7 Reasons to Visit Sofia: Eastern Europe's Most Underrated City

Many hours of sky-scanner later,  navigating complicated logistics (one of us was flying from Scotland) and my specific criteria of  being somewhere new and "really cheap when we get there" left us with no other choice but to take our next girls' holiday to...


No, not the Sunny Beach kind of Bulgaria (those days are long gone my friends) but the classy and cultural, capital city Sofia.

I'll admit, it was a bit left field, even for me and I love exploring eastern Europe but I'd heard it was deliciously cheap and it looked pretty on Instagram and as we all know, what are holidays for if not for the 'gram. So we thought why not and booked some super cheap flights with good old Ryan Air. (our love-hate relationship continues).

£63 for flights later and £48 for 4 nights in an amazing Airbnb in the centre of town and we were already winning. But the fun doesn't stop there. Turns out Sofia is actually a beautiful city in itself, quaint squares overflowing with tulips, pretty fountains that catch the light as the sun sets and it's rich in history too. The Thracians, the Romans, the Ottomans and then the whole communism thing, all leaving their mark on the city so that it doesn't really feel like eastern Europe at all.

It's hard to explain, but it's somewhere between Italy's chilled vibes (Bulgarians even share their relaxed attitude to time i.e always being late), Berlin's effortless cool and a classy European capital with a slight hint of the Middle-East.

Ok, I realise that probably makes no sense, but Sofia really is unique, one of those places where you arrive without any expectations, ready for a fun, cheap holiday not expecting too much but are blown away by it's beauty and the richness of it's history.

I would even go so far as saying that it's THE next best underrated city in Europe (well technically the Balkans but it is actually part of the EU so..). And apart from getting shouted at for reading a map in a church by a crazy Bulgarian lady (she wasn't even old and crazy, just crazy) we had the best time!

So here is why I think you have to visit...before everyone else does too.

1). It's a budget traveller's dream

Of course, this has to be first on the list because choosing a destination on it's ability to be fun on a budget is a top priority. How else would I be able to satisfy my incessant desire to travel when half  of my money goes on rent?! (I live in London if you can't tell).

But how cheap is cheap I hear you ask. Let me tell you, I'm talking about £12 each a night for a beaaautiful modern apartment near the centre (15 min walk in), all wood floors, high ceilings and oodles of space for 3 girls. Not to mention the AMAZING balcony AND the breakfast our super Airbnb host left for us. He was a total babe.

Then we have the trendy bars with cute courtyards where a massive glass of Spritz costs just £3.50!!

 Three...Pounds...Fifty. Happy hour prices aren't even this cheap in London!

For food, which would normally be a mix of dinner out one night and cooking in the next to save some dollah, was a spending spree on Bulgaria's answer to Deliveroo (£6.20 for chips and a burger from one of those hipster-type places), a subway -style build your own pizza the day after (£3.80) and the grand total of £7.60 at a traditional Bulgarian restaurant complete with alcohol and the accidental buying of a loaf of bread to mark our final night.

 ^the accidental loaf of bread

^70p guys!!

Safe to say, it was a budget foodie's dream (aka mine).

It was also a coffee lover's dream, with a strong artisan / hipster coffee shop scene. I became obsessed with one in particular that was oh so conveniently located on the way to wherever we needed to go.  But I digress, the main point I was trying to make is that I could get my highly crafted caffeine kick for less than half of the London equivalent. And that my friends is all it takes to make me happy.

Essentially, it just meant I could be less restrained about money for once, which is a great relief when you aren't having to choose between this and that all the time. You can just buy ALL the things, or in my case ALL the food and coffee and not feel guilty about the fact that you ate out for lunch and dinner every.single.day.

2). All the Free Tours!

We are all familiar with the "free" walking tour but Sofia's extend beyond just your average stroll around the city. You can choose from:
  • a free bike tour
  • a free mountain walking tour
  • a free communism tour
  • graffiti tour
  • even a free food tour!
It's great because usually, these are the kind of tours you have to fork out money for but in Bulgaria you just need to tip! Well, actually they aren't even really pushy about that at all.
We did the mountain one because we didn't want to risk getting lost (my sense of direction is terrible) and it was such a good idea! For 3 or 4 hours we had our Bulgarian guide with us chatting to us about local customs, best nightclubs and why Bulgarians may seem a little grumpy. 
We also attempted the food tour on Saturday but a word of warning it's very popular so you need to reserve ahead online! Or turn up thirty minutes before, not five because you were shopping in Zara and H&M. Oops.


3). Insta-worthy Beauty

When I was researching Sofia as a potential destination, obviously I checked it out on instagram first, but that didn't prepare me for just how pretty it was IRL.

Palatial buildings line cobbled streets, giving the city a subtle air of grandeur while the leafy squares, with their sparkling fountains gives the city it's charm. The kind of pure, unadulterated charm that only a city still undiscovered by the tourist masses can have. The kind of city where locals come to sit and chat in the hazy afternoon sun over a beer or two and where bars and restaurants happily spill out onto the courtyards outside, excited chatter filling the summer air.

Then there's the beautiful middle - eastern feel to it, with the domed churches and sandy coloured brick dotted around the city.

But if you head to Sredets, you'll find a different kind of city still, where small, graffiti clad streets hide hipster drinking holes in the bohemian bit of the city.

4). Rich in History

For such a small city, Sofia as a lot of history. It all started with the ancient tribe - the Thracions, basically those guys from Sparta (that's what the guide said anyway) until they got conquered by the Romans. So don't be surprised if you stumble on a whole heap of Roman ruins. Caused a lot of problems trying to build the metro. In fact, bizarrely enough the metro at  NAME is the best place to see them!

Then the Ottomans came, bringing those Turkish vibes and then much later the 2nd world war where amazingly, Bulgaria managed to save their Jewish population. According to our guide this was by doing what Bulgarians do best "postponing" and "lie-ing". She had a funny sense of humour our guide but a fellow Bulgarian didn't seem to share it, cue an awkward few minutes.

Post WW2 of course, Bulgaria became communist. However , unlike other eastern European countries I've been to (Poland, Hungary e.t.c) they don't seem quite so keen to talk about or acknowledge that period of history.

The only "museum" dedicated to discussing Bulgaria's experience of the regime is less a museum and more a creepy communist graveyard or badly organised art exhibition that is almost impossible to find. Google maps got it totally wrong and lead us down a road of eerie abandoned buildings. Cue me holding a stick to fend off any wild dogs that might lurking. No really, Bulgaria has wild dogs and they are huge scary wolf things.

                    ^The creepy statue graveyard ft. Lenin

I'm not really selling it am? Basically it's not worth the effort (it's outside the city centre) and you don't learn much about Bulgaria's experience of communism so skip that and leave time for the free walking tour about it instead.

Anyway, in another interesting turn of events, post - communism the King returned after being in exile and wait for it... only went and became prime minister!! I told you Sofia had an interesting history...

Also a slight side note but still very interesting is Sofia's  religious tolerance. The main cathedral may be Orthodox Christian, but the city shares it's space with a Russian church, Synagogues , a catholic church and even a mosque. In fact, there is one square by the main metro NAME that is surrounded by 4 of those religions, aptly named the 'Square of Religious Tolerance'.

5). It has a Proper Mountain!

Usually when I go on a city break, it ends up being exactly that. Sometimes down to time, sometimes down to lack of transport (holding out till 25 for cheaper car hire) but experiencing a bit of the ol' countryside is easy in Sofia because it has a mountain right on it's doorstep! You can see it from the end of Vitosha street, the fancy boulevard lined with shops and cafes, but getting to it is surprisingly easy.

Well, we took the easy route of getting a taxi because it was only around £2 each way, saving us the hassle of trying to work out how to get there on public transport (google said a lot of different things) and probably a LOT of time in the process.

We also decided to do something that I hardly ever do and that is go with a *shock horror* tour group on our mountain trek. But it was actually really great and would definitely recommend.

We met in the city centre (late of course because it's Bulgaria) with a local guide who called us the taxis to get to the start of the walk. NOW this was already a huge advantage because taxi scams are very very very likely in Bulgaria, even if you think it looks like a legit cab. (basically you should never just hail one down). Also, he could speak Bulgarian, again another advantage. I did try to learn a bit but it was bloody difficult I couldn't even remember the word for thank you.

Our guide also made sure we didn't get lost on the trail (deffo would've happened) and was very chatty so we learnt lots about Bulgaria. The group was also quite small and fun, mostly other young Europeans like ourselves (yes I did just refer to myself as European).

Two and half hours later of a good workout through pretty mountain woodland we reached our destination - The Waterfall ! Definitely worth the hike! Both for the waterfall itself and the cute picture we got.

6). An Interesting Night Out

I'm not going to lie, Bulgaria won't be topping any lists just yet for it's nightlife but we did have a VERY interesting and fun filled night, starting off in a bizarre "bar" called "The Apartment" in the Sredets area. I'll take the blame, it was me. I had done some research and of course was drawn to the hipster sounding place. I just thought it would be like the bar we went to in Glasgow which was indeed very hipster and just like someone's flat.

But when we got there it was like being at a very quiet house party, either where no one had showed up or that bit at the end of the night at 3am when almost everyone has gone and the party has died but three people keep insisting on dancing when the host really just wants everyone to leave so they can sleep.

They also mostly only sold their own concoctions so I was forced to buy their "homemade" raspberry wine and was so scared about exactly might be in it that I ended up leaving most of it. Also because I had idea how strong it was?! But that was better than my friend who got conned into buying the national spirit Rakia which tasted like pure ethanol.

But then it was onwards and upwards to the hip Bar Friday after we got over the scary security guards standing in front of what just looked like a dodgy carpark. It was here that we bumped into the only other British people we met the whole holiday. Of course , they were easy to spot, they were the most drunk, dancing all over the place in Hawaiian shirts. A stag do.Classic Brits.

Then we it was time to get some serious dancing in so we hit the Sugarclub, which was NOT some backstreet stripper joint as the name suggests, but a perfectly respectable and fun RnB night. A bit too try hard classy (you know the kind of clubs I mean) but with free entry and the kind of music I like dancing to.

Then ensued what was an epic hike around the city floating from one club to the next because we didn't want to pay to get in. Yes, we refused to pay the £2 entry free but hey, when that could buy you a coffee the next day it's an important decision to make.

The last place we entered and then swiftly left, was the culmination of an interesting, if slightly strange night. We had located a Gay club, the only one in Sofia (being gay is not openly accepted here) which was hiding at the end of a strange outdoor corridor where we were met by a security guard eyeing us with suspicion.

An awkward silence ensued, the guard not saying a word and we prompted "err can we come in?". Another second of silence as the guard looked at us confused. "You know this is a gay club?" he said, as if we had accidently wandered down the corridor and at his door. We nodded, not quite so sure now we should've come. Another second of silence and then finally, we were let past the curtain but unfortunately they wanted £2 to get in. By this time it was 2am and we were tired from our trek around the city, so after all that we ended up just heading home, trying to avoid the scary wild dogs on the way.

Maybe next time we will go on the pub crawl...

7.) Chilled City Vibes

Sofia really isn't that big and to be honest, there aren't that many sites to see which is probably why it's escaped the tourist crowds, and strangely enough every single British tourist.  But that actually makes it the perfect chilled city break. Because how many times do you end up going away, seeing all the sights, doing all the walking and the end up being exhausted by the time you come home?

No, Sofia is a very chilled kind of city and once you've done the walking tour, seen the Alexander Nevxky Cathedral, the Russian Church and found the hot springs,  you are pretty much done! All that's left  is the swanky Vitosha Boulevard with the impressive mountain backdrop and even then it's lined with cafes and bars so you have to stop for an ice cream (yep lots of those around) and a drink.

But don't worry there's still plenty to be found just by wandering around because Sofia is one of those cities where you can walk EVERYWHERE and I do love me a bit of walking. That means you can just meander around the cobbled, if slightly uneven streets (watch out for that) and are bound to stumble on a quaint little street of some kind.

And being such a manageable size just makes everything that little bit easier. Like if you need a mid-afternoon nap before dinner or before the big night out , getting back to the Airbnb and out again is easy!

So there you have it, seven reasons why I fell in love with Sofia and you will too. So go visit before everyone else discovers how great it is!