Bulgaria is a beautiful country which is not very high on (m)any bucket list(s). I visited this amazing country for 4 days this month, and want to take you on a journey why Bulgaria is a must see country in my opinion. In my first blog I wrote about the first half of my trip to Plovdiv and Sunny Beach. In this blog I will write about Sofia and Rila.
For the last two days, our plan was as followed:
- Meet up with our couchsurfing host (we stayed at his place for two nights);
- Discovering the city of Sofia;
- Visit Rila National Park, home to the famous 7 lakes of Rila;
- Visit the Rila Monastery.
I will take you on a tour of all the things to see in Sofia as in the Rila National Park and Rila Monastery, so just sit back, relax and enjoy my article!
After driving for 4-5 hours from Sunny Beach (as I already mentioned in my first blog about Bulgaria, the sunflower fields and nature make it a cool ride) we arrived in Sofia. There we met up with Latschezar, our couchsurfing host for our stay in Sofia. After we parked the car and put our stuff in our room at his house, he adviced us to participate in the Free Sofia Tour which is a guided tour of 2 hours that takes you to all the hotspots in the city, which starts daily at 6 P.M.. Since we arrived around 2 P.M. at our host, he decided to give us a little tour of his own before he went to work in the afternoon. Lucky us, we first had a tour with our local couchsurfing host and after that the Free Sofia Tour, yes we saw all the highlights while receiving some good explanation as well!
Latschezar took us on a walk through the city, local flee markets, bathhouses and roman ruins. He also explained us about the Bulgarian Yogurt (Lactobacillus Bulgaricus), the most popular variety of yogurt in the world and is one of the things that make Bulgarians proud. The bacteria can only be found in Bulgaria, and is shipped worldwide from there for usage abroad. Latschezar took us to a local yogurt shop to taste some of it, and I can tell you it tastes good!
After that we walked through the Vitosha Boulevard, which is the main commercial street in the centre of Sofia. There you can find many posh stores, restaurants and bars. When you walk over the boulevard you can see the mountain in the distance. If you walk from the Sofia Courthouse towards the boulevard, you will end up at the Park National Palace of Culture. On this site there is a big park with a lots of things to see. You can visit the National Palace of Culture, which is the largest multifunctional conference and exhibition centre in south-eastern Europe. Infront of this building you will find a fountain filled square. The ‘1300 years of Bulgaria’ monument can also be found nearby, a monument from the communist era and I must say one of the strangest and ugliest things I have seen. After Latschezar had to get to the subway to go to work, we went to the gather point to start with the Free Sofia Tour.
Free Sofia Tour
The Free Sofia Tour (check their website here) is a great way to see all the interesting buildings and monuments within Sofia and get a short story of history with it as well. The entire tour takes just two hours of your time and if you have a few days in Sofia, it gives you a good view on what sightings you want to visit for some more sightseeing. So, how does the route look like?
- The tour starts at the Palace of Justice, which accomodates several courts in the city, located on Vitosha Boulevard;
- Sveta Nedelya Church, a church built at the end of the 19th century. The church is a direct successor of several smaller churches dated all the way back to medieval times. Famously known for a failed bomb assassination attempt on Tsar Boris III, but thanks to a Bulgarian characteristic (showing up late :)) Tsar Boris III survived the attack;
- Theology Faculty of Sofia University, founded in 1923 and has since been active as a centre for the dissemination of religious knowledge;
- Saint Sophia Statue, the replacement of where the Lenin’s monument used to stand. This copper and bronze statue can’t be missed when you visit the intersection of Maria Louisa Boulevard and Todor Alexandrov Boulevard. Fun fact, it was given as a gift to the city of Sofia, but the saint Sophia has nothing to do with the city of Sofia;
- Saint Joseph Catholic Cathedral, a Roman Catholic cathedral. The cathedral has been rebuild at its previous location after it was destroyed by the Allied forces in bombing raids during World War II;
- Church of St Petka of the Saddlers, a medieval Bulgarian Orthodox church. This small church was built in the 14th century during Ottoman rule. Inside the church you can see the remains of the murals, dating from the beginning of the 15th century. St Pekta functions as a normal church with regular services, so be sure to check it out if you have the time!;
- Central Department Store, designed back in 1956 during the communist years, the Central Department Store always has been a symbol of prosperity and pride for the Bulgarians. It is a part of the monumental architecutral centre of Sofia, Largo. The store is open for public and has different high class brands. Back in the communist days it was a place where Bulgarians could buy anything, from ordering of a car (which could take some years to actually get the car in ownership) to everyday products.
- Banya Bashi Mosque, located close to the old mineral baths and built in 1576, the Banya Bashi Mosque has a dome with a diameter of 15 metres and is the only remaining example in Bulgaria of a domed roof on a cubic base. It is the only working mosque in Sofia and open for visitors outside of prayer times (Prayer times are 13.30, 15.30 and 20.45).;
- Sofia Synagogue, the Synagogue is the largest in the Balkans and third largest in Europe. It was built between 1905 and 1909 in Spanish-Mauritanian and Byzantine style. It is open to visitors and worshippers. The jewish population was quite big pre-World War II. Because of the alliance with the Germans Hitler ordered the Bulgarians to deliver all the jewish people, but since Sofia has a strong community where 4 religions go side by side without any hatred towards eachother, the Bulgarian leader back then used the Bulgarian characteristic again and made the Germans arrive too late, saving a lot of innocent lives;
- Mineral Water Springs, Sofia is unique by having 42 mineral springs with 8 diff
erent hydro-trermal zones with a temperature of 30 to 90degrees. Wih the water flowing at 480 liters per second. Sofia mineral springs are deep under the ground, they are clean and can not be poluted (source: sofia-guide.com). The water is suppose to be good for your body. It might be warm, but it is tasty!;
- Central Public Bathhouse, this building is just magnificant! As a former mineral baths building, it is now the Museum of Sofia. Surrounded by an awesome park with a fountain and springs where you can fill up free hot mineral water;
- Council of Ministers; the building is part of the Largo architectural complex. In the building the Bulgarian government meets every week;
- Communist Party Headquarters; another building which is part of the Largo complex, it served as the seat of the Central Committee of the Communist Party until late 1990. The red star has been removed after the collapse of the communist party. Nowadays the building is mainly used as government offices;
- Ancient Serdica Open Museum; dating back to Roman times, the Serdica Open Museum shows all the find artifacts and remainings of buildings around and within the metro station. During the excavations for the metro station the workers came across many different remains of a forgotten era. Do to the archeological work and building the station while not destroying anything it took a while before the station was ready for action. The result, modern times meet ancient times! If you visit the metro station you also visit a museum, very cool!;
- St. George Rotunda, you want to see something old and still standing? Than this is the place! This round red brick church dates all the way back to the 4th century! It is the oldest preserved building in Sofia. It has been used as a church since the 6th century and has been restored and reopend to the public in 1998. There are services held daily (8.00, 17.00 and 21.00). This square, located near the former Royal Palace, is a must see;
- National Archaelogical Museum, this is the oldest museum you can find in Bulgaria. Located in a former mosque which dates back to the 15th century. It is home to the Valchitran gold treasure from the 14th century and the original floor from St. Sofia Church;
- National Art Gallery (the former Royal Palace), this museum is the newest in Bulgaria, it opened it doors in 2015 in the building of the former State Printing House. It houses almost 2,000 artworks which are exhibited in 28 halls on four levels. Because it used to be the Royal Palace, there are still guards who pose infront of the building in authentic clothing, as well in the building guarding the Bulgarian flag,
- Ethnographic Museam (the former Royal Palace), this museum is housed in the eastern wing of the former Royal Palace and gives an insight to Bulgarian folklore and traditions;
- City Garden, a beautiful small park right in the city centre. You can find several cafes in the park, a ballerina statue within a fountain and shady places for local chess players to challenge eachother. It is also the home to the National Theatre;
- Ivan Vazov National Theatre, this building is really awesome. Tje marble columns, twin towers and sculptures make it a perfect picture sight! And how cool would it be to be Ivan Vazov back in the day, when he lived around the corner of the National Theatre which was named after him and had plays he has written. Talking about being a boss;
- Bulgarian Broadway, also known with its old name Rakovska, it is an important street in Sofia. Many theatres are located here, as well as different ministries;
- Museum of Natural History, the biggest and oldest of its kind in Bulgaria and even in the Balkans. It exhibitions occupy 15 halls divided over 4 floors and display different samples and species of the country;
- Russian Church, the church can be noticed from its golden domes. It was built between 1912 and 1914 to please a Russian diplomat. The church is another picture perfect sight in my oppinion!;
St. Sophia Church; the church is the oldest Eastern Orthodox church there is. It is built at the highest point in Sofia and it gave its name to the capital back in the 14th century. There are remains within the church dating back to the early 4th century, making it the second oldest church in town;
- Synod Palace, built in 1908 the building used to be a Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Much of the original sculptures were destoryed during World War II. Nowadays the buulding is the residence of the Bulgarian Patriarch and is not open to the public;
- St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the absolut highlight of the tour. It is named afer St. Alexander Nevski, who was a Russian Tsar who saved Russia from an invasion of the Swedish back in 1240. The cathedral is built between 1904 and 1912 and looks awesome. Be ready because the building will take your breath away and give you the desire to make a lot of pictures.
The tour gives a great insight in the rich history of Sofia. Thankfully many sights have remain unharmed, making it a heaven for picture making people.
Besides being beautiful the city of Sofia also shows the world how different religions can live in peace beside eachother, respecting the differences in beliefs. Something that the rest of the world can learn from.
Tip: do not forget to check out the website of Free Sofia Tour, they also arrange three different tours for a small fee. A Communist tour which goes deeper into the history of Sofia during the reign of communism, a Cultural tour which goes deeper into the culture of Bulgaria and Kapana tour which is in Plovdiv and gives you a better insight in the history of that city. Since I can recommend the Free Sofia tour because of the knowledge of the guides and the good amount of time spend on questions and explanations, the other tours will be quality as well!
After enjoying the local nightlife and a eurocup football game (beers and food are so cheap, it is awesome!) until 1.00 A.M. with our couchsurfing host we went to bed. Had to get some good night rest because the next day we had another adventure waiting for us. Next stop, Rila.
The last part of our trip was to visit the beautiful surroundings of Rila. Just one and a half hour of driving from Sofia and you can find a few breathtaking sights. We went to Rila National Park, home of the famous 7 lakes of Rila, and the Rila Monastary.
Rila National Park, 7 lakes of Rila
After driving through the highway towards Rila surrounded by nature and mountain sights, we arrived at the foot of Rila National Park. A cool drive up the mountain took us to our first destination, the cable railway station that would take us to the 7 lakes. The railway takes you up the mountain for a fee (fee is different depending on the season, you can buy one way or both way tickets). It is located on 1,583 m above sea level and takes you to the top station which is located on 2,100 m above sea level. The chair lift is 2,163 m long and it takes about 15-20 minutes before you reach the top. It is a ski lift (during the winter there is snow in the mountains ), just sit your bum on it and enjoy the ride. Don’t forget your camera, because the cable ride will give you an amazing view over the tree filled mountain!
Once you reach the top there is a restaurant for you to get some food. Tip, get some food before you leave to Rila, because it takes long for the food to be ready and the menu cart is limited. So stock up before you go up! And bring a lot of water and snacks, you will need them.
There are many hiking routes all over the place. You can even walk all the way down back to the cable station where you started if you feel like it. The hiking grounds take you to the 7 lakes, all lakes are situated between 2,100 and 2,500 m above sea level and are breathtaking. The combination of the green environment, the mountains in the background and clear blue sky will blow your mind! The lakes are connected by small streams, making it look gorgeous!
If you go to Bulgaria, the lakes are a must visit. It feels like you are inside a van Gogh painting, that is how perfect this sight is.
After the hike we took the cable car back to our car and went to the next stop.
Since it was around 18.00, we decided to visit the Rila Monastery as a sweet dessert to end our adventure in beautiful Bulgaria.
The drive is 1 hour and 40 minutes, though it is just 89 km but it includes getting down of the mountain sight of the lakes and get up another mountain again to reach the monastery.
The monastery is breathtaking as well. It is the largest and most famous Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria at an elevation of 1,147 m above sea level. The monastery is named after its founder, the hermit Ivan of Rila, and houses aroud 60 monks in present time. it was founded back in the 10th century. The whole complex looks beautiful. If you walk through the entrance you enter the square of the monastery (ladies, wear proper clothing or you might not be allowed in!). In the middle of the square lies the main church. The church is famous for its wood-carving, from the outside a beautiful story is told with the help of gorgeous frescoes (paintings). Inside the church it looks like you enter a golden temple, with many valuable icons on display dating from the 14th to the 19th century. You will even see some of the monks roaming around in their authentic clothing!
There is also a museum on the sight which is famous for housing Rafail’s Cross, a wooden cross made from a whole piece of wood.
There is a cool giftshop with different small gifts but also expensive crosses which you want to visit before you leave.
After witnessing such breathtaking surroundings we refilled our water (yes, the monastery also has its own springs of drinkable water), hopped back in the car and drove back to Sofia. After another one and a half hours in the car we were ready for a good night sleep, because Rila as breathtaking as it was really took all our energy of the day. The next day we had a early flight back home, our Bulgaria trip was coming to an end.
In just 4 days, we spent 13-15 hours of driving to see everything in Sofia, Plovdiv, Sunny Beach and Rila, but it was worth it. You can see a lot in just 4 days, all you have to do is plan which sights you really want to see and rent a car. Why spend a whole week on the beach while you can enjoy everything this beautiful country has to offer?
Bulgaria might not be on (m)any bucketlists, but it is sure worth a visit. From ancienst buildings and remains to stunning nature to beach, Bulgaria has it all.