Neil’s Guide to Sofia
I’ve been spending increasing amounts of time in Sofia with my company, RampTshirts.com, and am considering spending more time here in the future. Since I’ve been visiting here I’ve been collecting information for visiting friends that I’ve kept in a private document. I thought it might be worth sharing publicly in case it has use for others. Please feel free to add any suggestions in the comments.
Drop me a line on firstname.lastname@example.org if you need to get in touch.
Disclaimer #1 – I’m not responsible if my map links are wrong etc and you end up in the wrong place 😉
Disclaimer #2 – I’ve not done lots of touristy stuff in the city since I moved here, so I can’t claim this as an exhaustive list. TripAdvisor or Lonely Planet are better bets for that! I have travelled quite a bit around the country in general though, so can offer recommendations if you want to get out of the city.
- Programata is the main listings site for what’s on – http://programata.bg/?l=2 – although I find searching for stuff on it really difficult. I’m told it’s the best site to use, though.
- Keep cash on you. Card payment isn’t as widely accepted here (although most restaurants etc take them).
- Bulgarians seem to be obsessed with the correct change, and can sometimes make a fuss if you pay for something with a large note. Not a big thing, but I’ve noticed it regularly though!
- Pretty much anyone under 40 here will speak good English at the very least (many are effectively fluent), so don’t be scared to ask for help if you need it. Older folks do, too. But just not as many of them.
- Ladies – bring flat shoes. The pavements here are awful. Even in the centre.
- The best places for night-life and restaurants are the roads called Tsar Shishman, Angel Kanchev, Neofit Rilski, and the general district called Sredets.
- The district called Oborishte is best for coffee and mooching (esp around the little park at the town end called Doktorska Gradina). It’s a well-to-do district where many of the elite, ambassadors, and permanently botox’d live. The back streets are lovely and leafy.
- It’s super cold here in the winter, so be prepared. But it’s also a “dry cold”, so -10 degrees here is much more pleasant than a drizzly 4 degrees back home. Seriously! The windchill can be brutal though if it’s windy. I experienced -30c windchill this weekend. Feeling is only just returning to my ears…
- Google maps is more reliable here than Apple maps.
- Locals pronounce “Sofia” more like “Soff-ya” than us Brits, who tend to go more for “So-fear”.
- If you’re in the city working, or doing the digital nomad thing, then I’ve created a map of laptop-friendly cafes in Sofia.
- The Apartment (map) – Basically an apartment where you can go and drink! More suited to couples, and small/intimate groups. Not one for a rowdy night out, but definitely worth checking ,for its unique nature, and really lovely atmosphere. “Over the years, this old residential building has served as everything from the office of the communist-era secret service to a Sudanese embassy. Today, it’s home to one of Sofia’s coolest alternative hangouts. The rooms, decorated with books, pictures and artwork, feel more like the house of an eccentric artist than a bar”.
- One More Bar (map) – nice modern, cool bar. Good for pretty much any circumstance.
- Hambara (map) – this is literally an underground bar. And it’s unmarked. It’s down a dark alleyway to the left of another bar. You have to open an unmarked door. Trust your instincts… “Once upon a time it was a barn and then it became a secret printing house. Rumour has it that initially only a handful of people who had keys used this secret spot, and even today it still has a type of speakeasy vibe, with visitors required to knock on the unmarked door to gain access.”
- Vitamin B (map) – Kind of hipster-y bar with loads of different beers. Can be a little soul-less in quiet times, but looks fairly jumping on a weekend. UPDATE – I think it’s relocated, so this map link may now be wrong.
- Bilkova (map) – I’ve heard it’s the oldest bar in Sofia. Nice underground vibes. Good tunes. Small, reasonably cheap.
- Halbite (map) – There are a few of these around the city. Cheap and cheerful. Kind of a mix of your local dive bar and a Wetherspoons. Well, the one in the centre is, anyway. They do “pub grub” as well, if you’re struggling. Not exactly “fine dining”, though. The one on Ulitsa Cherkovna, out of town, is the best of the lot in my limited experience.
- Bar 8/24 (map) – Cool little understated place. Good for a group. Nice atmosphere, and pretty central.
- Kanaal (map) – probably my favourite bar in Sofia. It’s actually a little out of the centre, so it’s not always the busiest, but it’s got the best selection of beers you can imagine, the loveliest owner, and great music.
- Public (map) – cool, dark cocktail-y bar. I really like it, but it’s more suited to a small group or a date than a gang of you.
- Art Hostel (map) – I’ve not been here (yet). But it has a good reputation. Here’s some words I’ve nicked from elsewhere (as are most words in italics. “Unless you’re staying there, it’s easy to miss this underground hangout, hidden beneath one of the city’s central streets. With its graffiti-adorned walls, foosball tables and comfortable couches, it’s a favourite spot for many young Sofians. It’s often packed, hosting live bands and jam sessions, art shows and exhibitions, so it’s a great place for visitors to discover the youthful creative scene Sofia is so proud of. “
- Friday Bar (map) – went to a great hip hop night here. Quite new and apparently the new place to be seen.
- Terminal One (map) – more of a live venue, but it does DJ nights etc.
- Mixtape (map) – not been here, but it seems to be a venue for left of centre type music from hip hop to grunge.
- Swinging Hall – live music venue. About 15 mins walk from the centre. Only spent a few mins here, but it’s a great atmosphere: https://g.co/kgs/tdxZzE
- Almost all the places below are fairly modern cuisine. They will all have English menus, and English speaking staff. If, like me, you’re vegetarian, there’s always plenty of salad options in a pinch, and a good handful of other options (usually cheese based!).
- UPDATE AUG ’18 – new-ish place called Crazy Diamond is fantastic, especially in the summer. Gorgeous courtyard, good music, lovely food. Booking is recommended. They’re very responsive in English via their FB page if you want to bag a table. (map)
- Skaptoburger (map) – Hipster burger place. Good stuff, and central. Nice beers, too.
- Thirsty Dragon (map) – Probably my favourite place to eat in Sofia. Great food, lovely vibrant atmosphere, and pretty authentic. It’s tiny though, so booking is essential in peak times.
- Made in Home (map)
- Farmers (map) – note, although the Google Maps pin is correct, the text listing says it’s on General Gourko, when it’s actually on Tsar Shishman.
- The Little Things (map) – quirky little place hidden in a courtyard. Cosy, modern food, English menus. Recommended.
- Izbata (map) – a 10-15 min walk from the centre in the Losenetz district (very near the Swinging Hall live venue if you wanted to combine the two. Modern, friendly, local restaurant. English menus.
- Jasmine (map) – lovely modern restaurant with a cute courtyard. Nice in summer. Good food.
- Made in Blue (map) – think it’s related to Made in Home, above. Really great food, lovely courtyard. Kind of hipstery, loads of veggie options, very cool.
- Cosmos (map) – Really nice restaurant. More on the “fine dining” end of the scale, but at a fraction of UK prices. Not to be confused with the co-working place of the same name on Angel Kanchev.
- Aubergine (map) – “High-end gastro pub at Sofia prices”, according to my business partner.
- Mediterraneo – A few mins walk from the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, on north side of Doktorska Gradina park. Lovely little restaurant. Modern cuisine. Nice little outdoor bit. Couldn’t get a Google Map link for it. Not hard to find, though. There’s a map on this page of their website.
- Catch A’mak (map) – nice food. Sometimes looks really busy, but I’ve only been in there when it was weirdly empty. Nice place, though.
- Street food burger place (map) – haven’t tried it, but looks like a cool place if you’re looking for something on the go.
- Godzilla (map) – cheap, modern, quick. Kind of like a Wagamama, but with a more diverse modern cuisine. Burgers, pizzas, salads etc. You won’t struggle for options, and it won’t hurt the wallet. It’s not the most authentic Bulgarian experience, but it’s quick and easy. It’s a regular haunt for me on my way home if I can’t be arsed to cook.
- Spaghetti Kitchen (there are two) – small chain Italian. I’ve only been to the one on 6-ti Septemvri, but I love, love, love it because it has GLUTEN FREE PIZZA. Praise be.
In a pinch, just stroll down Vitosha Boulevard, which is the main pedestrianised street, where there are tons and tons of restaurants. Much more touristy and busy, but you’ll not go hungry. Social Cafe (map) is quite nice, has English menus, and a good selection of food and drink. Always seems busy and popular. If you’re looking for late night eats, UGO (map) is 24 HOURS!
- Alexander Nevsky (map) – the shining jewel in the tourist crown of Sofia. It’s a gorgeous, architectural beauty. It’s kind of dull inside, though. Just a dark, old cathedral. Free entry, but I kind of find it uninspiring in there. I prefer to look at the outside!
- Urban Creatures street art collective put up massive murals around the city. Some of them are about 10 storeys high! Check them out on this map of their work.
- More graffiti stuff on this graffiti tour.
- Boyana church (map) – best accessed by bus or taxi. Combine it with a trip up Vitosha for a trip out of the city. I found it much more inspiring inside than the Alexander Nevsky cathedral, even if it is tiny. You have to pay to go in, though. Opt for the cheapest ticket, unless you want one that gives you access to the nearby history museum. Wiki.
- Serdika (map) – underground ruins.
- NDK (map) – pronounced En-day-kah. The national palace of culture. It’s like a big, weird Barbican centre. Sometimes there’s craft markets in there at the weekend. In the summer the park outside the front is lovely. All fountains, people picnicking, buskers and street drinking. Not so much fun in the winter!
- Lime (map) – grab coffee or something harder in this cool little spot. Nice and warm if it’s cold!
- +Tova (map) – a lovely little spot in the Oborishte district, about 10-15 mins walk east of the centre.
- Anywhere in Oborishte is good for coffee. There’s a bunch of cafes and restaurants, particularly at the end closest to the city, around Doktorska Gradina (“The Doctor’s Garden”).
- Borisova Gradina park – a lively central park, particularly at weekends. Contains two stadiums (stadia!), a massive wood, some statues and all sorts of other stuff. Street performers and traders are here in milder weather.
- South Park – not really spent any time here. Seems to be less structured, and a place to hang out and wander during the summer months.
- Vitosha – the glorious massive mountain that looks over the city. I strongly recommend getting up there in the gondola if you have time, which is a beautiful 30 min ride to the top. Bulgaria is not a place for great signage or information, but I think this site can be trusted to let you know if the gondola (Кабинков лифт) is working – look for the green tick on the right side of the page. It’s a long way up, and it’ll be about 10 degrees colder than it is in the city, so go prepared. There are a few cafe/bars at the top.
(nicked from an email to friends, so has references to my flat):
Taxis are cheap (about 0.8 LV per KM, so a 10 min ride will only cost 3 or 4 pounds). But the rumour is that tourists get “special fares”. Top tip – check the fare per KM, which should be listed in the window and the dashboard. If it’s over 1lv per km then walk away. I’d also recommend downloading TaxiMe, the closest they have to “Uber” here. It’s a quick and easy app (mainly in English, although sometimes not all of it), and saves too much communication as the driver receives your destination from the app. It also gives you an estimated fare, so you’re much less likely to be ripped off. However, you pay in cash at the end of the ride, unlike Uber.
Note – generally Bulgarians are kind and helpful to foreigners. I just think that taxi drivers are the same opportunistic buggers that they are the world over.
There’s also public transport options, but if you get one of the flights that arrive after midnight they may not be so useful. If in doubt, get on a Metro to the University stop, then get on the number 1 bus heading north/east, which stops a few minutes walk from my flat. The 120 stops directly outside my flat, but it’s not the most convenient of routes to pick up. Link to Sofia public transport map – fairly incomprehensible!
A note on public transport – you’ll need a ticket for each bus/tram etc you get on. They cost 1.6LV each (or 1.2LV each if you buy them in a pack of 10 – called a “talon”). You need to validate each one as you get on by putting them in the little “punchers” and pushing the lever up. And apparently you’re not meant to share these. They’re meant just for one person. If in doubt, just get one on the bus from the driver – try to have the correct change. I’ve seen quite a few ticket inspectors since I’ve been here, so don’t risk it. They are not shy about fining tourists or Brits professing ignorance. Just ask my business partner! Oh, and there is slow but functional wifi on most of the modern-ish public transport.