How Not To Spend A Weekend In Sofia, Bulgaria

How Not To Spend A Weekend In Sofia, Bulgaria – Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

I’m at my happiest whenever I travel. Whether it be to a familiar place or a new destination, I walk around in wide-eyed wonder. There are smiles, gasps of delight, and tears of joy. I appreciate every single moment that comes my way and these feelings are what inspire me to keep travelling. It’s my passion and I don’t plan to ever stop my journey of discovering this world.

A recent weekend in Sofia had me particularly excited. I’d be visiting a new city, and better yet, a new country, as Bulgaria would actually be country #29 for me.

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How Not To Spend A Weekend In Sofia, Bulgaria

Flying Into Sofia Bulgaria

Unfortunately, my weekend in Sofia didn’t turn out to be exactly what I’d expected. Bad luck came way and spoiled some of my travel plans. Despite this, I still got to see and do a lot. There was a day trip to Rila Monastery and hours spent walking through the city, gazing at all of Sofia’s incredible architecture.

Here’s how I spent a weekend in the Bulgarian capital, complete with tales of my travel misadventures.

1) Arriving in Sofia

Bike Riding Through the Streets of Sofia Bulgaria

After landing in Sofia, I was picked up by a friendly older gentleman at the airport as I’d booked a transfer directly through Hostel Mostel (at a mere cost of 10 €). Travelling into the city, I chatted with the man about his life in Bulgaria. He’s from Sofia and had lived through the tough times of the Russian occupation. He described the years he spent working in a cold, remote area of Russia and the years’ long wait that his family endured to be granted a car from the state.

While we spoke, I looked out the car window and took in our surroundings. Several high-rise buildings dotted the horizon, and further off into the distance were the Rila Mountains. Driving into the city centre, the architecture drastically changed into something more beautiful than those Soviet styled high rises. The courthouse, parliament and the golden-domed St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral all filled my heart with delight.

2) Hostel Mostel in Sofia

Hostel Mostel Common Area in Sofia Bulgaria

Once at Hostel Mostel, I checked in and was pretty happy to learn that they offered a free vegetarian dinner each night, complete with a glass of beer. I also found out that my private room was actually located in an apartment that’s about a five or so minutes walk from the hostel.

Escorting me there, the young hostel employee asked me where I was from and got excited when I mentioned Berlin. She said that a group of her friends had been there the year before and had a great time. The apartment turned out to be absolutely adorable and I had a bedroom fitting for a Disney princess. This appealed to my inner diva.

3) Losing My Way in Sofia

Intending to take a quick walk to the cathedral before dinner, I promptly lost my map after less than 15 minutes and found myself wandering aimlessly about the city. One of my first epic fails over the course of my weekend in Sofia.

Deciding against trying to find my way to the cathedral in the dark, I stopped at a McDonald’s for the free wifi and a quick coffee. As I was still recovering from a really bad cold (a.k.a. I really felt like crap), I opted to return to the hostel for dinner so I could go to bed early and do a tour to Rila Monastery the next day.

4) A Day Trip to Rila Monastery

I arranged the trip to Rila Monastery through the hostel. Three of us ended up going on the day trip and our time there was exceptional! Highlights of the day included a short hike through the Rila mountains and touring the monastery property when it was almost completely devoid of crowds.

5) Saturday Night in Sofia

Sofia Bulagaria Photos: Ornate Golden Door Details

I arrived back at the hostel happy, but tired after the long day. My cold continued to wage its fight on my body and I was in dire need of more sleep. Regardless, it was Saturday night and I wanted to go out and experience Sofia from a local’s perspective. I was excited to meet up with a new Tinder friend for dinner and drinks at a local hot spot but unfortunately, our plans fell through when he ghosted me. My second fail that weekend.

So without much of idea about what to do, I walked into the city centre and opted for a solo dinner at a Bulgarian restaurant blasting cheesy Euro-dance tunes.

6) More Bad Luck in Sofia

Sofia Bulagaria Photos: Parliament Building

The next day, I had two more tours planned. A free food tour with Balkan Bites and then another free city tour that would take me to many of Sofia’s most notable architectural gems.

Before setting out on the tour, I needed to go to a bank machine to get cash for the day. I went to an ATM I’d used just two days before, but it didn’t work. I thought it odd and decided to walk further to try another ATM. This time, the bank machine kept my card and wouldn’t release it. Panicked, I entered the bank and asked the employees for help. The unfriendly staff simply shrugged me off, saying there was nothing they could do since they didn’t know when the man who attended to the machine would come next. “Maybe in one hour, maybe in one week. I don’t know!”

Resisting the urge to slap one of them or throw a childish tantrum, I thanked them for their “help” (how typically Canadian of me, eh?) and hurried back to the hostel. First up was putting a lock on my card so no one could use it fraudulently. I had to solicit the help of a German-speaking friend who called my German bank on my behalf. Next was figuring out how to pay for my stay. Thankfully, they accepted PayPal and I was able to take care of that pretty easy after explaining a situation.

Phew, crisis averted! But unfortunately, taking care of everything took a lot of time and as I didn’t have so much cash on hand (I only had enough money to get back to the airport the next day), I had to miss both of the tours. I was super bummed, the common theme of this weekend in Sofia, but set about exploring more of the city for myself.

7) A Personal Walking Tour of Sofia

Although heartbroken, I was determined to make the most of my last hours in Sofia.

Since walking around is free and one of my favourite ways to explore a city, I wandered through residential streets, made my way to St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, saw the statue of Stefan Stamobolov (depicting a morbid cut to his face taken during a sword fight), and checked out the Russian Orthodox Church.

My “personal walking tour” was actually pretty fun, and when I arrived back to the hostel, I was all smiles again. Low on cash, I again took advantage of the free dinner and beer.

8) Sofia, I Guess I’ll Be Back

Sofia Bulgaria Photos: Sofia Bulgaria Sunshine

So yeah, it wasn’t a completely terrible weekend. If anything, it just makes me determined to return and have a much better time. Relationships with cities are sometimes like relationships with people, right? Often, the timing just isn’t right and maybe it will work out later on.

Have you spent a weekend in Sofia? What are your best tips for the city? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below. 

Good to Know

1) Flights to Sofia from Berlin are quite cheap in January. I paid 65 € for a return fare with easyJet.

2) If you’re a budget traveller, I definitely recommend Hostel Mostel. It’s affordable (I booked a private room for 15 € a night), centrally located, the staff are friendly, there’s Wi-Fi, free breakfast and even a free vegetarian dinner each night (complete with beer).

3) Hostels not your thing? See what else is available for your time in Sofia with booking.com.

Booking.com

4) I also suggest doing a tour to Rila Monastery. I booked mine through the hostel, but there are plenty of local tour operators with similar offers. For a free food tour, try Balkan Bites. For a free city tour, check out Free Sofia Tour. They offer tours twice per day, one in the afternoon and another in the evening.

5) Find other local tours with Get Your Guide.

6) To save the hassle of having to try to figure out how to take a bus into the city or how not to be ripped off by drivers at the airport taxi stand, I booked an airport pick-up through the hostel for €10. See this Sofia Travel Guide for more options about how to get into Sofia from the airport.

7) If you’re wary of bank machines in Sofia after reading about my experience, bring cash and exchange it for the local currency, the lev, at any bank. Some bank branches are also open on Saturdays.

8) Excited about the Balkans like we are here on this blog? Read some of our best content.

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Founder of cherylhoward.com. Canadian in Berlin. Frequent traveller now at 43 countries and counting.

13 Comments

  1. Yikes, that is quite a bit of bad luck to have in one weekend, but it seems like you stayed positive and made the most of it. Sofia looks like a beautiful city. That monastery is simply amazing!

  2. Yeah, the cold, lost map, cancelled dinner date and then ATM finale was a lot for one weekend! Thankfully, the monastery trip and my little photo walk through the city saved the whole weekend. 🙂

  3. I had really mixed feelings about Sofia – didn’t like it all that much at first but now I’d love to return there so badly!! And your pictures just prove I need to start looking for some cheap flights!
    The ATM story is one of my worst travel fears, good you managed to solve that!
    and I might have stayed at the same room in Hostel Mostel 😉

  4. Hey Kami –

    I hope you get to return soon. eastJet makes it pretty easy too! As for the ATM issue, I suggest bringing cash and changing it when there at the airport or bank. And awesome if you stayed in that same room. Ha ha!

    Cheryl

  5. Hello, Cheryl! You post on Sofia was very interesting, as I am always eager to learn people’s first impressions of Sofia and Bulgaria. I’m very happy you decided to go to Rila Monastery, it is really beautiful and peaceful place. I haven’t been there since I was a kid and I am thinking to arrange a day trip with my friends.
    So sorry to hear about your bad luck with the ATM. Staff at banks can be very rude, especially if they don’t know English and see you’re a foreigner. I am pretty sure they would have been more helpful if you had a Bulgarian with you.
    Even though I have been living in Sofia for 4 years now, I also took the free tour (I just love free walking tours xD) and recommend Balkan Bites to all my foreign friends.

    Next time, drop us a line and I’d be happy to show you around and recommend things 😉
    -Sianna

  6. After a few trips in Bulgaria, I realized that it is better if I go there without my car.
    So I started to use the plane, and after that only a bicycle or only my legs to travel from one place to another.

  7. Thank you! Rila was a really beautiful experience that I will treasure forever. The ATM moment was NOT fun, but I fixed it quickly enough … thankfully! 🙂

    I realllllly want to try those tours. If I come back, will definitely let you know! 😀

  8. Hello from Traveling Bytes :). I meant to comment for almost a week by now but got caught up with settling in Montevideo (Uruguay), which took longer than expected. Anyway, back to Sofia (and Bulgaria, in general). I honestly have to say that (surprisingly!) we loved Sofia. It was not a love at first sight (the sidewalks are too tricky to navigate 😉 ), but gradually we came to appreciate the unmistakable charm of the city. It is slightly shabby, it’s definitely seen better times, but it is full of great people eager to show and explain the best of what this city can offer. There are unexpected (at least from outsider’s point of view) ancient ruins, fine restaurants at surprisingly affordable price, great places to live experiencing local customs… What else do you want? Obviously, there are some errr…. inconveniences…. (luckily we avoided any issues with ATMs), but, on the long run, Bulgaria is a worthy place to visit. I am definitely looking forward coming back to Sofia in the future.

  9. Hi Elena!

    Hope you’re enjoying your time in Montevideo. I’m jealous of your warm weather as I’m lusting for summer pretty badly at the moment. 🙂

    I think Sofia is very lovable! I didn’t notice the sidewalks … LOL! I was likely too busy staring up at everything around me.

    I did notice that Bulgarians are very proud of their country and really enjoyed their hospitality too.

    I really want to return too. I think that summer would be nice, and going for more long hikes in the mountains.

    Thanks for visiting. 😀

    Cheryl

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