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Sights and Delights of Sofia

Sofia is an exciting and vibrant capital with much to offer in the way of culture and entertainment. The city centre contains some delightful and impressive architecture with some classic Eastern European and Stalinist examples like the National History Museum and the Ivan Vazov Theatre.

 

Sofia’s proximity to the beautiful Vitosha Mountain range with its developed ski facilities makes it one of the few capital cities, which can boast natural, panoramic views from its centre.

 

A Transformation

The city has undergone many positive changes to develop it into one of Europe’s most stylish capitals – the international film industry has flocked here to set up film studios and the now famous Vitosha Boulevard, Sofia’s equivalent to Fifth Avenue or the Champs Elysee is being redesigned to highlight the city’s retro 1930’s style.

The Municipality has added Art Nouveau kiosks, new green areas, water features and art Deco benches and street lighting.

Sofia is an easy city to tour on foot as it really is not that large, although its well developed public transport system is great for those who want to cover a lot of ground. There are regular buses and trams as well as private mini-buses known as "marshrutki". You can stop one of these private buses by just sticking your hand out and hailing it.

Sofia metro as of the 25 April 2012 has 16 stations and consists of over 20 km of lines, connecting the highly populated districts of Lyulin and Mladost. Further future expansion is still underway to improve transport connections within the city. Like all Bulgarian cities, taxis here are yellow and seem to be everywhere until you actually need one!

 

Museums and Galleries

Sofia is home to an abundance of museums and it is well worth taking time to see at least one of them.

The Archaeological Institute and Museum has a particularly interesting exhibition covering the early Christian period through to the Middle Ages.

It houses many local finds and treasures, which show the importance of the city and indeed Bulgaria throughout ancient times.

The Earth and Mankind Museum focuses on the country’s geological history with a large, diverse collection of rocks and minerals including some impressive and extremely large crystals. The National Museum of History shows over 650,000 exhibits from the 4th century AD through to the post war era and is one of the largest museums of its kind in the Balkan Peninsula, whilst the National Museum of Military History displays a wide range of weapons, military vehicles, uniforms and medals. Many of the exhibits are housed outdoors.

Art lovers will adore the wealth of art galleries in this city. The National Art Gallery is home to many exhibitions including one dedicated to sculptures and graphics. The Sofia Art Gallery stages exhibitions from Bulgarian and international artists and is possibly one of the city’s best loved galleries. If you prefer to see the works of some of Bulgaria’s Masters, then the Gallery of the Bulgarian Artists Union is the best place to visit, but if you are more interested in contemporary Bulgarian art, then the Irida Gallery is for you.

 

Churches and Places of Worship

Sofia is home to numerous churches and religious monuments, but by far the most popular is the stunning Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Not only is it the most significant landmark in the city, it is also one of the world’s largest Orthodox Churches. It also houses the largest collection of Orthodox icons in Europe and is easily recognized by its enormous size and gold plated dome.

Another noteworthy historical church is the 14th century Boyana Church. Not only is it a UNESCO site but it is full of some very well maintained Christian murals – many art historians claim that the frescoes in this church are amongst the world’s best examples of medieval art. St Nedlya Church also contains some impressive murals and iconostasis as well as 11 chiming bells that peel out over the city.

The Banya Bashi Mosque, Sofia’s only working mosque is a classic example of Ottoman architecture and culture – its large dome and minaret are particularly good examples of this. The Mosque was constructed over thermal mineral spas and it is possible to see the steam from the spas rising from outlets around the Mosque’s perimeter walls. Another interesting site is the Battenberg Mausoleum, which houses the remains of Prince Alexander I, who was the country’s first head of state in the 19th century. The mausoleum was closed during the Communist era, but reopened in 1991 and today contains many of the Prince’s personal possessions, which were donated by his wife back in 1937.


 

 

Places of Special Interest

The city is a cultural treasure trove with some spectacular places of interest like the also offers many places of special interest such as the St Cyril and Methodius National Library, which is home to the country’s largest collection of books.

Those visiting the capital with families will enjoy a trip to Sofia Zoo, which houses both domestic and foreign animals including lions and pink-backed pelicans as well as an impressive collection of pheasants and eagles.

One of the most breathtaking sights in this city is the unique Serdica Amphitheatre, which was discovered during the construction of the FPI hotel in 2004. The Arena di Serdica Hotel has dutifully preserved the remains and they can be visited by entering the hotel. The Roman amphitheatre (believed to be larger than the colosseum in Rome) is only one of a kind to house both an arena and a theatre side by side and its impressive ornamentation and sweeping arcs, vaults and galleries hid some amazing bronze and marble sculptures of Roman gods and emperors.

Sofia Public Mineral Baths are often called the Central Mineral Baths is a most impressive building built in the early 20th century and used up until 1986 as a public bath. This building is such a landmark in the city and despite damage from bombs during the Second World War, the Viennese architectural style combines elements of Byzantine and Eastern Orthodox architecture and inside there are some ornate majolica ceramics adorning the walls and floor. The building is still undergoing restoration, but will house the Museum of Sofia and a spa centre.

Another architectural delight with great historical significance is the group of buildings known as The Largo. This mix of three buildings is the best example in South East Europe of Socialist Classicist architectural style. The buildings were built in the Fifties to accommodate the Party House, the Communist Party’s headquarters. Today it is home to the Sheraton Hotel, TZUM, the elite department store and various government departments including the President’s office.

Recreation and Shopping

Keen shoppers will love the Mall of Sofia, which lies directly in the centre of the city. The mall consists of four storeys of retail space, which is dominated by leading international brand names. There is also an entertainments complex which houses a 12-screen cinema with South Eastern Europe’s first 3-D IMAX cinema. City center Sofia is the second largest mall which consists of over a 100 shops with luxury brand goods, cafes and restaurants and a kid's zone.

Sofia is full of tiny independent boutiques and you can walk for hours just browsing the stores in the centre.

Vitosha Boulevard is the heart of the city’s shopping area and is home to all of the city’s most exclusive stores.

Another area well worth a visit particularly if you consider yourself a bookworm is Slaveykov Square. Not only is it home to an enormous book market and impressive collection of bookshops, it is also a popular area for people watching. The square was named after two famous Bulgarian writers, Pencho and Petko Slaveykov and there is a sculpture of them in the square. Just a short stroll from here is the fruit and vegetable market in Graf Ignatiev Street.

Sofia also offers much in the way of sport and recreation and those who prefer a more active holiday will not be disappointed.

Across the city the views of the Vitosha Mountains entice visitors to make the short journey across the city to explore this impressive mountain range.

There is much to do in this area, which offers skiing in winter and alpine tourism throughout the year. The National Park, the oldest in the Balkan area contains some particularly beautiful hiking routes, whilst the Knyazhevo suburb at the foot of the mountain has some fantastic mineral springs.

There are plenty of football stadiums and many of them have tennis courts and adjoining sports halls. The city also offers over 15 swimming complexes many of which are outdoor areas and offer impressive facilities as they were constructed as competition venues.

To the east of the city, there are two golf courses, Ihitiman and Elin Pelin and a good riding stable called St George’s Club.

 

 

A Green City

Back in town itself, the main recreational attraction is the three large parks, which offer a variety of facilities. Tsar Boris’ Garden is the oldest and contains some ornate floral beds as well as an ornamental wooden house constructed by a self-taught carpenter called Racho Angelov. The City Garden is the capital’s most central park and is a popular place for amateur chess enthusiasts, who base themselves on the garden in front of the National Theatre.

The last three photographs courtesy www.bulgariaphotos.net