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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Off the Tourist Track In Bulgaria's Capital

the end of a recent trip to Eastern Europe, I realized there was something rather unusual about my stay in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria: In five days I didn't see, hear or meet a single tourist.

Only a decade ago Bulgaria was a prestigious holiday destination for Communist Party apparatchiki from all over the Soviet Union, but since the collapse of the Socialist order, the tourist industry has been in sharp decline. This may be bad news for the Bulgarian economy, but it means that intrepid travelers can enjoy an attractive, affordable and incredibly sunny city -- even in winter -- without being pestered by the wandering hordes.

Sofia's turbulent past has given it a unique appearance reflecting Roman, Greek, Byzantine, Ottoman and Russian influences. The architecture is varied, and the avenues are broad and pleasing to the eye, covered with small cafes and shops. The city center is distinguished by beautiful churches and magnificent fin-de-si?cle buildings surrounded by parks and trees.

But Sofia is more than a collection of impressive architecture. The city is alive with the hum of a bustling capital filled with a mix of peoples -- old men playing mandolin in doorways, gypsy women cleaning the streets, eager stall-holders flogging their wares at Turkish bazaars, and trendy young people promenading on Bulevard Vitosha.

I arrived in Sofia exhausted from the endless passport checks of an overnight train journey through Romania. To make matters worse, I was short of cash since my wallet had been stolen in Bucharest. The taxi driver who took me from the central station to my hotel charged about $7 for a 15-minute journey, which I later understood was about 10 times the going rate.

Clever cabbies aside, life is incredibly cheap in Sofia for anyone with access to Western currency; you are hard pressed to spend $10 a day on entertainment. During my short stay, the value of the Bulgarian currency declined from 420 Leva to the dollar to 500. Within one year real wages have dropped about five times, making the average income currently worth about $35 a month. So it comes as no surprise that the Bulgarians are highly dissatisfied with the way the country has been run by the Socialist Party, the ex-communists currently in power. One friend I met in a bar told me that the country is currently living though one of the worst economic crises in its history, with at least 10 banks having shut down within the last six months.

While I was in Sofia I witnessed two mass demonstrations that helped lead to the resignation of the entire cabinet as well as Prime Minister Shan Videnov just before Christmas. The turmoil has continued since then, with protesters most recently storming the parliament. Amid all the upheaval, most of the Bulgarians I met seemed convinced of their country's innate potential -- despite strong disillusionment with their current crop of leaders.

Perhaps the current population is gaining strength from their knowledge of Bulgaria's history of survival despite adversity and numerous invasions. To get a sense of the country's tumultuous background, which include centuries of Ottoman rule, a trip to the National Museum of History near Ploshtad Sveta Nedelya is useful. Walking though the long-winding corridors and some of the dimly-lit 640 rooms, I had a Kafka-like feeling of being awesomely lost.

People with a knowledge of Russian language and culture, however, should feel rather at home in the capital itself. Bulgaria became independent after the Russo-Turkish Liberation War of 1877-78, when 200,000 Russians died to help free Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire, and the capital is full of monuments paying tribute to the Russian Army. I highly recommend a visit to the Alexander Nevsky Memorial Cathedral, which resembles neo-Byzantine Russian Orthodox churches. Check out the cathedral's phenomenal acoustics on Saturday evenings, when the choir, which includes members of the National Opera, participate in the service. There is also a picturesque souvenir market in the park surrounding the cathedral where shoppers can buy folk art and paintings as well as Socialist artifacts.

Thanks to the Socialist influence in Bulgaria's past, not all of the sights are pretty. A stroll around the city center will inevitably lead you to the National Palace of Culture (NDK) in Yuzhen Park at the southern end of Boulevard Vitosha. The NDK is an architectural monstrosity built in 1981 incorporating 14 halls for theater performances, concerts and film shows. One small bonus is that the Panorama Cafe on the roof top provides an excellent view of the city.

Although organized crime is said to be on the rise, Sofia's streets still feel very safe compared to money-spinning cities like Moscow and Budapest, or even Bucharest, which is a haven for pickpockets. Russian remains the mostly widely spoken foreign language, and is actually very close to Bulgarian. I found, however, that many young people prefer to start conversations with a foreigner in English, part of a new tilt toward the West.

In defiance of any economic hardship, the younger generation is very fashion-conscious and seems to have money to burn in the many boutiques lined up on Bulevard Vitosha. The general standard of living seems higher than in Moscow since prices for food and consumer goods are much lower, although -- judging by the pace of inflation -- this might soon change. Many people have just one official job but numerous sources of income.

On Ploshtad Knjaz Al. Battenberg I stumbled across the Central Universal Store (ZUM), a marble-decorated shopping mall with a pleasingly low-key atmosphere. In ZUM you can some very nice souvenirs such as handmade jewelry, as well as English-language periodicals. The large book market outside the main library is the only other place where weather-beaten foreign publications and reference materials can sometimes be tracked down.

Night life in Sofia mainly centers around Bulevard Vitosha, where swarms of long-haired young men and women dressed to kill hang out in numerous cafes and restaurants before setting off to night clubs. One of the most popular is the Yalta Club (2 Bul. Marshal Tolbuhin, opposite the university) which plays a mixture of techno, Euro-disco and Bulgarian pop. Entrance costs all of $1.50.

If you don't have access to a car, hopping between night spots is a challenge. Sofia's metro system is still being built, so traffic chaos reigns in the center. Although there is an extensive network of trams, buses and taxis, it is sometimes easier to walk as long as you have a good sense of direction and a decent map.

For those who like outdoor activity, it's easy to escape the city to nearby Mt. Vitosha. The mountain has a popular ski resort and several hotels offer package deals. In spring and summer or at any other snow-free time, you can also explore the area surrounding Mt. Vitosha. There you will find mineral springs and families living in small, half-completed bungalows surrounded by geese, cows and horses. The bungalows are only half-built because families build their homes in stages, adding rooms as they receive extra money.

Getting There

Aeroflot charges 1,627,000 rubles ($290) for a fixed day-return ticket Moscow-Sofia valid for three months. You can also take Balkan airlines, which costs about $320.

Most foreigners require a visa for Bulgaria, which should cost about $12. Russians do not need a visa, but have to produce an invitation letter.

The Bulgarian Embassy can be reached at 143-9022 or 292-3125. If you are traveling by train, a Romanian transit visa can be obtained at the border for $23.

Where to Stay

If you are on a big budget, try the Sheraton Sofia Hotel Balkan, which is located in the heart of the city and is generally acknowledged as one of the capital's best hotels. Double rooms cost between $200 and $300. Tel. 8-10-359-2-876-541.

A more moderately priced option is the Sofia Grand Hotel, also located in the center. Singles cost $78 and doubles cost $98. Tel. 8-10-359-2-878-821.

Budget travelers can try the Hotel Niky at 16 U. Neofit Rilski. Singles cost $20 and doubles cost about $60. It is a small, clean, family-run hotel, and the owners are very friendly, although they don't speak English. Tel. 8-10-359-2-511-915.

Where to Eat

For traditional Bulgarian cuisine, try Fram at 5 F. Nansen St. Established in 1888, it is one of the oldest restaurants in Sofia and offers a wide range of Bulgarian dishes, which often feature lamb. Another good bet is Athena, a cellar restaurant that serves Greek and Bulgarian dishes accompanied by folk-singing and dancing until 2 a.m.

For international cuisines, try the Pizza Palace at 34 Bul. Vitosha. An excellent Hungarian restaurant can be found at 145 Rakovski St.

Travel Tips

Balkantourist at 27 Bul. Alexander Stamboliski provides information on private accommodation, hotel reservations, money exchange and more. Their number is 359-2-877-233.

You can also try the Comprehensive Travel Office, NDK in Yuzhen Park, for transport tickets and timetables. Their number is 359-2-597-187.