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Is Sofia Really The Most Underrated Capital City In Europe?

If you’re after a new destination to explore, Sofia might tempt you. Let’s see what 3 days in Bulgaria’s capital was like…

‘Where even is Sofia?’ – That was the reaction I received when I let people know I’d be jetting off for a few days to check out the Bulgarian capital. But understandably so. Google seemingly puts Sofia into the category of most underrated cities in Europe, but what’s this destination like when tourism is still, realistically, somewhat upcoming?

There were more surprises than one, however. A few days of exploring, expanding into local cuisine, and leisurely roaming soon gave me an answer as to why Sofia might be missed out of travel bucketlists– It simply isn’t a destination which allows you to float around in comfort zones. This location will appeal to you if you’re ready to embrace the unknown…

Allow me to give you a taste of the city, via snippets from my diary. I’ve also included suggestions and recommendations at the bottom of the page, should you feel intrigued by Sofia. One paragraph at a time, let’s reflect. Can this capital city really qualify as one of the most underrated spots in Europe?

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The Lowdown On Logistics + An Overview On Planning A Trip To Sofia:

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Ahh, the part everyone likes to know! The behind-the-scenes costs.

For 3 days in November, Sofia set me back a mere 65£ for a return flight, per person. Now, that’s more than a steal of a ticket when you consider the destination is 3 hours away, and that I’d be travelling over the weekend. Just after Halloween and October half-term too. So far, all is good.

Bulgaria uses Bulgarian Lev as currency. I wasn’t entirely sure how much I should change into cash, but I ended up bringing a little more than 100£. The influence? I’d seen countless TikTok videos claiming Bulgaria was severely affordable on a UK salary. So let’s put that to the test, I thought. Should I require additional funds, I’d use my card.

As for accommodation? After a pretty vigorous search, I booked ‘Rosslyn Central Park Hotel’. There’s no clickbait with ‘central’ in the name, as the building’s neighbour was the ‘National Palace Of Culture’. For a panoramic view, 3 days and 2 nights stood at 285£ at the time of paying. However, I purchased what was considered to be a ‘luxury’ room, which puts rooms without panoramic views at a considerably lower expense.

Even then, you wouldn’t find something like the room I had in many other European capitals for the same price – one point to Sofia then, for the ‘most underrated city in Europe’ contest. There’s still plenty more to discuss though. I’ll add some photos and let you be the judge.

BTW – If I told you it’s not too difficult to do NYC on a budget would you believe me? Answers can be found on my post giving you the lowdown on the best affordable/free things to do in New York City.

The First Hour: Navigating The Transport Upon Landing.

Look for a yellow taxi, I was told. That will get you from the airport to the city in no time at all.

That may be so, but so will the metro.

The metro is also only 80 pence, and it’s a direct route.

Stepping out of the station and onto the pavement gave me a sense of excitement and a chance to scoop out first impressions. Sofia felt like any other capital city in Eastern Europe or the Balkans, upon a few glances. To be honest, the surroundings felt weirdly intimidating, in a way which only grey skies could achieve. Granted, raindrops were gently trickling down my backpack. That didn’t dampen (no pun intended) the vibe in any way, however.

Instead, it put indoor activities into the spotlight. A stroll to ‘Serdika Shopping Center’, where banks are open until late on weekends and bathrooms have free lockers to store your bags, was the priority. This could be handy if the hotel won’t stash away baggage for those with late flights when checking out, I noted down.

(Although spoiler alert, the hotel was more than accommodating of keeping belongings until airport departure. As any good hotel should)

How Can The Same Street Be So Different Every Single Time?

As the hotel was located within a 5-minute walking distance from ‘Vitosha Boulevard’, the area saw me regularly. But I was far from annoyed. You see, every time felt like the first time. I’d discover a new spot to check out, a tempting dish to sample, or a different street performer daily. If not hourly. There was so much joy from the unpredictable, despite wandering up and down the boulevard countless times.

Perhaps this is where the tourist traps are. I mean, there were certainly indications pointing towards the existence of tourism, deduced from an array of souvenir shops which looked like they sold out-of-date goods, and the random ‘entertainment’ clubs next to high-street stores. However, locals dominated this district. Interestingly though, every non-local I stumbled across seemed to be from Spain. Sofia attracts Spaniards.

Does this observation hinder Sofia as a potential for most underrated city in Europe? Not at all. Instead, I think it alludes to the fact Sofia, and Bulgaria perhaps as a whole, have yet to be fully discovered by British jetsetters.

On The Hunt For A Dinner Spot, But Make It Memorable.

I crave noodles and fried rice a lot lately, but I figured that 3 helpings in one day would have felt excessive.

So the search for a dinner spot began.

Now, imagine taking a photo of a cool-looking sign only to find out it’s an advert. Way to expose myself as a first-time visitor, I thought. A quick search soon revealed that these neon ‘Happy’ signs dotted around the city were actually promoting a popular chain restaurant, which went by the same name.

That was easy.

15 minutes in, and I’ve already established ‘Happy’ is probably the most unusual spot I’ve ever eaten at. In the best way possible. Take the unexpected dance shows which involve the entire restaurant, for instance. The bursts of energy then fizzle out and everyone picks up their fork as if nothing just happened. Oh and the bill? Drinks, desserts and mains, but not even scrapping 15£?

The food itself is just about acceptable quality too. You’d like it I think, and so does half of London it seems, if you delve into the reviews of the diners at the UK branch.

‘Are You Here For A Photo?’

Followed by a cheeky grin.

This was the brief encounter I had at ‘Sputnik’ bar, following a desire to check out what Bulgarian nightlife could offer.

I like this place, there’s humour and a level of wittiness I admire, I remember thinking.

‘Sputnik’ is more than a hidden gem. The drinks feel more lavish than the price lets on, the staff are friendly, and the barman will playfully call you out for capturing aesthetic photos. There’s also BRILLIANT music, if you’re also a fellow hip-hop head. All in all, I was smug with this find. For more reasons than one.

Morning, Let’s Go Catch Some Tourist Scammers.

Sofia is going to comfortably sit under the ‘underrated cities in Europe’ tag for history and culture. Primarily due to cathedrals such as ‘St. Alexander Nevsky’.

It wouldn’t be incorrect to say one peep inside the golden interior will genuinely activate all sorts of emotions. Whilst I don’t feel respectful taking photos of any religious setting, take my word – this landmark is one you’ll want your eyes to soak up. Should you wish to capture the masterpiece visually though, be subtle with your camera or you’ll be prompted to pay a fine. To whom the fine gets paid, I’m not sure.

The lady patrolling the cathedral didn’t seem to disclose that level of information.

Within proximity, there’s also a daily flea market selling the types of antiques you’d probably see on daytime TV, alongside ummm, some very questionable objects which I have full confidence would be seized in the UK. However, without realising, I had ended up in what perhaps would be a tourist scam. One of the stall owners routinely shouted over to a companion to discuss how much profit to make on each item I looked at. Little did they know I understood the conversation, and was not your typical tourist.

That Wasn’t The Only Dishonest Experience…

The second run-in happened at ‘The Sushi Bar’.

If a restaurant is fully booked, there would be people eating. However, the waiter didn’t seem to think so, and maintained his viewpoint that every table was fully booked. LOL.

Instead, you should come back at 3, he mumbled. Okay, no problem, I replied, in good spirits. No need to judge just yet, I reminded myself. See you at 3!

You know when you just look at someone and they look away because they know they’ve been caught in a web of lies? That’s how the waiter reacted whilst I scanned what was blatantly an empty restaurant. Fully booked, eh?

I did sit down, but the situation left a sour taste. It’s difficult to focus on food when you don’t feel welcome in the first place. Everything felt lacklustre.

The best sushi of my life, without having been to Asia (yet!) still stands with Poznan, Poland. Surprisingly. Just in case anyone was wondering.

A New Way To Appreciate Travel.

Day 3 had me in my feels – There’s appreciation for the small things when in Sofia. A beautiful sunset, wholesome gatherings in parks, simple ball games resulting in endless laughter, and eating a piece of warm baklava on a park bench are some examples. Happiness is not always from a multitude of activities when travelling, but rather from taking a chance to slow down and appreciate surroundings for what they are. I’ve experienced a similar feeling once before, in a city which also forms part of the ‘Is this an underrated city in Europe’ debate. That location was Podgorica.

My core memories weren’t dependent on tourist activities. Instead, midnight pizza stops, a rainbow glistening over the ‘National Palace Of Culture’ watching traditional pancakes being made, sneaking into closed football grounds, or trying to identify which movies influenced the very trendy ‘Graffiti Underpass’ fuelled the fun. It felt good to immerse myself into a slower, and maybe more meaningful, travel style. Sure, this was no ‘NYC for the first-time‘ level of excitement, but it wasn’t majorly far off.

With this warm feeling in my heart, I was ready to accept my time in Sofia was coming to an end. But it felt about right.

The Point Of Reflection.

Sofia is an excellent contender for an affordable weekend away, however if you’ve visited before would you return? I’m not convinced.

Let’s loop back to the golden question though – Is Sofia really the most underrated capital city in Europe? Underrated? Yes, without a doubt. Most underrated though? No. I think there’s more of Europe to explore first…

(I don’t feel much need to return to places I’ve already visited but the few locations which have filled me with love, prompting a return, are Milan, Toronto and Lisbon, not including Barcelona – for obvious reasons. It’s like home)

Places Which I’d Recommend To Anyone Visiting Sofia In A Heartbeat:

Distances are from ‘Rosslyn Central Park Hotel’. Add to the list!

Serdika Sofia: (Approx. 45 mins walking) + Graffiti Underpass

Vitosha Boulevard: (Approx. 5 mins walking)

The National Palace Of Culture: (30 seconds away, seriously)

Sputnik Bar: (Approx. 40 mins walking)

Happy: (Popular chain restaurant, multiple venues)

St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral: (Approx. 30 mins walking)

Shishman District: (Hip district for nightlife and street art, approx. 16 mins walking)

Ozone Sky Bar: (Approx. 7 mins walking)

Restaurant Shtastliveca Vitoshka: (One of the best restaurants I’ve ever eaten at. A must if you want to try traditional Bulgarian cuisine, approx. 10 mins walking)

If you’re not planning on flying out soon, can I tempt you with another post? You’ll love this complete list of cool date ideas in the UK. Your weekends are about to look magical.

After visual content? I think you’ll like my vibe-y inspo posts on Instagram. I’ll catch you over there.

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2 Comments

  1. I don’t know if Sofia is the most underrated capital, I do think it looks very much worth a visit. A great post, much enjoyed. And I can only imagine the ‘Happy’ dance routines!

    1. Hi! I am so happy you enjoyed the read, this comment has made my day! Thanks so much for letting me know and sorry for the delayed response, I was abroad so didn’t have my laptop!

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