Bulgaria’s capital offers bargain location
SOFIA, Bulgaria – For tourists traveling on a tight budget, many European destinations are quite pricey. A hotel room and a decent meal in London, Paris or Rome can cost the proverbial arm and a leg.
But not in Sofia. Two-star hotels close to the city center offer rooms for 60 Bulgarian lev (about $40) a night. Wining and dining in Bulgaria’s capital is affordable even to the most money-conscious travelers, and there is no need to skimp on the quality, quantity or diversity of local specialties. Bulgaria lies at the crossroads between Asia and Europe, so many traditional dishes are a combination of Turkish, Greek, Russian and Middle Eastern flavors.
A typical Bulgarian meal is simple but delicious, rich in locally grown produce. Among the dishes are luytenitsa, a thick paste of roasted tomatoes and red peppers; kyopoolu, made from chopped and roasted eggplant and garlic; shopska salad, a combination of diced tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and peppers topped with grated brine cheese and parsley; and tarator, a yogurt-based soup of cucumbers, garlic, and dill. Served together, all these shareable dishes, accompanied by hot pita bread, cost the equivalent of $10 to $12.
Traditional meat dishes include roasted peppers stuffed with ground pork and rice, as well as shishche, a skewer of barbecued meat and vegetables, or kebabche, grilled minced meat seasoned with pepper and cumin. They cost between $5 and $9.
The Balkan nation may not yet be famous for its wines, but it grows plenty of grape varieties. A glass of a decent domestic red wine costs about $1, and a pint of local beer even less.
To get a sense of how inexpensive Sofia is, head to the Ladies’ Market – so called because once, only women used to shop there. The stalls are laden with a range of fruit and vegetables, eggs, spices, honey and handicrafts. A pound of produce costs as little 30 cents.
But what else is there to do in Sofia besides eating and drinking on a shoestring?
Bulgaria has been slow in finding its feet since the fall of communism, so unlike the more polished Eastern European capitals such s Prague and Budapest, Sofia is more low-key.
The pace is more relaxed, making it possible to get to know the city and its history without battling the crowds or elbowing throngs of tourists.
That is not to say that there is no excitement. In the centrally located shopping district, the pedestrian Vitosha Boulevard is full of patio restaurants, outdoor cafes and bars that come alive after dark, creating a nightlife scene with live music and merrymaking.
Many of Sofia’s architectural landmarks are vestiges of its turbulent history. During several thousand years of its existence, the city had been occupied by foreign powers, including the Greek, Roman and Ottoman empires. Excavated ruins can be seen throughout town.
These foreign influences also spilled over to Sofia’s (and Bulgaria’s) religious life. Like its neighbors Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Romania, Bulgaria is predominantly Eastern Orthodox. A magnificent example of religious architecture is the gold-domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which straddles 34,100 square feet in the city’s center.
One of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world, its construction started in 1882 and was completed in 1912. The interior features 200 icons, as well as paintings and engravings from the 12th to 19th century, and its walls are decorated with Italian marble, Brazilian onyx and alabaster.
Nearby stands the reminder of the Ottoman reign, which spanned nearly 500 years. Built in 1576, the Banya Bashi mosque is the only one of 70 mosques still remaining in the city.
The mosque’s name, Banya, means “bath” in Bulgarian. That’s because it is situated near the old Central Mineral Baths, a Turkish bathhouse which opened in 1913 and closed in 1986. The refurbished building now houses the Sofia History Museum but still has a fountain spewing warm mineral water.
Some traces of Bulgaria’s last occupant, the Soviet Union, which claimed Bulgaria in its sphere of influence from 1944 until 1990, also are present in Sofia. One is the Communist Party building. Angry crowds set it on fire after communism collapsed in 1990, toppling the star sitting on the spire. The building is now used by Bulgaria’s National Assembly.
But another vestige of communism had been forcibly removed: The statue of Lenin in a central square was taken down and replaced in 2000 by that of the city’s patron saint, Sofia. The copper and bronze monument looks over Sofia’s past and present: a busy street on one side and Roman ruins on another.
With its rich history, architectural landmarks, laid-back vibe, and delicious food and drink that are among Europe’s cheapest, don’t hesitate if you get the chance to visit Sofia.
PHOTOS BY HELENA BACHMANN FOR USA TODAY
The Mineral Baths Building, once a center for thermal springs, is now a museum.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was completed in 1912.