My trip to Sofia was booked on a whim. I was bored, and wanted to visit somewhere new, and I just so happened to find cheap flights to the Bulgarian capital (£80 return from Doncaster with Wizzair, FYI).
The trip was meant to be on a total budget, so we booked ourselves in for three nights at the cheapest of cheap hotels: EasyHotel. Owned by EasyJet, it was the definition of basic, but it was clean and we had our own bathroom, which was a bonus.
It was just outside the Konstantin Velichkov metro stop – two stops from the centre (Serdika) – so it was in a fairly good location; especially seeing as we were only spending 72 hours in Sofia.
Two rooms for three nights came to £150 in total. Obviously in Sofia we could have spent the same amount of money on an absolutely amazing apartment, but as our plane didn’t land until 2am, a hotel with a 24 hour reception was the only option.
Catching a taxi from Sofia airport was easy – we just went to the reception, and they printed off our destination and told us the number plate of the taxi. The ride, which took about 20 minutes was a mere 13 Lev (approx. £6). An indication of just how cheap Sofia was going to be…
I woke up to the sound of heavy rain. So heavy in fact, that it was bouncing back up off the floor. My dad’s Bulgarian friend had PROMISED us that it was going to be hot, glorious sunshine, but he was wrong.
The rain showed no sign of slowing down, so once we’d gotten ready we caught the metro to Vitosha. We were going shopping.
The metro is extremely cheap at 1.6 Lev (75p) per single ride. You could purchase a card with ten rides on for 12 Lev (£5.50), but you had to pay by card, whereas we only wanted to pay with cash.
The metro was modern and easy to use, and it took us right outside Paradise Shopping Centre.
A huge shopping centre with hundreds of shops, the first place we went to was… Starbucks. I had a ridiculously healthy breakfast of hot chocolate and a peanut butter stacker cake.
We spent a couple of hours at the mall, and I bought some shorts from Zara, and a top from Bershka. I was surprised to see they even had a Love Moschino store, with a really nice pair of rainbow heels (didn’t buy them as I was trying to save my money!).
At 1pm, the rain was still belting down, but we decided that we couldn’t spend the whole of our first day in Sofia in the shopping centre, so we caught the metro back to Serdika.
Stopping off at Social on Vitosha Street for pizza, we waited for the rain to die down a bit, before setting off and seeing the sights of the city centre.
Walking to the Russian Cathedral and the theatre, we lost track of time (and ended up getting lost on the way back to Serdika!). With the weather for the weekend changing suddenly (before we’d left, Sofia was supposed to be warm and sunny, but it had now changed to cold and rain), I ran into the nearest H&M to find some jeans. Typically as I tried on a pair, I managed to scar myself (who leaves a broken security tag with the spike on show inside a pair of jeans?!). It’s safe to say I was rocking a particularly ugly red cut up my left leg for the rest of the holiday.
Once the jeans had been purchased, we rushed back to the hotel at 6.45pm and got changed; before catching the metro back to Serdika to meet my dad’s friend at 7.30pm.
We went to Izbite for dinner, a traditional Bulgarian restaurant. Led down into the cellar, we were greeted with traditional dress and ornaments on the walls, and a live band (definitely geared towards tourists).
The set-up and food reminded me very much of Belgrade. We ordered a sharing platter of bread and cheese (their homemade bread loaves were amazing), and then got another sharing platter of different meat. The fact that they had chicken was fine with me, but if you’re a vegetarian, you’ve got a bit of a problem!
For four of us, the meal and drinks came to 100 Lev (£50). The cheapness of the city constantly surprised me – I don’t think I’ve ever been somewhere so reasonable before!
Afterwards, we headed over to Sense Hotel, where we’d booked to go to the rooftop bar. Located on the ninth floor, we were lucky enough to get a table right by the window, opposite Alexander Nevsky Cathedral; which was looking all pretty lit up at night.
The cocktail menu may have been small, but what they had all sounded great. I chose a Bloom, which consisted of gin, lime leaves, lemon and sparkling water. It was probably one of the most expensive bars in Sofia, yet a cocktail only cost £6!
Today was the day we planned to go to the top of Mount Vitosha. It was the one thing I’d really looked into, and was excited to do.
The weather had changed to nineteen degrees and cloudy, so I (probably stupidly) abandoned the jeans for the blue leather skirt and vest I’d packed.
The hotel receptionist ordered us a taxi to the district of Simeonovo, where the cable cars began their climb up Vitosha to the ski resort of Aleko.
The drive was a good 13km, but the taxi only came to 13 Lev (£6) – I’m never going to stop going on about how cheap Sofia is!
As we arrived at the cable car station entrance, we were greeted by a local who laughed as he told us it was going to be cold at the top (he was right – it was 5 degrees!).
We were the only ones around, so managed to hop into a cable car straight away. No sooner had I got in and the doors had shut, that I started to feel a bit apprehensive. Heights have never bothered me, and I don’t consider myself much of a worrier; but the cable cars were rickety and old, there appeared to be a gap in the door, and the windows kept falling down. Oh, and we were going up thousands of metres into the sky – 1,820 metres to be precise.
Seriously, the journey to Aleko took a good half an hour. And every few minutes the cable car would start shaking and making a noise. The views at the bottom of the mountain were pretty, however – rolling hills, trees and Sofia looking small in the distance.
But as we ventured higher up we suddenly became shrouded by cloud and couldn’t see much at all. When you looked down it was grey cloud, and when you looked up it was grey cloud!
I envisioned seeing beautiful views of Sofia at the top of Mount Vitosha, but probably should have realised that wasn’t going to happen (even on a sunny day I’m not sure if that’s possible?).
The man at the bottom’s words came to haunt us as we got off the cable car at Aleko and were greeted with cold wind and lots of cloud. It was pretty funny seeing everyone else wrapped up in several layers and puffa jackets whilst we were in summer clothes. However, some people were taking it a bit too far – five degrees may be cold, but it’s not that cold.
Unable to see more than a few metres in front of us, we wandered along blindly. You could make out the ski slopes, but there didn’t appear to be much at the top. We couldn’t see any chalets were people stayed (we figured perhaps people stayed at the bottom of the mountain and caught the cable car up in the day).
Stumbling across an Alpine-like building, we opened the door and were greeted by some friendly locals and a roaring fire. Ordering a cup of hot chocolate each, we planned our next move.
Due to the lack of things to do (and the cold!), we headed back down to the bottom of the mountain in search of warmer climates.
There was a shopping centre right at the foot of the mountain (Sofia Ring Mall FYI, if you ever consider it!). It was extremely modern and we got lunch there before catching the free shuttle bus to the nearby business park, and switching to the metro.
We got off at Sofia University and visited Alexander Nevsky Cathedral – the first time I’d seen it up close. Google ‘Sofia’ and it’s likely the first picture you’ll come across. It’s stunning and huge, but the surrounding car park is a bit disappointing… especially as tour buses and taxis like to park there and ruin your pictures!
We took a slow walk back to the city centre taking in all the sights, stopping off at the Lindt shop to buy some chocolate.
5pm meant cake time (besides, we had an hour to kill); so we had a pit stop at Makis on Vitosha Street and I sampled their raspberry and white chocolate mousse cake.
As recommended by my dad’s Bulgarian friend, we went on the free Sofia Walking Tour. We’d initially planned to join it on the Saturday morning (they take place every day at 11am and 6pm, meeting outside the Palace of Justice), but we’d been deterred by the heavy rain.
There must have been at least 70 people waiting for the tour, and our guides seemed so surprised, that they had to call another one so they could split us into three groups.
Our guide was called Tommy – he was a native Bulgarian who had lived abroad, and had moved back to Sofia to teach English. The tour lasted two and a half hours, but it passed by really quickly as he gave us lots of interesting information about the history of Sofia; and told us stories about what it was like growing up in Sofia for him, and what it was like during the Soviet Union for his parents.
Anyone who is going to Sofia, I couldn’t recommend the walking tour enough. I’d never done one before, but I’m thinking next time I’m somewhere new I may try another one, as you learn so much more than if you were just wondering around by yourself!
The tour took us back to Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (we seemed to spend a lot of our time here!), so we walked it back to Vitosha Street for dinner (this is where the majority of restaurants and bars seemed to be).
We were recommended Happy Bar & Grill, where there was so much choice of food. I had spinach balls in a sour cream dip for starters, followed by Chinese chicken noodles. One thing Bulgarians do need to get right is timing for food – our mains were served with our starters, and we all got our food at various times during the night! Still, the food tasted really good, and best of all, it was cheap.
We got back to the hotel for 11.30pm and packed our cases – time in Sofia was going so fast.
We were up relatively early for us, and checked out the hotel by 10am. Stopping off at the local shop for a nutritious breakfast of pastries, we caught the metro out to G M Dimitrov. Our plan was to go to the Museum of Socialist Art where there were several statues of Lenin (I knew it was going to be no Grutas Park, but even so I was looking forward to it).
Probably should have checked beforehand to see if it was open though! It turned out that on Monday (like most museums and churches in Sofia), it was shut. Still, as we’d caught the metro all the way out there, we decided to walk up to it on the off-chance we could get in. The security guard scuppered our chances with that.
Undeterred, as the weather was so nice, we decided to walk it back to the city centre through Borisova Gradina park, which took about forty five minutes.
Stopping off for milkshakes at a café overlooking Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (told you we were there a lot!), we realised we only had a couple of hours until we had to go to the airport.
We headed back to Vitosha Street for one last time, and got lunch at Social (hey, the food was good!). This time, I opted for pumpkin risotto. Heading into one last souvenir stop, we stumbled across some mugs with Stalin’s face plastered on them for £3, so obvs I had to get one!
By 4pm, we were back at the hotel. We were in two minds as to whether to order a taxi to the airport or get the metro, as it was getting close to rush hour. We’d heard that the traffic could be pretty bad, so decided to go with the metro.
It took about half an hour to reach the airport, but the stop only goes to Terminal 2 (a nice, flashy looking building). We however, were in Terminal 1, which looked like it needed a lot of love and care. Plus, it was a bus ride away… so we ended up being stuck in traffic anyway!
Terminal 2 must have had all the shops, as Terminal 1 had NOTHING. Time could not have passed any slower at an airport. Our flight left at 6.35pm, and we were back in the UK for 7.45pm.
Why Sofia surprised me
While I was interested in going to Sofia, it wasn’t top of my list of places to go. We just so happened to go because we could fly there during a bank holiday weekend from an airport relatively close to us.
However, I was so glad we did go. We were all pleasantly surprised by how pretty Sofia was, and it genuinely was cheap. This was the first trip we’d been on where we hadn’t had to take extra money out! £300 lasted three of us for three days comfortably, bearing in mind we’d eaten in the more expensive restaurants. You could easily have spent even less if you were visiting on a budget.
When flights and accommodation were put into the equation, the total cost of three days in Sofia came to £250. I could have spent the same (if not more) if I’d spent the bank holiday back home in the UK!
Sofia is definitely a place I would go back to, but I’d probably wait until July or August when the nice weather is guaranteed. Because all of the touristy things are outdoors, I can imagine that you’d be really limited if the weather was bad – especially seeing how the rain set us back on Saturday.
Plus, I’d kind of like to go back to Aleko and see if I can spot Sofia from all the way up there (well, that’s if I can hack the cable car ride again!).