We explore Sofia, the countryside and the mountains
The capital The best way to absorb the atmosphere of Sofia is on foot. Set off from the Sheraton Sofia Hotel, pass the government buildings and venture down Tsar Osvoboditel Street. Upon reaching the golden-domed St Nikolai Russian Church, cross the street and grab a coffee at Bar Me (7 Tsar Osvoboditel Blvd, +359 2 989 4696). Next, head toward Bulgaria’s crown jewel, the Alexander Nevski Church. In between are plenty of public parks, which make up for the sad state of the graffiti covered architecture. Ul Rakovski, a boulevard that runs between St Nikolai Church and Yuzhen Park, offers a fine glimpse into the local arts and culture scene, with a variety of street vendors selling everything from old typewriters to wooden crucifixes.
The countryside While it’s apparent that efforts are under way to brighten up Bulgaria’s cities, the best-looking parts of the country still exist outside its main urban areas. In winter, adventurers and sportsmen can ski in the Pirin Mountains, while during the summer, sun-lovers can easily find leisurely spots to bathe and tan on the Black Sea beaches between Varna and Burgas. Although it may seem easiest to take a bus on this lovely road trip, we suggest renting a car instead. Bus travel in Bulgaria can be a bit of a hassle, and the country is not as connected as you might like it to be. Plus, renting a car is cheap and it will get you to your destination quicker.
From Sofia, drive south around Mount Vitosha, toward the Greek border. Before you reach Blagoevgrad, turn east toward the village of Rila. The roads will get smaller and you will gradually become further removed from civilisation. From the tiny town of Rila, signs (and locals) will guide you along the road as it passes through a couple more scattered communities and fish farms.
Deep inside the Rila Mountains you’ll arrive at the secluded Rila Monastery. Upon entering the walls of the compound, you can check in and stay the night for as little as Dhs160. If the basic simplicity and modest furnishings of the monastery aren’t for you, there’s also a hotel conveniently located behind the facility. The hotel will also provide you with meals and food for picnics. During your stay, be sure to take a day to hike along the forest paths. In the summer, there are also plenty of camping options.
The mountains South of Rila, nestled in the Pirin Mountains, the town of Bansko and its accompanying ski resort have undergone huge transformations and development over the past ten years. Unfortunately, some of the progress is shrouded by corruption that continues to plague the country. Nevertheless, this excellent ski resort has added two new lifts capable of elevating 24,000 people per hour. With 70km of ski runs to choose from and its highest peak (Shiligarnika) reaching an altitude of 2,500 metres, there’s plenty of room for everybody.
Restaurants in Bulgaria Behind Sofia’s dark façade, venues such as Under the Linden Tree (1 Elin Pelin St, +359 021 866 5053) present the colour of a distinct Bulgarian culture. Amid merry Bulgarian songsters, treat yourself to local dishes such as shopska salad, sirene (white brine cheese), shkembe chorba (tripe soup) and, of course, real Bulgarian yoghurt.
For a traditional atmosphere, head to Hadjidraganovite Kashti (Serdica, 75 Kozloduy), where the staff pump local tunes through the stereo and serve authentic delicacies such as hlebenica (a big soup bowl made of bread). Try the jamurki, which is made from chopped pork, beef and lamb, and accompany it with a traditional Bulgarian salad on the side. If you need a break from local fare, the town is a haven for international cuisine; you can fill up at any of the pizza, sandwich or pastry shops for as little as Dhs1.
Bars in Bulgaria Sofia is a hotspot for hip nightlife venues and, on the whole, the locals are game for a chat. We’d recommend unwinding at The Apartment (66 Neofit Rilski Street, +359 87 87 87 123), a 19th-century city mansion that has become a cultural project, with different rooms of designs and tapestries: you can have a few drinks, watch a film in the cinema room, programme your own playlist into a computer, play a board game, read a book or talk about art. For a more ‘studenty’ vibe try the outdoor Lodkite (+359 81 182 545) or trance hotspot Cutty Sark Borisova Gradina (Mitr. Kiril Vidinski 13, Borisova Gradina, +359 2 963 3072) – both are open-air clubs and international DJs are often on the bill.
Where to stay Sheraton Sofia Hotel Balkan These five-star lodgings are comfortable, located in the middle of Sofia’s main square. Rooms start at Dhs600 per night. (+359 29 81 65 41).
Hotel Maya Although it’s located in a building across the square from the Sheraton, Hotel Maya is a challenge to find. The entrance and elevator ride up are a little spooky and the owners don’t speak much English, but this is a comfy option that deals in local currency. For Dhs775 you can stay in a cosy double room in a homely setting. (+359 29 80 27 96).
Hostel Mostel Travelling solo? Meet fellow travellers here. The hostel is great value, with beds from Dhs114 a night. (+359 889 22 32 96).
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Ludi Jul 23, 2012 05:18 pm
Very poor review on the capital. From the comments anyone could get an impression that this is third world country- just for information to the author a part of Sheraton and the Hostel in Sofia there are many 5-star international chain hotels and also plenty of private hotels offering great facilities & experience. There was no a single word about the museums, galleries and sites of interests that this Capital with centuries of history could offer to the tourist. Better not to publish poor comments as such.
Adriana Jul 23, 2012 05:00 pm
Very poor and disappointing comments .This is not the true experience a tourist can get in that beautiful country .Seems that the author was on a very low budget trip and no clue about the hot spots in the capital or the marvels of nature in the country side. Bulgaria is known for the very well developed and popular sea and mountain resorts. There are much more popular dishes than the tripe soup and never knew that the hlebeniza or jamurkiare traditional Bulgarian dishes!!!!!!! I really I wonder if the author was in Bulgaria!!!!!And a meal for JUST 1 Dhs.
Very disappointed that was published such an unprofessional and insulting so called travel review for Bulgaria!!!!!!!!