City Guide to Sofia, Bulgaria: Part 3 | Must See Attractions
Sofia, Bulgaria may be a city less visited by tourists, but we found it to be a city well worth visiting. We spent our time exploring the streets and discovering thousands of years of history. It was hard to do, but we've curated our favorite must see attractions in Sofia, Bulgaria. We hope our pictures, adventures, and map can be inspiration for your personal itinerary when visiting!
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We didn’t know what to expect in Sofia, Bulgaria and we had no idea what a rich and immersive experience we’d have in the country’s capital. We knew there weren’t as many attractions to see there as we’d found in other places, but what we did see was beautiful, historic, and embodied the culture and experience of its citizens. So, if Sofia isn’t already on your travel bucket list, read on and you may soon be singing a different tune!
Before setting off to explore the city, we diligently researched everything to see and do in Sofia and to possibly make your research on sightseeing in Sofia (and other destinations) easier, we’ve kept our maps with all of the information we gathered (accurate at the time of our sightseeing). Finding hours, prices, and general information can sometimes be challenging, so we’ve tried to include these details on our maps and provide appropriate links below. Our map is all inclusive, so be sure to check out the entire map and read on below for our favorite must see attractions, both the hidden gems and the well-known places. And finally, not every attraction is suitable for every visitor, but the copywriters and marketing departments for the destinations sure make it sound like it. How many times have you read “Great for kids and adults alike” and shown up at the venue to wonder why anyone over 20 years-old without kids would go out of their way to be there? Below we’ve included our must see attraction with pictures, tips, and our impressions on each place that, when combined with the official attraction information and website, may help you decide if it’s a destination for your travel adventure or not.
NOTE: We used this sightseeing map for our personal sightseeing adventures, because of that, some notes may not make perfect sense, and some information could be outdated. Information on this map was valid at the time of creation. All prices are shown in US dollars but are actually Bulgarian Lev (local currency). That being said, feel free to save it to your Google account and use it as a starting point (or modify it accordingly) for planning out your personalized itinerary in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Sofia Must See Attractions
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is a sight to see and shouldn’t be missed when visiting Sofia. The cathedral, completed in 1912, was named after the Russian Tsar St. Alexander Nevski, who’s troops liberated Bulgaria from Ottoman rule. It’s the largest cathedral in the city (capable of holding over 7,000 people!), and is stunning both inside and out! When visiting, it won’t be hard to admire the domes that are covered in gold leafing, but be sure to step inside and admire the murals and mosaics that although faded, are still beautiful!
Tip: The park and square around Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is full of sights to explore, so be sure to wander around if you have the time!
Church St. George Rotunda (Ротонда „Свети Георги“ – Rotonda ‘Sveti Georgi’)
Unless you’re peaking through every entry way, this church may escape you, so be sure to put it on your sightseeing map! It’s tucked away in the courtyard of the Bulgarian Presidency, the Ministry of Education, and Sofia Hotel Balkan, but don’t let the sight of guards intimidate you, the courtyard is open to the public. Moreover, you’re going to want to visit as it's thought to be the oldest building in Sofia and is surrounded by Roman ruins from the ancient city of Serdica. The church has undergone a turbulent history, having first been built in the fourth century on the site of a pagan temple. It then became a place of mass Christian conversions because of the legal status it afforded people in the Roman Empire. Later the Christian church was converted to a mosque in the 16th century and was then used as a mausoleum in the late 19th century. Finally, in 1915 restoration work began on the rotunda you can see today. If you’re fortunate enough to visit while the church is open, be sure to admire the interior frescoes, as some date back as early as the sixth century.
The church's website has additional information on services .
Church of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Maker (Sveti Nikolay Mirlikiiski)
Church of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Maker is considered by many to be the most beautiful church in Sofia. In 1914 construction was completed on this Russian Revival church. It was built to look like Russian churches of the 16th century and once completed was the official church of the Russian Embassy.
When we visited, we immediately noticed the shimmering green and blue tiled roof that’s accented by the five towering domes that are covered in gold. We quietly stepped inside to see the interior of the church, which while it isn’t as stunning as the exterior, it did have frescoes that were worth seeing. The church was overflowing with parishioners for the Sunday service and we could only get a peek at the interior before we respectfully exited and made our way to the garden behind the church.
Ivan Vazov National Theater
If you’ve ever admired the architecture in Austria, then you’ll appreciate the Ivan Vazov National Theater, as it was built in 1907 by Austrian architects Helmer & Felner.
The building is featured on the Bulgarian 50 lv banknote (issued in 1999 and 2006). To see the interior, you’ll need to purchase tickets to a show, however the exterior is beautifully done and is quite unique compared to other buildings in Sofia. In particular, we found the marble columns supporting the sculpture of Apollo and the muses, and the two towers with chariots to be impressive features of the building. While you’re there though, don’t forget to take a closer look at the detail and to venture to the sides of the building, which each have a pair of sculpted women displayed.
Tip: Just opposite the front of the theater is a magnificent fountain with a statue of a graceful woman that seems to be dancing in the surrounding water. Also, be sure to take a relaxing stroll through City Garden, which first opened in 1872 making it the city’s oldest public garden.
Eagle Bridge and Lion’s Bridge
There are two bridges in Sofia, Bulgaria, which were both designed by a Czech family. The bridges have become two symbolic entrances into the city.
Eagle Bridge (Orlov Most)
Today the Eagle Bridge crosses the Perlovska River near the entrance to Borissova Gradina Park. Historically it marked the eastern border of the city at the spot where the Revolutionaries of 1878 were welcomed into the city. In recent years, the bridge has become the place where the Mayor of Sofia, Bulgaria gives the Key to the City to prominent figures. The ceremony takes place under the eagles that symbolically represent protectors and patrons of freedom.
Lion’s Bridge (Lavov Most)
Lion’s Bridge was built between 1889 and 1891 at the north entrance to the city. In its heyday, the bridge with the four regal lions was the place of gatherings and celebrations. Today, it sits at the intersection of Marie Louise Blvd and Slivnitsa Blvd, connects the Central Railway with city center, and is a stop for the metro line. During our visit, we found the bridge to have been recently renovated and surrounded by a pleasant pedestrian walking path and a small manicured garden.
National Palace of Culture
In commemoration of Bulgaria’s 1,300th anniversary in 1981, the National Palace of Culture, abbreviated NDK (pronounced as ‘EnDuhKah’), was opened as a conference and exhibition center. The idea for this enormous structure came from Lyudmila Zhivkova, the official promoter of Bulgarian arts and culture, as well as the daughter of the communist leader of the former People’s Republic of Bulgaria, Todo Zhivkov.
The building is a grand example of architectural design under the communist government and totals an amazing 15,000 square meters (161,458 square feet) of space. In fact, the building is so large that it was easy to spot from the plane when we were arriving in Sofia, Bulgaria!
Today the building is mainly used as a concert hall, but also hosts trade fairs and exhibitions. When visiting, you can spend time relaxing at the cafes in the underground shopping arcade, stroll around the surrounding gardens and fountains, and enjoy the various street performers. Moreover, don’t miss the section of the Berlin Wall that’s on display in the gardens near the Bulgarian Orthodox Chapel and the monument dedicated to the victims of the communist regime which bears the names of 10,000 victims.
Before you leave the National Palace of Culture, look up to see the bronze sun mounted on the front of the building. It was designed to represent the ceilings of traditional Bulgarian homes.
Sofia History Museum (Housed within Sofia Central Mineral Baths Building)
Bulgaria is known for mineral springs, so it’s no surprise that bath houses were common, at least since the 16th century. Today the Sofia History Museum is located in a magnificently designed and detailed building that was once the Sofia Central Mineral Baths Building.
The public bathhouse opened in 1913 and remained open until 1986, when it had to close because the structure and roof were deemed unsafe. Under the project ‘Beautiful Bulgaria’ the building was repaired and its magnificent appearance was thankfully preserved.
Tip: When visiting Sofia Central Mineral Baths, consider crossing the main street to explore the Central Hali Market (Tsentralni Hali) that was built in 1911. The market has three floors of shops and cafés to explore. We found the interior to be beautifully simple, but the exterior entrance is what caught our attention. Before going inside, be sure to look up and you’ll see a relief of the Sofia Coat of Arms below the charming clock tower.
Amphitheater of Serdica (Amphiteatrum Serdicense)
We never imagined that we’d visit a luxury hotel to see ruins of a city that existed over 2,000 years ago. However, in Sofia, you’ll want to add the Arena di Serdica Residence Hotel to your sightseeing list.
During the construction of the hotel in 2004, workers uncovered a portion of a Roman wall. Archaeological excavations started and the Amphitheater of Serdica was uncovered. Due to the coins and pottery that were unearthed, researchers were able to date the ruins to two different periods between the third and fifth century. Plus, it wasn’t just an amphitheater that was discovered, at approximately 16 feet beneath the amphitheater, a theater was also found.
Construction of the hotel continued, and today visitors and guests of the hotel can see the ruins on display from the lobby of the hotel. When we visited we asked at the front desk if we could see the ruins and were graciously invited in.
Monument of the Soviet Army
This powerful and dominating monument can be found in the center of Knyazheska Garden, near Eagle Bridge. It was built in 1954 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Bulgarian Liberation by the Soviet Army.
The monument is meant to be a salute to the Russian military who aided Bulgaria during World War II, however in recent times it has become a point of protest and rebellion.
Although it continues to be cleaned, one of the sculpture reliefs of a charging military continues to be vandalized with political graffiti. There’s a significant political movement for the removal of the monument, however when the proposed resolution has been voted upon, it has yet to receive sufficient support.
The Bells Monument (Kambanite Park))
The Bells Monument is in Kambanite Park, and while it’s outside of city center, the uniqueness of the monument and the meaning behind it makes a visit worth the trek.
The impressive monument was built in only 30 days and was conceived when, in 1979 the United Nation declared it the ‘Year of the Child’.
The first thing we noticed when visiting were the four vertical pylons that face the four cardinal points and represent the earth. In the center are seven bells, representing the seven continents. And what what we really enjoyed were the countless bells (actually there were originally over 95 bells, however many are now missing) that surround the monument. Each bell was sent to Bulgaria as a gift from the children of the representative country.
When Bells Monument was built, a capsule was placed in the foundation, containing a message for future generations that reads, “Children of the future accept the eternal, fiery call of immortality – Unity, Creativity, Beauty”.
We enjoyed walking the circumference of the monument and looking at the bells from each country. Some were ornately decorated by the representative country, others only had a message written on them, and others were from countries that no longer exist (like the USSR). After 35+ years, the age of the monument is apparent, and it’s unfortunate that it hasn’t been better maintained, as it’s quite an impressive monument that offers such an inspirational message!
Saint Sofia Monument (Statuya na Sveta Sofiya)
After the fall of communism in Bulgaria, it was decided that a new statue needed to be placed where, 10 years earlier the statue of Lenin had been removed.
In 2001, a 24 meter (78 foot) bronze statue of the patron of the city, St. Sofia, was unveiled in Independence Square. However, it came with controversy as some believed the crown (a symbol of power), wreath (a symbol of fame), and owl (a symbol of wisdom) strayed from Orthodox Christian symbolism and too closely resembled pagan influences.
Ancient Serdica Open Air Museum
When a city is built on the ruins of previous civilizations, excavation and construction of an underground metro systems is bound to uncover significant and ancient ruins. We witnessed this first in Athens, and then again in Sofia at the Serdika Metro Station.
During the construction of the metro station, between 2010 and 2012, the ruins of the ancient city of Serdica were uncovered, but it didn't come without concern from citizens as to the level of restoration and preservation of the ruins during construction.
The ruins as we saw them were well presented and found just outside of the metro station. As we walked along the path of the ruins, we were pleased that there were signs in English describing the excavation site and its contents. In total, there’s thought to be eights streets, a basilica, baths, and houses that all date back to the fourth and sixth centuries CE.
It may not be the biggest, the greatest, or the oldest, but it’s possibly the most unique and obscure thing to see in Sofia, Bulgaria!
Tucked away in an upscale neighborhood on a hill in Sofia is a five story, extremely colorful residential building that’s in the shape of a snail.
At first, we were predominately drawn to the bright colors and size of the structure but after a few minutes we started to see the small details that make up the exterior of the Snail House. Like the lizard that’s crawling up the front of the snail, the ladybug and bee perched atop the shell of the snail, the residential trashcans marked with a snail icon, and the frog sitting in the planter around back.
Most interesting though, is that all of these small details actually play a functional role. For example, the air is ventilated through the eyes, the antennae are lights and lightning arresters, the bee on the back is a chimney, and the radiators are disguised as small creatures like ladybugs and frogs.
The architect who built the Snail House in 2008, even made a statement with his building supplies by using lightweight and eco-friendly materials. It’s said that there aren’t any corners, straight walls, or edges in the building but since we couldn’t enter the mouth of the ‘beast’ and explore within, we can’t vouch for that!
Hitman Movie Buffs
If you’re a fan of the movie Hitman (2007) which is based on the video game, then during your visit you may recognize a few filming locations in the movie. Hitman took place in Moscow, but was primarily filmed in Sofia, Bulgaria. In particular, pay special attention to these places when sightseeing in Sofia:
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is fired upon by a helicopter in the movie.
The Monument to Tzar Liberator is shown in a driving scene during the movie.
The Ivan Vazov National Theater is shown in a scene with crowds waiving Russian flags in front of it.
Independence Square with the statue of St. Sofia in the background is shown in a chase scene in the movie.
We had a great time in Sofia, Bulgaria and are incredibly grateful for the opportunity to visit. If we could give one tip, we’d have to say that exploring the city by foot and on public transportation is the best way to get a full and immersive experience.
Sofia is a beautiful and affordable city that’s earned its right to be considered a ‘travel destination’, so don’t let this great and up-and-coming city escape you; visit soon!