Things to see and do - Sofia
Leaving for Bulgaria
Nearby tourist sites
SofiaPedestrian, By car, 14 km, 2 days
A city comprised of a mixture of Stalinist buildings, mosques and Austro-Hungarian style, Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria since 1879, bears the mark of a story that is at least two thousand years old.Customise this route and add it to My travel book
The vast prayer hall of the mosque houses the remarkable collections of the Archaeological Museum, which include: stelae, epitaphs, low-relief carvings and an exceptional set of Thracian votive stones (2C-3C). Mural paintings, originally in the Bulgarian churches of Krapec and Melnik, are displayed on the mezzanine. Adjacent rooms contain valuable works by goldsmiths from the North-Western part of the country. However, the prize exhibit is the Thracian treasure of Valcitran (12C-15C BC), which consists of tableware in solid gold.
The church of St-Petka-of-the-Saddlers (15C) was built under the Ottoman occupation with donations from the region's master saddlers. At that time, the building of churches was tolerated provided that their height did not exceed that of a soldier on horseback; this explains the construction of half-buried sanctuaries. The church features a small semi-circular apse and superb traces of frescoes (it is possible to see three layers of paintings (15C, 17C and 19C). It is also the resting place of the revolutionary leader Vasil Levski, hanged in Sofia in 1873.
The slender minaret of the Banja Baši Mosque soars proudly into the sky of the Bulgarian capital. Built in 1576 by Hadži Mimar Sinan, the architect who designed the great mosque of Edirne (Turkey), it symbolises the first stage (before the synagog and the cathedral) of what Sofia's inhabitants like to call the "crossroads of tolerance". Today, the mosque is still used as a place of worship. Behind the edifice, a vast area laid out as a small public garden was recently reopened, offering a good opportunity to take a break on one of the benches.
The edifice housing the Central Baths, featuring a façade covered with polychrome mosaics, is one of the finest buildings in town. Erected in 1908 by the architects Petko Momcilov and Jordan Milanov over the relics of Roman baths, these former Turkish baths include a large cold-water pool, a smaller mineral-water pool and various basins intended for physiotherapy. Long neglected, they are now in the process of being restored.
The extraordinary National History Museum displays fabulous collections concerning Bulgaria's history and civilisation. Each room deals with a specific period: Prehistory (gold treasures of Hotnica and of the necropoles of Durankulak and Varna), Antiquity (treasure of Panagjurište, end of the 4C BC), Bulgarian medieval Empires (632-1395), Bulgarian Territory under Ottoman occupation (1395-1878) and Contemporary History (1878-1946). An interesting ethnographic section is also exhibited.
Like many visitors, you will no doubt feel a deep emotion on catching sight of the green-and-gold onion-shaped domes of the charming Russian church of St-Nicholas. Built in 1914 in the 17C Russian style, it is believed to have been commissioned by a Russian diplomat who was feeling homesick. The interior is adorned with frescoes in the style of the Novgorod school and with a splendid ceramic iconostasis. Even though it is a pastiche, this charming sanctuary is widely considered as the capital's finest monument.
The church of St-Sofia is one of the country's oldest sanctuaries. Built on the foundations of a previous church dating from 363, it was turned into a mosque in the 16C, destroyed by two earthquakes and finally restored in 1999. The lofty interior and the beautiful brick vaulting are particularly striking. The archaeological presentation, which is just beginning, should, whithin a few years, show the remains of two previous churches and reveal Byzantine mosaics and graves.
St-Alexander-Nevski Cathedral is, with its golden domes, the very emblem of Sofia. Built between 1904 and 1912, it boasts a vast (space for 6 000 members of the community) and sumptuous interior: polychrome Italian marbles, onyx from Brazil, alabaster... Many Russian and Bulgarian artists contributed to the decoration. Among them are Miasoedov, who painted the mural of the central cupola and Anton Mitov (1862-1930), who made the main door mosaic. Not to be missed: the crypt housing the Bulgarian museum of ancient art.
The Gallery of Ancient Bulgarian Art presents an exceptional collection of religious art (mostly icons) dating from the 12C to the 19C. The most interesting items include: a 12C St Nicholas, the altar doors of Boboševo Monastery (1488) and an outstanding carved iconostasis originally in the church of the Intercession of Rila Monastery (19C). Not to be missed: the mural paintings of the church of St-George in Nesebur and the evolution of icon painters discovered during the period of the National Awakening.
Bojana Church in fact consists of a group of three successive churches, surrounded by trees over a hundred years old. When you enter the church, you will be astounded by the frescoes, probably painted in 1259, which form an exceptionally harmonious whole. You will be amazed by the 240 lively characters painted on the walls. The murals decorating the narthex are the most extraordinary of the lot: scenes of the life of St Nicholas, portraits of Bulgarian saints, of the benefactors of the church. The history museum of the church rounds up the visit.