Modern yet pleasingly laidback…convergence of the East and the West…skyline boasting of historical monuments alongside vast and glitzy shopping malls…busy city streets interspersed with manicured gardens….ski slopes and hiking trails near the bustling city center…..Welcome to Bulgaria’s capital city SOFIA which has enough to persuade you to stay back and explore further in a city that grows but does not age…..
Cityscape view of Sofia, Bulgaria
Sofia, the capital and largest city of Bulgaria is situated in the center of the Balkan peninsula, at the foot of Vitosha Mountains in the western part of Bulgaria. It is midway between the Black Sea and the Adriatic Sea; the Aegean Sea is the closest to it, and Sofia is surrounded by sprawling parkland.
An area of human habitation since around 7000 BCE, Sofia is on a date, Europe’s most affordable capital. Pleasingly laid-back, Sofia is oftentimes overlooked by tourists preferring the coast or the ski resorts. It’s no grand metropolis for sure, but it’s largely modern and youthful while maintaining its quaint east-meets-west atmosphere that is quite evident through the scattered Ottoman mosques, onion-domed churches and Red Army monuments that share the skyline with vast shopping arcades and huge hotels. The grey, block structured civic architecture lends a lingering Soviet tinge to Sofia, that is also an astonishingly green city with vast parks and green spaces that offer a welcome respite from the busy city streets. Home to many of Bulgaria‘s finest galleries, restaurants, museums, and entertainment venues, Sofia is a sure shot magnet for the curious traveler in you.
Alexander Nevsky Church
With a history stretching over seven millennia, ruin-rich Sofia is one of Europe’s oldest. Charming boutiques, wide cobblestone boulevards and a truly electrifying nightlife star in this city housing millions. Trams, trolleys & buses traverse this dynamic city.
Conquest and Antiquity
Sofia has a history of nearly 7000 years with its earliest official mention in the 7th century BC. Originally a Thracian settlement populated by the tribe Serdi throughout the Bronze Age, Sofia saw the tribe Serdi establish a settlement in the 8th century BC.
In the 500s BC, the area Serdica became part of a Thracian tribal union, the Odrysian kingdom, when another Thracian tribe, the Odrysses, arrived in the city. Around 29 BC, Serdica was conquered by the Romans, and it gradually became the most important Roman city in the region. It became a municipium (town/city) during the reign of Emperor Trajan.
Serdica expanded with protective walls, turrets, public baths, a civic basilica, an amphitheater, the City Council (Boulé), administrative and cult buildings, a large forum, a big theatre, etc. being built. The city subsequently expanded for one and a half centuries, became a significant economic & political center & one of the first Roman cities to recognize Christianity as an official religion. The Edict of Toleration was issued in 311, officially ending the Diocletianic persecution of Christianity. The Edict implicitly granted Christianity the status of religio licita, worship accepted & recognized by the Roman Empire. It was the first edict legalizing Christianity. In 343 AD, the Council of Serdica was held in a church located where the current 6th century Church of Saint Sophia was later built.
The city was destroyed during the invasion by the Huns in 447 AD. It was rebuilt by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. During the reign of Justinian it flourished, being surrounded with great fortress walls whose remnants can still be seen today.
After a long siege, the city became part of the First Bulgarian Empire during the reign of Khan Krum in 809. Later, it progressed into an important fortress and administrative center when Khan Omurtag made it a center of Sredets province. After the conquest of the Bulgarian capital, Preslav by Sviatoslav I of Kiev and John I Tzimiskes‘ armies in 970-971 AD, the Bulgarian Patriarch Damyan chose Sofia for his seat in the next year and the capital of Bulgaria was first moved to Sredets.
After multiple unsuccessful sieges, in 1018 AD, Sofia fell to the Byzantine Empire, but once again was incorporated into the restored Bulgarian Empire at the time of Tsar Ivan Asen I.
Sofia was seized by the Ottoman Empire in 1382 AD during the Bulgarian-Ottoman Wars following a long siege. Around 1393 AD, it became the seat of newly established Sanjak (administrative division) of Sofia.
Sofia was occupied by Hungarian forces for a short span in 1443 AD. After the failed crusade by Wladyslaw III of Poland in 1443 towards Sofia, the city’s Christian elite was annihilated and Sofia became the capital of the Ottoman province of Rumelia for over 400 years. In the 16th century, Sofia’s appearance & urban layout began to exhibit a distinct Ottoman style. Bulgarian hajduks seized the town for several weeks in 1599AD. The Vatican established the Diocese of Sofia for Catholics of Rumelia (1610 AD), that existed until 1715 when most Catholics had emigrated.
The Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78 witnessed Suleiman Pasha trying to burn the city; the foreign councils Vito Positano, Leandre Legay, Rabbi Gabriel Almosnino, and Josef Valdhart interceded to salvage the city. Taken by the Russian forces on January 4, 1878, Sofia was proposed as capital and was accepted as such on 3 April 1879.
In the following wars, Sofia was invaded by the Soviet Red Army. It was bombed by Allied US and UK aircraft in WWII.
In 1925, a terrorist act failed in the attempted assassination of the king but destroyed a church and killed many. In 1945, the communist Fatherland Front took power and executed thousands. The transformation of Bulgaria into the People’s Republic of Bulgaria in 1946 and into the Republic of Bulgaria in 1990 marked significant changes in the city’s appearance. The population of Sofia rose rapidly due to migration from the country. Whole new residential areas were built in the outskirts of the city.
A Cultural Buffet
Bulgaria’s oldest cultural institute is Sofia’s SS. Cyril and Methodius National Library, with the largest national collection of books. Sofia houses many cultural institutes from different countries, which regularly organize temporary expositions of literary, visual, and sound works by artists from these countries.
Sofia’s architecture portrays a combination of architectural styles, from medieval Bulgarian fortresses and Christian Roman architecture to prefabricated Socialist-era apartment blocks and Neoclassicism. Many ancient Roman, Byzantine and medieval Bulgarian buildings are preserved in the heart of the city.
Sofia Monument was erected in 2001 as a new civic symbol for the city. The 24m high monument with a bronze female figure at the top of the column, holding the wreath of victory in her right hand and balancing an owl on her left arm, represents Sofia, a personification of wisdom and fate.
Majority of Bulgaria’s leading performing arts troupes are from Sofia. Theatre is the most popular form of performing arts, and theatrical venues are among the most visited, after cinemas. The oldest is the Ivan Vazov National Theatre, which mainly performs classical plays and is situated at the very center of the city.
Ivan Vazov National Theatre
The National Opera and Ballet of Bulgaria, established in 1891, is a combined ballet and opera collective.
Classical concerts are regularly held in the National Palace of Culture, a vast polygonal concert hall.
Bulgaria’s largest art museums are centrally located. The National Art Gallery holds a collection of Bulgarian art, mainly 19th- and 20th-century paintings by the likes of Vladimir Dimitrov, and other Bulgarian sculptures.
The National Gallery for Foreign Art has an eclectic assemblage of international artworks, mostly from Africa, Europe, India, and China on display. Its collections include diverse cultural items like Dutch Golden Age paintings, works by Albrecht Dürer and Auguste Rodin, Buddhist art, Ashanti Empire sculptures, etc.
The crypt of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral exhibits a collection of Eastern Orthodox icons dating back to 9th – 19th century.
The National Historical Museum boasts of a collection of more than 6 lakh exhibits- Thracian artifacts and 19th-century weapons & costumes.
The National Museum of Military History narrates the story of warfare in Bulgaria, with focus on the period from the 1876 April Uprising through to WWI. Rebel flags, weaponry, decorations, and uniforms are on display, while outside is an impressive display of Soviet-made military hardware like tanks, Scud missile launchers and MiG fighters.
Ivan Vazov House-Museum is the earlier residence of Ivan Vazov, Bulgaria’s best-loved author. Some rooms have been restored to their early 1900s appearance.
Museum of Socialist Art is very prominent to spot with a big red star atop. It has a gallery of paintings, within catchy titles. Also, stirring old propaganda films are shown there.
In Peyo Yavorov House Museum, rooms in the apartment of the romantic poet and revolutionary Peyo Yavorov have been restored to their original appearance. Bizarre mementos include the dress worn by Yavorov’s wife, Lora when she committed suicide in the study and Yavorov’s death mask.
Monument to the Soviet Army, built in 1954, portrays the forceful socialist-realism of the period. Place of honor goes to a Red Army soldier atop a column, surrounded by animated cast-iron sculptural groups depicting determined, gun-waving soldiers and grateful, child-caressing members of the proletariat.
Monument to the Soviet Army
The Royal Palace was originally built as the headquarters of the Ottoman police force, and in 1873 witnessed Bulgaria’s national hero, Vasil Levski, being tried and tortured before his public execution. Post-liberation, it was remodeled to be the official residence of Bulgaria’s royal family.
Sveta Sofia Church is Sofia’s oldest and gave it its name. A newly opened subterranean museum houses an ancient necropolis with 56 tombs and remains of 4 other churches. Outside are the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and an eternal flame, and the grave of Ivan Vazov, Bulgaria’s most revered writer.
Air of Relaxation
Sofia has an extensive green belt with 4 principal parks – Borisova gradina in the city center, and the Northern, Western and Southern parks.
The Vitosha Nature Park includes most of Vitosha mountain and is a popular hiking destination owing to its proximity and ease of access by car/ public transport.
Vitosha mountain offers favorable skiing conditions during the winter. Skiing passes typically allow unlimited access to the ski slopes, cable cars, and other transport facilities. Skiing equipment can be rented and skiing lessons are available.
Vitosha Boulevard, also called Vitoshka, is a pedestrian zone with restaurants, cafes, luxury goods stores, and fashion boutiques.
Amongst Sofia’s many restaurants, Manastirska Magernitsa stands out. This traditional tavern is among the best places to sample authentic Bulgarian cuisine.
Cinema halls, trade centers, malls, cafes, and other eating joints are aplenty in Sofia. For dream accommodation, holidayporch.com offers stylish furnished 1 & 2 bedroom apartments at great locations including the Sofia City Centre for easy access and close proximity to all places of visit in and around the city. In a nutshell, the city offers everything to make for a memorable vacation.
Such vibrancy enveloped in such antiquity is a must on the itinerary, isn’t it?