Sofia: The cheap Balkan city break to try before there’s a tourist rush

Sofia: The cheap Balkan city break to try before there’s a tourist rush

The restaurant at the back of the park doesn’t take bank cards – a fact I only notice as I’m led to a table. I shake my head and smile apologetically, opening my wallet to show a lone 20 Lev note.

The waiter laughs. “Sit, sit,” he says. “No problem.”

As I soon discover, 20LV/£8.70 is, indeed, no problem. After lentil soup, a plate of stuffed cabbage leaves, and a local beer, I still have change for a tip.

Sofia can be scruffy around the edges. Cold War traces remain. In the centre, the Largo, a collection of three buildings from the 1950s, houses Bulgarian government offices. At its outskirts, grey and brown tower blocks, or panelki, are home to thousands. Yet these make other elements of the city more dazzling.

Garlic-bulb domes gleam against the Vitosha mountain massif, which frames Sofia. Statues and monuments preside over public gardens and Sofia’s only functioning mosque, the Banya Bashi (which dates to the 1500s; Bulgaria was under Ottoman and Islamic rule for almost five centuries), stands above ancient Roman ruins.

I find few foreign visitors crowding Sofia. However, Bulgaria will join the Schengen Zone at the end of March. After January 2023, when Croatia became the 27th country to join, its tourism officials saw a boost in arrivals. Bulgaria could witness a similar trend. Meanwhile, the Bulgarian government has to adopt the euro in 2025. At the time of writing, £1 would buy you €1.17, but 2.29 Leva.

As it stands, Sofia offers a relatively quiet and affordable city break. The average price for a night in a four-star hotel this March is £98.65, according to hospitality data specialists Lighthouse. Compare this to the average cost of similar accommodation in other (one-time) budget destinations, such as Budapest (£136.26 a night) and Prague (£139.24).

From the four-star Adella Boutique Hotel, I walk to Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. This marble, Neo-Byzantine, confection of arched windows topped with domes of verdigris green and bright gold was created as a monument to soldiers of the Russian-Turkish War (1878–79).

Bulgaria, Sofia
You can escape the crowds in Sofia (Photo: Getty)

Inside, I find elaborately tiled floors, low hanging chandeliers, ornate stained-glass windows and flickering prayer candles illuminating the vast space. Entry is free, but a permit must be purchased to take photos.

The flea market in the square outside is irresistible for a rummage. Its stallholders are mostly men, many are smoking and wear ushankas.

I enjoy the clank of metal as I sift through a display of badges and buckles. There are also many old signs, written in Cyrillic script. The vendor talks me through what each means. I find one that declares “Danger: Toxic Gas” and buy it for my teens’ bathroom door.

Next, I walk to Vitosha Boulevard, where a statue of Lenin once stood. He was replaced by the city’s patron saint. She is rendered in copper and bronze, and devoid of eyes. A bystander, Darian, tells me that some older residents believe the statue curses the city. “My father says she’s a witch.”

The Ancient Serdica Archaeological Complex and the Banya Bashi Mosque in the back in Sofia, Bulgaria. This impressive complex was found during the construction of the new metro line remains of the ancient Roman city Serdika were uncovered. The site has streets and houses that date back to a period from 1st till 6th century AD. The visitors can discover it for free.
Serdica Archaeological Complex below Banya Bashi mosque (Photo: Getty)

Nearby, Roman ruins – now known as the Serdica Archaeological Complex (Serdica was the name of the city nearly 2,000 years ago) – were unearthed in 2010. I explore the remains of streets, baths and an early Christian church, for free, before returning to street level and walking to the striped facade of the Sofia History Museum (entry £2.60).

Formerly the Central Mineral Bath House, the museum has exhibits that go back 8,000 years. Like the mist rising from the taps outside, where people fill bottles with thermal waters, controversy swirls around this building, I’m told that many Sofians would prefer it to be restored to its original function. The city is full of thermal springs, but none are accessible for bathing.

These waters aren’t the only drink favoured by residents. “Try the rakia,” Darian had told me earlier.

I head to Raketa Rakia Bar. It has communist-themed decor – featuring household objects, such as vacuum cleaners – and a variety of the Bulgarian fruit liquor (rakia). I realise that the Shopska salad (11.90LV/£5.20) – tomato, onion, pepper and cucumber, topped with shaved white sirene cheese – I’ve ordered is no match for a drink with an ABV of over 40 per cent. I add on meatballs (17.90LV/£7.80) and “Grandma’s potatoes” (7.50LV/£3.30). It’s the most expensive meal of my trip, but worth it for the kitschy atmosphere.

In Sofia, I happily wander between churches, galleries and restaurants, stopping, occasionally, for views of Vitosha.

For those who prefer structure, free walking tours are available, with themes such as food (balkanbites.bg) or Jewish history (freesofiatour.com).

Sarah Rodrigues in Sofia at klek shop
Sarah picks up some essentials from a klek shop (Photo: Sarah Rodrigues)

Provider:
Copyright: Sarah Rodrigues

As I stroll, I look out for a Sofian phenomenon: klek, or squat, shops. After 1989, enterprising homeowners converted their Cold War basement bunkers into low-down stores that require customers to squat to make a purchase. Klek shops are becoming scarcer, so I’m delighted when I come across one.

An elderly man in a bulky brown coat taps his stick on the street-level counter. A packet of cigarettes appears. The man drops some coins and walks on.

People-watching is free the world over, but it’s particularly engaging in Sofia – and just another element of the appeal of this Balkan city, where few things are expensive, and many cost nothing at all.

Travel essentials

Getting there
Several airlines offer direct flights between the UK and Sofia, including British Airways, easyJet, Ryanair and Wizz Air. Returns start from around £40.

Staying there
Adella Boutique Hotel has doubles from £69, breakfast included, adellaboutiquehotel.com

Marriott’s Sense Hotel has doubles from £135, not including breakfast, and spa facilities, sensehotel.com

More information
sosofia.com
visitsofia.bg