Revisiting Sofia for a weekend (40 years after)
(for my father)
(take #2:March 2018)
I got the opportunity for a cheap Ryan Air flight to Sofia to spend a long weekend and escape from stress. It has been some time that I experience ongoing problems at work and traveling is the only real escape for me.
Besides, I wanted this trip to be a homage (a memorial) to my father who left us 5 years ago and with whom some 40 years ago I took a trip to Sofia. That was the only time my father got out of Greece and for me it was the very first travel abroad. We did this 10-hour journey by train.
Ryan Air flights from “Eleftherios Venizelos” airport usually depart from the satellite terminal: that means 15-20 minutes walking to the security checkpoint. So, one should have that in mind and arrive earlier at the airport.
Early waking up, one-hour drive to the airport and lots of walking after that, had as a result me quarrelling with a very nice and gentle lady at the security screening. The reason? She took my shoe spray deodorant out of my handback and threw it to the waste bin!😠
An advice: do not ever argue with the security people because you may end up loosing your flight and maybe more…. especially do NOT do this in Germany or in the US! Remember: these people most of the time, lack any sense of humor. They are always right, and it is always your fault they work long stressful hours and get a shity salary.
There is though a good thing departing early: you also arrive early at your destination. So, what you loose in sleep you gain as an extra day at your destination. Another good thing is that you may enjoy the colors of the dawn (rosy Fingered Eos – ροδοδάκτυλος Ηώς), weather permitting.
The flight from Athens to Sofia was very short (one hour long) and the crew was very nice and gentle, so I forgot all the morning hustle.
Spring (take #2) is equally wonderful season to visit Sofia.
Sofia airport is located 11 km east of the city center. It is a small but modern airport which looked empty when we arrived.
We walked to the metro station (located just outside Terminal 2) and we bought a metro 10-journey card for 13 leva (1 leva costs the card, which can be loaded with more journeys). This card has an unusual feature: it can be used by more than one person for the same ride! You are a family of 4, for example, you tap the magnetic card at the validating machine and every time the entrance bars open one person gets in… you just do it 4 times. You go through the exit bars freely without tap the card or anything. You can buy the card either from a cashier or from a vending machine.
It takes roughly half an hour to arrive from the airport to the very center of the city (metro station Serdika). Alternatively, the taxi costs around 20 leva and it takes the same time.
Note: 1 euro=2 leva.
Life in Sofia is very cheap compared to other European cities. Numerically the prices in Sofia and Athens are the same: e.g. a main course dish that costs in Athens 10 euros, it costs 10 leva in Sofia. That means everything costs roughly 50% of what it costs in Athens.
Hotels are rather cheap if you do not go for fancy ones, but as the availability is not that big as in other European cities, you have to look early to get a good price. Alternative, one can find very good-priced apartments to let for a fraction of the price of a hotel room.
Metro Station Serdika. The Sofia metro is new and its stations clean and pleasant.
Sofia is a small city, at least the part that is of any interest to tourists. Everything is enclosed in a circle of roughly one-kilometer radius. That means one does not need any public transport to visit places of interest, as everything is at a walking distance.
Of course, for the lazy ones there is a good network of buses, trams and trolley buses. The underground has two lines, which cross the city from east to west and from north to south and intersect at Serdika station. Serdika station is located at the very center of the city, at the Largo (under Nezavismost Square).
A bus ride costs 1.60 leva. You can buy tickets from kiosks and validate them when you board the bus, or buy them from mashines in the bus with change only (no banknotes). The tickets bought inside the bus do not need validation.
Central Sofia could be "divided" into 3 areas for the purpose of exploring it into two days.
a) East Central Sofia
b) North Central Sofia, and
c) South Central Sofia
Day one: the East part of the city is the most interesting and almost all "must see" attractions are located here. One really needs only half a day to explore the east part of the city, but I recommend a full day’s lazy walk. Start your day late, have a hearty breakfast at the hotel, or even better at one of the many cafes on Vitosha Bulevard, put on comfortable shoes and enjoy your day.
Day two: visit the north part of the city in the morning and the south in the afternoon of the same day. If you still have some energy left, try to visit the Museum of Socialistic Art at the suburbs!
Note: the following two walks are customized for the visitor to feel the pulse of the city, to admire and enjoy the architecture, to walk through parks and try to understand the environment the locals live in and breath. This is my kind of tourism. The text following does not describe any of the interior of the buildings or any of the museum exhibits, for time saving reasons. Besides, in a short visit of two/three days one has really no time for museums, unless he is a museum aficionado.
I visited one museum during my late March revisiting of the city and also visited a couple of other places I did not have the time to visit during my previous trip. All these "extra-curriculum" information is presented here in red color.
EAST (central) Sofia Walk
Map of the East part of central Sofia (red line boundaries) and proposed walk (blue line and arrows). The encircled “H” shows the location of the Hotel (the start/finish of the walk).
Start your day with a strong coffee at Starbucks (at the corner of Saborna and Knyaz Alexandar I streets) and enjoy the view of the City Garden (Градска градина), Sofia's oldest and most central public garden, in existence since 1872. If you feel that some extra calories would help you walk all day, try also the Peach Cheesecake... just yummy!
Decorative detail above the entrance of the national Theater.
Imposing Ivan Vazov National Theatre.
At the other side of the garden, stands the imposing building of Ivan Vazov National Theater (Народен театър „Иван Вазов“). This is the oldest and most authoritative theater in the country and one of the important landmarks of Sofia.
In the city Garden limits also stands the City Art Gallery.
The City Art Gallery.
Coffee and cake at the starbucks (left), the City Garden (right).
Buying chestnuts in the City Garden. The worse chestnuts I ever had!
From the National Theater continue east by walking the Ivan Vazov street till you arrive at the “Knyazheska Garden” park, which is a popular place where many young people gather.
In the middle of the park stands the Monument to the Soviet Army (Паметник на Съветската армия). You cannot miss it, as it is very tall and occupies a huge part of the park.
The monument portrays a soldier from the Soviet Army as a freedom fighter, surrounded by a Bulgarian woman holding her baby, and a Bulgarian man. There are other, secondary sculptural compositions as part of the memorial complex around the main monument. The monument was built in 1954 on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the liberation of Sofia by the Soviet Army.
Surprisingly, there are almost no references on tourist guides about the Red Army monument is Sofia, and when there is one, it talks about a “controversial monument”. For decades, politics has invaded the art and has distorted our perception for it. As a consequence, we know almost nothing about real masterpieces of Eastern Europe's communist era art. This art has deliberately omitted from the art books, and its artists have fallen into a pernicious oblivion.
One of the secondary compositions of the memorial, which portrays a group of soldiers, has been used as a canvas by political artists. The Russians have often complained about the vandalization of the monument. You can read about this at the following link:
Compositions of the "Red Army Monument". The often "artistically vandalised" part of the monument - a tribute to American heroes (middle right).
Children posing for me in front of one of the Red Army Monument components.
For further reading
Here are some good references about communist era architecture in Sofia:
👍 “Witnesses of stone: monuments and architectures of the red Bulgaria 1944-1989” by Nikolai Vukov and Luca Ponciroli.
👍 At the following link: www.apollo-magazine.com/bulgaria-must-not-try-to-forget-its-past/ there is a good article stating that “Bulgaria should not forget it’s history. Erasing part of your history is like erasing part of your identity and soul. A wise people do not destroy it’s past”.
Visit the “Eagle Bridge” (constructed in 1891, as the east gate to the city) at the farthest east side of the park and then head north west.
Pass by the main Building of the Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”, the National Library “Cyril and Methodius” and then head west.
At the middle of Narodno Square stands “Tsar Osvoboditel” statue. The equestrian Tsar has Radisson Blue and Casino at his back and faces the National Assembly of the Republic.
"Hi there"...Sofia marathon took place during my visit, on Sunday the 15th of October. Eagle Bridge was one of the basic turning points of the run.
Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski” (top), National Library “Cyril and Methodius” (bottom left), Narodno Square and “Tsar Osvoboditel” statue (bottom right).
Have some traditional (or not so traditional) soup at "Supa Star" (just oposite Hadzhi Dimitaer street) or have some juicy burger further down the street (at #20) at "Skaptoburger", winner of the "King of Burgers" Award for 2015 & 2016 (whatever that means 🤭). Classic burgers and craft beers from all over the world in a very friendly, casual atmosphere.
Shops around “Tsar Shishman” str.
"Supa Star" (top left), "Gelateria naturale" (top right), "Skaptoburger" (bottom left/right).
Certainly, you must feel peckish now (I told you to gorge that peach cheesecake at the Starbucks, remember?). It is time for some quick bites and a drink.
Tsar Shishman street
Head to the street just behind the equestrian Tsar called Tsar Shishman street. Shishman street is a very nice commercial street, full of boutique shops, bookshops, delis and small “eccentric” restaurants. Walk it all the way down to Sedmochislenitsi Square (Градина "Св. Седмочисленици").
"Supa Star" restaurant.
At the corner with Slavianska street stands the Bakery “Denis” (Баници и закуски "Денис"), where they bake the best banitsa in town. All kind of freshly baked white cheese, yellow cheese (kashkaval) or meat banitsa. Grab some and devour them on the spot.
If you are craving for something sweet grab some delicious, homemade (?) ice-cream at "Gelateria Naturale", a small shop at No 12A.
Shishman Street has several delis and groceries, mainly of the Italian elegance. Look for a dairy shop which sells fresh yogurt and white cheese: all natural and traditionally made.
Icecream and yogurt at Shishman Street.
Church of Sveti Sedmochislenitsi.
Finish your Shishman street walk at the Church of Sveti Sedmochislenitsi (Храм "Свети Cедмочисленици"), but just before arriving there visit the beautiful "Elephant bookstore". Memorabilia, books in English, gifts and vintage books in a very cozy and welcoming environment.
The mosque received its name, the Black Mosque, after the dark granite from which its minaret was made. The minaret collapsed during an earthquake in the 19th century and the mosque was abandoned, after the Liberation of Bulgaria in 1878, to become used as a military warehouse and prison, before its conversion into a Christian church. Only the central hall and the dome of the former mosque were preserved, with four oval bays, a narthex and an altar section being added. The complete inner decoration did not finish until 1996.
The Sveti Sedmochislenitsi Church created between 1901 and 1902 through the conversion of an abandoned Ottoman mosque. The church is named after Cyril and Methodius and their five disciples, known in the Orthodox Church collectively as the Sedmochislenitsi.
The so-called Black Mosque was built in 1528 on the order of Suleiman the Magnificent with the intention to be more impressive and beautiful than the Christian churches in the city. The mosque is attributed to the famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan. It was constructed at the place of a former nunnery of the Rila Monastery and an Early Christian temple from the 4th-5th century, the ruins of which were excavated in 1901. An even older construction, a pagan temple of Asclepius from Roman Serdica, was also discovered in the mosque's foundations.
The icon of Cyril, Methodius and their five disciples in the Sveti Sedmochislenitsi Church.
The interior of the Sveti Sedmochislenitsi Church.
After walking and "exploring" Shishman street, and having your stomach full, walk all the way back towards “St. Alexander Nevsky” Cathedral.
Built in Neo-Byzantine style, it serves as the cathedral church of the Patriarch of Bulgaria and it is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world, as well as one of Sofia's symbols and primary tourist attractions.
“St. Alexander Nevsky” Cathedral.
Saint Alexander Nevsky was a Russian prince (do you remember Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 historical drama film? That Nevsky!).
The cathedral was built in honor to the Russian soldiers who died during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, as a result of which Bulgaria was liberated from Ottoman rule. The cathedral finished in 1912.
“St. Alexander Nevsky” Cathedral. Poster for the 1938 Alexander Nevsky movie (bottom right).
The cathedral is adjacent to St. Sofia Church, (Храм "Света София" - "God's Wisdom"), which is one of the oldest churches in Sofia and its history is closely related to the history of the city. The church was built in the 6th century during the time of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, on the place of the necropolis of the city of Serdika and other older churches from the 4th century and dozens of masonry tombs. Fragments of the mosaic of one of the older temples were found during archaeological excavations. During the period of the 11th – 14th century it was a metropolitan church and its glory was so great that in the 14th century it gave its name to the city.
In the 16th century during the Ottoman Dominion the temple was reconstructed into a mosque, and its wall paintings were destroyed. According to a legend, in the 16th century the goldsmith Georgi was burned alive in front of it, because he refused to convert into Islam. The great earthquakes in 1818 and 1858 demolished the minaret and destroyed the building, and according to a legend during the second earthquake the two sons of the imam were in the building and died. The Muslims considered that a bad omen and deserted the temple. It was deserted for a long time, but after the Liberation (1878) it was turned into a warehouse.
The building was renovated a number of times, and since the beginning of the 20th century archaeological excavations have been conducted here. Currently the appearance of the temple is as close as possible to its authentic look from the late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. The revolutionary Vasil Levski was hung in close proximity to the temple.
Other notable landmarks in the immediate vicinity of the cathedral are the Monument to the Unknown Soldier, the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, the National Gallery of Foreign Art, the National Art Academy, a park honoring the great Bulgarian writer Ivan Vazov with his monument and gravestone, the Sofia Opera and Ballet.
At the park just in front of the cathedral there’s a small flea market, where one can buy handmade textiles, icons, antiques and communist era memorabilia.
Fresco at St. Alexander Nevsky” Cathedral (left). (from top to right) Park Ivan Vazov, Monument to the Unknown Soldier, Sofia Opera and Ballet, The flea market in front of the Cathedral.
Leaving the flea market, follow Georgi Street to the south and after a block turn right on Tsar Osvoboditel boulevard. The first monument you see is the Russian church of Saint Nikolay Mirlikiiski.
Just next to the church stands the Natural History museum. By the entrance of the museum there are two small shops with kids’ staff, like dinosaur replicas, mineral rocks, etc.
Further down the street is the National Ethnology museum and the National Art Gallery, both occupying the historic and imposing edifice of the former royal palace of Bulgaria. The museum moved to the palace in 1946, after the abolition of the monarchy. The Ethnology museum has a very interesting shop of folk art memorabilia.
Russian church of Saint Nikolay Mirlikiiski
Royal gardens/flee market (top), the street behind the Royal Gardens/the Ethnology Museum (middle). The Ethnology Museum/National Gallery (bottom).
The entrance to the Archeological museum.
Continue walking on the Tsar Osvoboditel boulevard until you reach Atanas Burov Square and the Fountain in the middle of it. You have reached the National Archeological Museum (Национален археологически музей).
At the garden of the museum you can rest for a drink under the huge plane trees of the “Art Club Museum” (entrance from Saborna street). Drinking my mint lemonade in the garden I had the strange feeling that I was in Istanbul.
The museum occupies the building of the largest and oldest former Ottoman mosque in the city, originally known as Koca Mahmut Paşa Camii. The construction started in 1451 under grand vizier Veli Mahmud Pasha but due to his death in 1474 the mosque has been completed in 1494.
The main hall of the Archeological Museum.
The interior of the museum is very impressive, but it has not been renovated for long, so everything looks dated and dusted. The building is not friendly for people with mobility difficulties, as there is no elevator.
In the contrary, the museum exhibits are very interesting, though their presentation is very old-fashioned. The exhibits cover the whole history of the area, from the prehistoric times till the Byzantine era. The most interesting room of the museum is the “treasury” where artifacts made of gold, copper and silver are presented: burial masks of Thracian and Macedonian noble men, jewelry, weapons, armor and everyday use utensils of unparalleled craftsmanship.
Archeological Museum highlights.
Just Opposite the entrance of the Archaeological Museum sits the President of the Republic of Bulgaria (Президент на Република България).
Two fancy clothed guards ward the entrance of the building.
If you are lucky, you'll be able to watch the change of the guards ceremony.
The guards in front of the President of Republic of Bulgaria.
Next to the guards, there is a narrow passage which leads into an enclosed courtyard where stands the Sofia's oldest building, a 4th-century cylindrical Christian church with a frescoed dome. The church was built at a time when Sofia was the residence of the emperors Galerius and Constantine the Great. This red brick rotunda is the Church of Saint George (Ротонда „Свети Георги“).
The church is part of a larger archaeological complex. Behind the apse, there are ancient ruins: a section of a Roman street with preserved drainage, foundations of a large basilica, probably a public building, and some smaller buildings.
Church of Saint George.
Get out from the south passage of the courtyard and turn right and in front of you is located the Cathedral Church of Saint Nedelya (църква "Света Неделя" - Holy Sunday), an ornate, domed Orthodox church featuring an elaborate interior covered with murals.
Saint Nedelya is a medieval church that has suffered destruction through the ages and has been reconstructed many times. The present building is among the landmarks of Sofia. It was designed by the famous Bulgarian architectural team Vasilyov-Tsolov.
Cathedral Church of Saint Nedelya.
DAY 2 (morning)
NORTH (central) Sofia Walk
Map of the North part of central Sofia (red line boundaries) and proposed walk (blue line). The "S" marks the start of the walk and the “F” marks the finish of the walk.
Before starting the second day walk I took the metro and got off at the Central Train Station.
I had some memories of this Train Station from my first trip to Sofia with my father and I wanted to see if it would impress me the way it impressed me 40 years ago.
One of the very few things I really remember from that first trip, is the massive monument of a mother and child part of a tall pillar standing in front of the main entrance. It is still there, as impressive as it was those days.
I remember we got off the train at the Station late at night (very early in the morning). The station looked huge to my eyes and luxurious.
The main lobby of the train station after the 2016 renovation.
The station opened in 1974, that means when we were there the station was just some years old. Coming from a provincial Greek city, this immense building with the bright lights and the glossy wooden benches looked like a palace to me.
We spent the night at the Station as the information office was closed and we had made no hotel arrangements in advance! That was my father! We left Larissa to go to Sofia to find a doctor, without speaking or understanding the language, without booking a room, without a map and without knowing anyone in the city, with only my father’s belief that the Bulgarian doctors were far better than the Greek ones! Of course, that was not the case. But who cares? That was our own little-big adventure as father and son. The first one and the last one actually.
Today, after all these years the station looks very well-ordered and fresh (it has obviously gone through a recent face-lift) but nothing as gigantic as I remembered.
The station is located 1 km north of the city center after Lavov most, on Marie Louise Boulevard in the immediate proximity of the Central Bus Station of Sofia.
The lobby of the station before the recent renovation.
❤ Sofia is a green city. There are lots of parks and all streets are lined with trees: plane trees, birch trees and Chestnut trees.
❤ Wherever there is a garden or a yard or a green spot in the city, there is a cozy restaurant or a vibrant café. Obviously, people love the outdoors.
❤ Sofia is supposed to be the most polluted capital in Europe, according to data of the European Environment Agency (what is this? Another useless bureaucratic European Agency?). Nevertheless, during my long weekend stay there, the sky had a deep blue color, the air was crispy and cool and all together the feeling was great.
❤ The supermarkets stock lots of Italian and Greek products. Sofia is the only city I have visited so far (besides Italy, of course) that sells lavazza coffee capsules but not Nespresso ones. Maybe Mr Clooney is not that popular here.
❤ Pizza is the national dish! It is everywhere!
❤ The smooth slopes of Vitosha Mountain start just outside the city limits. You can see its snowy top from everywhere in the city.
❤ Sofia is a very safe city for tourists and most probably you'll never encounter any threats. Of course, one has to take all reasonable precautions when walk in deserted streets in the night.
❤ The roads in the city are in very poor state and there are dangerous potholes everywhere. The pavements are in even worse state and one has to be very cautious not to break a leg or arm.
Get off the metro at Lavov Most Station and start your walk from here. Lions' Bridge (Лъвов мост/Lavov most) is a bridge over the Vladaya River built in 1889-1891.
It gives the name to the important and busy junction of Marie Louise Boulevard and Slivnitsa Boulevard, at which it is located, connecting the Central Railway Station with the city center and marking the northern entrance to the city.
The name of Lions' Bridge comes from the four bronze lion sculptures, its most recognizable feature.
Head south-west and follow the Stefan Stambolov boulevard. Along Stambolov blvd lies Jenski Pazar (женски пазар) - Women's Market (Ladies' Market), which is a local market. The market is mostly frequented by locals, even though the last years it has been discovered by tourists, too. Therefore, prices are very good.
Just recently, the city erected big billboards, at several points in the area, with old market pictures. These bilingual billboards narrate (the more than 150-years old) market's history.
Most of the market is covered and follows the length of the boulevard. Under the market roof, vendors sell fresh veggies, fruit and every kind of groceries. There are also small fast food eateries and cafes.
Among the vegetable benches and the small eateries and cafes, there are also shops selling ceramic utensils and woolen fabrics, as well as colorful souvenirs. I bought some ceramic souvenirs, among them a couple of bird-shaped whistles.
At the buildings of the boulevard, along both sides of the covered market, there are small shops selling clothes, household items, bakery products, cheese, meat, honey, dried fruit, nuts and every kind of spices. There's also a Billa supermarket.
One can see women sitting at the thresholds of their houses selling their products, a scene which takes the visitor long back in time, as do "the time forgotten" cafes and restaurants of the area.
Vegetable vendor stalls at Women's Market.
Shops around Jenski Pazar.
The area with narrow cobbled streets between the market and the synagogue further down (on Ekzarh Yosif street) is mainly a residential zone with small shops reminiscent of the 1950s. Most of the shops and restaurants in this area are non-Bulgarian shops: mainly middle eastern ones.
The houses here, even though they need a good facelift, have retained their original charming architecture.
Typical cobbled street and colored houses.
After wandering around the narrow, picturesque streets, continue down the George Washington Street till you reach the early-1900s Sephardic synagogue. The synagogue has an octagonal dome, a large chandelier & a museum on Jewish history. Unfortunately, I have never managed to find it open to visit its interior.
The Sofia Synagogue (Софийска синагога) is the largest synagogue in Southeastern Europe and the third-largest in Europe.
The north facade of the synagogue.
Houses at Ekzarh Yosif, just opposite the Synagogue.
The facade of the Market Hall.
Just next to the synagogue stands the Central Sofia Market Hall (Централни софийски хали), known simply as "the Market Hall" (Халите), which is a covered market. The main entrance is on Marie Louise Boulevard.
The market opened in 1911 and is today an important trade center. The market hall building's interior was significantly altered in the 1950s. The market closed in 1988 to be reconstructed, modernized and once again opened for Easter in 2000.
Today, the Central Sofia Market Hall has three storeys, and offers foodstuff stalls and shops: clothing shops, accessories and jewelry shops, fast food stalls, bakery and cake shops, cosmetic shops etc.
The main hall of Central Market (top left); roasted pumpkins (bottom left), several yummy cakes and among them the popular "garash tort" which is a chocolate cake with layers, seen here on the middle left corner of the picture, several kind of "banitsa" (bottom right).
Banya Bashi Mosque.
The Banya Bashi Mosque (Баня баши джамия) was built by the famous architect and civil engineer Mimar Sinan. Its construction was completed in 1566.
The mosque stems its name from the phrase Banya Bashi, which means “many baths”.
The most outstanding feature of the mosque is that it's built over natural thermal spas; one can even see the steam rising from vents in the ground near the mosque walls.
The mosque is famous for its large 15m-diameter dome and the minaret.
Currently, the Banya Bashi Mosque is the only functioning mosque in Sofia, a remnant of the Ottoman rule of Bulgaria that lasted nearly five centuries. It is used by the city's Muslim community.
The mosque has recently gone through a thorough renovation, which revealed its glorious simplicity.
Central Mineral Baths building.
Just opposite the main entrance of the Market Hall, on Marie Louise Boulevard, stands an ornate mosque with a large dome built during the Ottoman Empire.
The interior and dome frescos of the Banya Bashi Mosque.
Behind the Mosque there is a park (Градина "Централна баня") and the History of Sofia Museum, which is housed in the Central Mineral Baths building.
The current Central Mineral Baths building was designed in the Vienna Secession style, but integrated typical Bulgarian, Byzantine and Eastern Orthodox ornamental elements, by the architects Petko Momchilov and Friedrich Grünanger in 1904–1905.
Probably the most typical landmark in Sofia is the Largo (Ларго).
The Largo is an architectural ensemble of three Socialist Classicism edifices in what is considered the very center of the city, designed and built in the 1950s with the intention to become the city's new representative epicenter.
Today it is regarded as one of the prime examples of Socialist Classicism architecture in Europe.
The ensemble consists of the former Communist Party House (once crowned by a red star on a pole), now used as administrative offices by the National Assembly of Bulgaria, in the center, and two side buildings: one is accommodating the TSUM (ЦУМ) department store and the Council of Ministers of Bulgaria and the other which is today occupied by the President's Office, the Sofia Hotel Balkan and the Ministry of Education.
The TSUM arcade, the Largo. TSUM opened in 1957 as a people's department store. Today it is transformed to become a place for expensive boutiques. Even though the rents are very high, the store looks gloomy and neglected.
Fixing the famous McDonalds Arches at the roof of a building opposite the TSUM.
Before and After...
The Largo once also featured a statue of Vladimir Lenin, which was removed and replaced in 2000 by a very controversial copper and bronze statue (it is considered too erotic and pagan for the depiction of a saint) of St. Sophia.
The statue is adorned with the symbols of power (crown), fame (wreath) and wisdom (owl). The crown is also a reference to the Goddess of Fate (Tyche), inspired by the old emblem of Sofia dating back to 1900.
The Lenin statue, which removed from its position at the Largo, today stands at the Museum of Socialistic Art.
A large part of the Largo (mostly in front of TSUM store) is occupied by the excavations and archaeological findings of Old Serdika.
The archeological site continues under the Nezavisimost Square (the heart of the Largo) in an underground mall covered with a plexiglass dome.
St Petka of the Saddlers
The church is dedicated to St Petka, an 11th-century Bulgarian saint. The Church of Saint Petka acquired its present name due to him being a patron of the saddlers in the Middle Ages, who performed their rituals in the church.
Old Serdika archaeological site.
Part of this archeological site is the Church of St Petka of the Saddlers (Църква "Света Петка Самарджийска"), a medieval Orthodox church, featuring a semi-cylindrical vault, a hemispherical apse, and a crypt discovered during excavations after the Second World War. The walls are 1m thick and made from brick and stone.
The church was first mentioned in the 16th century and was constructed at the place of a former Roman religious building. It is today a monument of culture known for its mural paintings from the 14th, 15th, 17th and 19th century depicting biblical scenes.
The underground Largo.
TSUM Commercial at the largo.
"Chupa Chups" commercial-mural just opposite the TSUM. I take this opportunity to mention something I very recently learned: the Chupa Chups logo was designed by Salvador Dali in 1969. Dalí created the familiar daisy insignia and even suggested that the logo be printed on top of the wrapper so that it was always fully displayed—a tip the candymaker seized upon. With all those Dalí prints lingering in the candy aisle, don’t hesitate to call your next purchase an investment in fine art.
SOUTH (central) Sofia Walk
S=start of the walk, F=finish of the walk
Parade at Vitosha Boulevard.
Vitosha Boulevard (булевард "Витоша", often called just "Витошка") is the main commercial street in the center of the city. The street is abundant in stores, restaurants, cafes and bars. It extends from the Saint Nedelya Square and the Sofia Court House to the National Palace of Culture park.
The boulevard is named after Vitosha, the mountain whose green silhouette can be seen from every part of the city. Vitosha was an unadjusted street during the Ottoman rule of Bulgaria and acquired the name "Vitosha Street" after the Liberation, in 1883. The street was initially built up with low one-storey houses, but turned into an imposing trade street in the interwar period as massive public buildings were constructed, changing Vitoshka's appearance completely.
Vitosha mountain seen from "Rila Hotel".
The 1940 built Sofia Court House is located on 2, Vitosha Boulevard.
Vitosha Boulevard. At the northern end of the street stands the church of Sveta Nedelya.
In summer 2015 a 10-year renovation plan finished, and now the entire street is a pedestrian zone with nice benches and street lights, Art Nouveau round kiosks, green areas and trees, fountains and open-air bars.
Vitosha is the heart of the city, especially when the weather is good: people rush to enjoy the sun at the open-air cafes or just sit in one of the numerous benches to relish a cone of ice-cream.
The National Palace of Culture.
Walk all the way down this beautiful boulevard and you reach the big, open space in the middle of which stands the National Palace of Culture (Национален дворец на културата). The National Palace of Culture (NDK) is the largest, multifunctional conference and exhibition center in south-eastern Europe.
In the mid 1970's the government decided that Bulgaria needed a large-scale cultural center. The deadline for its construction was 1981, to host the celebrations marking 1300 years of the establishment of the Bulgarian state. At the time this part of downtown Sofia was not well developed and chaotic. Shortly after the WWII bombings of the capital, a dozen makeshift buildings were haphazardly erected on that terrain, alongside the existing coal freight train station, old military barracks and hundreds of hectares of barren land.
The center was initiated at the suggestion of Lyudmila Zhivkova, daughter of the communist leader of the former People's Republic of Bulgaria Todor Zhivkov and Minister of Culture. Up until the changes in 1989, the Palace was named after the late Lyudmila Zhivkova.
The project was designed by a team of Bulgarian and foreign architects led by Alexander Barov. The landscaping of Bulgaria Square in front of the NDK was designed by another team of architects and landscape engineers, led by Atanas Agura.
Internally, the building exhibits a unified style, employing an octagonal motif and heavy, dark colors. Large bright murals depicting historical figures and events cover the main wall of many of the smaller halls.
The NDK park just after its completion in 1981. The huge monument in the foreground has been destroyed by the post-communist government.
During the '90s, immediately following the change of the political model in the country, the NDK fell into neglection.
In 2011, the NDK restructured into a commercial company (it remains a state property). A new era started for NDK, which today is functioning mainly as a congress/conference center as well as a hall for exhibitions, festivals, shows, ballet, opera, concerts and theater. The Sofia International Film Festival takes place in the NDK.
A street musician at NDK park.
Walk back to the center of the city through the NDK park and take Angel Kanchev street to Rayko Daskalov square.
The area around Rayko Daskalov square is a residential area with lots of nice restaurants and cafes.
In general, the «triangle» that is formed by Vitosha boulevard, General Yosif Gourko street and Patriarh Evtimiy boulevard, is a very nice neighborhood with lots of bars and restaurants, small boutique shops, treelined streets and neglected but beautiful houses.
Around Rayko Daskalov square.
At Rayko Daskalov square and in front of the City Library (at Petko Slaveykov square) takes place a daily book fair with old books in many languages, not only in Bulgarian.
I bought a 1954 soviet tourist guide of Kiev, in Russian.
The book stalls at the book fair at Rayko Daskalov square.
The Petko Slaveykov square book fair infront of the City Library.
Talking with good friends at Petko Slaveykov square.
If you have some time to spare, consider visiting the Museum of Socialist Art in the south-eastern suburbs of the city. Take metro line 1 or 2 and get off at Dimitrov station. Exit the station from the northern exit and walk on Dragan Tsankov boulevard for about 250m. At the first traffic lights turn right to Lachezar Stanchev street and walk for another 250m to the entrance of the museum.
A billboard at the entrance of the Museum of Socialist Art.
The location of the Socialist Art Museum.
Vladimir and me.
The Museum of Socialist Art opened in 2011 and is a branch of the National Art Gallery. It presents works from the period of Socialist rule in Bulgaria (1944–1989).
Over 70 works of monumental sculpture from the 50s, the 60s, the 70s and the 80s are exhibited in the green yard of the museum in a very pleasant way. Among them stand the highlights of the museum: the big Lenin Statue, which removed in 2000 from its initial position at the Largo, the large five-pointed red star that once crowned the former Party House in the center of Sofia and the 5-meter sculpture of Georgi Dimitrov which has been transported from Sopot.
The five-pointed red star that once crowned the former Party House.
It's all about beards.
In the main hall of the museum are exhibited key works from the socialist period. Also, temporary art exhibitions of socialistic content and reference are presented all year round.
Archival and documentary films are projected in a video room and next to it the shop offers catalogues and a variety of promotional material and souvenirs.
The entrance to the museum costs 6 leva (students and seniors: 3 leva).
Stoyan Venev, September Nights, 1962. ("Mythologems of the Heroic", temporary Exhibition 4/2018)
Let’s talk about FOOD...
Restaurants/pastry shops proposed in this section.
Just opposite the Sofia Court House (at the beginning of Vitosha bul.) there is a very small shop with NO NAME.
It was my greatest discovery during this long weekend. It is mostly a take away restaurant (there are only 2-3 small tables) with lots of home made delicacies. They offer a good variety of both savory and sweet dishes.
We tried delicious cheese banitsa (баница = the traditional Bulgarian pie), chicken pies and a big variety of cheesecakes. We did not have the opportunity to taste other cooked food, but all looked mouthwatering.
The biggest revelation was tikvenik (тиквеник), which is puff pastry cake with walnuts, cinnamon and syrup.
The place is always crowded and closes early in the afternoon.
Do not let yourself being put off by the unpolite and sullen employees (proprietors?)… it is the products that matter!
Tikvenik (тиквеник) Cake.
Сheesecakes, banitsa (баница), etc.
Of all the streets in the area (east of Vitosha bul/ around Rayko Daskalov sq) two of them: Christo Belchev and Angel Kanchev streets have the best variety of state-of-the-art restaurants, bars and pastry shops. Try "Made in Home" and "Agarta" restaurants in Kanchev street (at the corner with Han Asparuh str).
Enjoy a delicious cake or multicolor macaroons in "100 грама сладки", in the same street, just one block south of Rayko Daskalov square.
The Hadjidragana Tavern in Belchev street is a traditional Bulgarian restaurant full of tourists and rather expensive.
The place is popular during rush hours and the service is very slow.
The over-decorated "bucolic-rural" rooms (walls made of wood and stone, wooden barels stack one uppon the other, woodcarvings and traditional Bulgarian garbs hanging on the walls, etc) are rather overwhelming; but there is a very pleasant backyard, where you can have all kind of traditional dishes (red peppers stuffed with kinoa!!...give me a brake) under the open sky.
The Hadjidragana Tavern interior decorations and me waiting for my food at the backyard.
Next to the Hadjidragana Tavern there’s a more reasonable choice for food. “Divaka” is a chain of three restaurants in Sofia. With considerably lower prices than its traditional neighborhood and in a modern environment, Divaka offers a great variety of tasty dishes. I had the opportunity to dine there only once, during my March visit. I had the most delicious eggplant puree, perfectly grilled talagani cheese, a rather blunt ratatouille, super tasty traditional meatballs and chicken bites. All these and draft beer for 38 leva.
Grilled talagani cheese & egglant puree at Divaka.
And here’s the highlight of a long weekend in Sofia: dinner at restaurant “Shtastliveca” (Ресторант "Щастливеца").
Certainly, during a weekend in a city, one does not have the opportunity to try many restaurants and cafes.
But, if I had to recommend just one place in Sofia that would be undoubtedly Shtastliveca. If it is either for dinner or lunch, in Shtastliveca you have the opportunity to enjoy really tasty and excellent quality food.
People enjoying dinner at Shtastliveca” restaurant.
The “Shtastliveca” restaurant in Vitosha bulevard.
I bumped onto it accidentally (not that accidentally though, as it is located very centrally, on Vitosha boulevard) the first day we visited the city.
In general, I have serious reservations about restaurants that have huge menus with hundreds of dishes to choose from, because I know that it is very difficult for an establishment to have facilities able to support such a variety of food. Also, I have reservations for “fusion cuisine”: it is usually crap cuisine that offers nothing but a big plate with a hint of food in the middle of it tasting like nothing. It is TV celebrities food!
Shtastliveca could comply with both of the above reservations and usually I would reject the idea of visiting this restaurant without a second thought. (Obviously, reservations sometimes mislead you as they may be just obsessions). But, I was very tired, the day was beautiful, people in Vitosha boulevard were moving around in “gayness and loudness” and the restaurant “garden” on the street looked so appealing. So…
Chicken with courgettes (left), grilled meat with porcini and field mushrooms (top right), pan fried green peppers (bottom right).
The second day we had dinner and we chose:
a) fresh courgette balls with feta and yellow cheese, and
b) a variation of kiopoolu (aubergine puree) with lentil, served on a croute of crispy bread, sprinkled with walnuts and balsamic reduction.
a) veal-lamb small meatballs (lightly spicy) with smoked yellow cheese, served with garlic potatoes, and
b) home-made sausages served with garlic potatoes, parsley, home-made ketchup of roasted sweet red peppers and olive oil with herbs.
The first day we had lunch there and we chose:
pan fried green peppers (lightly spiced) in a feta cheese sauce as a starter and:
a) lightly spiced chicken with courgettes, lemon, olives and oregano, served with garlic baked potato and creamy mousse, and
b) grilled meat (kebab) with porcini and field mushrooms, as main courses.
I could not believe how tasty all three dishes were!
(top left) Fresh courgette balls with feta, (top right) kiopoolu, (bottom left) home-made sausages, (bottom right) veal-lamb small meatballs.
I wish I had more days, so I could try more of those tasty dishes.
Pork fillet with porcini mushrooms at “Shtastliveca” restaurant.
I’ll close this culinary tour in central Sofia with two places worth visiting:
A) the vegetarian restaurant and bakery "Sun Moon" located at the convergence of Han Krum and 6-ti Septemvri streets. When their weather is good they serve the freshly baked cakes and delicious soups outside, just in front of the shop.
"Sun Moon" bakery.
B) the gelateria and confectionery "Confetti" (Джелатерия Конфети). The main entrance is on the Graf Ignatiev street (very close to Garibaldi square), but there is also access from the huge backyard on Hristo Belchev street. A great variety of cakes and ice cream flavors. I tried a very good "ganash" tort and raspberry tiramisu.
The Confetti entrance on Graf Ignatiev str (top). Delicious cakes (bottom).
Friends had visited Sofia recently and all of them had only positive things to narrate.
I had just old sentimental and twisted (due to the pass of time) memories of the city. To tell you the truth I had a vague reluctance to go back.
Now? I cannot see the time to visit again. I will go back this winter to enjoy the snow on Vitosha mountain and the cold and crispy (I hope) weather, which I love.
Niko, Kosta, Mario see you there!
I ❤ U Sofia
P.S. Thank you Makis for walking all these kilometres with me.