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Sofia for a Day?

I got a request from one of my readers via twitter a couple of days ago. She wanted to know what to do in Sofia for a day in June before grabbing a flight to Varna at 11pm with a friend.

Good question.

Ultimately, I guess it depends on what you are into.

Lion at the Palace of Justice

In a new city, I generally like to mix up my routine a little bit usually this includes a museum or something culture, a stroll around town, a coffee and people watching, snacking on some local food, seeking out some young and hip shops and then topping it off with beer or a cocktail on a pedestrian zone watching the transition between late afternoon before hitting up a new-to-me restaurant.

These days I feel no pressure to hit up every museum or to seek out every famous building/monument/statue/neighborhood. I’d rather have a good taste of the city rather than the alternative which is to rush, rush, rush in order to check tourist sites off of some arbitrary list made up by a guidebook.

So if I were in Sofia for a day, I’d consider some combination of the following suggestions depending on what I like, the weather forecast and how ambitious I felt. I ‘d probably start by checking out one of these museums/galleries.

  • If you want to see one of the best collections in the city terms of accessibility, history, the display of artifacts and information in English you really can’t go wrong with the Archaeological Museum (good thing their website is only in Bulgaria–here’s wikipedia for you English speakers). The only thing is it’s not cheap–I think tickets are 10 leva so if you’re a student say so. This said it’s worth it. The museum is housed in an old mosque and even the building is beautiful.
  • The Sofia Art Gallery (or maybe it’s the Sofia Municipal Gallery of Art–but that’s a mouthful) on the other hand is free and two rooms of Bulgarian art. Collections are usually curated around a single theme and the great thing about this is that if you don’t like what you see you have no obligation to stay. This said, some of my favorite shows have taken place in this gallery and you’ll definitely find yourself in the park in front of the National Theater at some point so why not pop in and see what’s showing?!
  • Finally, I have a love/hate relationship with the Ethnographic Museum/National Art Gallery both of which are housed in the former Royal Palace. I hate that the building is falling apart around the museum/gallery and that seemingly very little is being done to keep up the building. This said, I love the National Art Gallery’s collection. The Ethnographic Museum I could pass on and may actually be closed for repairs if I am to believe programata.bg (a great resource for what’s happening in the city each week).  The cafe/bar Toba & Co around back behind the palace is fine but for the record there are more interesting places to have a coffee in the city.

Or if museums aren’t your thing and it’s a beautiful day, I’d consider a walking tour with Free Sofia Tour and here’s my review of the tour I went on. Really I can’t stress this enough there are two tour times each day 11am and 6pm and if you have two hours to spare you won’t regret it.

I’d have a coffee or a beer (or maybe both) in one of these two parks.

  • The park in front of the National Theater (guide books refer to it as the Sofia City Garden but I’ve never heard anyone call it that.)
  • The park/garden/space behind the fruit and vegetable market on Graf Ignatiev and in front of the Church of the Seven Holy Saints (Sveti Sedmochislenitsi Church). The people watching here after lunch and in the early afternoon is excellent. Old men and women line the sides of the park on benches, mothers push babies around in strollers and businessmen relax in the sun.

I’d visit these two shops. Why? Well because they are my favorite shops in the city. Here’s why. Both shops are run by young locals who speak English and who are happy to talk to you about what they are doing, why they are passionate about it and the prices while maybe expensive for local Bulgarians are excellent when compared to other major European cities.

  • Paradise Garage is a boutique which sells women’s clothing and accessories made by up and coming Bulgarian designers. Every time I go, I fall in love with something and come out with a new addition to my wardrobe. Be warned, the shop is dangerous.  It’s one block off Vitosha Blvd on Karnigradska and one block before the Irish pub JJ Murphy’s.
  • Zona Urbana is a boutique of sorts which sells a variety of different things made from recycled materials like old communist newspapers. Items range from wallets to purses to tote bags/messenger bags, earrings and buttons. They also have leather cuffs and a line of toys. Zona Urbana is across the street from the Moroccan restaurant Annette’s (which is tasty if your in the mood for Moroccan but the service is often slow. This said, they have some great vegetarian options).  The shop is at Angel Kunchev #24 for those of you who are interested.

I’d pick between one of these quick and cheep restaurants for lunch or dinner. Both of the restaurants listed below serve what I call modern Bulgarian fare. The food is traditionally Bulgarian but often with a lighter twist and without the kitschy pottery and woven table cloths. In both of these restaurants two people could easily eat lunch for less than 20 leva and yes, that price includes a beer.

  • Divaka apparently means wild person in Bulgarian not that this matters too much. The food is good. It’s usually pretty easy to get a table and they’ve got an English menu.  Interestingly, I’ve never written a review of this restaurant but I take anyone who has ever visited me here and they love it. Maybe one of these days I’ll write a review of the restaurant. There are three Divaka’s in the city center. One at the little five corners off of Graf Ignatiev on the 6th of September (#41), another at 54 Gladston Street and the third is off of Vitosha Street on 16 Hristo Belchev Street (which runs parallel to Vitosha).
  • Tavite/Тавите is a new love of mine. They serve both lunch and dinner in a super cute atmosphere for a great price. They are kind of tucked away behind the book market on Slaveykov Square. The street address is 58 William Gladsone Str but the link offers walking directions.

After all of this, I’d have a drink on Vitosha Street at Memento. The cafe is cozy and has seats inside and outside. Outside is clearly the place to park yourself while you sip on a drink or two–unless it’s raining. Then do the smart thing. Sit inside and chat up the bartender/barista. The great thing about Memento is that they offer excellent coffee, loose tea and cocktails so there’s something for everyone.

And, that’s that. Sofia in a day.

Sure I’ve left off banitsa and rakiya. I don’t have a traditional Bulgarian restaurant in the mix and I haven’t listed a single souvenir shop but here’s the thing, you can’t do everything in a day. I guess if you were desperate you could probably squeeze banitsa and rakiya in for breakfast but I am not sure that combination is recommended. It’s probably a safer bet to sub in some form of Bulgarian yogurt.

Oh and if you really wanted to do it up like a local, you could do the whole thing in heals. Just beware of the cobble stones and uneven sidewalks.

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