“Serdica is my Rome,” claimed the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, referring to the city that would later become the capital of Bulgaria under the name of Sofia. Like the Romans, Bulgarians love to eat, drink and party. Why not join them? Here’s what to see and do if you only have a day in Sofia.
Start the day with a visit to the church of St. George (St. George Rotunda) located in the courtyard between the Sheraton Hotel and the Presidency, a few feet below street level. This Early Christian red-brick rotunda was built by the Romans in the 4th century. Today, it is the oldest Eastern European Orthodox church.
Explore the catacombs under St. Sofia Church after which the city was named. The basilica was built in the 6th Century on top of the ruins of several earlier churches and a 2nd Century Roman theater. The walkways of this cavernous complex are made of transparent material that gives you the feeling of walking on top of the ruins themselves. You can peek into the catacombs and admire the frescos and mosaics. In a couple of places, you’ll find small windows in the ceiling where you can glimpse the cupola of the St. Sofia Church or spy on the churchgoers above you. Ideally, there will be a service happening during your visit. What better way to walk through catacombs than under the sounds of Slavonic hymns echoing above you?
Tip: St. Sofia Church is only a 15-minute walk from St. George Rotunda. Take the yellow cobblestone boulevard behind the presidency, pl. “Knyaz Aleksnadar I.” You will pass the National Archeological Museum, the National Art Gallery (former Royal Palace) and the Russian Church.
Emerge from the catacombs in time to hear the bells of Alexander Nevski Cathedral toll at noon. It is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox Cathedrals in the world and is located right behind St. Sofia Church. Walk around the square to take in the impressive golden domes from all angles before going inside to admire the walls and cupolas covered in frescos. You can visit the crypt below to view the icons or arrange for a tour of the bell towers. Back outside, wander through the flea market across the street where you can load up on World War 2 and Communist era memorabilia. And if you haven’t had enough of Eastern Orthodox images, stroll through the icons market right next to it.
For lunch, head to Checkpoint Charlie, a restaurant worth exploring for the historical ambience alone. As the name suggests, the interior is inspired by the famed Berlin Wall crossing point. Without an actual wall, the restaurant is divided visually into two parts. The Eastern part features exposed brick walls and hard back wooden chairs. The Western part has a piano, tablecloths and soft back chairs. Their food (on both sides) is excellent. In the summer, opt for a table in the garden. Checkpoint Charlie is located just a few blocks from Alexander Nevski Cathedral.
To walk off lunch, take a stroll back in time through the Roman City of Serdica. This open-air museum is located in the Center of Sofia next to the Sheraton Hotel. While admiring the Roman ruins, you can also enjoy some of the old totalitarian architecture from Bulgaria’s communist years.
Tip: Start at the covered section in front of the Presidency and the former Communist Party Building and make your way toward St. Petka of the Saddlers Church where the open air section begins. To exit take the stairs in front of the mosque. Across from the mosque, you’ll find a synagogue and a Catholic church. Also, take a look at the old public mineral baths, currently a museum of Sofia’s history.
Take a break from all that history and stop by Dada Cultural Bar for a coffee or a cocktail. As the name suggests, it is a place that celebrates avant-garde art. The interior is a piece of art itself. The ceiling is a colorful collage of posters. Old records and music scores by Beethoven are scattered under the glass tabletops. The bill comes in a folder adorned in a striking collage of images. Make sure to check their Facebook page for scheduled events, as they often feature music and readings.
In the summer, you might opt for an outdoor place instead. Sofia is packed with garden restaurants, bars and sidewalk cafes. A short walk from Alexander Nevski Cathedral, you’ll find The National Theater. Take a seat in one of the outdoor cafes in front of it and enjoy the setting light on the theater’s glamorous red façade. More often than not, there will be an old man playing the accordion near the fountains behind you or a small band performing old folk tunes.
For dinner, head to restaurant Moskovska 15 located in one of the oldest buildings in Sofia—the Clock House—right behind the former Tsar’s Palace. The menu changes every week and will be sure to inspire even the pickiest of foodies. The wine list is pretty extensive too with choices from all corners of the world. But make sure to try some of the Bulgarian wines. In the summer, you might opt to leave the elegant interior for the specious, artfully lit garden. While dining there, it’s easy to forget you’re in the center of a big city.
Bulgarians love grilled meat and one of their specialties is kebabche—grilled minced meat, usually a mixture of pork and beef. For the best grilled fare in Sofia pop into Skara Bar. They have three locations and in the summer, try their garden restaurant located on the ground floor of Sfumato Theater. Be sure to order their mixed plate for a taste of different types of grilled meat. The grilled cheeses with Bulgarian spices are also excellent.
When in Bulgaria, drink like a Bulgarian. The local specialty is rakia, a strong fruit brandy, often home-made. The best place in Sofia to try it is Rakia Bar Raketa, a trendy place where rakia rules. The modern décor is reminiscent of Communist times, with walls adorned in Soviet era posters and artifacts, including TV sets and radios, and red stars painted on the tabletops. You can find an extraordinary variety of rakia here, including a bottle made specifically for this bar. You can’t have rakia without meze. Try their shopska salad, a Bulgarian upgrade of the Greek salad.
Bulgarians love to dance and Sofia has a plethora of clubs that stay open until dawn. Plenty of time for club-hopping. Once upon a time… Biblioteka is a trendy pop club that hosts many of Bulgaria’s best DJs. It’s housed in the National Library Building, and its interior is inspired by comic books. The bar is a glass box stuffed with the torn pages of comics. The walls are painted with comic book characters, and so are the toilet seats in the bathrooms.
If you prefer house music, check out Bedroom or Tequila, while hip-hop lovers should head to Mixtape 5. There are also clubs that play chalga music, a blend of Bulgarian folk and pop. Live shows usually feature busty female singers dressed in skimpy outfits. Many Bulgarians would never set foot in a place like that—too tacky—but you might want to poke your head in just for a laugh.
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A version of this article first appeared in Yahoo Travel: Partying Like a Tsar in Sofia, the Nightlife Capital of Bulgaria.