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48 Hours In: Sofia

Now's the perfect time to chew over the bite-sized capital of Bulgaria, says Nick Boulos

Travel essentials

Why go now?

Sofia is a city packed with surprises and hidden delights yet small enough to explore in detail in only a couple of days. The bite-sized Bulgarian capital – one of Europe's cheapest to stay in – is built upon ancient foundations of culture and history. Standing among the striking Stalinist-era architecture are ancient Byzantine masterpieces, built during the 500 years of Ottoman rule, as well as ruins of a Roman metropolis.

It's a city that's best seen in the warmer spring and summer seasons.

Touch down

British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Bulgaria Air (020 8897 9916; bulgaria-air.co.uk) fly non-stop from Heathrow, the latter also operating services from Gatwick. EasyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) flies from Gatwick, Stansted and Manchester; and Wizz Air (0907 292 0102; wizzair.com) from Luton.

I travelled with Regent Holidays (020 7666 1244; regent-holidays.co.uk), which offers flights from Heathrow and three nights at the Radisson Blu Sofia from £515pp.

Sofia's airport is 10km east of the city centre. Bus No 84 leaves from outside the terminal every 10 to 15 minutes between 5am and 11pm. The one-way fare is one Bulgarian lev (42p). Buy a ticket from the driver or at the supermarket in the arrivals hall.

Large suitcases require their own ticket also costing 1 lev. Journey time is 40 minutes to reach the centrally located Bulgaria University (1) on Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard.

A taxi takes around 20 minutes and costs around 17 lev (£7).

Get your bearings

One of Europe's oldest settlements, the geographical heart of Sofia sits at the crossroads of Todor Alexandrov and Maria Louisa Boulevards. It was here, some 4,000 years ago, that the first primitive dwellings were built on the spot now occupied by the Balkan Hotel (2).

Dominating the busy junction is the Symbol of Sofia, a bronze and gilded monument designed by contemporary Bulgarian sculptor Georgi Chapkanov. An owl – representing wisdom – is perched on her outstretched left arm.

The compact downtown district is where you'll spend most of your time. A tourist information centre (3) (00 359 2 491 8344; visitsofia.bg; open 10am-6pm daily) is located in the St Kliment Ohridski underpass at 22 Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard.

Check in

Standing opposite the Parliament building (4), the five-star Radisson Blu (5) at 4 Narodno Sabranie Square (00 359 2 9334 334; radissonblu.com) is one of the best in town with 142 luxurious rooms. Doubles cost from €115, including breakfast.

The 31 rooms at the design-focused Les Fleurs Hotel (6) at 21 Vitosha Boulevard (00 359 2 810 0800; lesfleurshotel.com) are individually decorated. There's also complimentary homemade cake served every afternoon. Double rooms start at €95, including breakfast.

Rooms at the Arte Hotel (7) at 5 Dondukov Boulevard (00 359 2 402 7100; artehotelbg.com) are a little tired but the hotel is well located and the walls are adorned with Bulgarian art from the owner's private collection. Doubles from €55, room only.

Elegant: the National Assembly building

Day One

Take a hike

Start at the horseback statue of Emperor Alexander II (8) on Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard, commemorating the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottomans in 1878. Across the road stands the elegant National Assembly building (4), built in 1879. From here, follow the yellow brick road east. Much of the city centre is paved with lemon-coloured tiles believed to have been a wedding gift to Bulgarian Prince Ferdinand in the late 19th century.

Turn left on Vasil Levski Boulevard, passing the National Library (9) before turning left on Oborishte Street. Ahead stands the gold-domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (10) at 1 Alexander Nevsky Square (00 359 2 981 5775; 7am-6.30pm daily; free), the city's most impressive building. Visit the crypt (10am-5.30pm daily; entry 6 lev/£2.50) for its collection of Orthodox Christian art from around the Black Sea. In the grounds is the sobering sculpture devoted to the 15,000 soldiers blinded by evil Emperor Basil II in 1014.

Finish across the road at the fifth-century brick Basilica of Saint Sophia (11) at 2 Paris Street (00 359 2 987 0971; 7am-6pm daily; free). It was converted into a mosque by the Ottomans, and damaged by two earthquakes in the 1800s; it's since been restored.

Take a view

The 19th-floor Pri Orlite restaurant (12) at 11 Dyakon Ignatiy Street (00 359 2 981 5000; priorlite.com) offers good panoramic views of the city. Sip a coffee (4 lev/£1.70) and savour the sight of Sofia sitting snugly against a backdrop of snow-capped Mount Vitosha (13), 18km to the south.

Lunch on the run

Pop into the Art Deco Bulgaria (14) at 4 Tsar Osvoboditel Street (00 359 2 988 5307; restaurantbulgaria.net) for a sandwich of Bulgarian cheese (from 5.50 lev/£2.30) and slice of local garash chocolate cake (5.50 lev/£2.30). Ask for a window table for views of the church of Saint Nikolai (15) with its Russian style onion domes.

Cultural afternoon

Across the road is the former Royal Palace (16) at 1 Alexander Battenberg Street (10am-6pm daily except Mondays), a custard-yellow Viennese style mansion built in 1873.

It is now home to Sofia's two top cultural attractions: the National Art Gallery (00 359 2 980 0093; nationalartgallerybg.org; 6 lev/£2.50) and the Ethnographic Museum (00 359 2 988 1974; eim-bas.com; entry 3 lev/£1.25).

An aperitif

Housed in a former school, with framed black-and-white prints of past pupils on the walls, One More Bar (17) at 12 Shishman Street (00 359 87 769 3735) is homely but hip. Order a glass of Bulgarian wine from the southeastern Thracian Valley or try the 25-year-old locally-brewed spirit rakia (8.30 lev/£3.50).

Dining with the locals

There's not a stainless steel food warmer in sight at Buffet (18) at 44 Ekzarh Yosif Street (00 359 87 611 6601). Less than a year old, this charming restaurant provides a rustic setting, with vintage furniture and movie posters from the 1930s. Try Mama's meatballs (6.70 lev/£2.80).

Regional cuisine can also be sampled at Grozd (19) at 21 Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard (00 359 2 944 3915), an upmarket restaurant across town, which has given old Bulgarian recipes a modern makeover. Popular dishes include strandjanski-style spiced pork baked in an earthenware pot with egg, chilli, peppers and mushrooms. Mains from 17 lev (£7).

Dome work: Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Day Two

Sunday morning: go to church

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (10) has Sunday mass at 9.30am but a far more intimate experience awaits at the Rotunda of Saint George (20) at 2 Dondukov Boulevard (8am-5pm daily; free). The city's oldest fully preserved building, this tiny one-room chamber was constructed to mark the arrival of the Emperor Constantine here in the 4th century. It stands amid the ruins of the old Roman town of Serdica. Inside, faded medieval murals adorn crumbling brick walls. Sunday mass takes place at 8am.

Out to brunch

Located next door, the Rotunda Café (21) (00 359 87 886 6311) has an intimate interior decor with dark corners, low arches and stone walls which are decorated with copies of famous religious icons. Soups, salads and sandwiches dominate the menu. The rotunda soup (8.40 lev/£3.50) is a tasty blend of boletus and forest herbs.

Window shopping

Sofia is not one of the world's great shopping destinations though there are plenty of opportunities to browse. The antiques market outside the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (10) (10am-6pm daily) is a good place to pick up Soviet memorabilia and old Roman coins.

Beyond that, the city's retail route is concentrated along the partly pedestrianised Vitosha Street (22). Among the cafés and ice-creameries, notable shops include Home for interiors and Di Sandro and Dika for high-end fashion. Strolling south offers excellent views of the mountains.

Walk in the park

At the southern end of Vitosha Street (22) is a patch of parkland (open 24 hours) dominated by the rather unsightly National Palace of Culture (23) (ndk.bg). It makes for a pleasant spot to enjoy a leisurely stroll. It's also worth popping into National Palace of Culture to see what temporary exhibitions are on, and you can get a coffee at the rooftop Sky Plaza restaurant (00 359 2 916 6201).

Icing on the cake

Head to the underpass between the Presidency building and the Council of Ministers on Dondukov Boulevard (24) to step back in time. Within this unassuming subway is secreted a number of ancient ruins including the East Gate of Roman Serdica and even the remains of an original Roman street.