Surrounded by comparatively high mountains on all sides, the city developed as a significant settlement at a central position in the Balkans, set between the Black Sea, the Adriatic Sea, and the Aegean Sea on the slopes of Mount Vitosha. A neolithic village in Slatina, at what is now the center of modern Sofia, dates from the 5th–6th millennium BC. The Romans arrived around 29 BC, called it Serdica, and built extensive public works that included hot springs baths. Beloved of Roman emperor Constantine the Great, who referred to it as "my Rome," this "brightest city of the Serdi" (Thracian-Celtic tribe), by then the most important Roman city in the region, it almost became his capital of the Eastern Empire, in place of Constantinople.
After an AD 447 invasion by the Huns the city lay in ruins for a century. Rebuilt by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, it again flourished behind massive fortress walls - remnants of which still remain. In Medieval times the city passed between rule by Bulgarians, Byzantines and the Ottoman Empire. Russian forces took the city from the Ottomans in 1878 and destroyed most mosques. Allied with Germany in World War II, post-war Sofia became the capital of the People's Republic of Bulgaria in 1946, firmly within the Soviet Russian sphere of influence, right up until the disintegration of the USSR in 1989. Original names of many important streets and squares have now been restored, and modern buildings were added to an already eclectic mix of architectural styles dating from many centuries.
In 2004 Bulgaria joined NATO and became a full member of the European Union in 2007. Not yet part of the eurozone, the country's currency, the lev, is pegged to the euro.
Museums and galleries of note include: The National Archaeological Museum, in what was the largest and oldest Ottoman mosque in the city, covering the culture of tribes and peoples who have occupied what is now Bulgaria from prehistoric times until the 18th century; The National Art Gallery, in what was formerly the Royal Palace, with over 50,000 pieces of Bulgarian art; The National Museum of Natural History; The National Museum of Ethnography; The National Museum of History, with a collection ranging from prehistoric times to the present day; and The Polytechnical Museum.
Boyana Church, a medieval Bulgarian Orthodox church on the outskirts of Sofia, is an UNESCO World Heritage site with frescoes dating from the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries. Saint Alexandar Nevski Cathedral, Cathedral Church Sveta Nedelya, and St. George Rotunda Church are other points of interest, the latter dating from the 4th century. Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Rila Monastery, thought to have been founded by the hermit St. Ivan of Rila during the rule of Tsar Peter I (927-968), has been a repository of Bulgarian language and culture during ages of foreign rule. Home to many icons, manuscripts and carvings, its walls and ceilings are adorned with Bulgarian Orthodox Church frescoes.
Banya Bashi Mosque, with a spectacular interior and domed ceiling, designed in 1576 by the great Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, is the only still functioning mosque in a city that once had seventy. Modestly dressed visitors are welcome outside prayer times, but remove your shoes.
For cultural life and recreation in Sofia see Ivan Vazov National Theater performances of plays, opera, ballet and modern dance. During the Sofia Music Weeks festival the National Palace of Culture presents performances, and many theaters and galleries offer exhibits and shows. Borisova gradina and South Park are favorite green places at the center, and the Sofia Zoological Garden is the country’s largest zoo, located south of downtown. Overlooking the city, Mount Vitosha offers skiing and snowboarding in winter months, and wild fields and hiking trails for nature lovers in the warmer months.
The Central Mineral Bath/ Tsentralna Banya opened in 1911, is being refurbished, but people can take warm mineral water from springs in the park area. The hot mineral springs resort at Banya, Karlovo Branch, aka the Karlovo Mineral Therms, offer rest, recreation, and wellness facilities, half-way to the Black Sea, east of Sofia. Sapareva Banya with mineral water swimming pools, south of Sofia in Kotvata, near the Rila Monastery, are open all year. Fitness Este is a mainstream mixed gender luxury spa offering massages, spa treatments, sauna/steam baths, Jacuzzi and a heated pool ozone-cleaned swimming pool.
Bulgaria can seem like a very conservative society compared to other places in the EU. Homosexuality is legal, but same-sex relationships have no legal recognition, and many locals appear uncomfortable with open displays of affection between same-sex couples. As in Western Europe and North America a generation ago, LGBT people use the comfort zones of alternative bars, cafes, arts and social groups as places to be themselves and gain a sense of community. A more welcome aspect to this back-in-time feeling is the cost of things - half or less the prices of Western Europe at most places, from public transit to hotel rooms (except very high-end hotels), meals, and spa treatments.
The Monument to the Soviet Army at Knyazheska gradina, the park where Sofia Pride participants gather each June, is also a hangout for skaters, ravers, rastas and other subcultural groups, and where pop-up art events take place. For LGBT-friendly bars and cafes see below, and our Sofia listings/ map page.
Ten kilometers east of downtown, Sofia Airport (SOF) is Bulgaria’s busiest airport with carriers serving destinations across Europe and the Middle East. Their Public Transport page is helpful. From the airport Terminal 2 take Metro Line 1 to the Cental Railway Station, a trip of about 20 minutes, with trains in operation between 5:30am and midnight. Bus numbers 84 and 384 will also take you into town from Terminal 2 in 20-40 minutes, depending on traffic. There's a surcharge for larger luggage items. Tickets on both Metro and the bus cost 1.60 lev. A free shuttle bus runs between terminals. The airport website recommends using official OK Supertrans taxis -- look for an "OK" sticker. Cost is about 20 lev to the center.
BDŽ/ Bulgarian State Railways offers public rail transportation throughout the country, as well as Thessaloniki, Greece, Bucharest, Romania, and beyond. An InterRail pass is good for multiple train trips (also valid on some ferries) in 30 European countries. The 10:40pm-8:50am overnight train connects Halkali/ Istanbul with Sofia each day, including both Bulgarian and Turkish couchette and sleeping cars. Return trips depart at 9pm to arrive at 6:42am. See the BDZ site for more rail options.
Urban Mobility Center, the Sofia public transit system operates a network of 92 bus routes, plus 9 trolley, and 15 tram lines. Tickets cost 1 lv each (8 lv for 10 trips), on sale at kiosks near stops, or at on-board machines. A day pass costs only 4 lv. Metro trains run on two lines between 35 stations - with different tickets, but at the same price of 1 lv each. See the Easyway, FlipFlopPeople, or FreeSofia websites for guides to the networks. The latter also has a page on cycling the city. Sofia Bike is a rental shop and service center. Some taxi companies charge higher rates than others - check rates and agree on price before starting out, or ask your hotel to call a cab for you.
Sofia has three major national bus/coach terminals, the Central, the Western and the Southern Terminals, plus Serdika Station, a separate terminal for international routes. See BusRadar, Central Naavtogara, Etap, GetByBus, InYourPocket, and Wanderu.
Currency and Money
The lev, the currency of Bulgaria, is divided in 100 stotinki; BGN is the currency code. Transition to the euro has been delayed several times, but the lev has been pegged to the euro at the rate of 1.95583 BGN to €1 since the country joined the EU. Prices are sometimes published in euros to make prices easier for visiting foreigners to understand, but transactions are always done in leva. ATMs are common, so you can easily get local cash. Money can also be exchanged at exchange bureaus, and most banks. Major credit cards are accepted most everywhere. As in many big cities, when using public transportation or in other crowded places, beware of pickpockets.
Media & Resources
Gay Holidays in Bulgaria has information about Bulgarian gay life and interesting offers for gay tourists.
CheckPoint Sofia (Tsar Samuil 111; 359-2952-3399), a medical center by Health Without Borders, offering counselling, testing, prevention, diagnosis and treatment of STIs and HIV/AIDS, works with youth and others at risk. Click the US flag for English.
LGBT Deystvie (Hristo Belchev 3; 359-884-851-222), a support group for young LGBT people in Bulgaria, provides resources, job information, and activities for the local community, opposing homophobia, intolerance, and ignorance in society.
Sofia Pride takes place at Knyazheska Park in early June each year, along with the Sofia Pride Film Fest at The Odeon Cinema and The Fridge. Cinema House (Dom na kinoto), also screens LGBT films among their program of international OV-language films.
Programata has a good guide to films screening each day, along with stage productions, concerts, exhibitions, and restaurant and bar listings.
See our events listings page for other events and film screenings throughout the year.
Bulgaria Travel is the Official Tourism Portal of Bulgaria.
Apartments Rositza offers private accommodation in luxury hotel apartment rentals in the center of Sofia, directly from owners.
Barcode (95 Knyas Boris I), gay/mixed nightclub/lounge, DJs, dancing.
Club Lifehouse (bulevard Vitosha 12), gay/mixed dance club, music/party bar.
Club Mystic (Blvd Hritso Botev 71), g-f/mixed dance/nightclub/ bar, live music.
Cosmos Sofia (Ulitsa Lavele 19), stylish contemporary Bulgarian cuisine restaurant/bar.
Essence (bulevard Aleksandar Stamboliyski 29), Lesbian bar, karaoke, late hours.
Golden Mix Club (bulevard Todor Alexandrov, 20), gay/mixed nightclub/showbar, male erotic strippers.
One to One (ulitsa Pozitano 22), gay/mixed dancing, theme nights, drag, erotic strippers.
Secret Garden Bar ( Alabin I. Vl 5), gay cocktail/music/karaoke bar; coffees/ desserts.
Up&down Cafe (Knyaz Boris I, 100), gay bar/cafe, young guys.
Sex & Steam
Flamingo (Tsar Simeon 200), sex shop, cruise cinemas, booths and sling.
Garage Sauna/ Tarragon Steam (ulitsa Bratovan 10), steam room, showers, private & relax rooms.