Sofia, Bulgaria was an unexpected stop for us as we were searching routes from Greece to Italy where we’re attending a wedding. A two day layover here saved us significant money and gave us a delightful stop in a city that has really charmed us.
As thrifty travelers we also love the cost of our stop here! Our lovely AirBnb in the heart of the city was only $30 and we had read that it’s possible to get a five star hotel here for under $100!
To top both of this, there is a myriad of FREE activities for seeing the city. While we are not typically big fans of large tour groups, we do enjoy the organized free city tours that many cities have. We typically find they are staffed with enthusiastic students who love the city and we get great local insights from speaking with them. While it’s “free” in name we always reccomend giving donations to the guides to compensate for their time and effort. Sofia is the jackpot of free tours:
- Sofia Free City Waking Tour: We opted for this one. This group also offers paid Communist and Culture tours.
- Green Sofia Free Hiking Tour: A five hour day trip to Boyana, a World Heritage Site
- Green Sofia Biking Tour: They offer both a morning and an afternoon option
We opted for the walking tour and here are the highlights of what we learned. Our group of fellow tourist were comprised of individuals from all over Europe including Bulgarians, several Germans & French, Turkish and Hong Kong. Our guide Stanislov mentioned that tourism began in Sofia directly after Ryan Air started routing flights through, which was in fact why we were in Sofia!
Bulgarians are in love with lions but no one seems to know why, the town is filled with lion statues and the currency has a lion on it as well as the town crest. The national hero is called Vecil the lion due to the lion’s leap he made according to folklore.
Sophia’s history is about 7-8000 years old. Around 3000 B.C. the Thracians of Spartacus) arrived in Bulgaria. During the Roman Empire expansion, the city called Serdica became capital of the eastern Roman Empire then became Bulgaria in the 9th Century. It was then conquered by the Byzantine, Ottomon and Russians before reestablishing itself once again after the 2nd World War.
There are many Orthodox Christian churches around Sofia but not many are practicing due to the persecution during the communist Soviet rule. In 1925 the largest terrorist attack happened when the Basilica of a large church was rigged with explosives, a plot to kill the king. The church was the site for all state funerals and the plot was to detonate during the funeral of a general. Over 217 people died but the king survived because he was late to the funeral. He was late attending a separate funeral of a security guard who had saved his life just the week before. As the story is told, this loyal security guard saved the kings life once again in death.
Many of the churches are surrounded / camouflaged by Soviet era buildings which tried to hide their existence.
The Bulgarian people are very proud of its history of tolerance despite the intolerance of different ruling empires. There is an area called the Square of Tolerance where a mosque, a church, and a Jewish temple are all visible. We later visited the Jewish temple, which you can read more about here.
Bulgaria also has one of the most extensive visible Roman ruins in Europe, in fact third after Rome and Greece. Throughout the city you’ll see preserved ruins in parks where you are able to take a walk in the park AND walk through ancient ruins. In the metro there are similarly persevere ruins for viewing.
Similar to Turkey, there were historically several bath houses in the city. These were all unfortunately converted during the Soviet rule and are no longer functioning bath houses. Luckily the beautiful architecture remain:
Similar to the U.K., there is a changing of the guards that takes place at the Presidential Building. These guards each receive a single eagles feather when they are appointed. Historically these guards were required to catch an eagle with his bare hands in order to apply for the role. Today an eagle in the Sofia zoo donates his feather for the uniform.
During the tour we spotted red and white strings hanging from trees. They’re called Martenitsa and are worn from Baba Marta Day (March 1) until the wearer first sees the first sign of spring traditionally a stork, swallow, or blossoming tree.
The name of the holiday means “Grandma March” in Bulgarian and the holiday and the wearing of Martenitsi are a Bulgarian tradition related to welcoming the spring, which according to Bulgarian folklore begins in March. On that day locals buy Martenitsa by the dozen and exchange them to everyone they encounter shop owners, family and friends. Upon spotting the first blossom on a tree the string is removed and tied onto a tree branch.
We were so charmed by this story in the same way we’ve been charmed by Sofia.