Bulgaria – Sofia, Rila and Plovdiv

Sofia Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Sofia is the capital of Bulgaria and has a long history since it was founded by the Thracians as ‘Serdica’. It’s since been controlled by the Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans and became the capital of the newly liberated Bulgarian Kingdom in 1879. Of course more recently the country was Communist under Soviet influence. Nearby the Rila Monastery and city of Plovdiv offer great day trip options. Now is an interesting time to visit as the nation seeks to move on as a democracy and member of the European Union.

Street painting of Bulgarian flag with lion on it
Bulgarians love the symbol of the lion! Here it is over a painting of their national flag. This street art is in Plovdiv.

I’ve decided to write this post as both a travel diary entry and a city guide. So essentially expect expanded information on what I got up to and what there is to see and do in the city! Firstly why Sofia?

Well I selected this city for a short break as I haven’t explored much of Eastern Europe before and had never been to the Balkans apart from Greece. Sofia is compact enough to explore in a couple of days and there were day trip options available. I did 2, Rila Monastery and Plovdiv, which I will discuss in this post!  Hence flying from Gatwick Airport for a 5 night trip worked out really well for me. I arrived late on the first night so essentially I had 4 full days which was really good and enjoyable amount of time for this trip.

I stayed at Hostel Mostel after reading many good reviews about the place. This is probably the most well-known hostel in Bulgaria and it did not disappoint. The free (aka included as part of the price) breakfast and dinner are great. They provided a good social atmosphere in which to chat to others around your table and make friends. It also meant I had to only worry about buying one meal a day, lunch!

One of the great things for me about Sofia is that you can get pizza slices from pizza shops around the city. And I mean big, tasty slices! For only 2 Lev, which is slightly less than £1, this is a great cheap way to eat! The beer is very cheap too, the small corner shops had 2 litre bottles for only 2.49 Lev! Hence my nights at the hostel were spent drinking 1 of these with other travellers around a table.

Day 1 – Sofia – Walking Tours

City Tour

I headed out after breakfast for a little wander around the area near my hostel, before joining the Sofia Walking Tour at 11am. It’s run by 365, named so because they do tours 365 days a year! They are non-profit organisation that rely on donations. It’s a great way to see the city and learn about it, before deciding where to spend extra time exploring! Our guide was Alissa and I thought she did a fantastic job over the 2 hours.

It starts at the Palace Of Justice. The guide gives a description of what the tour is about and some history about the city.

Nearby it the Eastern Orthodox St Nedelya Church, where on 16 April 1925 there was a failed assassination attempt on the Bulgarian Tsar Boris III. A group belonging to the Communist party blew up the roof of the church and killed 150 people. This was during the funeral of a General who’d they recently killed, to lure Boris III to the church. However Boris III was not there yet as he was delayed attending another funeral elsewhere in the city.

View from across the road of St Nedelya Church in Sofia
St Nedelya Church

One of the interesting things about Sofia is that because of its long history there are many ruins underneath the city that have yet to be discovered. So when they dig things up, for example for a new metro station, they find things! Alissa showed us some on our walk, and there are more you can check out around the city.

Controversially the Saint Sofia statue now stands in place of the old Lenin statue. This was removed after the fall of Communism. Alissa explained to us that the city is in fact not named for Sofia, and that the statue is very controversial amongst locals. Essentially its reason for being there now is ‘well it’s there already so yeah’.

View of the Saint Sofia statue, Sofia
Saint Sofia statue

Bania Bashi Mosque is the only functioning Mosque in Sofia, and a reminder of past Ottoman Rule. Nearby is Sofia’s Synagogue and Alissa talked to us about the Muslim and Jewish populations in the city.

Side view of Bania Bashi Mosque in Sofia
Bania Bashi Mosque

She also explained to us about Bulgaria’s role in World War 2. At one point they were actually at war with everyone!

Next up was the old Turkish Mineral baths which are now the city museum. Our guide told us this is her favourite building in the city, because of how pretty the exterior is. There are still taps outside. You can taste the water, locals say it’s very good for you! I did indeed try it!

Old Turkish Mineral baths. Now a city museum. Sofia, Bulgaria.
Old Turkish Mineral baths. Now a city museum.

Right in the centre of Sofia is a square surrounded by Communist Buildings. Whilst the imagery is gone it is a good example of the old style. The old Communist Party HQ is going to be used as the new Parliament in the future. For the time being the parliament is around the corner. We stopped to see the guards.

St. George Rotunda

The Church Of St.George was built-in ancient Serdica by the Romans in the 4th Century. Note the ancient ruins in the photo! The church was used as a mosque by the Ottomans, and converted back to a church after Bulgaria’s liberation. You can go inside and see the restored fresco’s. Our guide told us about how the Communist regime used to ‘cover up’ religious buildings by building around them. You can see this in the photo!

St George Church in Sofia, surrounded by communist building
St. George Rotunda

The oldest theatre in the country is the Ivan Vazov National Theatre, which we saw next. After this we learned about the rulers of Bulgaria. From the Bulgarian Monarchy to the Communists to the current Democracy. We also learned about some Bulgarian culture in regards to spring.

The front of Ivan Vazov National Theatre in Sofia
Ivan Vazov National Theatre

As mentioned the city of Sofia did not take its name from the saint depicted by the statue. In fact it took it from the Saint Sofia Church. It’s the second oldest church in the city, from the 4th-6th century. This is the second to last stop on the walking tour. After the tour ended I came back and looked inside for a bit, entry is free. There is also a park opposite with lots of odd statues. Some market stalls were selling goods too.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

A fitting end point for the tour, this is the tallest religious building in Bulgaria and the second tallest in the Balkans. It’s the number 1 tourist destination in the country and it’s easy to see why. the building really is grand and dominates the landscape. It was built and named in honour of the Russian soldiers who died liberating Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire in the 1870’s. You can go and look around inside too, it’s full of Eastern Orthodox religious symbolism and artwork.

View of the outside of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Nearby is the The Monument to the Tsar Liberator which is worth checking out if you are into military monuments. It was built-in honour of Tsar Alexander II, the Russian Tsar during the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire.

Lunch

I’d been chatting to a fellow member of the tour and we’d explored Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and nearby together. We discovered each other was vegetarian so went to find a restaurant! We located Dream House and enjoyed some good well priced food! If you fancy a break from pizza and want a vegetarian meal, then this place is recommended. It’s really near the Palace of Justice which made it a perfect stop for me.

Communist Tour

In comparison the large number of people who took the free Sofia city tour, there was only me and 3 others who joined 365’s Communist tour. This is a paid tour, costing 20 Lev. It’s 18 if you’ve done the city tour, though I paid 20 anyway as our guide Nikola did a fantastic job in the freezing cold. It takes about 3 hours. Communism is still a hugely divisive issue in Bulgaria so I felt the tour helped me learn a lot.

This tour was very information based compared to the city tour. Unfortunately (in my opinion) many of the old communist symbols/landmarks have now been destroyed. As our guide said its history, so whatever your view on communism is it’s sad to see history destroyed. So whilst there wasn’t that many photo opportunities, it was still a great tour. He explained things to us really well and told some intriguing stories.

Behind this ‘secret’ door people used to be interrogated by the State if they had joked about or spoke ill of the Communist Party. Our guide told us about the Bulgarian Communist Secret Service including the infamous umbrella assassination of Georgi Markov.  He was a Bulgarian anti-communist playwright who was killed in London using poison fired through a device concealed as an umbrella.

Picture of the door that was tld entrance to a Communist secret police building in Sofia
Old entrance to a Communist secret police building

Although not a single Soviet solider died capturing/liberating (depending on your viewpoint of course!) Bulgaria, the USSR still built a giant memorial in Sofia.

Part of the Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia - Soviet Soldiers and Civilians
Part of the Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia
Part of the Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia - tall pillar with statue on top
Part of the Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia

This part of the Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia has been painted on several times. Once as American Superheros, once in pink with an apology for the Prague Spring (in reference to Bulgaria’s role in crushing the uprising) and once with the colours of Ukraine (in reference to the conflict there). Currently it is partially yellow but no one knows what that means!

Part of the Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia with yellow paint on it
Part of the Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia – notice the yellow paint!

The tour ended at the National Palace Of Culture. A grand building in the Communist style, today it is used to support Bulgarian culture. There are many concert halls, exhibition halls, offices and alike.

In the evening I went back to hostel and then to visit a nearby pub with some other guests. Hostel Mostel does a pub crawl most nights though I declined to carry on further as I needed sleep!

 

Day 2 – Sofia – Museums and exploring

Having done 2 walking tours the previous day I decided to visit a couple of museums.

First up was Sofia city/regional museum, housed in the old mineral baths. To be honest I wasn’t that impressed with this museum. There were some interesting things in relation to the Bulgarian monarchy and ordinary day life. But I didn’t dwell that long.

Far more interesting to me was the National Archaeology Museum. There are lots of interesting artefacts here, in particular I enjoyed those that are Thracian/Greek and Roman in style.

There is also lots of Eastern Orthodox artwork which I though was intriguing. It’s been collected from old religious sites around the area.

Eastern Orthodox Art in the National Archaeology Museum in Sofia
Eastern Orthodox Art in the National Archaeology Museum

After this I wandered around the city for a while, seeing some of the streets the walking tour hadn’t gone along. It was interesting seeing some of the old communist architecture but I got tired having done 2 walking tours the day before.

I found the Sveti Sedmochislenitsi Church, which was a 500-year-old Mosque up until it’s conversion in 1902.

Vie wof Sveti Sedmochislenitsi Church in Sofia
Sveti Sedmochislenitsi Church

I thought this one was rather pretty, although of course smaller than Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.  If your nearby I’d recommend taking a look as the architecture is impressive. Though if your rushed it’s by no means an essential visit.

I also went back and looked at the outside of the huge National Palace Of Culture and the park that leads up to it.

View of National Palace Of Culture with tree in forground, mountains in background, Sofia
National Palace Of Culture

That evening i took it easy, had dinner and a beer with a couple of guys from the hostel before having an early(ish) night.

Day 3 – Rila Monastery 

I really wanted to take a couple of day trips from Sofia and decided this one was a must. Hostel Mostel offers this as a tour so I took them up, travelling with 2 other hostel guests by car. When they have more they do it by minivan. The journey is about 2 hours each way. You spend about 2.5 to 3 hours there. Understandably the fact that the travel time is longer than might put some people off. But I do really recommend it. The Monastery was founded by students of St Ivan of Rila. He was a hermit living in the 10th Century. Our driver showed us to the cave he lived in, it was tiny and wet! The area was covered in snow too, it must have been freezing for someone to live there during winter.

The Monastery complex is grand and I found it very impressive. It is currently home to around 60 monks. A couple of groundskeepers were shovelling snow whilst we were there. There is a museum that charged for entry but I decided against it, preferring just to explore the grounds.

View inside Rila Monastery, buildings, mountain in distance, snow still on gorund 2 hours from Sofia, Bulgaria
Rila Monastery
View inside Rila Monastery. 2 hours from Sofia, Bulgaria
Rila Monastery

There is so much artwork there in the Eastern Orthodox style. It’s very detailed and as I have not seen much of this style before I spent a lot of time studying it.

Eastern Orthodox art in Rila Monastery . hours form Sofia, Bulgaria
Eastern Orthodox art in Rila Monastery
Fresco in Rila Monastery. 2 Hours from Sofia, Bulgaria
Fresco in Rila Monastery
Eastern Orthodox art in Rila Monastery. 2 hours drive from Sofia, Bulgaria.
Eastern Orthodox art in Rila Monastery

After a while here me and the other 2 went for lunch in a restaurant next door. The food was nice and very reasonably priced. When we got back we enjoyed some beer (as with previous nights!) and visited a nearby pub with other hostel guests.

Day 4 – Plovdiv 

Plovdiv is spoken of very highly by both travellers and locals in Sofia. Therefore i decided it would be a great day excursion for my last day of my trip.

As with Sofia the city has a long history. In fact its one of the oldest cities in Europe! The area has been home to settlements since 5000 to 6000 BCE. In 347 BCE to 345 BCE the then Thracian town was conquered by Alexander the Greats father, Phillip  II, who named it Philippopolis. During its period as part of the Roman empire it served as capital of the province Thrace. It was an important city in Roman times, drawing in many people from the surrounding area. Conquered by the Ottoman Empire and then liberated as part of an independent Bulgaria, it is now the country’s second largest city.

i took the bus there with a few other people I’d met at the hostel and been hanging out with. Initially coming out the bus station we were faced with a very run down area, but thankfully the rest of Plovdiv lived up to the nice words!

I’d wanted to see the statue of the Soviet solider overlooking the town but was pretty tired and we didn’t have much time. The others decided to dash up there and back and said it was cool. I instead went up a closer hill – Sahat Tepe (Danov Hill) – and got some really nice views. I found loads of street art too.

Street Art in Plovdiv
Street Art in Plovdiv

Walking Tour

After this we did the 2 hour Plovdiv walking tour together. Run by the same company as in Sofia, the 365 association, it’s a really good way to see Plovdiv. Again our guide was fantastic, this time it was Dani. He did a great job explaining about the city’s history! And as it was my 3rd tour I got a free badge!

Starting at 2pm (times change from summer to winter) it leaves from the Municipality Building.

The tour starts with the guide explaining about Plovdiv’s history to give you context. The Municipality Building is actually the first stop!

Next up is a rather interesting statue. Milyo lived in Plovdiv from the 30’s to the 80’s last century. This statue is where he used to sit and wave at people. He was death in his right ear and used to approach people using his left ear as in the photo. Also notice where his right hand is!  Dani told us a couple of stories about what Milyo got up to.  Local rumour has it that he was rather praised by the ladies for a certain something!

Statue of Milyo on Plovdiv's main pedestrian street
Statue of Milyo on Plovdiv’s main pedestrian street

You wouldn’t think it walking along Plovidiv’s main pedestrian street that there is a Roman Stadium…but there is! The end part has been excavated so you can see part of the stadium that used to hold 30,000 spectators.

Excavation of the old Roman Stadium in Plovdiv
Excavation of the old Roman Stadium in Plovdiv

Nearby is Dzhumaya mosque, which was a church site then  converted to a mosque by the Ottomans. One of the oldest Ottoman buildings in Bulgaria, it’s interesting as the design differs from many other mosques.

Dzhumaya mosque in Plovdiv
Dzhumaya mosque

Kapana and the Old Town

Plovdiv is set to co-host as European Capital of Culture in 2019. As part of preparation for this the old Kapana district has been receiving help to revitalise the area. Also known as ‘The Trap’ it used to be the old craftsman district. Now it is becoming a centre for arts and culture.

Street Art in Kapana, Plovdiv
Street Art in Kapana

Old Town Plovdiv is full of old pretty buildings. There is plenty of character here! Many of these were built-in the 1800’s by local merchants.

Building in the Old Town in Plovdiv. Flying 3 flags inc EU and Bulgaria and Local
Building in the Old Town

You can also find Hisar Kapia gate here. This old city gate dates from Roman times and was rebuilt in the 11th century.

Old city gate in Plovdiv, Bulgaria
Old city gate in Plovdiv

After this Dani showed us Roman ruins on one of the hills in old town. Alas it was pouring with rain at this point so I couldn’t get any good photos!  Next up we saw a statue of Alexandre Nikolov aka Sascha Sladura. He was a violinist who was killed in a labour camp during Communist rule. A reminder of authoritarianism’s treatment of people of the arts. 

The tour ended at the Roman Theatre. Its remains were found in the 1970’s, and it has now been reconstructed as faithfully to the original as possible. It hosts gigs, festivals and concerts, especially in the summer.

Reconstructed Roman Theatre Plovdiv
Reconstructed Roman Theatre

After this it was time to bus back to Sofia.

After hanging out with some people from the hostel, including a trip to a nearby bar, it was time for sleep. Then a flight home the next morning. I really enjoyed my tip to Bulgaria, and I very much recommend you visit!

I hope to go one back sometime and explore the country further. Particularly some of Bulgaria’s mountains regions and the city of Varna on the coast


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If your interested in other European cities I have written several guides, for cities such as Athens, Bratislava and Berlin!

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