48 Hours In: Sofia

For anyone seeking a budget city break with some tempting skiing attached, Bulgaria's capital is a surprisingly elegant solution.



Click here for
48 Hours



In...Sofia map


Sofia, a yet-uncelebrated eastern capital of broad avenues and grand buildings, is both accessible and spectacularly good value when you get there. Bulgaria's capital is well worth 48 hours, and offers skiing close to the centre.

Travel essentials

Touch down

I paid £72 from Luton to Sofia on Wizz Air (0906 959 0002; wizzair.com) ; easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) flies from both Gatwick and Manchester. From Heathrow, British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) competes with Bulgaria Air (020-7637 2481; air.bg).

Bus services into the city are slow and irregular, while taxis are remarkably good value – if you book at the official kiosk, OK Supertrans, as you come out of arrivals. You are given a ticket with the licence number. Find the driver outside, and pay at the end of the trip – likely to be a maximum of 15 leva (sometimes written BGN15, worth £6.50).

The city centre is indicated by the dramatic Sofia Monument (1), a 24m-high woman of wisdom (the owl on her left arm) and strength (the victory wreath in her right hand). Vitosha Boulevard continues south from here, with Todor Aleksandrov leading to the west, Maria Luiza to the north and Nezavisimost Square extending to the east. The railway station (2) is 1km north-east of the centre.

Public transport mostly comprises trams and trolley buses. You can either buy tickets in advance (1 lev/45p each, 10 for 7.50 leva/£3.30) or pay the driver a small premium. If you can't wait, wave down one of the minibuses that race along the main boulevards (the usual fare is around 2 leva/90p) or hail a cab and insist the driver uses the meter.



Check in

Whatever your preferred hotel standard, Sofia is likely to be cheaper than any other capital in Europe (except, possibly, Belgrade). The central Hotel Maya (3) at Trapezitza 4 (00 359 2 980 2796) stands just across from the Sofia Monument. Family-run, it offers comfortable rooms for around 50 leva (£22), excluding breakfast. Don't miss the roof terrace.

Among the growing range of upmarket hotels, the most central and characterful is the five-star Sheraton Sofia Hotel Balkan (4) at 5 Sveta Nedelya Square (00 359 2 981 6541; luxurycollection.com/sofia). The opulence of the surroundings used to be enjoyed by party high-ups; today, you can stay for as little as €150 a night (double, internet rate, excluding breakfast, including free Wi-Fi).

Day one

Take a hike

Sofia is best explored on foot, because there is always a mix of humdrum and remarkable on the city's streets. Start at the 16th-century Sveto Petka Samardzhiska (5), a tiny church almost submerged in a clash of broad boulevards. It is worth seeking out: a fascinating little church on Roman foundations. The official opening hours, 7am-6pm, are not always respected. Sveta Nedelya Cathedral (6) just south, is more accessible. Head east along Saborna, but go left almost immediately to see if the Roman remains around the Sveto Georgi Rotunda Church (7) are open; if so, have a good nose around. Continue towards the City Garden. Bear left across the park and the broad Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard to find a small sculpture garden outside the National Art Gallery (8). Follow the boulevard east to Rakovski. Turn left, past a market selling communist-era souvenirs, and right to the vast Aleksander Nevski Cathedral (9) – built in gratitude from the Bulgarians to the Russians, who expelled the Ottomans. Named for a medieval Grand Prince, it was complete in 1913. Wander in to sample the vitality of a busy Orthodox church.

For lunch, the tasty pizzas at Victoria (10) are an olive stone's throw away.

Window shopping

The Sofia retail experience is more fun than you might imagine. The Central Market (11), which celebrates its centenary next year, has been elegantly converted into a mall with cafes and boutiques – a much more attractive prospect than the modern malls. The main shopping drag (and, incidentally, the best place to get a good conversion rate for currency) is Vitosha Boulevard.

To stock up with ski gear at low prices then try Stenata (12) at Bratia Miladenovi 5. Just north of here is the Ladies' Market (13), which straggles for several blocks along Stefan Stambolov.

Dining with the locals

From a dismal start, the cuisine – and dining experience – in Sofia is improving all the time. Cactus (14) (00 359 2 865 7420; cactus.bg, Bulgarian only) is where high standards and low prices converge. It is a spacious, modern setting where plausible Mexican dishes are served – along with some Bulgarian offerings and good salads (7.49 leva/£3.50 for a very precise 300 grams).

Day two

Sunday morning: a walk in the park

South-east Sofia has plenty of open space. Start at the monumental Soviet War Memorial (15), in an otherwise ordinary park, then cross the Eagles' Bridge (16) to reach the huge Borissova Gardens.

Out for brunch

Sunday brunch at the five-star Hilton Sofia (17) at 1 Bulgaria Boulevard (00 359 2 933 5000) runs noon-3.30pm, for a flat 49 leva (£22) – including unlimited beer or sparkling wine.

Go to church

Head south towards Mount Vitosha, by bus 63, minibus 21 or taxi (around 8 leva/£3.50) to the village-turned-suburb of Boyana. This is the location for arguably the greatest cultural treasure in the Balkans, a tiny, 13th-century chapel that is the location for some startling murals: Boyana Church (00 359 2 959 2963; boyanachurch.org). From 1259 to 1954, this was a parish church; it is now a Unesco-listed monument, and following restoration of the building's dazzling images, you are admitted to look around for a maximum of 15 minutes. The Last Supper – depicting the traditional Bulgarian diet of bread, garlic and radishes – stands out, as does the Crucifixion, but the deepest impression is made from the expressive faces from more than seven centuries ago. It opens 9am-5pm daily (half an hour later from April to October), admission 10 leva (£4.40) – or 12 leva (£5.30) with the National History Museum, where this itinerary ends.

Cultural afternoon

Walk downhill towards the National History Museum (00 359 2 955 4280; historymuseum.org; open 9am-5.30pm daily except Monday). This was the Presidential Palace (check out the retro light fittings and loose floor tiles) until Communism collapsed. It now houses an odd combination of Soviet-era relics (the only museum in Europe with a helicopter gunship in the grounds), thrilling Thracian treasures and arcane political memorabilia.

Snow escape

Sofia is clear winner in the nearest-ski-slope-to-a-European-capital competition (with the exception of Vaduz in Liechtenstein). This is thanks to Vitosha, rising to almost 2,300m.

It is not a single peak, but a long, tall and beautiful ridge underlining Sofia's southern suburbs.

Not surprisingly, given the rich catchment area, Vitosha has been heavily developed for skiing, and ski areas are even accessible by public bus.

That makes for crowds, especially at the weekends, but there is also the option of illuminated night skiing on the mountain's Vitoshko Lale ski run.

You have to venture south of the capital for ski locations resembling Alpine resorts. The obvious destination is Bulgaria's original ski resort, Borovets. The village is located 1,300m high on the northern slopes of Mount Moussala – which, at 2,925m, is the highest peak in the Balkans.

The main lift is provided by a gondola that rises more than 1km in altitude. Besides 58km of downhill runs, there are 35km of cross-country trails. (Incidentally, in summer this region provides some spectacular and largely undiscovered hiking.)

For what the Bulgaria specialist, Balkan Holidays, reckons is "Eastern Europe's best skiing ... a true alternative to the Alps at a fraction of the price", head further south to Bansko. The International Ski Federation, the FIS, has awarded the resort downhill events on 27 and 28 next year.

The contestants can expect large crowds, with dedicated fans augmented by interested locals. Bansko is far more than a resort, it is a proper, long-established town of 10,000, complete with a historic heart and a railway station. Almost all the skiers, though, stay in the big, modern hotels and apartments that have sprung up since the collapse of communism two decades ago.

There can be quite a crowd for the morning gondola ride, but after that you can spend the day exploring a varied range of runs. Experts will quickly exhaust the possibilities, but intermediates will be happy for a good few days.

Bulgaria's final option involves a longer trek, beyond the second city, Plovdiv, to Pamporovo. If you are seeking a relaxed place to learn, this is as good as, and cheaper than, almost anywhere. It also claims to be Europe's sunniest mountain resort, though the French Pyrénées may challenge that assertion.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
News
i100
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
Prince Harry is clearing enjoying the Commonwealth Games judging by this photo
people(a real one this time)
Sport
Lionel Messi looks on at the end of the final
football
Extras
indybest
News
Richard Norris in GQ
mediaGQ features photo shoot with man who underwent full face transplant
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Day In a Page

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on