Sofia is the capital and the biggest city in Bulgaria. Founded thousands of years ago, the city continues to develop as the cultural and economic centre of the country. Currently, the city has a population of 1,250,000.
Sofia is in the western part of the country, in the Sofia Valley, at the foot of Mount Vitosha. The average altitude is approx. 550 m above sea level, the climate is mild and continental, characterised by cold winters and relatively cool summers. The average temperature in winter is -1 °C; the average temperature in summer is approx. 20 °C. The city is located in strategic junctions. The route from western Europe to Istanbul crosses Sofia, Belgrade and Skopje, then through Plovdiv in Turkey. Sofia is also a link between the Near East and the Middle East, as it is located between the shores of the Danube and the coast of the White Sea; and, on the other side, between the Black Sea and the Adriatic Sea.
Sofia is relatively close to the other capitals of the Balkans. Ankara is 1,012 km away; Athens, 837 km; Belgrade, 374 km; Bucharest, 395 km; Zagreb, 762 km; Ljubljana, 897 km; Sarajevo, 549 km; Skopje, 239 km and Tirana, 553 km. 3 motorways start in Sofia: Trakia, Lyulin and Hemus. The airport in Sofia offers good connections with all important European cities. Travellers can reach every destination inside the country from the central bus and train stations.
Sofia boasts many valuable monuments that remind of its long, legendary story. The visitors who explore the streets of the city can see the remains of the East Gate. The East Gate dates back to the times when Sofia was still called Serdika and Sredets, between the 2nd and the 4th century BC. These remains are exhibited in the underpass that links the Presidential Palace with the Council of Ministers. They are surrounded by shops which sell traditional Bulgarian souvenirs and rose water.
The Saint Sofia Church, one of the oldest churches in the city, was founded during the reign of Justinian (527-565). It was the most important city in the Middle Ages. Under the Ottoman rule, it was used as a mosque. Near Saint Sofia Church, you will find one of the best-known symbols of the city: the Aleksander Nevski Church. The church was built and designed in 1912 by the Russian architect Alexander Pomerantsev. The bell tower is 53 m high and has 53 bells; the heaviest weighs 10 tons. As one of the most popular tourist destinations in Sofia, the church can host approx. 5,000 people. In important Christian holidays, it is full of religious believers. In the burial vault of the church there is an exhibition of Orthodox Christian art. The National Art Gallery is found directly opposite the church, where there are frequent exhibitions of the works of world-famous artists.
The oldest church in Sofia is the Saint George Rotunda. The church was built in the 6th century, under the rule of Constantine the Great. In the immediate vicinity of the Rotunda, in the underground passage that leads to Serdika Metro Station, you will find the Saint Petka Samardzhiiska Church, built in the 11th century. Another Christian monument of the region is the Catholic Cathedral of Saint Joseph. In this area you will find the Banya Bashi Mosque as well, which was built in the 16th century. Not far away from the mosque there is a synagogue, which also hosts a museum. There is almost no other city in Europe with such a density of remarkable Christian, Islamic and Jewish monuments. Very near you will find also other historical remains such as the Mineral Baths, the Market Hall and the Holy Sunday Church. Opposite this church you will find the Theological Faculty, which contains the National History Museum and the Archaeology Museum. Other places of interest in the city are the Lions’ Bridge and the Eagles’ Bridge, as well as the Soviet Army monument and the monument to the memory of Vasil Levski (a Bulgarian revolution hero, who gave his life in the 19th century in the war against the Ottomans to free Bulgaria).
Among the religious symbols of the city, directly opposite the Presidential Palace, you will find the National Archaeological Museum, which contains the most valuable treasures that have been discovered in Bulgaria. Masterpieces of Bulgarian painting are exhibited in the Bulgarian national Art Gallery, which is in the former Bulgarian royal palace. The National Museum of Ethnology is found here, as well as the Museum of Natural Sciences, where valuable animals and plants are exhibited. In front of this museum you will find the Church of St. Nicholas, an architectonic symbol. The National Assembly building, “the monument of the liberators” (in honour of the Russian Tsar Alexander II), and the grounds of the university are other important landmarks of the city. Without a doubt, the Ivan Vazov National Theatre is one of the most beautiful buildings in Sofia.
At the foot of Mountain Vitosha, in the area of Boyana, there is the National History Museum, with collections dating back from prehistorical times to the present day. It is one of the biggest collections in the world, with more than 700,000 objects of cultural importance. Near the museum you can find the Boyana Church, one of the Bulgarian monuments listed as World Heritage by the UNESCO.
There are even more places of interest in the city, as for example the Polytechnic Museum, the Museum of Anthropology and the Sport Museum. Being the capital of the country, it is often host to important cultural and musical events, conferences, and sports events. The National Palace of Culture, the football stadium and the big halls are venues for concerts and performances by famous people and groups. During the months of May and June, the Palace of Culture welcomes artists who participate in the Sofia Music Weeks. The many theatres and galleries of the city offer a wide variety of interesting exhibitions and shows. The city is a favourite destination for international congresses, and there are many halls and centres which offer something for every need. For example, the National Palace of Culture is one of the most popular venues in the city to host business forums and trade fairs.
Sofia is also host to to Bulgaria’s bigger, most renowned educational institutions, universities, colleges and secondary schools. These offer state-of-the-art teaching based on sound foundations in the fields of Architecture, Medicine, Humanities, Engineering, Music and Choreography.
Near Sofia, in the Vitosha, Lozen and Stara Planina (Balcan Mountain Range), so many monasteries have been founded throughout the centuries, that these mountains are also known as the Sacred Mountains. They can be considered as a unit and they also played an important role regarding the spiritual heritage of Bulgaria during the Ottoman occupation. Among others, the Dragalevski monastery, the Lozen monastery, the Germanski monastery, the Kremikovski monastery, the Cherepishki monastery and the Osenovlashki Monastery are still preserved. In the capital, there are sport and recreation opportunities in open-air swimming pools, tennis courts, modern sport halls and parks. The football stadium in the city attracts thousands of fans when important teams are playing.
The parks in Sofia are very popular to take a break and relax. The Borisov Park is right in the city centre, and the southern park is to be found beside the National Palace of Culture. There are two golf courts approx. 1 hour away from the city. They are located in the city Ihtiman and in the village Ravno Polye. Both of them have excellent facilities to practise this sport, which enjoys a growing popularity. In the winter months, the skiing area in Mount Vitosha is very popular among skiers and snowboarders. In summer it is the favourite place both for hiking and picnic lovers. Mount Vitosha borders the Vitosha National Park, which is the oldest natural reserve in the Balkans. The plant types in the park are particularly abundant and varied. 10 of the peaks of the Vitosha Mountain Range are over 2,000 m high, the highest of them being the Cherni Vrah (Black Peak), in the middle of the range, with 2,290 m. Since the Vitosha Mountain Range became a preferred destination among the city inhabitants, its fields and tracks are enlivened by nature lovers. For more information about the park, please contact the Nature Protection Information Center “Vitosha”, which is located approx. 1 km away from the Dragalevtsi residential area, in close proximity to the Dragalevski Monastery.
The are two skiing areas in the Vitosha Mountain Range for fans of this popular sport. They are called Aleko and Kornyarnika. Aleko, with 1,800 m of altitude and its slopes, is situated north. It is possible to ski also in the evenings. The Kornyarnika has an altitude of 1,507 m. There are in total 29 km of skiing tracks. The largest slope is 5 km. The zoo, in the south of the city, is the biggest zoo in the country. It is a popular place for day excursions among young and old. Sofia offers many playing facilities for children. The parks are equipped with safe and modern playground devices. There are children parks, as well as indoor recreation facilities for children.
Like every big city, Sofia offers something for every taste. There are many luxury hotels, also international chains. Apart form this, there are several different youth hostels and pensions. There is a big number of discos, restaurants, bars, piano bars, folk clubs, taverns, soda fountains, takeaway stands and many other types of entertainment. Sofia and its most immediate vicinity boast many spas. The hot springs in Bankya, a spa region in the area, offer wonderful facilities for holidays, relaxation and wellness. There are 10 spas inside the capital which offer peace and relax, as well as therapeutical and cosmetic treatments.
One of the most popular places both for Sofia’s inhabitants and tourists is the Vitosha Boulevard. Here you will find shops selling worldwide famous brands. As it is in the pedestrian area, it is a perfect place for strolling and relaxing. The capital is a shopping paradise, since Sofia is still one of the most important trading junctions in the Balkan Peninsula.
The city’s official holiday is on the 17th of September, in commemoration of the martyrdom of Saint Sophia and her 3 daughters Vyara (Faith), (Nadezha) Hope and (Lyubov) Love.