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Bulgaria’s capital, its biggest city, and another of Europe’s oldest cities, Sofia, with a population of 1,250,000, is often overlooked by foreign visitors who make a beeline for the beach or mountains, yet it’s a fascinating place. It’s very much an Eastern European city, with broad tree-lined boulevards, sprawling squares and public gardens, Communist-era statues and war memorials, magnificent Orthodox churches like the gold-domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, and Ottoman era-mosques. Sofia has an abundance of alfresco cafes, ice-creameries, low-lit bars, rowdy pubs, traditional restaurants where you can wash down hearty dishes with Bulgarian wine, and countless band venues and dance clubs. The myriad museums, art galleries, concert halls, and cultural activities also make a visit interesting.
There a handful of sights on the outskirts, like the Museum of Socialist Art and sculpture park, containing Communist Art produced from 1944 to 1989; the UNESCO World Heritage-listed medieval Boyana Church, decorated with frescoes and icons, in the foothills of Vitosha Mountain; and the National History Museum in the residence of former Communist leader, Todor Zhivkov, which has a medieval skeleton of a ‘vampire’, complete with iron stake in its heart. Aside from these, most sights are in the compact city centre.Read more
The yellow paving stones you’ll find yourself strolling across in the administrative early were laid in the early 20th century as a wedding gift to Bulgarian Tsar Ferdinand from the Austro-Hungarian royal family. There, you’ll find the Serdika subway underpass and a subterranean archaeological site where relics are on display. Also engaging is the National Archaeological Museum in the Great Mosque, built in 1474 – the museum itself was established in 1893. Nearby, admire the architecture of the handsome striped Mineral Baths or Turkish Baths, dating to 1911. The National Museum of Military History is also fascinating, with exhibits covering warfare from Thracian times through to World War II. The National Art Gallery and Ethnographic Museum in the Royal Palace are also worth a couple of hours.
Browse the wonderful Alexsander Nevski market, around the cathedral, for Soviet and Nazi memorabilia, ‘antiques’, religious icons, and crafts; the sprawling outdoor Zhenski Pazar or Ladies’ Market (where you’ll find everything from fresh produce to souvenirs); the elegant Central Hali in a neo-Renaissance-cum-neo-Byzantine market hall dating to 1911; and Vitosha Boulevard, the main pedestrian shopping area. When you need to catch your breath (or count your cash!) head to Borisov Park or South Park, where you’ll find locals enjoying everything from games of chess to skateboarding.