Should You Visit Sofia?

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Summary: Maybe if you like old churches, otherwise no. It’s a somewhat unpleasant city with only a handful of incredible things to see. Don’t let that stop you from visiting Bulgaria, though.

Sofia is the capital of Bulgaria and is indeed the entry point for most people traveling to the country. As such, it is likely the only experience most people get in Bulgaria due to the difficulty of traveling outside Sofia. This is an objective travesty because the country of Bulgaria is so much more beautiful than its capital.

Independence Square, Sofia, Bulgaria. The sterotypical picture of the city.
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel Independence Square is one of the best and most recognizable examples of postwar Soviet Classicism. Similar to the Tower of Culture and Science in Warsaw or Karl-Marx-Allee in Berlin.

Sofia is not an especially beautiful city and is not well adapted for modern tourism. Especially when put in contrast to Bulgaria’s other main tourist destinations, the Black Sea Coast and Plovdiv, Sofia lacks any compelling reason to visit. In my opinion, this must also be why the city’s tourist infrastructure is so lacking. These two factors combined contribute to an overall underwhelming travel experience.

For Sofia to be worth it, you should already know that you will want to see the few things Sofia offers. In particular, Sofia has the Ruins of Roman Serdica, the Roman Necropolis of St. Sofia, St. George’s Rotunda, Boyana Church, and the National History Museum. Some people may also find the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral or Mount Vitosha interesting. What this list has in abundance is churches and archaeology. What the list is missing is any mention of famous restaurants, beautiful avenues, or concentrated old town. If churches and ruins do not excite you, Sofia will probably not interest you.

A Mozaic underneath St. Sofia. The city is full of Roman ruins and heritage sites.
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel A Mozaic underneath St. Sofia. The city is full of Roman ruins and heritage sites.

A comparable city is Cologne. Completely annihilated in the Second World War, the city has no old town and is famous only for its vast Cathedral and collection of early medieval churches. This city is simply not worth visiting if you are not interested in visiting churches. While Sofia is a more exciting destination than Cologne in every possible way, the comparison should help frame your expectations.

Should you visit Sofia?

Rating CategoryScore
Historical Preservation9
Cultural Immersion4
Final Score6.5


One challenge with Sofia is that it has a small set of tourist offerings but a comparatively large number of tourists that want to see them. So even though the city is not touristy, visiting the main tourist spots can sometimes feel crowded and over-touristed. Traveling at the end or beginning of the season will help alleviate this.

Another other challenge is the tourist infrastructure. The penetration of English as a foreign language is very low in Bulgaria, and the lack of English-language support will be evident even in the capital. While you should not have any issues ordering food or visiting a museum, asking for assistance from the police or individuals on the street may be challenging.

One of many early-Christian Roman tombs underneath St. Sophia as part of the excavated necropolis.
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel One of many early-Christian Roman tombs underneath St. Sophia as part of the excavated necropolis.

As a capital city, there are plenty of hotels and overnight accommodations, but not every city district is created equal. Given the small size of the tourist district, it might be challenging to find a place to stay right where you want to be. Likewise, Sofia’s metro system is excellent for its residents, but it is not likely to help the average tourist very much. There is, for example, no easy way to get from the city center to the UNESCO-protected Boyana Church by public transport.

Generally, support for international tourists is low because the city does not expect to receive many. I would keep this in mind and go elsewhere on arrival. That is unless you are interested in the few noteworthy historical monuments.

Historical Preservation

Unfortunately, Sofia’s architectural heritage has suffered the wrath of three different purges in its modern history. The first period of urban renewal came after independence, significantly improving the quality of life through a complete renovation of the Ottoman-era cityscape. Then came Allied bombing raids in the Second World War, which while not especially devastating, gave reason for the post-war demolition of the city center.

A typical street in Sofia, Bulgaria
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel A typical street in the center of Sofia, a mix of old and new buildings in various states of disrepair.

Today only a few significant monuments from the pre-Communist period have been preserved, with most of the urban architecture rising during the 1960s expansion of the city. However, these monuments are quite interesting and give the city a higher rating in this category than might otherwise be deserved.

Of particular note are the three churches from the early Middle Ages (or even late antiquity), Boyana, St. George and St. Sofia, with its excavated Roman necropolis underneath. All of them are incredible examples of Roman or Medieval Art that you would struggle to find in most European cities outside of Italy. It’s also worth highlighting the city’s effort to excavate and display the ruins of Roman Serdica beneath the streets.

Cultural Immersion

The upside to not being a popular tourist destination is that the city feels “authentic” because you will interact with primarily residents of Sofia. If you want to experience Sofia as a resident, assuming you speak Bulgarian, it would be trivial. You will, however, have to speak Bulgarian. Get past that minor detail, and the city will offer an experience unavailable in places like Florence or Paris.


Sofia is kind of boring as a foreign tourist. Im sure living in the city might be a different story, but as mentioned previously, the tourist offerings are limited. The big city museums are laid out poorly, with little to no context for the displayed items. The national art gallery and the archaeological museum were incredibly disappointing (the Bulgarian Ethnographic Museum was, in contrast, well put together). The national history museum remains the highlight but is far outside the city center. You find yourself walking quickly through (barely) marked museum exhibits like a horde of Thracian coins simply labeled in English as “Gold Coins.”

The bronze head of Thracian King Seuthes III, who lived around 300 bce. One of the most spectacular finds on display at the National Archaeological Museum.
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The bronze head of Thracian King Seuthes III, who lived around 300 bce. One of the most spectacular finds on display at the National Archaeological Museum.

The churches and mosques have “opening hours,” but you will only find out if it is open when you get there. Indeed, the churches may not welcome you at all, with several appearing closed to tourists entirely, despite a listing in the official Sofia tourist guide.

Sofia at least gets points for, in theory, having listed opening hours for virtually every monument in the city. However, there is a non-zero probability that all could be closed for no reason when you arrive there. There is a good chance that some of them will be, and there’s no way to know beforehand.

Should You Visit?

If you decide to visit Sofia, don’t get too excited, as your travel experience can quickly swing to the extremes. I recommend moving to Plovdiv or the Coast without staying long in Sofia.

How to see Sofia

The standard trip to Sofia will be a checklist of museums to visit. Remove an item from the list if you are not interested in that particular topic. There is little in the way of atmosphere or vibe to be found unless you like the post-Soviet grunge feeling.

Map of tourist destinations in Sofia, Bulgaria
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel

The Standard Day Trip

  • Ruins of Roman Serdica: Excavations started in the immediate post-war period, but attempts to open the excavations to the public have been ongoing since the 1960s. Today the ruins encompass a large part of the subterranean level beneath the city streets of downtown Sofia. Serdica was a major Roman city on the road connecting the Dacia with Constantinople. Though the city saw its golden age in the 3rd-century ce, most of the ruins come from late antiquity, after the city was initially destroyed by the Huns and rebuilt under Justinian I. 
The open-air ruins of Roman Serica in the city center of Sofia. You will find more ruins scattered around the city. Some of the best finds are behind the glass wall to the left.
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The open-air ruins of Roman Serica in the city center. You will find more ruins scattered around the city. Some of the best finds are behind the glass wall to the left.
  • Independence Square: This is probably the only real “Instagrammable” location in Sofia. As the only image of the city most people are likely familiar with, it is worth a visit for the dramatic vista looking down the main street towards the epic neoclassical ministry buildings from the communist era.
  • St. George’s Rotunda: This small church is hidden in the courtyard of a large government ministry building. The courtyard has been excavated to reveal a corner of the old Roman forum. The circular church in the middle is the oldest continuously inhabited building in Sofia. The Romans constructed the dome for an unclear purpose, but by the 6th century, it was clearly used for Christian religious purposes. It was renovated many times before its conversion to a mosque during the Ottoman period. The Ottomans, however, made the unconscious decision to cover the walls with a thick layer of plaster, preserving the medieval frescos underneath. If fact, there are three levels of Christian frescos, with some fragments dating to antiquity. It is one of the most incredible things to see in Sofia.
  • St. Sofia and its Archaeological Museum: Like St. George, St. Sofia is a Roman church, built in the form of a Latin cross, probably around the end of the 6th century during the reconstruction. Built over several older churches, the most exciting part of St. Sofia is the network of excavated tombs and mosaics of the archaeological site underneath it. There are several well-preserved tombs with Roman frescos and an extensive collection of mosaics from the previous churches at the site.
Church of St. Sofia interior, Sofia Bulgaria
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The Church of St. Sofia may have given the city its name and is the only significant structure to have survived from Antiquity. Located outside of the city walls, it may have already been abandoned when the Slavic tribes finally destroyed Serdica, thus sparing it. It was later converted into a mosque and then a warehouse, ensuring at least the structure survived. Compare it with the similar structure, St. Constantine’s Basilica in Trier, Germany.
  • St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral: This church holds a particular place in Bulgarian mythology as it was constructed in 1926 to celebrate independence from the Ottoman Empire. As Bulgaria only achieved independence with Russian military assistance and only built the Cathedral with Russian money, it is dedicated to a Russian Saint. The architecture, however, draws more heavily on Byzantine traditions than Russian religious architecture. The interior is full of artistic national fervor.
  • Ivan Vazov National Theater / Park: This is noteworthy, in my opinion, for being the only place in the inner tourist district with a friendly, relaxed atmosphere. Sit on a park bench here, and you feel like you are in a city much nicer than Sofia. The theater is a remarkable building from Bulgarian Historiscm that might be worth visiting inside.
  • Boyana Church: Undoubtedly the most spectacular destination in Sofia for anyone interested in old buildings. The core building dates to the 10th century but was expanded in the 11th and 13th centuries. We know very little about the building’s origins other than its likely purpose to commemorate a major military victory. The unique part is that the entire interior space is covered in immaculately preserved medieval frescos from around 1259. The detail of the painting suggests a master with training in Byzantium and influences from the Mediterranean. The naturalism in the imagery is comparable to works by the Italian Master Giotto of the same period. We can see the hints of what we would call Renaissance art peaking through medieval imagery.
  • National History Museum: This is the best museum to visit in Sofia, it houses all of Bulgaria’s interesting historical artifacts. The museum building itself is the old presidential palace and is also an interesting glimpse into the age of Cold War Bulgaria.
A busy intersection in central Sofia
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel A busy intersection in central Sofia

It could be interesting for the Right Person:

  • Main Synagogue: This is a large, well-preserved, and still operational 19th-century synagogue in a European capital city. There aren’t many of these left, so it is certainly interesting from that perspective.
  • Banya Bashi Mosque: This is the only Ottoman Mosque in Sofia that survives to any actual degree. The exterior is quite aesthetic, but I found nothing remarkable about the largely modernized interior.
Banya Bashi Mosque Sofia Bulgaria
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The Banya Bashi Mosque is the most remarkable legacy of Ottoman rule in Sofia today. While the exterior represents one of the most beautiful mosques of its type outside Turkey, the interior is not anything noteworthy.
  • National Archaeological Museum: I expected better for a country with such dedication to archaeology. There are some exhibits for Thracian artifacts that are well documented. Still, most of the Roman and Medieval exhibits are essentially displayed without context, and unless you know what you want to see here, you can skip it.
  • Bulgarian Ethnographic Museum: One of the best museums I visited in Sofia, it is a museum describing the development of Bulgarian culture over time. There are a lot of different exhibits on how people lived in other times and places, and some parts, especially the wedding rituals, were fascinating.

Optional Extras

Map of tourist destinations in Sofia, Bulgaria
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel
Map of tourist destinations in Sofia, Bulgaria
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel

Other Interesting Churches:

  • St. Nedelya:  Built on the site of an older medieval church that was blown up in 1926 by Communist Revolutionaries, this church was finished in 1933. This building follows the trend of the time for austere classicism that built off the developments from Early Modernism and Art Deco.
  • St. Nicholas the Miracle Maker: Completed in 1899, it was originally the chapel for the Russian Embassy. It was a somewhat influential building for Bulgarian revivalist architecture because it was a high-quality example of Russian romanticism, drawing heavily on Baroque elements from the 16-17th century.
  • The Underground Church: Elements of a church from 1386 have been incorporated into an office building from the 1960s. The crypt and parts of the interiors are preserved, but tourist access seems discouraged.
  • St. Nikolay Sofryski: The best example of Bulgarian Romantic architecture is this church, built in the style of the Second Bulgarian Empire. 
  • St. Paraskeva: From an architectural perspective, this is probably the most interesting modern church in Sofia. Finished in 1930, it radically departs from traditional aesthetics. The architect Anton Torynov sought to create a new expression for Bulgarian religious architecture and combined early modernism with elements taken from traditional buildings elsewhere in Bulgaria. This is best seen in the wave-forms of the cornice, which reflect the shapes of 19th-century facades, e.g., in Plovidv and elsewhere.
  • St. Sedmochislenitsi: A late historicist building from 1896 with some Seccessionist flair built into the frame of an 18th-century Mosque. The most interesting part is the exterior.

Other Museums

  • National Art Gallery: This museum houses the collection of art belonging to the state of Bulgaria. As with any art museum, the experience is better if you already know what you are going to see.
  • Regional History Museum of Sofia: A surprisingly underwhelming experience, the museum just houses exhibits related to Sofia’s history. The building, and old bath complex, is perhaps the most interesting part. The staff was extremely unpleasant and rude to me so I may be biased in my rating.
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel St. George’s Rotunda has some of the best-preserved medieval frescos in the Balkans. Getting inside can be a challenge, though. I have tried several times and was asked to leave each time as the resident priest did not like tourists visiting his church. Surprising for a destination so widely publicized. I did manage to sneak in for 5 minutes before the priest reappeared. A woman at the counter selling souvenirs gladly sold me a guidebook and explained what I was looking at. However, the priest quickly evicted me when he finally reappeared.

Opening Hours

St. George’s RotundaEveryday* 8 am–7:30 pm
St. Sofia and its Archaeological MuseumEveryday 10 am–5:30 pm
St. Alexander Nevsky CathedralEveryday* 7 am–7 pm
Boyana ChurchEveryday 9 am–5:30 pm (You will get a 10-minute time slot, book in advance if you can)
National History MuseumEveryday 9:30 am–6 pm
Main SynagogueSunday – Friday 9 am–5 pm (Bring your passport and leave large bags at home)
Banya Bashi MosqueEveryday* 6 am–10 pm
National Archaeological MuseumEveryday 10 am–6 pm
Bulgarian Ethnographic MuseumTuesday – Sunday 10 am–6 pm
National Art GalleryTuesday – Sunday 10 am–6 pm
* Opening Hours may be arbitrary. Check in advance for Religious Services or Events.


If you take the time to walk around Sofia, you will find a lot of interesting modern architecture. If you like the styles of the mid-20th century, then you may want to invest in a guidebook that points out where the most interesting ones are. Otherwise, visiting Sofia will be a quick adventure into its ancient Roman past, followed by the train to Plovdiv.

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Shopluk / Shopsko

Balkan Highlands

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