Sofia is Bulgaria’s stylish capital city, nestled beneath the towering peak of Mount Vitosha. While the mountain is the first thing you’ll notice when you arrive, Sofia has so much more to offer than just the view. The city boasts a rich history, friendly people, cheap drinks, and delicious food. In short, it’s a budget traveler’s paradise.
Admittedly, when I first arrived, I expected a dreary ex-communist city full of blocky architecture and a lack of personality. Fortunately, I was way off. Instead, I found a multicultural, fast-growing, and modernizing European hub popular with the backpacker crowd.
In fact, Sofia impressed me so much that I ended up staying a few extra days! It’s a perfect budget-travel destination that sees a fraction of the tourists you’ll find in Western Europe.
This travel guide to Sofia can help you plan your trip, save money, and make the most out of your time in this underrated destination.
Table of Contents
Top 5 Things to See and Do in Sofia
1. Visit the Alexander Nevski Cathedral
2. See Sveti Georgi Rotunda
3. Hike Vitosha mountain
4. Visit the National Gallery Quadrat 500
5. Day trip to Rila Monastery
Other Things to See and Do in Sofia
1. Take a free walking tour
The first thing I do in a new city is take a free walking tour. It’s the best way to see the main sights on a budget and connect with a local guide who can answer all your questions. Free Sofia tour runs regular free walking tours that cover all the main highlights. Just be sure to tip your guide at the end!
2. See the Presidency and the Guard Ceremony
The Bulgarian president’s office lies within the eastern end of the same building that houses the Sheraton Hotel. The office isn’t open for public viewing, but the changing of the guard occurs every hour here. The stomping march of the uniform-clad men can be heard all around the area. It doesn’t take long but it’s worth stopping by to see.
3. See what’s on at the National Palace of Culture
Usually referred to as the NDK, this building has 15 separate halls, making it the largest cultural complex in the country. During the summer, there is a regular schedule of various events and a diverse range of shows to check out, including concerts, dance performances, and theater. Check out their website to see what’s on during your visit.
4. Attend an event at the Red House
Home to political debates, poetry readings, and dramatic performances, the Red House is an independent cultural center that’s not as mainstream as the NDK. The building itself is a mansion from the early 20th century that once belonged to Bulgarian sculpture Andrey Nikolov. Events are usually free, and often in English. Check their website to see what’s on during your visit.
5. Have fun in Kokolandia
This is an outdoor adventure activity center located inside Borisova Gradina park. There are all sorts of fun challenges here including rope-climbing, rock climbing, mini-golf, and a tree-top obstacle course. This adventure park is considered kid- and adult-friendly (though it’s mostly for kids; there are trampolines and bouncy castles too). Activities cost 6 BGN per person.
6. Go paintballing
Paintballing has become increasingly popular throughout Sofia. There are over half a dozen different places you can go that offer equipment rentals, paintballs, and both indoor and outdoor gaming areas. It’s super fun and a great way to spend a couple of hours! Reservations are usually required and sessions cost 20 BGN.
7. Stroll Vitosha Boulevard
This is a high-end pedestrian street filled with fashionable boutiques and designer shops, but it’s worth the stroll for the view of snow-capped Vitosha Mountain. Art Nouveau buildings line the street, and there are several small sidewalk cafes where you can grab a coffee and relax. Come here to browse, people-watch, and take in the local pace of life.
8. Check out the Museum of Socialist Art
This museum in Sofia showcases art from when the country was under Communist rule (1944-1989). A large outdoor sculpture park contains everything from a giant statue of Lenin that once stood in the center of the city to the red star that topped the socialist party headquarters. Inside you’ll find propaganda paintings, documentary videos, photographic galleries, and more. Admission is 6 BGN.
9. See the National Museum of Military History
This is one of the most visited museums in Sofia. There are three floors, each featuring detailed exhibits on warfare in Bulgaria from antiquity and the Middle Ages to World War II. You’ll see rebel flags, military uniforms, and artifacts, including the personal effects of actual soldiers. There’s also a collection of vehicles, including tanks and fighter planes. Admission is 8 BGN.
10. Visit the Archaeological Museum
This museum is located inside a former mosque that dates to the 1400s. The museum is home to a collection of Roman and medieval items, including a delicate mosaic floor from the Church of Sveta Sofia. Other artifacts come from the Thracians — a group of Indo-European tribes living in the area since the 8th century BCE. The incredibly detailed Thracian gold burial mask from the fourth century BCE has an especially impressive life-like appearance. Admission is 10 BGN.
11. Tour the Sofia History Museum
Housed inside the former Central Mineral Baths from the Ottoman era, the history of Sofia — from prehistory to modern day — is on full display here. The museum spans two floors and includes rooms dedicated to the Bulgarian royal families of the 19th and 20th centuries. These rooms provide a glimpse of the lavish lives they lived. There’s even a horse carriage from Marie Antoinette here. Admission is 6 BGN.
12. Go skiing
If you’re here during the winter, hit the slopes on Vitosha. Unlike in much of Western Europe, skiing is super affordable here. You can get a lift pass for as little as 40 BGN, making this one of the most affordable winter sports destinations on the continent!
For more information on other cities in Bulgaria, check out these guides:
Sofia Travel Costs
Hostel prices – A bed in a hostel dorm with 4-6 beds costs between 12-25 BGN per night. For a private room in a hostel, expect to pay between 35-75 BGN per night. Free Wi-Fi is standard and most hostels also have self-catering facilities.
Budget hotel prices – Budget two-star hotels cost around 40-65 BGN per night. Expect basic amenities like TV and free Wi-Fi.
Airbnb is available all over the city, with private rooms ranging from 30-55 BGN per night. You can find a full studio apartment in the city center for 55-85 BGN per night.
Food – Bulgarian cuisine is hearty and similar to that of its Balkan neighbors. Meaty stews with lamb, goat, or chicken are common, as are sausages and all kinds of yogurts (dairy products are big here). Popular dishes include kebapche (grilled mincemeat), shopska salad (a salad with tomato, cucumber, and cheese; similar to Greek salad), and moussaka.
You can find foods like banica (cheese pastry) for as little as 1.50 BGN, or you can pick up a hearty shopska salad or kebab for about 5 BGN. Pizza slices and hot dogs are usually no more than 4 BGN, while a sandwich is between 4-5 BGN.
A meal at McDonald’s costs 10 BGN while a meal at a mid-range casual restaurant with a drink shouldn’t cost more than 14 BGN.
If you want to splash out, a three-course dinner with a glass of wine at an upscale restaurant ranges from 35-45 BGN.
Beer is around 3.50 BGN while a latte/cappuccino costs around 3 BGN. Bottled water is 1 BGN.
Grocery shopping is incredibly affordable here, costing around 60-65 BGN per week for basic staples like rice, pasta, seasonal produce, and some meat.
Backpacking Sofia Suggested Budgets
If you’re backpacking Sofia, expect to spend about 50 BGN per day. On this budget, you’ll be staying in a hostel dorm, cooking most of your meals, limiting your drinking, taking public transportation to get around, and sticking to mostly free activities like free walking tours and hiking. If you plan on drinking, add 5-10 BGN to your daily budget.
On a mid-range budget of 120 BGN per day, you can stay in a private Airbnb, eat out for most meals at cheap fast food joints, have a couple of drinks, take the occasional taxi to get around, and do more activities and tours like day-tripping to Rila and visiting some museums.
On a “luxury” budget of 195 BGN per day or more, you can stay in a hotel, eat out for all your meals, drink more, rent a car or take more taxis, and do whatever tours and activities you want. This is just the ground floor for luxury though. The sky is the limit!
You can use the chart below to get some idea of how much you need to budget daily, depending on your travel style. Keep in mind these are daily averages – some days you’ll spend more, some days you’ll spend less (you might spend less every day). We just want to give you a general idea of how to make your budget. Prices are in BGN.
Sofia Travel Guide: Money-Saving Tips
Since Sofia is the capital city of Bulgaria, prices can sometimes be a little higher here compared to other parts of the country. However, it’s still incredibly affordable as there are so many cheap and free things to do. Here are some extra ways to save money in Sofia during your visit:
- Stay with a local – If you look early, you can likely find a Couchsurfing hosts in Sofia. This will not only get you free accommodation but you’ll be able to connect with a local who can share their insider tips and advice.
- Take a free walking tour – Walking tours are a great way to get familiar with the city and its culture while on a budget. Just be sure to tip your guide at the end!
- Look for free events – There are always free events and festivals happening in Sofia (especially in the summer). Be sure to ask your hostel staff or host about what’s going on during your visit.
- Bring a water bottle – The tap water here is safe to drink so bring a reusable water bottle to save money and reduce your plastic use. LifeStraw is my go-to brand as their bottles have built-in filters to ensure your water is always clean and safe.
Where to Stay in Sofia
Sofia has several clean and comfortable hostels. Just keep in mind they fill up fast in the summer! Here are my suggested places to stay in Sofia:
How to Get Around Sofia
Public transportation – Sofia’s metro has two lines connecting the city center and the airport, as well as the central bus and train stations. Individual tickets are 1.60 BGN each, but they can’t be used on the buses, trams, or trolleybuses.
However, you can purchase a day pass for 4 BGN with unlimited rides on all public transportation. Use the official website (sofiatraffic.bg) to look up schedules and routes. This is by far the best deal for getting around the city.
Sofia’s bus system is extensive and can get you just about anywhere you need to go using it. You can use the sofiatraffic.bg website or the Moovit app to help plan your journey. You’ll need the exact change to buy a ticket from the driver on board the bus. Tickets are 1.60 BGN and you can purchase a 10-ride pass for 12 BGN.
Taxi – The normal start rate for a taxi in Sofia is 1 BGN, and then an additional 0.80 BGN per kilometer. The rate at night is 0.90 BGN per kilometer. While affordable, they can add up fast if you use them often so stick to public transportation if you can.
Bicycle – There are lots of bicycle rental services in Sofia. You can rent a bicycle for one full day for about 20 BGN. Sofia Bike Rental and Rent a Bike Sofia are two good options.
Car rental – Car rentals are super affordable here, costing as little as 18 BGN per day. You don’t need one to get around the city, however, if you want to explore the region a car might be helpful.
When to Go to Sofia
Sofia has four distinct seasons, of which summer (June-August) is the busiest. June can be quite rainy, but otherwise, the daily temperature is usually over 30°C (86°F). Keep in mind that this is the most expensive time to visit, as prices for hostels and hotels increase.
I personally think the best time to visit is spring (April-May) or fall (September-October). Both seasons have pleasant temperatures, fewer tourist crowds, and lower prices. The foliage around Mount Vitosha is spectacular during the fall, making for some excellent hiking. Temperatures range from 5-21°C (41-70°F) in the spring and 6-17°C (42-62°F) in the fall.
Winter (December-March) is the quietest time of year to visit, as temperatures drop down to around -4°C (25°F). The weather can be snowy and unpredictable during this time. If you like winter sports, this is the best time to visit for skiing Mount Vitosha or nearby Bansko. Accommodations are cheapest during this time as well. If you’re not coming for winter activities, though, I’d skip a visit during the winter.
How to Stay Safe in Sofia
Sofia is very safe. Scams and petty crimes like pick-pocketing are the most common danger you’ll face, but those are rare. Nevertheless, always keep your valuables secure and out of sight just to be safe.
When it comes to scams if a stranger stops to talk to you out of the blue, be aware that they may be working in a team to try and grab your wallet. The best thing to do is ignore them and keep walking.
Some taxi drivers have been known to overcharge their customers, so make sure your driver has a metered cab before you get in it.
Pedestrian safety can also be a concern at night as some drivers do not give pedestrians the right of way. Take caution when crossing the street.
If you’re worried about getting scammed, you can read about common travel scams to avoid right here.
When out at the bar, never leave your drink unattended. Also, never walk home alone if you’re intoxicated.
If you experience an emergency, dial 112 for assistance.
Always trust your gut instinct. If a taxi driver seems shady, stop the cab and get out. If your hotel is seedier than you thought, move to a different one.
In short, if you don’t do it at home, don’t do it in Sofia!
The most important piece of advice I can offer is to purchase good travel insurance. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past.
Sofia Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
These are my favorite companies to use when I travel to Sofia. They are included here because they consistently find deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is my favorite flight search engine. They search small websites and budget airlines that larger search sites tend to miss. They are hands down the number one place to start.
- Momondo – This is my other favorite flight search engine because they search such a wide variety of sites and airlines. I never book a flight without checking here too.
- Airbnb – Airbnb is a great accommodation alternative for connecting with homeowners who rent out their homes or apartments.
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there, with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Couchsurfing – This website allows you to stay on people’s couches or in their spare rooms for free. It’s a great way to save money while meeting locals who can share the ins and outs of their city. The site also lists events you can attend to meet people (even if you’re not staying with someone).
- Booking.com – The best all-around booking site that constantly provides the cheapest and lowest rates. They have a no money down policy, great interface, and the widest selection of budget accommodation. In all my tests, they’ve always had the cheapest rates out of all the booking websites.
- Intrepid Travel – If you want to do a group tour around Europe, go with Intrepid Travel. They offer good small group tours that use local operators and leave a small environmental footprint. If you go on a tour with anyone, go with them. And, as a reader of this site, you’ll get a discount when you click the link!
- The Man in Seat 61 – This website is the ultimate guide to train travel anywhere in the world. They have the most comprehensive information on routes, times, prices, and train conditions. If you are planning a long train journey or some epic train trip, consult this site.
- Rome2Rio – This website allows you to see how to get from point A to point B in the best and cheapest way possible. It gives you all the bus, train, plane, and boat routes that can get you there as well as how much they cost.
- World Nomads – I buy all my travel insurance from World Nomads. They have great customer service, competitive prices, and in-depth coverage. I’ve been using them since I started traveling in 2003. Don’t leave home without it!
- EatWith – This website allows you to eat home cooked meal with locals. Locals post listings for dinner parties and specialty meals that you can sign up for. There is a fee (everyone sets their own price) but this is a great way to do something different, pick a local’s brain, and make a new friend.
Sofia Gear and Packing Guide
If you’re heading on the road and need some gear suggestions, here are my tips for the best travel backpack and for what to pack!
The Best Backpack for Travelers
Straps: Thick and cushy with compression technology that pulls the pack’s load up and inwards so it doesn’t feel as heavy.
Features: Removable top lid, large pocket at the front, hydration compatible, contoured hip belt
If you want something different, refer to my article on how to choose the best travel backpack for tips on picking a pack and other backpack suggestions.
What to Pack for Your Trip
- 1 pair of jeans (heavy and not easily dried, but I like them; a good alternative is khaki pants)
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 bathing suit
- 5 T-shirts (Unbound Merino is my preferred company. If you’re a member of NM+, you can get 15% off your purchase)
- 1 long-sleeved T-shirt
- 1 pair of flip-flops
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 6 pairs of socks (I always end up losing half)
- 5 pairs of boxer shorts (I’m not a briefs guy!)
- 1 toothbrush
- 1 tube of toothpaste
- 1 razor
- 1 package of dental floss
- 1 small bottle of shampoo
- 1 small bottle of shower gel
- 1 towel
Small Medical Kit (safety is important!!!)
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Antibacterial cream
- Hand sanitizer (germs = sick = bad holiday)
- A key or combination lock (safety first)
- Zip-lock bags (keeps things from leaking or exploding)
- Plastic bags (great for laundry)
- Universal charger/adaptor (this applies to everyone)
- LifeStraw (A water bottle with a purifier)
Female Travel Packing List
I’m not a woman, so I don’t know what a woman wears, but Kristin Addis, our solo female travel guru, wrote this list as an addition to the basics above:
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 sarong
- 1 pair of stretchy jeans (they wash and dry easily)
- 1 pair of leggings (if it’s cold, they can go under your jeans, otherwise with a dress or shirt)
- 2-3 long-sleeve tops
- 2-3 T-shirts
- 3-4 spaghetti tops
- 1 light cardigan
- 1 dry shampoo spray & talc powder (keeps long hair grease-free in between washes)
- 1 hairbrush
- Makeup you use
- Hair bands & hair clips
- Feminine hygiene products (you can opt to buy there too, but I prefer not to count on it, and most people have their preferred products)
For more on packing, check out these posts:
Sofia Travel Guide: Suggested Reading
Under the Yoke: A Romance of Bulgarian Liberty, by Ivan Vazov
Written in 1888, this book might be the most famous piece of classic Bulgarian literature in the country. It follows the story of a peaceful Bulgarian town subdued by Ottoman rule — but secretly, its people are preparing for an uprising. Boicho Ognyanov, having escaped from prison, returns to the town to assist with the rebellion and to connect with old friends, enemies, and his true love. It’s classic literature with some important history mixed in.
Bai Ganyo: Incredible Tales of a Modern Bulgarian, by Aleko Konstantinov
Another novel written in the late 1800s, this one takes on a more comical twist as you read about the misadventures of a rose-oil salesman named Ganyo Balkanski. He travels throughout Europe, bumbling his way through meetings with the upper class of Vienna, St. Petersburg, and Dresden. But then things turn slightly darker as Ganyo returns to Bulgaria where he finds that bribes and election-rigging are the norm now that Bulgaria has emerged from the Ottoman Empire. You’ll love this book as Ganyo is an odd but endearing character.
Party Headquarters, by Georgi Tenev
The award-winning Party Headquarters takes place in the 80s and 90s, as Bulgaria transitions from communism to democracy. The story follows the main character as he visits his father-in-law, who is a communist party boss tasked with delivering a suitcase filled with an enormous sum of money before he dies. It’s all based on a popular Bulgarian myth as many people believe that as the communist party fell apart, officials kept bags and suitcases of the country’s wealth for their own personal gain.
Valley of Thracians, by Ellis Shuman
In this book, a Peace Corps volunteer has gone missing in Bulgaria, and everyone (except his grandfather, Simon Matthews) believes him to be dead. Matthews, a retired literature professor, starts a search to find his grandson but then gets tangled up in a quest to uncover a stolen and incredibly valuable Thracian artifact. Matthews travels across Bulgaria and the Balkans, exploring ancient tombs and fortresses until he learns that the only hope he has of leaving the country with his grandson is if he finds the missing relic…somehow. It’s an easy read, and a fun one.
Street Without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria, by Kapka Kassabova
Kapka Kassabova was born in Sofia during the communist party’s authoritarian regime. After escaping with her family once the Berlin Wall collapsed, she lived in the UK, New Zealand, Argentina, and a handful of other places. She eventually decided to return to her home country once Bulgaria accepted democracy and became a member of the European Union, only to find the country struggling under the new way of life. This is a great book if you want to know what it was like to live on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
Sofia Travel Guide: Related Articles
Want more info? Check out all the articles I’ve written on backpacking/traveling Bulgaria and continue planning your trip: