From woodland trails to exquisite wines and bespoke tailoring, discover the charms of the ancient city that ‘grows but does not age’
Set in the heart of the Balkans, with millennia of history behind it, Sofia boasts striking neo-Byzantine churches, elegant Baroque Revival buildings, lush parkland and minimal traffic. Yet it’s neither the aesthetics nor the leisurely pace of life but fast internet, local talent and low tax rates that are making the Bulgarian capital one of Europe’s hottest startup centres.
As the InterContinental Sofia opens, redefining luxury in this up-and-coming city, discover the secrets of a metropolis whose name means ‘wisdom’.
Savour the Wines of Thrace
Almost 3,000 years after the poet Homer praised Thracian wine, Bulgaria is enjoying a winemaking renaissance. Small farmers and boutique vintners are leading the charge for indigenous varietals like mavrud, a berry-rich red that develops notes of cinnamon, chocolate and black pepper, and rubin, a nebbiolo-syrah hybrid. Alex Angelov opened Coupage, Sofia’s first gourmet store, in 2017 and stocks 150-odd Bulgarian vintages from rising 40 wineries, with a focus on the Melnik and south Sakar regions. Tastings come with mature cheese, artisan cold cuts and lashings of expertise.
Ul. Solunska 42, +359 88 417 0301, fb.com/coupage42, 11am-9pm
Step Back in Time at the Metro
In 2010, builders excavating the Serdika II Metro station hit ancient brick. Today, the remains of the Roman-era city they uncovered are on display in and around the station. Start at the atmospheric 11th-century Byzantine church, with its gloomy crypt and worn murals: some believe the 19th-century freedom fighter Vasil Levski is buried here. Roman relics include a wide main street, villas, baths and hypocausts, plus the wicker wall of a humbler home. It’s all backed by the dome and minaret of the 16th-century Banya Bashi mosque, which some attribute to the celebrated Ottoman architect Sinan.
Pl. Nezavisimost, 6am-11pm
THE CULINARY FIND
Taste Modern Bulgarian Cuisine
In recent years, a new generation of chefs has begun to analyse, deconstruct and retranslate the bold, earthy Balkan flavours of Bulgarian cooking. At Cosmos, a crisp downtown spot, chef Georgi Boykovski works wonders with seasonal and often surprising ingredients from pine, elderberries and lavender to beetroot, celeriac or beef tongue. Big flavours and nuanced textures sing in intelligent, detailed reimaginings of hunter and farmhouse classics. While easy on the eye, plating is never fussy and no element is redundant.
Ul. Lavele 19, +359 88 820 0700, fb.com/Kosmos.restaurant, 11am-1pm
THE DESIGN INSPIRATION
Create a Unique Dress
Young Bulgarian designer Nikolay Bozhilov‘s sustainable, beautifully structured womenswear has been featured in the likes of Amica Italy and Harper’s Bazaar Germany and is stocked in London, Paris, Moscow and beyond. With his “One of a Kind” service, the client works hand-in-hand with the designer to create the piece of her dreams, whether that’s a scarlet gown, a contemporary tux or the perfect jumpsuit. On first visit, the concept is discussed, initial sketches drafted and measurements taken; on the second, there is a trial fitting. If time is short, completed garments can be shipped.
Bul. Cherni Vrah 47, +359 87 628 6571, nikolaybozhilov.com, by appointment
Catch Up with the Art Market
Emerging artists and established names alike are on display at Nuance, an intimate four-year-old gallery space. Shows span the gamut from hip young graduates to Czech-born Bulgarian master Yaroslav Veshin. Nuance’s 500-strong permanent collection runs from modernist sculpture—look out for the destructed, deconstructed bronzes of veteran Krum Damyanov—to ceramics, collage and paintings. Bulgaria’s art market is still young, so pieces represent excellent value: if you’re looking for something specific, ask.
Ul. Ivan Denkoglu 42, +359 2 448 5854, nuancegallery.bg, Tue-Sun 11am-7pm
THE OUTDOOR ESCAPE
Admire UNESCO-Listed Frescoes (and Take a Walk)
On the outskirts of the city, the UNESCO-listed Boyana Church complex, founded under the Byzantine Empire in the 10th century, holds a treasure trove of frescoes. The paintings in the second, tiny church date back to 1259, and are some of the most important medieval art in the world. To preserve them, visits are limited to 10 minutes. A pretty woodland hike leads up the 2,300-metre Vitosha mountain to the Boyana waterfall, which is especially beautiful in spring. The less challenging of the two routes makes around a three-hour round trip: bring water and a picnic.
Ul. Boyansko Ezero 3, +359 2 959 0939, boyanachurch.org, 9am-5pm (Nov-Mar), 9.30am-5.30pm (Apr-Oct)
Tour the Synagogue
In an area known as ‘Tolerance Square’ for its diversity of religious monuments, the Central Sofia Synagogue stands tall and proud. One of Europe’s largest Sephardic synagogues, it still looks very much as it did in 1909, with its Moorish domes, sweeping gallery, brilliant paintings, marble columns and 2,200kg chandelier. Around the back, a fascinating, if dusty, little museum tells the tale of Bulgarian Jewry from their first arrival in the Balkans during Hellenistic times to the community action that saved them from the Holocaust.
Ul. Ekzarh Yosif 16, +359 2 983 1273, sofiasynagogue.com, 8.30am-12.30pm & 1-4.30pm
Sip Cocktails on the Square
Sofia’s cocktail scene now extends from speakeasies to high-tech venues with interactive menus, but this little spot on a quiet square stands out—and not only for its history as a public lavatory. On a snowy night, the little glass-and-cast-iron pavilion becomes a real winter wonderland; come summer, cast-iron chairs blend elegantly into the square. Craft cocktails, served from 5pm, blend fruits, spices and international spirits to good effect.
Ulitsa Angel Kanchev 9, +359 87 715 1152, fb.com/The.Cocktail.Bar.Sofia, 9am-2am
THE HEALTHY BOOST
Take in a Park
Sofia’s abundant green space will strike any visitor to the capital. And Borisova Gradina, the city’s oldest and best-known park, demonstrates how Bulgarians make the most of the outdoors in every season. In winter, Ariana Lake transforms into a natural ice-skating rink; come summer, boating on the lake and biking along woodland trails are popular choices.
Open 24 hours
Catch a Live Act at Dada
At Dada Cultural Bar, an intimate, raw-edged space in the heart of downtown, the focus is firmly on Bulgarian arts—of all kinds. Besides regular visual art exhibitions, events like weaving traditional Bulgarian bracelets aim to revive elements of Balkan culture that might otherwise be lost. Check their Facebook page for acoustic live acts, which show there’s so much more to Sofia’s music scene than the blare of “chalga” folk-pop.Ul. Georgi Benkovski 10, +359 87 706 2455, fb.com/dadabarcultural