Things to do in Sofia Bulgaria – Secret Ways to Peer into the Past

East Europe

Jul 25

What to do in Sofia? Visit the Russian church

Things to do in Sofia Bulgaria

A collection of fascinating cultural things to do in Sofia Bulgaria.


Unusual Things to Do in Sofia, Bulgaria

1 – Visit the cleverly hidden Institute of Contemporary Art to relive the communist censorship (and see interesting art.)

2 – Dine at Pri Orlite, an 18th floor restaurant with views across the city

3 – See the golden domes of Saint Nikolas, the Russian Church

4 – Wander the flea markets looking out for communist trinkets on sale

5 – Visit Cathedral Saint Alexander Nevski, a memorial to more than 200 000 Russian soldiers who lost their lives in the Turko-Russian war in the 19th century

6 – Check out medieval Bulgarian art at the UNESCO World Heritage Site Boyana Church

7 – See discarded Lenins at the Museum of Socialist Art

It was hard to find, but then that was the idea.

A nondescript side street, a stained white wall. Paint peeling from the window frames and sidelong glances from passersby. My own breath hanging in the air before dissolving across the concrete.

A small metallic plaque, hidden from the main street, fixed flat against a line of intercom buttons.

A surprise.

Some words of English beneath the Cyrillic string: The Institute of Contemporary Art, Sofia.

I pressed the buzzer and waited, breathing clouds of fog across the glass. The conversation was brief, terse, confusing, but the end result was they let me in.

Sofia cathedral door in Bulgaria

Getting Your Bearings in Sofia, Bulgaria

Bulgaria’s an EU country with a swirling Cyrillic script that’s indecipherable. Unless you’ve studied and learned it, of course, when I would imagine it would be perfectly easy. It counts Greece as a neighbour, and on and off ally, along with Macedonia, Serbia, Romania and Turkey. It hasn’t yet entered the eurozone  and it has fewer people living inside its borders than there are within London’s M25 (a record, incidentally, that several Balkan nations share.)

Yet along this former iron curtain corridor, different countries have different experiences of the past.

The Institute of Contemporary Art in Sofia commemorates its days from the communist era, when art other than official social realism was, literally, something that happened behind closed doors.

I arrived between exhibitions but they graciously allowed me in.

Sofia Bulgaria at Twilight

Discovering what to do in Sofia

Paint, rulers, chalk, a football, all the tools and muse of Bulgarian artists lie strewn across the floor.

I’d never have found this place at all had it not been for, of all things, a shiny travel app downloaded onto my iPhone.

I’d arrived in Bulgaria empty and lost. I had a map I couldn’t read, a language I couldn’t speak and a blockade on land travel both in and out of the country. After shivering through the haunting central churches and pounding the grey streets for hour after hour, I’d retreated to my hotel and searched for things to do.

The Spotted by Locals App

That’s when I found Spotted by Locals. You see, not that many travel apps cover Sofia. And those that do don’t provide geolocation. With a map in Cyrillic and a list in English, the details would have taken days to triangulate. On top of that, few places in the city have signs on them at all, another throwback to a time when visitors were unexpected and advertising unknown.

Spotted by Locals not only unearths trinkets and tips from, you guessed it, locals but it plots them on a map that you can follow as you walk. Without amassing huge roaming charges. Give thanks, all ye, to the advances in travel technology.

I’d never seen the need in cities like London or Paris, places too vast to corral such recommendations and, if I’m honest, places where I’ve had the luxury of knowing said locals anyway.

Not so in Sofia.

Alone in Sofia wondering what to do

Hidden Glamour Reminiscent of Paris or Vienna in Sofia

Next up was Pri Orlite, an 18th floor restaurant showing the gilded spires, mountains and jade bronze rooftops that could belong in wintry Paris, Zagreb or Vienna.

Yet they weren’t; they were here in Sofia, a city whose slow beauty began to seep in through the milky afternoon light.

I’d found a key, a secret weapon, to a place that tried so hard to hide its soul.

And you can bet I was going to use it.

Sofia view found on spotted by locals

Sofia: Seen from Pri Orlite



Disclosure: I travelled to Sofia as part of the Iron Route project, which you can read more about over here. As for Spotted with Locals? Nothing to disclose, you suspicious people, you! Just a product I found and loved.




About the Author

Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.