Bulgaria’s Black Sea coastline is, by all accounts, gorgeous, picturesque and the perfect place to flock to with tourists from Eastern Europe and beyond. And from looking at pictures and google image searches, I can attest to this fact. It looks gorgeous. But on the other side of the country, far from the sea, is one of the most gorgeous cities I have ever seen, where every block evokes another age, be it Soviet industrialism, Ottoman domination, or the Christian monasticism of the middle ages.
Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, is located just a few hours by car from Serbia on Bulgaria’s western border and sits on a major trade route that connects Europe and Asia. Because of this, Sofia has always been a cultural and economic hub for Bulgaria and for the greater Balkan region. There is some incredible history to see here, with the Alexander Nevski Cathedral being high on the list of former monasteries and religious buildings to check out. There’s a public mineral spring right in the middle of the city as well.
Getting around is difficult due to the Cyrillic alphabet, but Bulgarians usually know English, and Sofia being a college town, younger people speak it pretty perfectly. My first night in Sofia I managed to find my old friend Petko, a graduate student in Sofia who speaks like eight languages. We went out to one of the many great Bulgarian Restaurants
in Sofia to little place called Thirteen Stairs, which had a sort of medieval looking dining room with crests on the walls. The food was amazing, with all sorts of local produce grown at a nearby monastery. Later we met up with his friends, all fluent English speakers, and went to Apartment, a huge four story building consisting of open rooms with giant couches and music playlists you can mess withon various computers. It felt like I just wandered in to a giant house party.
Sofia is amazing in and of itself, but it also has some fantastic things to see just a short distance away. I headed toward the Vitosha mountain, which is an amazing National Park a quick 22km bus ride south of the city (it pretty much begins where the suburbs end). The mountain is giant and snowcapped (it’s the tallest ski mountain in Bulgaria
) and I headed to the ski area to find that there were plenty of trails still open. Although skiing is never cheap, it was certainly cheaper here than in the States or the Alps.
Even though it was still cold enough to ski, it wasn’t too cold to go exploring the rest of the National Park (which was a tough thing to do a day after skiing. I forgot how sore falling down all day can make you). Thankfully, after hiking to the impressive, if not spectacular, Boyana Waterfall, I managed to find one of the many natural hot springs in the Park. There I soaked away my soreness and had conversation with a beautiful pair of graduate students taking a day trip from Sofia, who, of course, spoke perfect English. I could get used to Bulgaria. And I haven’t even seen the beaches yet.