This European Capital is Built on Top of Ancient Roman Ruins
Can you guess from the photo?
My visa situation led me on a trip to the capital city of Bulgaria to escape the Schengen Zone for a few days.
I could see a new city while also renewing my 90-day count in the zone. Why not!
So, with hardly any time or itinerary, I was packing my bag and heading to the airport.
This was the first time I traveled to a destination without knowing anything about the place. I must say, I wish I didn’t have enough free time to plan all my adventures.
My short three-day stay in Sofia was my definition of true traveling. I hadn’t even looked up a single thing to do in the city. The whole time, I was hanging on the edge of my seat.
The relaxedness of this trip taught me how to travel on a whim. It was the reason the rest of my travels became less about the itinerary and more about floating with the wind.
A little about Bulgaria for those that aren’t familiar…
Bulgaria is in southeast Europe and borders parts of Romania, Serbia, Greece, and Turkey.
Its capital city, Sofia, has about 1.2 million people living in it. Their national language is Bulgarian. Similar to Russian and a few other eastern European languages.
Their national currency is the Levas. One Leva is equal to about $0.55 USD. There’s a Western Union money exchange on virtually every corner of the main boulevard in Sofia. No need to worry about obtaining Levas before arrival.
Bulgaria has everything- mountains, sea, forests, and city life. It’s part of what makes the region so special.
The first thing I noticed in Sofia was its historic yellow cobblestone roads. As I understand, the street represents a huge national scam.
Citizens of Sofia were told the yellow cobblestone was a wedding gift for their god. The government lied about it so citizens wouldn’t revolt. Really, it was a way for them to hike taxes to pay back the loan from Germany for the road.
Another thing I noticed was the graffiti on every wall of every building. It seemed Sofia’s city center was covered. Some of the art was beautiful, but there was some vandalism as well.
Nothing like the meaningful street art found in historic cities like Berlin. I’m curious if this much vandalism is common throughout the rest of eastern Europe or not.
Electricity boxes throughout the city were also turned to art. This from a trend out of the University of Sofia. It brightened up the city and gave it added eye appeal.
At times, it was difficult to find an English-speaker. Even just to give directions or ask various questions.
Many of the student-aged population speaks English, but few middle-aged people do. At least, well enough to give directions. The best tactic is to pop into a nearby hotel or hostel (even if it’s not yours) and ask the receptionist. They will almost always speak English.
One of the bummer parts about Sofia is the immense amount of smog that suffocates the city day and night. At first, I wasn’t sure if it was air pollution or foggy days. After getting home, I did a bit of research and it seems smog is Sofia’s “silent enemy”.
I came across a traditional Bulgarian restaurant called Pri Yafata. It’s rated one of the top 10 traditional restaurants in Bulgaria. However, I didn’t know it at the time.
It was delicious.
And fancy enough that I felt silly for coming alone. Especially dressed like a raggedy backpacker.
It felt like a prom night dinner for one.
I got a delicious mixed meat dish with shish kebabs of duck, pork, bacon, chicken, and more. With a beer, it was under $10.
My first experience visiting a place with a lower cost of living than home and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Through food and beer.
The best surprise about the restaurant was at the end of my meal. A band entered and started playing traditional Bulgarian Balkan music. It was a perfect taste of Bulgaria from Pri Yafata.
If nightlife action interests you, Sofia’s is fantastic. As for alcohol, expect to pay about two dollars for a craft beer at any bar or club. And only $0.90 for a low-quality pint.
I saw a 750ml bottle of vodka for about $4. And a glass of wine in any kind of bar will cost you about one dollar on average.
I didn’t have time to find a Couchsurfing host. So, I made a last-minute reservation at the Nightingale Hostel on Budapest St.
It’s in the middle of Sofia city center and I highly recommend to anyone backpacking Bulgaria.
At 5 Euros a night, the hostel provides you with a relaxed and welcoming environment. It’s dorm-style accommodation with a free breakfast every morning. Hard to beat that.
The hostel owner/receptionist is the lone employee. He’s down-to-earth, speaks English well, and creates a great social atmosphere.
The guy rocks long hair with a bandana and bell-bottom jeans; what’s not to love?
Note: Summer months are much busier and rates are higher everywhere in the city.
Other recommended attractions, restaurants, and bars in Sofia:
- Divaka (traditional Bulgarian restaurant)
- Hambara (secret bar- may even need a local to find this one)
- Vitosha Mountain
- St. Alexandar Nevski Cathedral (the largest church in Bulgaria)
- Rock n’ Roll (American classic rock club/bar)
- The Muse (alternative music, English-speaking bar)
- FREE Sofia Walking Tour (#1 rated TripAdvisor attraction of Sofia, more info here.)
All in all, after not expecting much of anything out of Sofia, it left me wanting to explore more. It’s a nice, quaint city in the middle of the beautiful country of Bulgaria. Plus, it is uber affordable.
Don’t let yourself overlook Sofia on your next European trip.
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** This article was originally published at www.adamcheshier.com **