Sofia

Aleksandar Nevski cathedral

Sofia (София) is the capital of Bulgaria. It is also the biggest city in the country with about 1.4 million citizens (including suburbs). Today, Sofia is a dynamic European capital, distinguished by its unique combination of European and Communist-style architecture as well as many beautiful Orthodox churches. Furthermore, it claims to be one of the few European capitals with beautiful scenery and a developed ski-resort so close to it - the Vitosha mountain.

Understand

History

Sofia was founded around 2,500 years ago. Over the centuries, it has been given several names — Serdika, Sredets and the remains of the old cities can still be viewed today.

Near Sofia lies Boyana church, which is one of the most valuable memorials of Bulgarian and European culture. The church has frescoes, acclaimed by specialists as the best examples of eastern medieval art during from the 13th Century AD.

The decline of Sofia during the Turkish Ottoman Empire was followed by the rejuvenation after the Russian liberation in 1878, when Sofia was chosen as the capital of Bulgaria at the First National Constituent Assembly, and followed by a brisk and straightforward period of construction.

Get in

By plane

Sofia Airport (Летище София) (IATA: SOF) is 9 km east of the city center. It is the busiest airport in Bulgaria, with annual passenger traffic of approximately 4 million.

Over 20 airlines operate service to/from Sofia, with direct flights to/from Athens, Paris, Vienna, London, Rome, Amsterdam, Munich, Warsaw and other European cities.

Along with traditional carriers, some low-cost companies traveling to Bulgaria are EasyJet (to/from London-Gatwick, Madrid, Manchester) and Wizz Air (to/from Paris-Beauvais, Barcelona, Brussels-Charleroi, Dortmund, Eindhoven, London-Luton, Milan-Bergamo, Rome-Fiumicino, Valencia). Bulgaria Air, the national carrier operates service to/from Alicante, Amsterdam, Athens, Barcelona, Beirut, Berlin - Tegel, Brussels, Bucharest - Otopeni, Frankfurt, Istanbul - Atatürk, Kiev - Boryspil, Larnaca, London - Gatwick, London - Heathrow, Madrid, Málaga, Manchester, Moscow - Sheremetyevo, Palma de Mallorca, Paphos, Paris - Charles de Gaulle, Rome - Fiumicino, Skopje, Tel Aviv, Tirana, Tripoli, Valencia, Vienna, Zürich.

There are domestic flights to/from Varna and Burgas.

Budget airlines including EasyJet, Germanwings and Wizz Air operate from Terminal 1, while the traditional carriers including Bulgaria Air operate from Terminal 2.

There are shops, cafes, post offices, ATMs, and money exchange offices at the airport. For more details, see the airport website.

There is a free shuttle bus operating between the terminals every 30 minutes between 7:00AM and 7:00PM. Outside of those hours, a free shuttle bus can be requested at the information desk or you can use Bus #84 (see below).

To travel between the airport and the city centre:

By bus

Central bus station

Sofia Central Bus Station (Centralna Avtogara/Централна автогара) is in the north part of the city centre and is within walking distance to the central attractions. Schedules and fares are available in Bulgarian online.

Eurolines Bulgaria is the largest operator of international buses to/from Bulgaria. Buses operate to/from Belgrade (5 hours, €23) and other cities in Serbia, Vienna (15.5 hours, €59) and other cities in Austria, Paris (36 hours, €120) and other cities in France, Berlin (28 hours, €110) and other cities in Germany, Budapest (11-13 hours, €48), and Prague (21 hours, €63).

MATPU 96 is the largest operator of buses in Bulgaria. The schedule is available in Bulgarian online. Buses operate several times per day to/from Skopje (5.5 hours, €15).

Other bus stations

In addition, there are 3 smaller bus stations that serve only local destinations. The bus to Samokov operates from the south station (near Жолио Кюри Metro Station, also on the route of Bus #84 from the airport).

By train

International trains provide a large number of routes to Sofia, arriving from such places as Kiev, Istanbul, Vienna, Belgrade, Bucharest, Moscow and other common cities.

The primary trains from Bucharest to Sofia, and back, run twice daily through the border cities of Giurgiu and Ruse. For example, recent trains are scheduled from Bucharest to Sofia in the daytime departing 12:16/arriving 21:33 and a night train departing 20:04/arriving 06:00. From Sofia to Bucharest there are also two trains: a) Sofia 07:45 - Bucharest 17:19 and b) Sofia 19:30 - Bucharest 05:44. One way ticket is around €25up. Passport control and customs takes place in Giurgiu (RO) and Ruse (BG), approximately mid-trip. Check local train stations for more up to date information.

After three years of no railway connection, in 2014 trains between Thessaloniki and Sofia started again. There is one train each day and it takes about 7 hours to travel between these cities.

To Istanbul, the train costs 70 leva, the train departs at around 18:30 and arrives at 9:00.

All services are operated by the Bulgarian State Railways, whose schedules are available on the internet in English.

The main railway station (Tsentralna Gara) can be somewhat confusing. Domestic departures go from the main terminal and that is where you can buy tickets for domestic travel. If you want to travel to an international destination, on entering the station from the front, turn to your left, walk past the heated waiting room on your left (and some small shops) and go to the office at the end of the wide corridor with "RILA" on it. It is straight ahead of you. They speak some English and to book a ticket, you will need your passport. They take credit cards.

Platforms can be accessed from the main floor down the escalators at the far left corner. Platform numbering is somewhat confusing: Roman numerals indicate the platform number (I to VI), and Arabic numerals (1 to 12) indicate the actual track. Each platform is divided into East and West. Departures and arrivals are indicated on reliable electronic panels, but, beware, they indicate the track number, not the platform! In any case, leaving by train is mostly recommended if you want to travel overnight to destinations on the Black Sea, since trains for Varna and Burgas will leave late in the evening and get you there in the early morning (a couchette to Varna is 16 leva).

By car

All highways in Bulgaria are often under construction.

Access to Bulgaria's Capital is via several entry points:

1. From the North & South via E79/A6

2. From the East - via Thrace Highway E80/A1-A3 or from the old road paralelling the E80 Highway - Zlatitza - Pirdop - Pazardzhik route.

3. From the West - via A1/E80 Liking the city and the Bulgarian-Serbian Border point of Kalotina.

Otherwise coming from Greece the road E79/A6 is in very good shape, so the 300 km from Thessaloniki are done fairly fast if you don't happen to fall into Friday/Sunday traffic jams in the area of Sofia or Pernik.

Coming from the Republic of Macedonia, via Kyustendil the roads are relatively good but driving within speed limits would avoid you much hassle caused either by traffic police, or road conditions. From Central Europe you can drive almost the whole length on highways (via Slovenia-Croatia-Serbia or Hungary-Serbia), with only the last 100 km between Niš in Southern Serbia and Sofia being heavily trafficked mountain roads around the Nishava ravine in not the best shape.

Get around

By public transport

A metro/subway train in Sofia
A bus in Sofia

Sofia has a well-developed, cheap, and efficient public transport system () that consists of buses, trolleys, trams, subway line. Be sure to ask for directions, because the transport network can be confusing for visitors who do not know it well. The public transport operates from 5AM to about 11PM. Taxis are the only transport option in the night.

The price of a single ticket is 1.00 lev (~ €0.50) only paid in the local currency. There are also 10-ticket carnets for one passenger (8.00lv), and daily travel cards (4lv). Tickets and daily cards can be bought at most newspaper stands especially ones adjacent to public transport stops. If you can't find any, you can also buy tickets from the driver if he has any available, though this is not guaranteed. Punch a ticket immediately after you enter the vehicle. The inspectors rarely understand English and you might have problems with them if you travel without a ticket or if you forget to punch it. Inspectors ambush and board buses and trams in groups (and their attitude is generally not friendly at all), sometimes accompanied by police, and make no exceptions. The fine is 20 lv (about €10).

If you are traveling by tram with a large suitcase or backpack, be sure to buy a separate ticket for your bag/case or you might be fined!

There are 15 tram lines, 9 trolley lines, 93 bus lines and 2 metro lines. Some of the buses cover the area outside the city center including neighboring villages. Useful routes are bus #84 from both terminals of the airport to the center; from the train/bus station to Orlov most - bus #213 or #214 or tram #1, #7 and #18 to Vitosha Street and Sv. Nedelya Square, #1, #6, #7 to the National Palace of Culture, #18 to Slaveykov square or #6 to Macedonia square.

The subway in Sofia () is still under construction and more lines will be available in the next years. Currently there are two lines - one that crosses from the western edge of town (Lulin, Obelya) through the city center, the southeast (Mladost) and the airport, and a second one, that crosses from Obelya to Lozenets.

On foot

Streets have adequate tiled pavements, especially in the city centre. However, they are frequently uneven and potholed, and walking is further made difficult by parked cars, street vendors and cafes. Except for areas in the very centre, pavements rarely have slopes for wheelchair access or designated lanes for bicycle riders. Pedestrian crossings are numerous and are relatively respected by drivers. Use pedestrian underpasses to cross large intersections, though avoid ones in the suburbs as these are usually derelict.

By mini-bus

Mini-buses (marshrutki) stop if you just wave a hand and usually are fast way to go somewhere without need to change the car. You pay to the driver when you get on the car. Prices are 1,50 leva (about €0,75). You need to tell the driver if and when you want to get off.

By taxi

Taxis in Sofia are yellow. Taxis can be caught on the streets or can be ordered by phone, they arrive fast and are reliable. A drive inside Sofia will rarely exceed 10lv and a trip from the airport to the city center between 8 lv and 15 lv. There are many companies offering taxi services, some of them are OK Supertrans taxi (973 2121), €1 Taxi, "962-22-26", Yellow Taxi (91119) and Radio CV Taxi (91263) with fares around 0,80 leva (€0,40) per kilometer. Please check the phone number and the prices before you board, because there are some taxis trying to imitate the most popular ones, but having outrageous prices (up to 5,90 leva (€3,00) per kilometer) on them and usually hang around hotels and tourist spots picking on unsuspecting customers, its the top line for the per km fares and bottom line for time you need to look at. The general rule is that if a taxi driver comes to you and offers you a drive, never accept it because they will try to rip you off.

By car

Renting a car is possible, but not necessarily a good idea if your plans are restricted to visiting only Sofia and not travelling elsewhere in the country. Driving here can be strenuous for those with less experience behind the wheel - be prepared for traffic jams and disorganized traffic. Those of you who plan on visiting more of the country can rent a car from a local company (much cheaper than the big brands) or use a broker () as some of the local companies do not even have websites.

If you need to park your car, you are recommended to do it in a paid guarded lot. Parking in the center is difficult and you may be parked illegally without knowing it; foreign license plates may attract unwelcome attention of Bulgarian police and of criminals. Even if there are other cars parked in the area, double check that there are no signs or pavement markings prohibiting it. Parking in the central city area on working days is paid , it is divided in a so-called Blue Zone ("Синя зона") - 2lv per hour, and a Green Zone ("Зелена зона") - 1lv per hour. If you have a Bulgarian mobile number, you can also pay by SMS - send the vehicle registration plate number to "1302" for the "Green zone" or 1303 for the "Blue zone". This will charge parking for an hour through your phone bill. Five minutes before the prepaid time is up you will receive a warning sms. You can either send another message for another hour or move your car.

Pay attention to trams or buses stopping in the middle of the road. If you see a stopped tram or bus on your left, you must stop and let the passengers get on/off, according to the Bulgarian traffic code. Failing to stop in this manner may be very dangerous.

If you drive out of the city (or enter the country by road) you must have a toll sticker - vignette ("vinetka" in Bulgarian). Buy it right away at the border or before leaving Sofia from any fuel station. The price is 10 leva and the sticker is valid for one week (one-month and one-year vignettes are also available). You must place it on the front window, in the bottom right corner. The fine, if you forget the sticker, is about 200 leva.

Driving with your lights on is compulsory, day and night, all year long.

By bicycle

Sofia is one of the greenest capitals in Europe, with the big park zones ideal for biking. Slow traffic in downtown is perfect for cycling. On a bike you will save time and will enjoy sport activity. Sofia also has the few bike paths around the downtown area and districts such as Mladost, Nadezhda, Hipodruma. Rent a bike () Bike rental operates from 10AM to about 8PM (April to November). Discover Sofia by bike map or joint to an experienced bike guide.

See

Sofia is one of the oldest cities in Europe and has ancient ruins throughout the city center.

In the administrative center of Sofia, the streets are covered with a specific yellow pavement. It was laid in the beginning of the 20th century and were a present to the Bulgarian Tsar Ferdinand for his wedding from the Austria-Hungarian royal family.

Mineral springs

Sofia was founded because of the quality of its mineral waters. In the city, there are 7 independent mineral water springs. One of the springs is in the central area of the city and is accessible for everybody - cross the square behind the mosque, next to TSUM (the intersection of Iskar and Ekzarh Yosif streets).

Museums

Earth and Man museum

Galleries

Churches

Aleksandar Nevski Cathedral
Boyana church

Other places of worship

Historical buildings

Battenberg Mausoleum

Monuments

Open spaces

Parks and gardens

Yuzhen Park (South Park)

Bridges

Other sights

National assembly of Bulgaria

Do

Buy

A Shopping Mall in Sofia

The currency in Bulgaria is the Lev, plural Leva. You will also see the abbreviation lv. (лв.) or the ISO code - BGN. The currency exchange rate is fixed at 1 EUR = 1.95583 BGN. Exchange rate to USD is not fixed directly, but published by the Bulgarian National Bank and is used for a benchmark in the exchange offices and banks.

Currency exchange offices and most banks offer a buy rate of 1.95 BGN and a sell rate of 1.96 BGN to €1. It is strongly advisable to skip exchange offices on the street and use exclusively banks for exchanging money. Some exchange stalls will try to scam you by buying your currency at very unfavorable rates. It's also possible to change money at a good rate in casinos if you play there.

ATMs are widely available and accept all major credit cards (Visa, MasterCard, Amex, Diner's, etc.), although you have to check your daily limit with your bank. ATMs will let you withdraw at most 400 lv in one go, but if your card limit allows it, you can make two or more withdrawals.

Credit cards are widely accepted in larger stores and supermarkets, but in small souvenir shops or restaurants you will definitely need to carry some cash.

Souvenirs can be bought many small shops in the subways in front of the old Party House and in the metro station at the Largo. The Ethnographic Museum has a small shop tightly crammed with souvenirs of all kinds from all over Bulgaria (on the right, just as you enter the main entrance). Antiques and souvenirs can also be found in Aleksandar Nevski square, in stalls just opposite the church.

Eat

Fast food

You can easily find take away food in Sofia. For less than 2 leva you can get a slice of pizza, a hot-dog or a sandwich. You can get more traditional Bulgarian food in bakeries, offering banitsa and other kinds of pastry. This food is often consumed with ayran or boza . Another possibility is to get a katma, which is a big pancake filled with cheese, ham, jelly or chocolate.

Budget

Pizzeria-type restaurants and snack bars can be found all over Sofia. Although many are very uninteresting for the traveler looking for a meal with a local flavor, some include excellent Bulgarian dishes.

Mid to High End

Drink

Cafés

Bars

Nightlife

Sleep

Budget

Mid-range

Splurge

Stay safe

Generally, Sofia is a very safe and walkable city, even at night. Nevertheless, you should avoid poorly lit areas and use your common sense. Avoid the area around the central Bus and Rail Station, Maria Luiza Blvd, the dark areas of the city parks and the Lions' Bridge (Lavov Most). Single women and girls should be especially careful. Junkies get high in these areas, prostitutes (both female and transsexual) offer their "services", some people might want to tempt you with touts of contraband (stolen, illegal, etc.) and/or try to mug you. These areas are also frequented by the homeless and the drunk. If your hotel is in the area you'll be alright, just don't hang around it unnecessarily. Try to act like you are familiar with the area (and familiarize yourself during the day) and look like a local. It is wise to choose a hotel/hostel in a good, central location.

Pedestrians should be careful since many Bulgarian drivers do not yield right of way to those on foot.

Do not get into conflict with locals especially if they seem aggressive or drunk. Avoid football fan groups, they tend to be drunk and aggressive. Avoid wearing football shirts or scarves of the Sofia-based football teams, especially on match days.

If you get in legal trouble with some of the locals, the Bulgarian police and judiciary may not protect you adequately because of corruption and nepotism.

Be careful with taxis, make sure you check the prices first before you get in (the fare is per kilometer and it should be something like 0.79 during the day and 0.90 during the night, avoid cabs that display their fare as above 1.00), also make sure the cab has the driver's card on the front with his name.

Also, be wary of money exchange offices. Some of them exchange money for generally lower rates than displayed on the exchange rate panel. Go to a bank instead.

Cope

Embassies

Connect

Sofia has a large number of free wireless hotspots in bars, restaurants, and cafés. You may find also in hotels and public areas, like "Park Zaimov". The airport has a free public wireless hotspot, and so does the central train station in Sofia.

Go next

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Wednesday, January 13, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.