EAT in Sofia:
The motto is many's favourite place, and after a long workday it's the perfect place to loosen the tie for a bit. The first motto is: Reserve beforehand. After that there is nothing that will come between you and a relatively relaxed evening. Not even the not-so-easy Bulgarian language, because the staff speaks English and happily explains the cryptic menu to you. The trendsetters of the city meet here for an international dinner: tuna risotto, goat cheese in honey, creative pasta dishes and much more - at a reasonable price. The food and the atmosphere are in a constant battle with one another: Which of the two lures more guests? Obvious candidates, aside from the delicacies on your plate, the wonderful garden, the cosy sofas and the design furnishing. And after you have finished all the food, it's still much too early to rush off - now the beautiful restaurant turns into a stylish cocktail bar.
While sitting here you keep wondering how to describe the interior design: Just sparing or already Spartan? While still wondering you realize that, despite rather plain chairs and tables, it's far too cosy for the latter. Moreover, anybody steady enough will find some quirky and nice details that a Spartan wouldn't have thought of, for example to plaster a wall with crazy signs. Or to paint the formerly dark wood panelling olive-green, turning it into a retro eye-catcher. The trendy in Sofia like the place and flock to it. They like the combination of good cuisine and reasonable prices, including Italian pizza, American onion rings and Bulgarian herdsmen salad. By the way, waiting for the waiter isn't a nuisance here: The menu is designed like a newspaper and tells you all sorts of interesting stories about the drinks and dishes.
There is none more modern and trendy, at least not in Sofia. Almost everyone finds happiness here and the perfect ambiance for their projects: For lunch you can still come with the entire, if elegant, family. In the afternoon at the latest, they should cede to best friend, when the first cocktails are mixed. At night it gets romantic - with Italian cuisine and excellent wines from Chile, Australia and New Zealand. The centre of the restaurant is the bar, with room for a whole swarm of bar flies and the perfect surrounding for a good start on the night. The barkeepers know the ins and outs of their work, putting on the perfect show with a drink. Once you've looked and drunk enough, you can turn your back to the living barstools and go back to one of the more intimate tables.
STAY in Sofia:
The Casa Boyana is located in an idyllic neighbourhood, only a stone's throw away from the city centre. The eponym of the boutique hotel is the Church of Boyana, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that you'll find just around the corner. The distance to the city has two advantages: Absolute calm and a great view onto the city and the Vithosha mountain range. With only 14 rooms and 2 junior suites, the hotel is among the smallest, thus offering a perfect service: You are a VIP 24/7, luxury is with you everywhere. If you feel like Italian cuisine, you should definitely dine in the hotel restaurant. After that you will lose your extra pounds with ease in the fitness room. Aside from sauna, solarium, as well as a whirlpool in the bathroom you'll have a wellness bonus of a different kind: Throughout your stay you have access to free fruit and mineral water. Doubles start at 105,- euros a night.
The Greenville complex not only combines apartments with hotel rooms, but also city with wellness holidays. The hotel was opened in 2004 and offers about 100 suites, rooms and apartments. Most of the rooms are fitted with balconies, with a view onto lush nature or the tennis court. No, you haven't misread this. The hotel looks like a mixture between enchanted castle and grandiose country house, providing all sorts of pastime activities that you wouldn't expect so close to the city: Pool, Jacuzzi, solarium, and massage temple. If you use the park for an extended stroll or morning run, you can easily skip one service in the hotel: the fitness room. Doubles start at 71,- euros a night.
If you've ever slept in a Kempinski hotel, you'll have to admit: One could get used to it. And why not? The advantage is that each one is designed differently, and so each experience will be unique. Naturally, this top class elegance has its price. Yet it's easily forgotten as soon as you dive into your giant luxury bed. Kempenski Zografski is almost a city within a city. The area covers 30,000 square metres - more than enough space to stretch your legs. The latter is particularly enjoyable in the garden: A unique, deep green jungle, with small ponds, labyrinthine paths and enchanting bridges. And a walk into the city? No problem. Compared to that the rooms are almost boring - provided you are used the classic luxury. You will be impressed by the presidential suite, however: Lie down in the freestanding bathtub and enjoy the night view of Sofia. A standard room starts at 50,- euros a night, while the presidential suite costs around 1,690 euros.
SHOPPING in Sofia:
If you take a walk through the shopping malls in Sofia you may doubt that Bulgaria once had anything to do with communism. Here capitalism reigns, and the Bulgarians who own the necessary capital enjoy every bit of it. The City Centre Sofia at the Arsenalski Boulevard is an impressive mall that extends over six floors. Included in the entertainment programme are bars, restaurants and an imposing IMAX cinema. Fashion lovers can buy French fashion at SInequanon and Turkish glass ware such as vases, drinking glasses and bowls. Highlights are the Nolita Shop, with unique fashion for unique women, and the Ra-Re Store, which not only offers clothes but also history and way of life along with it. Morover, there are Kookai, Energie, Fornarina, Stefanel, Missoni and other international brands. Kenvelo is a kind of Czech H&M and a Mecca for Bulgarian youth.
The Vitosha Boulevard is Sofia's ritziest avenue, and comes in 32nd worldwide when it comes to the most expensive shopping streets. It's still worth a stroll - after all, you don't need to buy everything you see. That would be quite expensive, indeed, because the brand portfolio of the posh street is no different from the Parisian Champs-Élysées or the Via Montenapoleone in Milan. Versace, Bulgari, D&G, Escada, Max Mara, Van Laak, Ermenegildo Zegna, Moreschi, Marella, Armani, Ferré, Boss, Baldinini and, of course, also the slightly more modest colleagues such as Sisley, Bennetton, Hilfiger, Lacoste, Pepe und Levi's. Once you've had enough of this glamour world, check out the side streets. You will find many nice boutiques with an ample choice.
Mushrooms don't spring up like these small, lively shops à la Muhomorka. This one is the oldest of its kind, selling clothes and accessories from all over the world since 1999. The focus is on items from India, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand. The clothes are made for colourful peacocks, but even some grey mice or friends of a more classic style could need one or the other colour speck in the form of a multi-coloured hat, a scarf, a bag or a piece of jewellery. The accessories that are sold in the shop are perfect souvenirs and gifts: Lamps, lights, candles, water pipe kits, rattles, drums and flutes. According to their own declaration, the shop-owners sell anti fashion here. True, their stuff doesn't have to do much with fashion; more so with a taste of the big wide world. Whatever: It's fun to rummage.
SIGHTS in Sofia:
You won't find a bigger synagogue than this one in the whole Balkan region. Even if you extended your search to all over Europe it would be difficult to find a similarly monumental synagogue. Again, the Austrians left their mark: The building was designed by the architect Friedrich Grünanger, finished in 1909 and inaugurated by Tsar Ferdinand I. Experts immediately see elements of the Vienna Secession, while the ignorant get stuck with the Moorish style. Up to 1,300 believers would comfortably fit in the synagogue. Yet there are only few regular visitors, because the members of the formerly sizable Jewish community have been dispersed. Those who still live here are primarily non-practicing Jews. Since 1992 the Museum of Jewish History is located in the synagogue.
Lesson number one: Patriotism. That starts with this monument, hits the centre of the heart and doesn't get passed the history and personality of this man. To most Bulgarians, Vasil Levski is sacrosanct. He was the brain and ideologue behind the Bulgarian national freedom movement and lived from 1837 to 1873. In his 36 years he endeared himself to the Bulgarian people by fighting the Ottomans. His name is more than a word - it stands for dreams, hopes, potential and freedom. If you talk to locals ask about the local hero. You'll be surprised how people, in particular the younger generation, can still get excited about good old Vasil. The monument to the freedom fighter is located at an ominous spot: It's exactly where Vasil Levski was hanged by the Ottomans, on February 19th, 1873.
Built on a necropolis, abused as a gladiators' arena, extended as a mosque and finally restored to a church: The history of St. Sofia is just as long as it is fascinating. The classic Byzantine masterwork from the 6th century is the oldest Orthodox church in Sofia and was then built on the highest elevation of the settlement. In the course of several bouts of destruction and rebuilding efforts the church has changed, but retains its basic structure: Even today the three-nave basilica shines in the classic Byzantine look. Unfortunately, most of the frescoes have suffered severely over the years, however, you can still admire many icons and three impressive altars. And since you are already there: Just pay a quick visit to the grave of Bulgaria's national poet, Ivan Vazov, on the Eastern side of the church. That's the gentleman with the book in his hand.