With a population of just over one million people, Sofia is one of the most ancient cities in Europe and representing the influence of Roman, Greek, Ottoman, and Soviet eras, creating a diverse architectural landscape. Sofia is one of the safest capitals in Europe and one of the cheapest.
Most of Sofia's touristy attractions are centrally located and within easy walking distance of each other. The pedestrianized Vitosha Boulevard forms the heart of the shopping district, with stores like as H&M, United Colors of Benetton, and Pandora.
Hidden away from the bustling boulevards, expansive parks and perfectly manicured gardens offer a welcome respite, and mighty Mount Vitosha's ski slopes and hiking trails are just a short commute from the city.
In Bulgaria, same-sex relationships have no legal recognition, but since 2004, discrimination based on sexual orientation has been banned. Like many countries in Central and Eastern Europe, Bulgaria is socially conservative, valuing custom and traditional over individual freedoms (thus no marriage equality). Still this often-overlooked capital is home to stunning architecture, lush public gardens, buzzing pavement cafes, and a vibrant nightlife that will entice queer travelers to stay and explore further.
Built in 1956, Sofia Hotel Balkan fuses classical design with lavish architectural décor. Beneath the foundations of the iconic building lies a historical Roman fortress, whose remains can be seen around the hotel. The elegant style blends perfectly with the contemporary modernity of the restaurant, lobby bar, and newly refurbished guest rooms. The conservatory in the lobby bar pays homage to Bulgaria's forests and acts as a winter garden during the cold months and a green oasis in the summer. The hotel also offers sophisticated meeting rooms for gala dinners, weddings, conferences, and special events.
Located in the heart of the city on Vasil Levski Square, Hyatt Regency Sofia is ideal for exploring and encountering a modern city surrounded by authentic Eastern European history as it is within walking distance of many of Sofia's cultural institutions and tourist attractions. The hotel also provides a full-service spa, a restaurant, and a 24-hour fitness center.
Dominating the heart of the city is Grand Hotel Sofia, a deluxe family-friendly five-star hotel that has been home to international business travelers, high-profile events, and cosmopolitan society since opening in 2004. Art lovers and food connoisseurs will enjoy the hotel gallery and the Shades of Red restaurant. The hotel is within a 15-minute walk of Slaveykov Square, the Bulgarian Parliament, and the National Palace of Culture. Vitosha Boulevard and Ivan Vazov National Theatre are also within five minutes’ walk.
Soul Kitchen is a vegan restaurant a curated menu that has flair and attention to the last detail. In the colder months, seating inside is set up for a relaxed atmosphere, in the warmer months, the eatery has an Instagrammable-worthy outdoor space.
Ozone Skybar & Lounge offers a modern, trendy, sky-high experience with impressive views of the city and the sunset. Its delicious menu offers an expansive selection of both bites and drinks, from expertly crafted signature cocktails and fine spirits to a great selection of sushi and shareable entrées.
To experience mekitsa, the traditional Bulgarian dish similar in taste to savory doughnuts, Mekitsa & Coffee is the place to check out. In addition to the delicious kneaded dough and deep-fried yogurt mekitsa, the cafe is also a cozy spot to enjoy a cup of tea or coffee.
Shtastliveca means "the happy man," or “the lucky man” and it was one of the pseudonyms used by the famous Bulgarian writer Aleko Konstantinov. Locals highly recommend this restaurant for its traditional Bulgarian cuisine and its take on various international dishes.
What To Do:
Courtesy of Igor Panoff
Visit the National Palace of Culture
The National Palace of Culture is south-eastern Europe's largest multifunctional conference and exhibition center. Opened in 1981 to celebrate Bulgaria's 1300th anniversary, the castle-like monument is a multipurpose cultural center with a total capacity of more than 8,000 seats that hosts art exhibitions, a film festival, and concerts. Depending on the season, the palace itself may close, but it's an impressive building to see, with beautiful water fountains outside.
Stroll Along Vitosha Boulevard
Often referred to as Sofia's Champs-Élysées, Vitosha Boulevard is the primary retail street in the city. Stretching just over 1.5 miles, it has an abundance of restaurants and bars, and many high-end fashion brands with storefronts along the boulevard and the neighboring streets. You'll find Armani, Tommy Hilfiger, Hugo Boss, Versace, Bulgari, and Ermenegildo Zegna. Closed to motorized traffic in most places, Vitosha Boulevard is also one of Sofia's more wheelchair-friendly streets. It takes its name from Mount Vitosha, the incredible landscape that dominates Sofia's skyline.
Drink Fresh Mineral Water From Local Springs
These fountains with fresh, warm running water run 24/7 and are free of charge. Locals come here to fill up their containers rather than buying bottled water from the stores. The mineral springs are located in three areas in the city, next to the Central bath (Tsentralna Banya), by the Banya Bashi Mosque, and near the TZUM Shopping mall. Bring a reusable container to fill up daily, or simply go and people-watch.
Gamble at Monte Casino
Monte Casino is a 24-hour casino with 1-2 and 2-5 cash table games of Blackjack and Ultimate Texas Hold 'em. U.S. dollars, Euros, and pounds can be exchanged for chips with a decent exchange rate. Passports are the only form of identification accepted to gain entrance.
Witness the Saint Sofia Monument
Erected in 2000, the statue stands 24 meters tall, arms outstretched, with golden skin and black eyes, and overlooks Bulgaria's capital city center. It's located across from Battenberg Square, where most of the city's government buildings are. It depicts Saint Sofia holding an owl in her left hand and a laurel wreath in her right hand.
Hike to Rila Monastery and the 7 Rila Lakes
Reaching the Seven Rila Lakes by public transport typically involves two buses, a shuttle, and most of your day. Rila Shuttle takes the pain out of transportation — while still allowing you to maintain total independence — with their cost-effective shared shuttle, making things much more manageable. With guided and self-guided tours available, a visit to the beautiful glacial lakes and the Rila Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage site, also gives ample time for hiking. Just don't forget your hiking gear!
Go Karting at Krasna Polyana
Krasna Polyana is one of the first circuits in Bulgaria, and its length of 960 meters makes it the longest open track in Sofia. Its course provides 16 challenging turns and quite a few speed sections and even has LED lights for night racing (until 10 pm). Located in the center of the city, just a few minutes from all corners of Sofia, a trip to the Krasna Polyana tracks can transform your pleasure of racing into an unforgettable vacation experience.
Ski or Hike Mount Vitosha
Mount Vitosha is perfect for skiing in the winter and hiking in the spring, summer, and autumn. There are ski resorts in the Vitosha Mountains located just 7.5 miles away from the city center. On a clear day, Cherni Vrah (2,290 meters), the highest peak in the Vitosha Mountains, has spectacular views of Sofia.
Visit the Rotunda of St. George Church
The oldest and best-preserved monument of architecture since Roman times in Sofia is the Rotunda Church of St. George. It was built at the beginning of the 4th century AD, during the reign of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great (reigned 306 – 337) and the flourishing of the ancient town Serdika (the old name of Sofia). It is believed that the dome is the oldest building in Sofia. The church is open every day from 8:00 am – 6:30 pm and has a daily service.
Visit the National History Museum
Sofia has almost 30 museums, but if you have limited time and can only visit one, choose Bulgaria's largest museum, The National Museum of History. Open daily from 9:30 am - 6:00 pm, the museum of Bulgarian history hosts an impressive collection of over 700,000 artifacts and national treasures, telling the story of the European civilization from earliest occupation to the present day.
The bar on the seventh floor of the Sense Hotel is the perfect setting for a memorable date or a delightful beginning (or end) to your vacation. Drinks are more expensive than other establishments in Sofia, but the city views - including a spectacular sight of the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral are unmatched.
Sofia's most iconic Irish dive bar is in a great location just off Vitosha Boulevard, with a fantastic atmosphere and frequent live events. Many ex-pats from the U.S., Australia, and other parts of Europe have made McCarthy's their favorite local watering hole.
VAULT is a gay dance party taking place in the back room of the lounge, The Steps. Events and occasional drag performances take place on Saturdays but checking their Facebook page for upcoming events and themes is highly recommended.
Shisha Point Bar is a cozy hookah lounge with friendly and knowledgeable staff that will even change the hookah — for free — if it is not to your taste. Reservations on Friday or Saturday nights are highly recommended.
St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral Courtesy TravelistaGoesTo
Other Useful Information:
While Bulgaria is in the European Union, it has yet to adopt the Euro. Cash is a widely used form of payment in Bulgaria, and it is always better to keep some bills on you. The country uses the Bulgarian Lev, but Euros are accepted in some places.
Emergency care in life-threatening situations is free of charge in Bulgaria. Emergency rooms must treat every patient regardless of health insurance status, sexual orientation, nationality, or ability to pay.
Anyone who consumes alcohol or other intoxicants in public places can be fined between 100 to 3000 leva (about $55 to $1600).
Pride in Sofia takes place in June. Over 12,000 people attended Pride in Sofia in 2022.