Sauntering Through Sofia
A trip to Sofia, Bulgaria is a trip through time featuring lovely food, delicious drink, and modernizing people.
Hot Take: Sofia is an ancient city with modern charms and a low cost of living; certainly worth a few days if you are in the neighborhood. (4.0 stars)
Pro Tip: Make sure the taxi driver turns the meter on!
Sofia is the largest city (and capital) of Bulgaria, though it only has 1.5 million people. Most of the population lives outside the city center, so this ‘big’ city maintains an intimate feel downtown. Sofia is the 2nd oldest continually occupied present day capital in Europe with a history going back 6,000+ years (only Athens is older). And when you walk around Sofia, the city is like an onion that has been selectively peeled to let you see its layers of history, including long Roman, Ottoman, and Soviet occupations. We arrived on a rainy night after the whirlwind of Russia’s World Cup madness and were so happy to be in a smaller, slower place with amazing local foods. Recuperation was on our mind, but Sofia (and all of Bulgaria) delivered so much more than that as we fell in love with this little Balkan country. With far more to do and see than we imagined, here is a list of our highlights from this eminently walkable city.
Sofia is home to the only truly free food tour on earth (as far as we know). We have been on plenty of food tours where the guide is ‘free’ (aka tips only), but you have to pay for the food. However, the Balkan Bites tour was a guided walking tour with a bit of history and 4 decent tastes of local cuisine (and some local wine) where payment was totally up to you. While not the greatest food tour we had ever been on (Paris, you will always have our hearts) for the price of ‘free’, this one is absolutely worth your time (but make sure to sign up online a few days in advance as the tour is always full). This was our introduction to the wonderful Bulgarian cuisine and culture (which we are in love with). The tour featured meats, cheeses, and yogurt which is by far the best plain yogurt we have ever tasted and we are still yearning for.
While Sofia was only our first stop in Bulgaria, we already knew there was something special about the local food. Fresh, organic, unpretentious, inexpensive, and easy to digest (which is a real blessing when you have been on the road as long as we have), the Bulgarian cuisine was one we have compared all others to in Eastern Europe (and found none of the others can live up to it). Bulgaria even has its own special wild bacteria used to make yogurt (not unlike Greek yogurt, but not as sour) that is served in a variety of ways, including an unsweetened yogurt drink that is popular with the locals and might be the perfect grab-and-go way to start your day. We also LOVED the cheeses, which gave us all the creamy goodness that we hoped for but were so healthy and easy to digest that we almost thought we had found the holy grail of foods (immensely tasty, but not bad for you).
dishes you should try while in bulgaria
Tarator - a type of cold yogurt soup that has a tangy flavor that is balanced out with dill, cucumber and garlic. (photo above)
Banitsa - a flakey pastry filled with feta, sometimes with apples and nuts and is a dish most Bulgarians have for breakfast. (you can see this pastry in the photos of our Balkans Bite Tour)
Shopska Salad - a salad found all over eastern Europe (with slight differences), but the origins of the salad are traced to Bulgaria.
Lyutenitsa - a pepper and tomato based spread with garlic, onion and a little seasoning. Most Bulgarians make variations of this fresh at home to spread on toast and topped with cheese crumbles but today can be found in all grocery shops and restaurants. We fell in love with this condiment and found versions of it all throughout the Balkans (in Croatia a version of this recipe is called Ajvar).
Musaka - a layered casserole dish. While most Americans have tried this dish at a greek restaurant, in Bulgaria it is strictly done with layered potatoes and meat instead of eggplant.
Kebapche - minced seasoned grilled meats in the shape of a short finger. Found throughout the Balkans as well but known as ćevapčići pronounced Chev- ap-Chi-Chi.
Free Sofia Tour
As is our custom, we also went on a ‘free’ walking tour with Free Sofia Tour. This was one of the better tours we have taken and explored the layers of Sofia’s history with a former theater student who added a dramatic flair. One of the major impressions we got was that Bulgaria has been a crossroads of history and a pawn of the larger empires surrounding them. After the fall of the most recent of these (Soviet rule), Bulgaria is still looking to gain its modern footing as the economy has languished for decades. On a lighter note, Sofia has many natural springs underneath it (part of the original reason it was settled) and today has numerous public drinking fountains where the locals (and brave visitors) can drink their fill of the hot waters with supposed curative properties.
Rila Monastery Daytrip
One of the best daytrips from Sofia is to the Rila Monastery located about two hours away in the mountains south of Sofia. Rila Monastery (founded in the 10th century) is the largest and most famous Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria and attracts over a million visitors each year. We went on a perfect summer day and enjoyed the journey (which included a stop at Boyana Church and a wonderful traditional Bulgarian restaurant) almost as much as being at the Monastery itself. The daytrip was a bit spendy for us at $50 each, but V Travel was wonderful and we enjoyed touring with a group of boisterous Italians for the day.