Looking for unusual things to do in Sofia? We’ve got you covered with this guide to some of the city’s more kitsch attractions, many of which will particularly appeal to history lovers!
Sofia is the capital and largest city of Bulgaria, with a population of around one and a half million. Even so, it feels quite laid back, making it an ideal destination for a wandering weekend.
It’s very green, too, which is especially welcome on a hot summer’s day. So let’s start our journey… back in time.
The site of the city has been continually settled since the 7th century BC. The Romans muscled in on the action (as they always did) in AD 46, followed by Attila the Hun and then the Ottomans, who were kicked out by the Russians in 1878. Like so many central European cities, it’s been raided, razed, reborn and rebuilt by success invaders, rescuers and rampaging passers by. As a result, there’s lots of history to see.
The city’s most famous monument is the Bulgarian Orthodox Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. It sits at the centre of the city and is the landmark around which everything spreads.
It’s not especially large but the proportions and design make up for its lack of stature. Unfortunately the inside is rather tired and lets down the façade, but on a sunny day its golden domes gleam impressively.
The park around it is very pleasant, especially when the sun’s out, and features a street market where all manner of Soviet area tat can be purchased.
I picked up some Russian badges celebrating early space flight; all era-correct and rather wonderful. If kitsch plastic tat is your thing you’ll love the stalls. There are also some rather nice statues dotted around and some modern art, too, which is quite quirky and a lot of fun.
Monuments to a bygone era
A leisurely walk south of the city through the Borisova Gradina Park, which is filled with aging, crumbling sporting arenas, is the Socialist Art Museum, a window into the country’s Soviet times.
There’s a small display inside, including propaganda film footage, but it’s the outdoor space that tells the story with its mix of statues to heroic workers and stolid-looking political leaders, including Lenin, of course.
It’s tucked away off a main road, but worth the journey. The museum is a branch of the National Art Gallery – it sadly doesn’t have a website of its own.
The National Museum of Natural History at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences is another captivating time capsule.
While I don’t doubt that the academy does fine work, the museum displays have a rather dusty feeling of yesteryear. If you miss the crowded glass cases that were once a staple of many British museums (especially regional ones) then this place will be a delight.
Retro chic lurks around every corner… as does the occasional stuffed bear. It shouldn’t be as much fun as it is, but there are just so many great photo ops. File under science kitsch.
The Sofia largo, the square between the Council of the Ministers and the Presidency, contains a display at the other end of the spectrum: the restored ancient Roman complex of Serdica.
This modern, airy space was opened in 2016 to much acclaim but not before there’d been some local argy-bargy about some of the methods being used to stabilise the ruins. One slogan, “history, not concrete”, highlighted the principal concern.
Fortunately, this was all sorted out and today visitors get the best of both worlds: a modern insight into life in Roman Sofia that is historically sympathetic. And if ancient history is your bag, then you’ll be able to fill it to overflowing with the city’s other landmarks from this period.
However, my time in the city was limited so I decided to take a wholly different historic route for my final destination: The National Museum of Military History.
The walk out of town was worth it – the museum was just brilliant. Outside there are ranks of tanks, trucks and missiles, inside was a wonderful display of how wars (won and lost) have helped shape Bulgaria.
I was followed around while on my visit, which was quite unnerving at first, but the less-than-secure fixtures used to attach modern firearms to the wall gave me an idea of why it was felt necessary – although I’m sure that all the guns were without a firing pin… well, I hope they were.
I also had the place pretty much to myself – I was the only foreign national there as far as I could see – which made the visit that much more fun.
The exhibits and displays were all excellent and I left feeling that I know a little bit more about my host country’s past.
Quirky things to do in Sofia
Sadly, at this point, my time ran out – it was back to the UK for me, which was a shame as there was more to be seen.
This is a guest post by Anthony Clark, journalist, copywriter and longtime friend of the Ladies What Travel team. He loves beer, cheese and travel and is a genius when it comes to making the most of his annual leave.