In Praise of Sofia

Bulgarian National Revival architecture and Irena
Sofia. You cannot get away from it. If you are coming to Bulgaria, then sooner or later you will find yourself in the capital. Serdica, the ancient Thracian and Roman city now has plenty of crummy Commie concrete around the edges, mostly built in the 1960s and 1970s and now crumbling, not so elegantly. However, this piece is not going to be downbeat, so let us focus on the good things that Sofia has to offer.
The Russian Cathedral
Now I have to admit that this post is inspired by that self-confessed greedy goose Claire’s excellent piece about Sofia in her splendid blog, www.auntiebulgaria.blogspot.com Claire says that she is always on the look-out for places to do some of her favourite activities (eating and drinking, of course!) I am sure that Claire will not mind if I include some of her recommendations, but I am also going to add a bit more sightseeing stuff and bits and pieces of general interest.
The Russian Church
The Airport
Terminal 2 is the international one and the new one, built with EU money (like lots of newish things in BG). This terminal has to be my all-time favourite airport because of the nice setting, with a good view towards the Vitosha national park, and the fact that it never seems to be crowded or even busy. Yes, the prices in the snack bars and restaurants are outrageous (well, it is an airport), but the car parks are cheap and the Sofia metro system now has a direct link to the airport, with a new metro station just outside the terminal.

Looking towards the Parliament Building, with the President's Office on the right


Tea, coffee and cake
Set in a pretty courtyard, 
Villa Rosiche (Neofit Rilski Street) does an amazing selection of cakes – and, joy of joys, these ones actually taste delicious. Nice coffee, friendly service, and lots of locals.
Fabrika Daga (which translates as Rainbow Factory) on Veslets Street does great coffee and sandwiches. They also serve a very nice cooked breakfast (hard to find in Sofia), complete with eggs and bacon.
The Tea House (Georgi Benkovski Street) has a huge selection of tea blends. They serve booze as well and sometimes have live music on in the evenings. If there is one downside to this place, it is the erratic opening hours – as far as I can tell, they are open very little in the summer. But, when they are open, you won’t be disappointed.
Yes, it is The Happy Grill, and how unoriginal can you get?

"A Streetcar Named желание " does not sound right to me

Boozy Times

Halbite (‘The Beer Mug’) does a brilliant selection of international ales. We always go to the one on Neofit Rilski Street, which has a small courtyard beer garden that’s permanently overrun with cats and kittens. Beer and kittens. It’s like dying and going to heaven.
Bar Me is a small place with a cosy back room and decent cocktail menu. It’s on Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard, close to the Russian Church and around the corner from the Aleksander Nevski Cathedral, so you’ll definitely be in the area.
The Ale House cellar bar on Hristo Belchev Street brews its own live beer and, best of all, there are taps at the tables for you to pour your own beer. I repeat, pour your own beer. You just pay by the litre at the end. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you how awesome that is. We have found they can get a bit sniffy about just having beer and no food, so I’d go when it’s quieter, late afternoon or something. Order a portion of chips if you have to.
Hambara. I almost do not want to tell you about this bar, that’s how much I like it. I think it’s probably Sofia’s coolest bar. It is hard to find (you’ll feel like you’re walking down a dark alley towards someone’s shed).
Outside the Covered Market
The Cocktail Bar is set in a little square at the corner of Angel Kanchev Street and Solunska Street. It’s a round glass building, with lots of outdoor seating in the square, so it is perfect for watching the world go by before or after dinner. The cocktails (served after 6pm) are divine. I recommend the Sofia Mule.

Food for thought 

Made in Home on Angel Kanchev Street does brilliant food and delicious cake, in very cutesy surroundings. Claire writes in her blog, “It would be my first choice for lunch and I would not mind going back there for dinner either.” Their new restaurant, Made in Blue, is also supposed to be excellent.
Sun and Moon has got to be the top choice for vegetarian food. It’s pricey, by Bulgarian standards, but worth it. There are a couple of them in Sofia, one on William Gladstone Street and one on September 6th Street (at Five Small Corners Square). The one on William Gladstone is nicer inside but the one on September 6th has better outdoor seating.
For cheap, decent Bulgarian food (and Bulgarian wine by the litre), you can’t go wrong with Divaka.
 It is part of a chain, and very popular. We like the one on Hristo Belchev Street best.
Before and After is just a few doors down from Divaka, on Hristo Belchev Street. This is a gorgeous room with a fountain in the middle. Good food, lovely atmosphere and they do tango dancing on Sunday evenings!
Boom! on Karnigradska Street does the best burgers ever. Okay, it may feel wrong to come to Sofia and eat burgers, but who cares? While you’re at it, you may as well get a filthy Oreo milkshake. Go on, you’re on holiday…

Sightseeing


I am not going to say all that much about sightseeing because I am not the Lonely Planet guidebook, but maybe, in between all that eating and drinking, you should probably check out some of the following places / activities.
Sofia is full of churches and the most obvious is the Aleksander Nevski Cathedral, otherwise known as “the Russian Cathedral”. (Maybe they call it that to distinguish it from Svet Nikolay, the Russian church.) It is a huge, impressive, multi-domed building, built to honour the Russian soldiers who died fighting for the liberation of Bulgaria from the Turks.
Sofia Synagogue, next to the Covered Market, is quiet and beautiful and usually locked. (Even though they were occupied by the Nazis, the Bulgarians refused to send their Jews to the concentration camps during World War 2. They also, very wisely, decided not to take part in Hitler's invasion of Russia.)



Mamulichka and Yev at the Mosque, near the Covered Market

I have never been inside the Banya Bashi Mosque, also located next to the Covered Market. There is a special set of shelves outside for all of the shoes, the footwear of the faithful. The mosque always seems to be full of worshippers and sometimes they spill out onto the street. Yes, there are a lot of places of worship here.
All the President's Men

The goose-stepping “Changing of the Guard” ceremony at 12pm outside the President’s Office is worth watching. Lots of peacock feathers and leather boots, if you like that sort of thing. Yes, it is reminiscent of Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks.
NDK
The solid, square Soviet ugliness of the Narodni Dom Kultura (NDK) squats at the end of an otherwise-pleasant park, just off the Vitosha Boulevard. At the other end of the park is the unspeakably horrible Communist monument thing that is falling apart (but not fast enough for my liking.)
There is also supposed to be a free walking tour. (I have not done this, but I keep meaning to). Now there is also recently saw a flyer for a Communist-themed walking tour, which might be fun if it does not include any horrible sculpture.

Shopping

The Ladies' Market (but men can go there too!)
You should head to the Ladies’ Market for gifts, trinkets and vegetables. The selection of fruit looks great, until you actually buy some. Then you find that inside the black plastic bag is all of the bruised fruit that was dumped on an unsuspecting foreigner. The Ladies’ Market is also a good place to get a handgun, if you are planning an assassination sometime soon or if you want to get your money back from that dishonest stallholder. Watch out for the pickpockets and the inevitable old ladies selling thin yellow candles and cans of flyspray.

Inside the Covered Market
The Covered Market is a more upmarket market, as one would expect, but it does have the significant advantage of being the location of the only free toilets that we know of in the centre of Sofia. The selection of olives, meats and cheeses is very good (shame about the prices) and the cafes are great places for people-watching while sipping your cappuccino.   

Tsar Shishman Street has lots of nice trinket-type shops on it, including the Elephant Bookstore. This is an wonderful shop for books, comics, pop-culture, vintage and more. The place has a variety of just about everything and the people who work there are nice and helpful. The only problem that is that it is expensive, very expensive. It is true that some of the stuff there can be bought online for a lot less, then again they do have some things that you will not be able to find somewhere else, so it is definitely worth a visit (or two).

One of my wife’s favourite things to do in Sofia is trawl through all of the second-hand clothes shops, searching for weird and wonderful clothes. She has had some amazing finds in these shops over the years. The main area for these shops seems to be along the road from the railways station to the Lions’ Bridge. If you see a clothes shop with the sign ‘втора употреба’ (second hand), then be sure to go in and have a rummage. The smell usually puts me off, I have to say.




You still can't hide your lion eyes...




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