As the plane comes in to land at Sofia airport, the city looks ugly indeed – many a crumbly towerblock. But, once you get passed the outskirts, the centre is rather pleasing. Small enough to cover on foot, it feels much more approachable and manageable than other sprawling European capital cities. It’s pretty too, with some imposing architecture and plenty of green space. Café culture is big here – the Bulgarians love a coffee or beer at a pavement or park café. In the summertime it must be a lovely city to pass a few leisurely days. It’s chilly and rainy for a lot of our visit, but we certainly get the picture.
We do a couple of galleries – the National Art Gallery and the Sofia City Gallery. The former is well worth a visit for a taste of traditional Bulgarian art. Another place worth visiting is the Aleksander Nevski church, which reminds us of Aya Sofia in Istanbul. It is stunning inside with beautiful frescoes on the walls and ceilings. It’s free to enter but donations are welcome. The crypt beneath the church is not free but, if you’re into religious icons, then it’s a snip at 6 Lev (about £3) each to get in. We consider buying an official replica icon from the gift shop, until we see the extortionate prices! But the flea market outside sells knock-offs for about a tenner. The stalls also sell other artwork, vintage jewellery and a selection of communist memorabilia like hats and badges.
A couple of funky cafes we found are: The Tea House which has a huge menu of speciality teas (plus beers, wines and a small food menu) and the Sun & Moon Café which is entirely vegetarian (but don’t hold that against them). They mill their own flour and bake all their own breads and cakes etc on the premises. Yummy. For a slightly more fine dining experience, Pri Yafata does good Bulgarian grub, quite cheap, and is very tourist friendly. Philistines can get their MacDonalds and KFC fix easily enough at several locations. Bulgarian beer is super cheap and tasty – just over a pound for a 500ml glass of beer (and that’s in a nice bar with waiter service). Local wine by the glass is also cheap and you can expect to pay about £7 for a bottle in a restaurant.
Shopping is good here – there aren’t many British recognisable chains (except for Mango, hurrah) but there are tons of swanky designer shops. Clothes, as previously posted, are flashy and blingy. Lots of fur at this time of year. The shops catering to a younger crowd are, thankfully, much more tame. Shoe shopping is excellent, if a tad fetishistic.
We check out a supermarket to see if there is any food we would miss. We cannot find coconut milk, but find everything else we would normally want in a regular shop. The only disappointment is parmesan cheese which weighs in at a whopping £8 for a smallish triangle. Think we’ll have to start weaning ourselves off that!