Welcome to this week’s Postcard From – the feature where I chat to some lucky explorer about their recent travels.
Geri Vladeva is an ex expat who spent years in Ethiopia, Ukraine and Romania. At the moment she lives in Sofia, the capital of her home country, but travels extensively and as far as she can. With her blog When Woman Travels she aims to help other women who didn’t have her luck to spend time in other cultures and places and by sharing tips, resources, ideas and inspiration to give them the necessary to achieve their own travel plans and dreams.
Hi Geri! Where are you sending this Postcard from?
Sofia – it is the Bulgaria’s biggest city and with every year becomes more vibrant and interesting just like any other of the Europe’s capitals. Sofia is popular among the tourist and travellers mainly because of the perfect combo of affordable price and intriguing lifestyle. Most of the people coming here are surprised – they expect a city frozen in the Communist era but find a modern and yet simple place that is easy to discover. The most important reason why Sofia is great city to live in is its cosmopolitan atmosphere (especially the city centre) and its slow pace of life. Bulgaria is a small country (7 million citizens) and its capital is a home of 1.2 million people. Exploring the city is simple – most of the tourist sites are at walking distance and transport is very affordable. But apart the vibrant European lifestyle, mixed with Oriental flavour, the best feature of Sofia is its historical past. Unfortunately many ruins are unrevealed and not possible to see but those that are possible to visit are some of the oldest on the continent. An example – the Rotunda St. George which you can find in the yard of the Presidential Palace (open to the public) is dated back to 4th century. You will find many ruins from Roman time, including incorporated in the hotel lobby.
What’s the weather like – and when is the best time to visit?
Because of its proximity to Vitosha Mountain (practically in the suburbs of the city), the weather can be quite cold and humid. However, don’t forget that Bulgaria is located in the south of Europe, bordered by Greece and Turkey. Weather can be really bad from January to March. But if you want to enjoy the capital (and the country) in its best, come in May-June and September-October. Then you will enjoy the beautiful continental climate with irresistible sunny days, and your photos will be like postcards!
Thanks for the tip! Which neighbourhood of Sofia do you live in?
I live in the city’s centre, near to all main sites. For me it is important to be able to walk and discover in this way a destination, including my own home. This is the best part of Sofia, as you will see if you come to visit. You will meet many young but also older foreigners on the streets, will have abundant choice of good restaurants and will be able to walk in green parks if you want just to enjoy the moment.
That sounds perfect! I love walking whenever I’m in a city, too – you see much more that way! So, what are the best things to do in Sofia?
There are a lot of things you can do in and around Sofia. In the good seasons and in winter – Vitosha Mountain is perfect for hiking and skiing. You can also stroll in the city centre, especially popular for this are the area around National Theatre Ivan Vazov, Vitosha Boulevard (especially its pedestrian part) and The Boris’s Garden (in Bulgarian – Borisova Gradina). Take time to enjoy good coffee at Memento NDK and observe the crowds. The complete reconstruction of the fountains and the park around the National Palace of Cultural (eNDeKa, as the Bulgarians call it) is just about to be finished, so I assume your coffee pause will be even more pleasant. If you stay longer and want to discover more about Bulgaria, there are one-day trips that are few hours drive from Sofia. The best are – to Plovdiv (the oldest still inhabited city in Europe), Rila Monastery (Bulgaria’s most significant UNESCO world heritage site), RIU Pravets Golf and Spa (for a leisurely day or weekend), Koprivshtitsa (town-museum where you can see architectural examples from the Bulgarian Renaissance, comfortable settled in a beautiful green mountain chain.
As a local – tell us what things people absolutely shouldn’t miss when they visit…
The Archaeological Museum – you will find it right at front of the Presidential Palace. It is small museum but will give you idea about the long history of this land and its diverse cultural heritage.
Try to see Bulgarian folk dance show; it is something that you will remember. I don’t mean a dance program in a traditional restaurant. Just check the cultural events for the period of your stay and if you are lucky you may find one.
If you are fan of history, you may want to check the National History Museum. Located at the ring road of Sofia, this museum features one of the oldest golden treasures of the world but its architecture also may be interesting for the foreigner visitor. The building is an example of the megalomaniac style of the construction during the socialist period of the country and impresses with its size.
Take a photo of the Russian Church. It is more impressive from outside. One of the most beautiful places in Sofia, this church is small but very good example of the richness of the Russian architectural style – bold, colourful and joy for the eyes.
The Cathedral Alexander Nevski is not so fine in colourful diversity but its golden domes dominate over the whole city. It is the temple of the Bulgarian Patriarchate and if you take time to enter, light a candle and sit in silence, you will feel the peace within you.
And can you recommend some great restaurants?
Sofia has what to offer to everyone – from the foodie to the unpretentious traveller looking for cheap eating options. For tasting the local cuisine (despite that I consider you may pass this because restaurants rarely can offer real homemade traditional food) there are few restaurants you can check – Manstirska Magernitsa, Chevermeto are some of them. There are some really good Italian restaurants like La Botegga, with really absolutely good Italian wines. But my (and my friends’) personal favourites and probably the best value-for-money restaurant options are:
Shtastlivetsa (its name means “The Lucky One”– restaurant located on the pedestrian Vitosha Boulevard, featuring vast menu and always tasty food served in an interior inspired by the Bulgarian style named ‘Alafranga’ influenced by the French trends at the begging of the previous century.
Raffy – there are two Raffys in Sofia. One, easier to find but much more noisy, is just at front of the above mentioned Shtaslivetsa. The second, much cosier but smaller is located at Angel Kunchev Steet.
Can you recommend any unusual or quirky things to do in Sofia?
For shopping handmade jewellery – best is Tsar Shishman Street.
Participate to the Bulgarian folk dances every Sunday around 5 p.m. at front of the National Theatre Ivan Vazov.
If you vegetarian or vegan, check the Sun & Moon restaurant, aka ‘Slunce i Luna’ (39, September 6th Street)
Do you have any tips or advice for anyone planning a trip to Sofia?
Your worst experience will be probably with the taxi drivers. They are arrogant and impolite, most of them, not all. Please, don’t let this first impression from the Bulgarians make your whole opinion about the people in Bulgaria. Bear in mind that these drivers are often the most uneducated people and don’t believe that everybody else in the country is like them. I see so many foreigners making this mistake. Travel with open eyes and heart.
Very good advice! Now for some questions about you. What’s your favourite travel read?
At the moment – Tracks: A Woman’s Solo Trek Across 1700 Miles of Australian Back by Robin Davidson. What an adventure!
Finally, what do you love most about travelling?
What I love most about travelling is the endless possibilities of learning – learning about other cultures, other times but also learning new things about ourselves through new experiences.
NB – All images are owned by Geri Vladeva