City Guide

Four hours in Sofia 2014

31 Aug 2014 by Clement Huang

1 - St George Rotunda

Church St. George Rotunda, Sofia, Bulgaria

Before she was Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital was called Serdika and was one of the Roman Empire’s most important and flourishing cities on the Balkan Peninsula. It was during this time (the beginning of the 4th century) that the St George Rotunda was built – making it one of the oldest structures in the city and a fitting place to start your exploration.

The red-brick temple, designed in the shape of a cross, has been used as a mosque, a baptism site and a mausoleum. It is a remarkably well-preserved example of Roman construction and the remains of a 2,000-year-old street and sewage system from the original complex can also be seen. For the more artistically inclined, there are five layers of wall paintings to marvel at; while those of a faithful persuasion can take part in the daily services.

2 - National Art Gallery

"> National Art Gallery, ploshtad "Knyaz Aleksandar I", Sofia, Bulgaria

Continue along Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard for 500 metres and you will reach the imposing National Art Gallery on your left, in Battenberg Square. Formerly the royal palace, it now houses more than 50,000 works of Bulgarian art. It is also home to the National Ethnographic Museum, which gives an insight to the traditions, arts, crafts and lifestyles of the Bulgarian people from the 17th to the 20th century and is the perfect place to buy traditional handicrafts.

Built in the late 19th century, shortly after Bulgaria’s proclamation of independence from the Ottoman Empire, the architecture reflects a range of contemporary influences, particularly  Viennese Neo-Baroque. Entry fee of 6 leva (US$4); 3 leva (US$2) for Ethnographic museum. Open 10am-6pm, closed Mon.

3 - Ivan Vazov National Theatre

"> Ivan Vazov National Theatre, ulitsa "Dyakon Ignatiy", Sofia, Bulgaria

Directly opposite the gallery is the City Garden where the Ivan Vazov National Theatre is located. Built in 1906 it owes its name to the Bulgarian poet, novelist and playwright who is often referred to as the “Patriarch of Bulgarian literature”. While the neoclassical building was severely damaged by fire and bombing in WWII, it has been fully restored to its former glory and stages productions all year round.

Even if you do not have time to watch a performance (which generally costs 10-16 leva/US$7-11), the City Garden is a great place to walk around and watch people of all ages playing chess in the open air, or relaxing by the fountain. There are also a number of cosy cafes and cool bars to while away the time, with a cup of coffee costing about 4 leva (US$3).

4 - Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

"> Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, ploshtad "Sveti Aleksandar Nevski", Sofia, Bulgaria

Head back in the direction of the National Art Gallery, continue along the boulevard, and turn left at the Bulgarian Parliament building. You will come to the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which was named after a Russian prince and built to honour the soldiers who liberated the city from Ottoman rule and launched a newly independent Bulgaria, in 1878.

While all that remains of the Russian prince is supposedly a rib (displayed in a glass case) the golden Orthodox cathedral is impossible to miss. Principally designed by the eclectic Russian architect Alexander Pomerantsev in a Neo-Byzantine style, the cathedral’s crypt, which costs 6 leva (US$4) to enter, is the venue for a display of murals and frescoes dating back to the 14th century. Open 7am-5.30pm; tel +359 2 988 17

5 - Panorama Restaurant

"> Kempinski Hotel Marinela Sofia, Boulevard "James Bourchier", Sofia, Bulgaria

Wrap up a day of sightseeing by enjoying a first-class dinner with a view at the Panorama Restaurant, in the Kempinski Hotel Zografski. It takes around ten minutes and 10 leva (US$7) to get there in a taxi, although at peak hours it may be safer to take the metro (l lev/US$ 0.70), which also takes about ten minutes. Get off at James Bourchier station and the hotel is 200 metres away.

The international cuisine and first-rate service at Panorama have consistently garnered rave reviews. Trolleys of fresh ingredients are presented – and all you are required to do is tell the waiter exactly how you want them prepared. There is also a  large selection of Bulgarian and Italian wines. You should expect to spend about US$100 per head.

Admiring the city from 19 floors above ground is a perfect way to conclude the day. Open Mon-Sun, 7pm-1am.

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