Bulgaria’s capital has a lot of stories to tell, and each historic attraction will give you a new perspective on Sofia’s complicated past. Take the churches here that have spent several centuries of their existence as mosques, the overbearing soviet architecture or the Roman history that is still being uncovered and blends with the modern city. Many of the buildings you’ll see are from the Bulgarian Revival in the late-19th century, when the country reclaimed its independence from the Ottomans. And always to the southwest looms the monumental Vitosha Mountain. Vitosha Boulevard is Sofia’s main shopping street. A pedestrianized thoroughfare, its main part runs from the Saint Nedelya Church to the grand National Palace of Culture. Vitosha Boulevard is lined with comfortable cafés to sit in and engage in some people watching. If you’re hungry, you can have lunch or dinner at an Irish pub, an Italian restaurant or a Chinese fast food place. Not far from Vitosha Boulevard, along Graf Ignatiev Street, is Slaveykov Square, well known for its open-air book market. Browse the dozens of stalls selling all kinds of literature in a multitude of languages, from romantic novels to political and scientific volumes. Sofia is one of Europe’s most ancient capitals. Originally established by the Thracians, it was later an important city of the Roman Empire; Emperor Constantine famously referred to it as “My Rome”.
A large part of Sofia’s ancient heritage is still preserved. The most prominent example is the red- bricked Hagia Sophia (Sveta Sofia) Church from the 6th century which gave its name to the city itself. Make sure you visit the church’s underground crypt to see Roman frescoes and artifacts. Saint George’s Rotunda is even older than the Hagia Sophia Church and bears the title of the oldest extant building in Sofia. Dating to the 4th century, its unusual cylindrical structure is now curiously nested in the courtyard of the Sheraton Hotel, Ministry of Education and Presidency edifices. Many locals still don’t know that Sofia has a partially preserved Roman amphitheatre. It’s not easy to find though – its ruins are now mainly inside the Arena di Serdica hotel. Ask at the reception and they will be glad to let you in to see the amphitheatre for free. Being on the underground level of a hotel and knowing that gladiators fought on this very spot is a surreal feeling. How many capital cities around the world boast a full-sized mountain right on the outskirts? Vitosha is not only the most prominent feature of Sofia’s landscape, but also an attractive destination for nature lovers. In summer, you can embark on an entertaining trek up to the highest peak Cherni Vrah (2290 m) or to the stone river of the Golden Bridges (Златните мостове, Zlatnite mostove); in winter, you may want to head to the Aleko winter sports centre to check out the quality ski runs.