Where The Locals Go In Sofia
Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria in the beating heart of the southern Balkans (with connections to Romania, Greece, Serbia and North Macedonia), is another frequently misunderstood city in East and Southeast Europe: its boxy communist heritage tends to overshadow its huge parks, proximity to nature, long history, and rich culture. Today, the lust for life and openness of its people and all the ways in which this corner of Europe is rapidly developing, and changing, should definitely put it on your radar. Follow these tips by Sofia locals and take another step on the road less travelled! Visit the whole country by rail with an Interrail Bulgaria Pass and the rest of Europe with a Global Pass.
Unmissable bar on the hip street
Made in Blue is in the area around trendy Shishman street where all the most hip and progressive establishments in Sofia seem to be popping up nowadays. This two-storey bar/restaurant is really impossible to miss, as the old building it’s located in is completely painted in blue from the outside (making the name quite fitting!). Every room is different and its menu is equally unusual -- hummus with veal and tripe, veal tongue with teriyaki and radishes, curry mussels with coconut, salad with cherries, sheep cheese and corn bread… It’s the opposite of typical Bulgarian!
The city’s healing springs
Sofia should be famous for its mineral water. Instead, it is among its best kept secrets. There are springs in the beating heart of the city where locals go with huge bottles to gather the (surprisingly) warm, sulfury, therapeutic water… completely for free. They used to say that Sofia’s water could “cure anything but a broken heart” -- find out for yourself if that is true! The old public bathhouse near the springs today serves as the Sofia History Museum.
A reading room in the garden
The City Gardens is a very lively place, especially in summer. Locals gather here to drink beer in the open air (alcohol consumption in public is legal in Bulgaria) and enjoy the warm nights surrounded by majestic buildings such as the National Gallery and the National Theater. But there’s a little secret too: the tourist information pavillion in the middle of the gardens doubles as a reading room (or “Chitalnya”), where people can leave and take books as they please. Even if you can’t read Bulgarian, it’s definitely an ideal spot to make some progress in your own book!
Inconspicuous world currency central
If you’re looking for a good euro/leva deal, look no further, as Nikar will definitely have the best rate possible anywhere in the city. But this spot actually carries much more than just euros or dollars. The owner takes pride in having stock of almost every currency available from anywhere in the world -- useful if you’re travelling around Europe by train, don’t you think? This is your chance to get just a tiny bit closer to those countries on your bucket list (Japan? India? Mexico? Iceland?) that might still feel far away.
Traditional Bulgarian grill in the park
Sometimes, less is more, especially when it comes to menus. Skara Bar serves traditional Bulgarian meatballs (kyufte) with fries and salad, and they also make a killer lyutenitsa (the secret is in the cinnamon). Everything is made even better by their location in Zaimov park. Local Boyko recommends bringing your own wine (5€ for corkage) and finishing off the meal with some mint ice cream or pumpkin with walnut if you’re feeling like something heavier.
65 Svetulki (or 65 Fireflies) on Solunska St, not far from busy Vitosha Blvd, is the perfect haven for those looking for a more private garden to relax in the center. This alternative, Bohemian bar, complete with wooden furniture, bright colors, hanging lights and its grassy yard will make you feel as if you’re in a cozy hut! If you are keen on exploring the latest trends in Sofia’s nightlife, do not miss this spot. Just remember to book a table.
“Reduce, reuse, recycle” goes the motto -- even better if you upcycle your trash into something useful and pretty! Zona Urbana in Angel Kanchev Str. has bags, wallets, jewelry and other wares and accessories made using old vinyl records, Communist newspapers, computer hardware, music notation, maps of Sofia and more. Find here the perfect, unmistakably local gift for the recycling freak in you or your loved one.
A Communist-era speakeasy
Have you ever been inside a candlelit bar? Back in Communist times, this place used to be a real speakeasy -- only if you knew the password were you allowed inside, and it’s said that the city’s intelligentsia hung out here. Today, there are still no signs announcing it, no lights (apart from the hundreds of candles) and Hambara feels like a well-kept secret even now. Keep in mind that smoking is more than allowed inside.
For more local favorites across Europe, check out Spotted by Locals.
Header image by Stolichanin