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.

Suggested Topics
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jay Z has placed a bet on streaming being the future for music and videos
music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury
music
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
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
  • Get to the point
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

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own