three (Fun?) Facts About Socialist Art
1) What is Socialist Propaganda Like?
When you arrive at the Museum of Socialist Art, you’ll be able to watch a video of Bulgarian Communist propaganda. It’s in Bulgarian with English subtitles, so no worries if, like yours truly, you are not fluent in the Bulgarian arts. My favorite part was a video of children performing some sort of dance and the narrator was droning about how these children were noble loyal Bulgarian patriots and this one little boy wouldn’t stop sticking his tongue out. Children: they are very bad at propaganda.
Obviously I could not take a photo of the video, so here’s a socialist sculpture of Bulgarian women dancing instead. Enjoy!
2) What is Socialist Painting Like?
A lot of socialist painting seems to emphasize the community over the individual. So you get pieces like the one above where all the people look kind of generic and strong and are holding “useful” things like tools and weapons instead of books or pens. If you just look at one or two paintings it’s pretty interesting, but seeing a whole bunch together just makes me think of the episode of Fraggle Rock in which Wembley uncorks a Genie who hypnotizes the Fraggles and makes them march and speak in unison.
Also I don’t read Chinese, but I hope this poster says, “Chairman Mao is sneaking up behind your children! Watch out!”
3) What are Socialist Sculptures Like?
Well, some of the sculptures were giant, loving representations of important communist officials. You’ve got a whole bunch of Lenin of course, but there are Bulgarian politicians too, like Georgi Dimitrov, the first Bulgarian communist leader. I met quite a few Bulgarians who were angry about having communist memorials and statues around the city because of human rights violations committed by the communist government. Some memorials, like Dimitrov’s mausoleum, were destroyed, but others were moved here to this museum. Hmm. This reminds me a little of debates about something happening in the US right now, but I can’t think of what.
One Day in Sofia Itinerary
Afternoon: Sofia Food Tour
As far as I am concerned, a food tour is the best way to see any city. And given that I knew next to nothing about Bulgarian food, I suggest booking an afternoon walking tour.
You’ll get a yummy lunch, lots of knowledge about the city, a fun local guide, and tons of great photos. Just keep in mind that this will be a late lunch, so have a giant breakfast at your hotel and you should be good to go.
And now that the preliminaries are out of the way, let’s go straight to:
Approximately Top 5: Sofia Food and Culture
1) Sausage Time!
We’re in the Balkans, so I hope you like meat! These were some fresh and yummy skinless sausages with a slightly picante pepper sauce. The sausages reminded me of the skinless sausages called mici I had eaten in Bucharest, and the pepper sauce was similar to the ajvar I had tried in North Macedonia. In Bulgaria, this sauce is called lutenitsa. Perhaps there are other important differences between lutenitsa and ayvar, but I didn’t want to ask my guide. He was very nice, but sometimes you can offend people in the Balkans by comparing their country to other, nearby countries so I didn’t want to risk it.
2) Bulgarian Beignets
OK, I’m kidding but only because my family is from New Orleans and I think all fried dough is beignets. These, if my notes do not deceive me, are called mektsi and they are often served with jam. Mine were topped with a lovely, sweet-but-not-too-sweet jam. We ate these in a hole in the wall filled with locals that I never would have been able to find on my own. This is the point of doing a food tour my friends! It saves both time and money.
3) Church of Saint George
This tiny place is one of the coolest buildings in all the Balkans. This church is probably the oldest building in Sofia, as it dates back to the 4th century. Back then Sofia was called Serdica. It was founded by the local Celts, not the Romans, but the Romans took it over as they pretty much did with everything. (Bet you thought Celts were just in Ireland, not Bulgaria. Well, don’t say this blog never taught you nothing!)
Constantine, the first Roman Emperor who became Christian, was a big fan of Serdica. In fact, he used to say that Serdica was his Rome. Maybe if history had gone slightly differently, we’d all be using expressions like, “All roads lead to Serdica” or “When in Serdica, do as the Serdicans do”. You can see the Roman connection when you look at this building carefully because it is shaped like the Pantheon. Yes, this was such an early church that the Romans didn’t really know what a church was supposed to look like, so they made it look like a pagan house of worship. I mean, they could have done worse…
4) Subway Ruins
Now when I say subway ruins in my hometown of NYC, I’m usually referring to the parts of our subway that are completely falling apart. But in Sofia, subway ruins mean actual ancient ruins that were excavated while the subway was being built. Of course you can’t just demolish them. So they try to preserve them and put them on display as much as they can.
My guide told me that they are always finding ruins every time they dig out a new subway station. Once again I am most impressed. In NYC all we find are the skeletal remains of a rat clutching a fossilized piece of pizza.
5) Sveta Sofia Statue
Let’s get back to this question of taking down statues and replacing monuments by looking at this lovely lady clad in black here. She is a fairly recent statue who was put up to replace a giant statue of Vladimir Lenin, the former head of the Soviet Union. After the fall of communism, statues of Lenin weren’t so popular anymore, especially in countries like Bulgaria that were tired of Russian influence. (You can still find statues of Lenin in Russia.)
Saint Sophia (Sveta Sofia in Bulgarian) is a symbol of the city, so she made a perfect choice to replace Lenin. I think they should have doubled down on Bulgarian symbols by having Saint Sophia riding a lion, but literally no one asked me.
6) Meat Plate
If there’s one way I like to finish off a food tour, it’s with a giant plate of meat. This looks like an antipasti platter, but you’ll find no salami or prosciutto here. It’s all fine Bulgarian cured meat. I’m not an expert in cured meat, but I could tell that the viands were a bit more spicy than your typical salami.
All of this was washed down with a glass of Bulgarian house wine. You can choose red or white. One great thing about traveling in Eastern Europe and the Balkans is that you get to try super affordable local wines that are generally not available in the United States. So drink up! You’re supporting the local economy.
One Day in Sofia Itinerary
Evening: Borisova Park
After spending the morning of our one day in Sofia itinerary getting serious in a museum, and our afternoon diving into Sofia’s culture, it’s time to frolic and gambol in a park! If you’re here in the summertime, the sun will be out quite late so you’ll be able to enjoy the park for several hours. (I don’t recommend hanging out in any park at night unless there’s some sort of event going on like a concert or a cult initiation.)
And what better choice than Borisova Park, which is the most famous park in all Sofia. It’s named after a Bulgarian tsar, so you know it’s good. I don’t want to limit your exploring here too much, but I will point you in the right direction with…
Three Fun Facts: Borisova Park
1) What About Dinner?
Why not bring a picnic dinner with you? If you are staying at or near the Rosslyn Thracia, you’ll be very close to Meat: Gourmet Sandwiches and Burgers. Just pick up a sandwich after the tour ends and VOILA! The perfect picnic dinner.
My sandwich was a tender pork with tons of spicy mustard piled on some seriously scrumptious housemade bread. I got fries with that and then laughed when they brought out a bottle of ketchup for me “because I am American”. I wish I could say that I don’t like ketchup with my fries, but I’d just be lying. You can take the girl out of the USA, but you can’t take the USA out of the girl!
2) What are some fun things to do in the park?
No one day in Sofia itinerary is complete without a lion hunt. I don’t mean a literal lion hunt. That would be evil and disturbing. But the lion is a symbol of Bulgaria, and Sofia is the capital of Bulgaria, so there are lion images all over the city! Go on a scavenger hunt for lions in the park! I found this graffito of a lion in a diaper, who may or may not be a symbol of a local soccer team. (He might also be Oscar the Grouch’s communist cousin, Oscar the Red, and not a lion at all.)
After I found this lion, I ended up in a dead-end and crawled through a hole in a fence to get out, which may or may not have been illegal, so possibly I am now wanted for trespass in Bulgaria. Don’t be like me, Internet Stranger.
3) WHAT ABOUT STATUES??? I NEED STATUES!!!
Didn’t get enough statues at the Museum of Socialist Art? Well, have I got a statue for you. This gentleman above is Vasil Levsky. He fought for Bulgarian independence back when Bulgaria was ruled by the Ottoman Empire. He was not entirely successful because the Ottomans caught him and hanged him by the neck until he was dead. But Bulgaria did get its independence just a few short years after his death, and his statue is all over Bulgaria, so perhaps we can say that he had the last laugh. And just look at those flowers! Very impressive for someone who died about 150 years ago.
Also his name “Levski” is actually a nickname that means “lion-like”, not his real last name. So I think this counts as yet another lion for our Bulgarian lion scavenger hunt!
That’s a Perfect One Day in Sofia Itinerary!
What would you do on a one day in Sofia itinerary? Are you a cured meat expert? And is that lion truly wearing a diaper? 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 try a one day in Sofia itinerary.