Article by: Sofia Free Walking Tours (365 Association)
Bulgaria's capital might not be at the top of your list when it comes to visiting European capitals. However, the city's unique "East meets West" feel will leave you surprised. At first, Sofia will not appear as a tourist-friendly city due to the lack of adequate directions in English. And that's why we're here. We've compiled a list of essential things to do, so that you don't miss out on the must-do's. This list will come in handy especially if you are visiting Sofia on a short 1 or 2 day-trip or even if you're there for a few hours.
Sofia's city center is very compact and also... confusing. You will need some context presented in a professional and easily digestible way to really understand what's going on in this city. That's why, over the last decade, free walking tours have become the preferred option to explore the city. In fact, there really isn't any other way as most of the places of interest are situated in pedestrian zones and are only accessible on foot. It also saves time. In just 2 hours you would see pretty much everything that you need. You will also most certainly learn more about the city and country than during your entire stay. For those looking to dive deeper, many themed tours are also available.
Bulgaria's communist past is what draws a lot of tourists to the country. For a long time it has been ignored by the local authorities. In fact, there really weren't many ways to learn about it. Fortunately, fairly recently a new generation museum has opened its doors to both local and foreign visitors. In fact, The Red Flat is more of a real-life communist experience rather than a museum. As the name suggests, you basically enter the home of a regular Bulgarian family from the mid-80's. An audio guide will take you through the apartment. You will leave the place with a whole new understanding of this period.
Many first-time visitors are surprised at how green Sofia is. The city has countless parks. You''ll be missing out if you decide to skip them as part of your schedule. It's often where the city's life is situated. If you are staying at the very heart of the city the City Garden (In front of the National Theatre) is the place to be. It will be packed with people even at 3AM. If you have more time, we suggest you take your time and explore some of the city's larger parks. The South Park and Borissova Garden are your best bet.
The center of Sofia is fascinating as part of it is more polished and part of it a bit more rundown. The Ladies' Market (or Women's Market) is an area that still keeps the feeling of the past and what we call "Old Sofia". The area might not be as attractive at first. However, if you are looking for a more real and authentic experience, you should consider visiting. This is Sofia's oldest outdoor market. It's the place where you can literally find everything. It also offers some of the best value for money you'll find in town.
This is by far Sofia's biggest landmark. It is also, of course, part of the free walking tour. In fact, it's where the tour ends. However, we had to include it in this list as we know some of you might not have the time to explore anything else. So, naturally, if you only have time to visit one place - go to the cathedral.
There is really no point in coming to Bulgaria if you skip on going to a traditional Bulgarian restaurant. The variety and quality of the local cuisine is every Bulgarian's pride. Everything from street food classics like Banitsa, boza and ayran to long dinners at restaurants decorated in a traditional way. Bulgaria is also the place to be for all wine lovers as the country has a long and proud history in wine production. Another local classic is rakia - a local spirit. You should give it a try at least once. It is indeed quite strong but it's a great addition to the local Shopska salad.
Sofia is one of the few European capitals to have such a high mountain so close by. It is one of the city's main symbols and can be seen from virtually every part of it. Apart from offering great views and photo opportunities Vitosha is also the closest option for a proper hike. In fact, there are a number of hikes you can take up there. And guess what... if you are visiting in winter time, lifts and skiing opportunities are also available.
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