Sofia: Not exactly a “Beauty Queen” but in the running for “Miss Congeniality”

Sofia isn’t a city that would be described as beautiful. Sure it sits in a beautiful location at the foot Vitosha Mountain. And yes, there are some beautiful churches and lovely parks. But mostly it is a city that hides behind a grey Socialist facade.

Statue of Saint Sofia

Sofia is a city tangled in tram lines, engulfed by rumbling traffic and home to a generous population of stray cats. But what it lacks in beauty it makes up for in personality and intrigue.

I am not from a country with a strong beauty pageant culture and have always wondered what “Congeniality” actually meant. The extent of my knowledge is a chick-flick staring Sandra Bullock as an undercover cop. So after some hard hitting research (aka google) I have discovered that congeniality is being friendly, welcoming and having a great personality. And I think Sofia fits that description perfectly.

 

Sure Sofia seems a little gloomy and is not a city for the fainthearted. Instead it is a unique and off-the-beaten-track sort of place. However, once you get under Sofia’s skin you begin to see how fabulous it really is. And here are my top reasons to visit.

 

1. Sofia has a fascinating history

The Medieval Saint Petka of the Saddlers Church framed by the Largo, the old Commmunist Headquarters

Sofia officially became the capital of independent Bulgaria in 1878. But the history city goes as far back as 7000 years when it started life a a Thracian settlement. Since then it has been ruled by what feels like everyone including the Romans, Ottomans and Byzantines. The city has some well preserved ruins from this ancient history but I found myself drawn to Sofia’s more recent Soviet past. If like me, you often spent a rainy Sunday watching documentaries on the Soviet Empire then Sofia is your heaven. The city is packed with Communist tours and Soviet-era restaurants but my top suggestions are the Museum of Socialist Art and a Communist Tour with local sisters Beni and Betty.

 

2. Sofia is a young and vibrant city

The entrance to “Agency”, the bar which now calls the former Secret Police Office home

Sofia is a bustling student city and home to over 20,000 university students, giving it a young and vibrant vibe. Bulgarians are generally very clever people with almost 20% having a college degree (according to the 2011 population census). Thanks to this high level of education and relative low costs, Sofia is emerging as a IT hub and fast becoming the “Silicone Valley of the Balkans”.

With all these clever young things making the most of the city, Sofia has developed a trendy underbelly. Street art, boutiques, restaurants and bars are everywhere. Even the old headquarters for the secret police is now a bar. Sofia is a great place to visit if you are after something a little alternative. And if bars aren’t your thing, the cafe culture is pretty good too.

 

3. Sofia is affordable

Coffee in Sofia only costs approx 2 Lev (£0.80 or $1.50 AUD)

Bulgaria is one of the few EU counties that still has it’s own currency, and with the Bulgarian LEV comes affordable prices. It is the type of city that allows you to enjoy a nice meal out or even a spa treatment without breaking the budget. To use the useful “beer index” a beer will set you back about £1 or $1.80 AUD. Bulgaria has also made it onto The Forbes list of “The 30 Cheapest Places to Travel for 2017” which gives the city an economical edge.

 

4. No hoards of tourists

Sofia’s Metro

Surprisingly, Sofia isn’t on the itinerary of most tourists coming for a grand tour of Europe. Most tourists you meet are the interesting and well traveled ones, making the experience very pleasant. The whole city feels authentic, local and a little off-the-beaten-track.

5. There are some pretty bits

The yellow cobbled Tsar Osvobditel Boulevard by night

I know I have said that Sofia isn’t the most attractive city. But there are some pretty bits. The beauty stems from Tsar Osvobditel Boulevard. A yellow cobbled road that was a wedding gift to a late 19th century prince. Beyond the pretty boulevard are the mesmerising churches. My favourite is the monstrous, golden domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.  Along with patches of attractive architecture is the abundance of parks and green spaces. Marking Sofia a lovely place for a Spring or Autumn stroll.

So have I convinced you?

Sofia might not have a giant steel tower or a collection of canals.But it does have a fun personally. It is the type of city where you relax in a street side cafe, meet some friendly locals or brush up on a bit of history. Sofia is definitely my type of city and certainly wins my vote as Europe’s “Miss Congeniality”.

Click here to read my Sofia Travel Guide

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