Day 1Arriving late Friday night, actually after midnight, at Sofia airport with no public transport at that hour can be a bit worrying. I was dreading the hassle with unofficial taxi drivers lurking at the exit for tourists. To my pleasant surprise there was none of it. The official OK taxi rank is clearly marked and the official metered taxis bring you into the centre of town for approximately €10. That quick ride was such a relief which made the first impression so much more pleasant.
Accommodation was in an AirBnB on the fifth floor of an old building right in the centre of the city. I couldn’t possible have been closer. The first thing I like to do when arriving in a new city is to get my bearings by walking around the block and discovering the neighbourhood.
I strolled down Vitosha Boulevard towards the snow-capped eponymous mountain and ventured further afield into the central park around the Palace of Culture. The National Palace of Culture (NDK) is a socialist monstrosity but has amazing artwork and acoustics inside, so I am told. The park is a great place for families to stroll, to chill and take selfies in front of the fountain or the Sofia tableau.
Pedestrianised Vitosha boulevard is busy during the day with buskers every 100 metres and really comes alive at night with cafés and restaurants under the chestnut trees on either side. If you don’t like the hustle and bustle, explore the side streets where you will find funky cafés and to notch restaurants.
After lunch, the local In your Pocket editor, took me on a drive out to the suburbs to see the famous Boyana Church and also catch a glimpse of how the other half live. A peek at some of the film sets of the Nu Boyana Film Studios, was also afforded as we drove by.
At 18:00 I joined the free graffiti tour of Sofia, a two-hour tour with Dara which started at the monument to Sofia. It is amazing how graffiti writers have transformed some of the quarters of Sofia with amazing works of art from elaborate murals to throw-ups – the graffiti artists signature spray painted in a matter of minutes on a virgin wall. The artist Bozko is one of the leading figures of the Bulgarian graffiti movement. Most of his persons are painted with wings such as the giant mural next to the opera and the ageing St. George fighting the dragon which is dominating the frail figure. The annual graffiti festival has helped give a touch of colour to many neighbourhoods in Sofia and the artists are competing against the vandalism of the Sofia football supporters who also spray paint their club’s initials on many buildings.
I was able to secure a reservation at Cosmos, one of the best Bulgarian restaurants Sofia has to offer. (Dinner reservations are a must in Sofia, especially on weekends) The menu is based on locally sourced fresh produce. While explaining the composition of my 'Moravsko Selo' salad with grated zucchini, kale and almonds the waiter said: “You can do this at home”. Yes but he didn’t give me the recipe of the secret sauce which made this dish so special. The roasted goatling with spring herbs and young potatoes that followed was equally sublime.
Day 2I started with breakfast at Izzy’s Coffee Brunch, a small café tucked away in the courtyard under the decaying Chupa Chups advert, one of the first colourful western ads to brighten up the city.
The Free Sofia Tours take place every day of the year, regardless the weather, starting at 11:00, 14:00 and 18:00 from in front of the Palace of Justice, the building with the bronze lions. So we were five in the rain huddling around Daniel, an IT specialist who does these tours on his free time on weekends. Daniel made sure we could shelter from the rain – or as he put it hide – from the rain at every stop. Not only did he point out the different buildings on the Sofia tourist trail, but he also was extremely knowledgeable about the history of Sofia and Bulgaria sharing historic titbits and his insights from life in Sofia today. The tour is theoretically free, but you are expected to give as much as you can to the guide, who is part of the 365 associations at the end of the tour. The easy walking tour lasts about two hours and was worth much more than the 20 Lev I gave him at the end.
For lunch Daniel recommended 'Supa Star', a fun restaurant where they serve a variety of home made soups including the local favourite 'tripe soup'. You will find a whole range of tried and tested eating options in Sofia online which comes in handy.
Then it was time for a visit to the Red Flat Sofia, a one-bedroom apartment typical for Sofia in the 1980’s. The 1.5-hour audio tour is a must to understand how Bulgarians lived during the Socialist times. Sitting in the living room of the Petrovich family is a trip back in time to an era where electricity was hit and miss and not everything was always available. The apartment is decked out with all the Socialists mod cons and worth a visit. If you want to continue the trip back in time, the Communist Walking Tour of Sofia comes highly recommended, and which will give you more insights into the lives of ordinary Bulgarians. I didn’t have time to do the tour but that’s one reason I will come back soon.