The hidden charm of Sofia, Bulgaria

by Stacy Roman
Stripes Europe

When planning your European escapades, it’s natural to want to include eastern European hot spots such as Budapest, Bucharest and Dubrovnik. With beautiful architecture, fascinating history and stunning vistas, it’s easy to see why. However, dig a little deeper and you’ll find another hidden gem just waiting for its moment to shine — Sofia, Bulgaria. Not often on must-see lists, this capital of a former Soviet-bloc country offers a unique cultural and historical opportunity you won’t soon forget.

A little history

Once known as “Serdica,” the complex history of the Bulgarian capital spans more than 2,000 years. Ruled by the Romans for centuries, Sofia was an important trading and business hub for the region. Destroyed by the Huns, conquered by Byzantines, captured by Bulgarians, reconquered by Byzantines, taken over by the Ottomans and finally seized by Russians, Sofia has been significantly influenced by each culture. When democratic elections took place in 1990, the city and country were still reeling from decades of Communist rule. After many years, Sofia is staging a comeback with a lively arts scene and amazing museums.

An eclectic mix of sights

From the outset, Sofia may not look like much. Bleak, Soviet-era high-rise buildings still line the cityscape. However, once you start exploring, there’s an impressive blend of architecture in a compact area. Roman ruins, towering cathedrals, serene mosques and Russian-styled structure paint a fascinating picture. A crossroad of major religions, the Square of Religious Tolerance is formed of St. Nedelya Orthodox Church, Banya Bashi Mosque, St. Joseph Catholic Cathedral and the Sofia Synagogue. Not far from the square is the imposing Aleksandar Nevsky Cathedral. With towering domes inlaid with gold, the cathedral is a mere century old and is also known as memorial to more than 200,000 Russian soldiers who bravely fought for Bulgarian independence during the Russo-Turkish War during the late 19th century.

For history buffs, there is a plethora of great museums to visit. The Bulgarian Archeological Museum hosts artifacts dating back to the Roman Empire. The National Museum of Natural History offers a look into Bulgaria’s natural resources, including a remarkable gem and mineral exhibit. Visitors can also witness the former Communist propaganda machine at the Museum of Socialist Art. Walk through a garden full of concrete Lenin busts and view old TV spots inside a room plastered with old posters and literature.

Good eats

With its location surrounded by the Balkan Mountains, it’s no surprise the cuisine takes on regional fare. Rich with tomatoes, peppers, fresh cheeses and more, food in Sofia also adds inspiration from the Mediterranean. Available at almost any local cafe, you’ll definitely want to sample the “banista” — a type of flaky pastry made of Bulgarian feta cheese and egg baked in phyllo dough. Imbibe with the potent “rakia,” a fermented fruit liquor made of 40% alcohol. In the summer, enjoy a refreshing “shopska salata.” Essentially a chopped salad, this famous Bulgarian dish combines vine-ripened tomatoes, crisp cucumbers, tangy red onions and bell pepper with local shredded cheese.

Sofia is a city full of captivating history, delicious eats and quirky charm — and definitely worth a spot on your bucket list.

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