My situation with my tourist visa expiring brought along a trip to the capital city of Bulgaria to escape the Schengen Zone for a few days in order to renew my 90-day count in the zone. So with hardly any time to come up with a true plan or itinerary, I was packing my bag and heading to the airport trying to escape the island before my visa expired on my way to Sofia, Bulgaria.
This was my first time I truly traveled to a destination without knowing hardly anything about the place. I must say, I wish I didn’t have enough free-time to plan out any of my adventures. My short little three days stay in Sofia was my definition of true traveling. I hadn’t looked up even one thing there was to do in the city, I just went for it.
The funny thing is, I wasn’t near as nervous for Sofia as I was for Dublin or Malta even though I had my trip to Dublin and my arrival into Malta planned out to a “T”. Not to mention both Malta and Ireland have English as their national language. I can’t even type Bulgaria’s national language with the same keyboard. I think the relaxedness of this trip was the reason the rest of my travel was unplanned and just flying by the wind.
A little about Bulgaria for those that aren’t familiar…
The country is in Southeast Europe and borders parts of Romania, Serbia, Greece, and even Turkey. Its capital city, Sofia, has about 1.2 million people living in it. Their national language is Bulgarian, which has similarities to Russian and a few other Eastern Europe languages. Their national currency is Levas. One Leva is the equivalent of about $0.55. There’s a Western Union money exchange on virtually every corner of the main boulevard in Sofia so no need to worry about obtaining money. Bulgaria has everything- mountains, sea, forests, and city life.
The first thing I noticed in Sofia was its historic yellow cobblestone brick roads which I understand were sort of a scam by the Bulgarian government to its people when they were constructed way back when. Citizens of Sofia were told the yellow cobblestone was a wedding gift for their God so that the citizens wouldn’t revolt about upping taxes to pay back the loan from Germany to construct them.
Another thing I noticed was the graffiti on virtually every wall of every building throughout Sofia’s city center. I’ll be curious to see if this is common throughout the rest of Europe or not. Some of the art was really beautiful, but there was some vandalism as well. I learned through a friend that a particular group of students at the University of Sofia made it trendy to make electricity boxes throughout the city into art by spraying them. It was interesting.
At points, it was difficult to find an English-speaker to give directions or ask various questions. Many of the student-aged population speaks English, but few middle-aged people speak English well enough to give directions. I found that the best tactic was to just pop into a nearby hotel or hostel (even if it’s not yours) and ask the receptionist your questions as they will almost always speak clear English.
A Traditional Treasure
I came across a traditional Bulgarian restaurant called Pri Yafata. I later found was rated one of the top 10 traditional restaurants in Bulgaria. The place was delicious. It was so fancy that I felt silly for coming alone and dressed like I was, but I couldn’t blame myself, I didn’t really know what I was walking into. It felt like a prom night dinner for one. I was able to get a delicious mixed meat dish with shish kebabs of duck, pork, bacon, chicken, and more with a beer for under $10. It was my first experience of visiting a place with a lower cost of living than home and I enjoyed it thoroughly through food and beer.
The best surprise about the restaurant was at the end of my meal when a band entered and started playing traditional Bulgarian Balkan music. It was a perfect taste of Bulgaria from Pri Yafata.
As for alcohol (Sofia’s nightlife is fantastic), expect to pay about two dollars for a craft beer at any bar or club and about $0.90 for a low-quality pint. I saw a 750ml bottle of vodka for the equivalent of about four dollars. And a glass of wine in any kind of bar will cost you about one dollar on average.
One of the bummer parts about Sofia is the immense amount of smog that suffocates the city day and night. At first, I wasn’t sure if it was air pollution or just foggy days when I was in Sofia. After getting home, I did a bit of research and it seems smog is Sofia’s “silent enemy”.
While in Bulgaria, since it was unplanned and I didn’t have time to find a Couchsurfing host, I made reservations for the Nightingale Hostel on Budapest Street in the middle of Sofia city center. I highly recommend this hostel to anyone traveling through Sofia. At six dollars a night, the hostel provides you with a relaxed and welcoming environment. It’s dorm-styled accommodation, and free breakfast every morning. It’s hard to beat that.
However, I’ve been told that summer months are much more busy in that hostel and rates are raised. In addition, the hostel owner is the lone employee of the place and is really down-to-earth. He speaks English well and creates a social atmosphere through his laid-back persona. The guy has hippie-styled long hair with a bandana and bell-bottom jeans; what’s not to love?
Other recommended attractions, restaurants, and bars in Sofia:
- Divaka (traditional Bulgarian restaurant)
- Hambara (secret bar- may even need a local to find this one)
- Vitosha Mountain
- St. Alexandar Nevski Cathedral (largest church in Bulgaria)
- Rock n’ Roll (American classic rock club/bar)
- The Muse (alternative music, English-speaking bar)
- FREE Sofia Walking Tour (#1 rated TripAdvisor attraction of Sofia, more info here.)
All in all, after not expecting much of anything out of Sofia, it left me wanting to explore more. It’s a nice, quaint city in the middle of a beautiful country of Bulgaria. And it is very affordable. Don’t let yourself overlook Sofia on your next European trip.