When I moved to Turkey, I’d planned to do a lot more exploring in nearby countries. The pandemic put a little wrinkle in my plans, but now that things are starting to open up again, I decided to take advantage of the newly re-opened overnight train route from Istanbul to Sofia. I took a chance on one berth in a two-berth sleeper and ended up with the cabin to myself.
Pulling into Sofia station the next morning, I was ready to check into my Airbnb and get out to take advantage of the many free walking tours on offer to get a quick overview of things to do in Bulgaria’s capital. I lucked out with a break in the late spring/early summer thunderstorms and had perfect weather for the two and a half days I was in town. I’ll never forget the sweet fragrance from the linden trees in full bloom while crisscrossing this walkable and interesting little city.
>> Visit my Bulgaria Photo Galleries.
Map of Bulgaria
Things to Do in Sofia, Bulgaria
- Sofia – Many people are of the opinion that Plovdiv is a lot more charming than the capital, Sofia. Some argue that there’s not much to do but visit a few churches and perhaps take some day trips out of the city. I’ll have to go back for the day trips (things like the Rila Monastery, Vitosha mountain, or just road trips to various other regions) but I enjoyed learning about Bulgaria’s food and history and doing a lot of people watching during my time in Sofia!
- Bulgarian Wine Tastings – I absolutely LOVED my tasting at Coupage Wine & Cheese shop. The owner is incredibly passionate about wines, cheese, ham and sausage all sourced exclusively from Bulgarian producers. I got to try 2 whites (Dimyat and Vranchaski Misket) and 3 red varietals (Mavrud, Melnik 55, and Rubin) and learned about the history and various wine regions. Highly recommended if you’re in Sofia. (Photo gallery from my tasting)
- Take a (free!) Bulgarian food tour – A FREE food tour? Yes! Balkan Bites offers a free food tour that will walk you through Bulgarian history and cuisine, both modern and historic. It’s a great way to get an introduction to Bulgarian food and to make notes of places you’d like to visit later. Though all of the bites (and wine) samples are free, the tour itself is tip-supported so be sure to tip your guides when you’re done. Reservations recommended on weekends and required on weekdays. (Photo Gallery from my tour / Balkan Bites IG / Balkan Bites FB)
- Take a Bulgarian history tour – Get some exercise and take one of the popular Free Sofia Walking Tours offered by the nonprofit 365 Association daily at 11am, 2pm and 6pm. The tour takes about 2 hours and is free (but you’re welcome to tip your guide of course), it’s a good way to get an orientation to the city. I also signed up for the Communism Tour (25 BGN) which ended up being one of the highlights for me. Learning about the nearly 50 year period of communism in the country was eye-opening and I found the information presented to be very balanced. Our guide had personal experience both pro- and anti-communist rule on either side of his family and was able to add his own insights. If this interests you, you can also check out the Red Flat, a replica flat of the 1980’s Cold War era in Sofia. (Photo gallery from my tours)
- The Women’s Pazar (Zhensky Pazar) – I always love an open market to check out what’s in season and how the locals shop. I couldn’t resist the piles of fresh cherries and picked up a jar of homemade ljutenitsa to take home as well.
- Atlas Obscura list for Bulgaria – Atlas Obscura is one of my favorite resources for finding unusual or interesting things to explore in new places. In Bulgaria, there’s a wealth of things to check out.
- Check out a coffee shop – for a good list of places in Sofia, click here. I stopped by Chucky’s and was not disappointed!
What to Eat in Bulgaria
- Banitsa – traditionally a breakfast pastry with fillings like cheese, spinach or other vegetables. We have similar things in Turkey so I wasn’t too excited until I found a mushroom version (it also contained chopped dill pickles) that was amaaaazing.
- Ljutenitsa – a condiment/spread made of roasted red peppers, sometimes sweet/sometimes spicy, sometimes containing other vegetables such as carrots or eggplant. Find a great recipe and additional info from The Balkan Foodie.
- Tarator – a chilled yogurt soup flavored with dill, cucumber, garlic and sometimes walnuts. Again, a recipe and some background from The Balkan Foodie.
- Shopska salad – the red (tomato), green (cucumber/pepper) and white (onion/sirene cheese) is said to resemble the Bulgarian flag. This salad was actually an invention of the state-run Balkantourist company!
- Cheese – Sirene and kaskaval are the main two you’ll see, but you’ll find other varieties to try if you look hard enough. I brought home a delicious aged sheep’s milk cheese that paired perfectly with my Bulgarian Mavrud!
- Sausages – dried and cured sausages made of beef, pork, or a combination of the two can be found, sometimes with additions like peppers or less conventional ingredients like Bulgarian truffles.
- Bulgarian Yogurt – thick, deliciously sour Bulgarian yogurt contains a particular strain of bacteria called lactobacillus bulgaricus. There’s even a yogurt museum in honor of the biologist Stamen Grigorov, who first identified it. (Fun Fact: Japanese think of Bulgaria as the “holy land of yogurt” and consume it as a part of a new health food trend!)
- Local products to take home – particularly by sustainable and family producers – things like ljutenitsa, honey, cheese, sausages and wine.
- Free Sofia Tours / 365 Association – there’s a reason that these tours show up at the top of any list of “things to do” in Sofia or Plovdiv. They’re a great introduction to your time in either city and they’re free and offered daily! You can also check out specialty themed tours on Communism, the Jewish experience in Bulgaria, or their other projects like the Red Flat.
- Bulgaria Travel – the official website for Bulgarian Tourism
- Train travel to and from Bulgaria – excellent resources and info on timetables, costs and what to expect.
- Workaway Host List for Bulgaria – When I travel, I always try to find a way to go a bit deeper. If I have time I will often try to find a cultural exchange through Workaway or maybe Couchsurfing. It is a chance to meet locals and to hear about their experience.
- Wines of Bulgaria – a great list from Wine Folly with an intro to the regions and grapes of Bulgarian wines.
- For US Citizens: US State Department page on Bulgaria and US Embassy in Bulgaria – It’s always a good idea to register with the STEP program for updates before and during your trip.