SIGHTS in Sofia:
The Banja Baschi Mosque is an impressive monument to the Ottoman Era, one of the very few in Sofia. It was built in the 16th century under the Turkish master builder Hadshi Mimar Sinan, who was also responsible for the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. The mosque has two floors - the upper one is reserved for female visitors. The mosque is the only active one in Sofia: Every day the muezzin calls to the believers from the 15-metre high minaret. Visitors are welcome outside of prayer times. The neighbouring baths are also worth a visit. They were built in 1908 and harbour a big pool. Behind two separate entryways for men and women there are several small mineral pools.
The St. Georges Rotunda was first a martyr's shrine, then a church, then a mosque, and then once again a church. Whatever it was, the perfectly kept monument from the 4th century never quite fit into the cityscape. Today it is perched on a less than picturesque spot between communist architectural eye-sores and the Sheraton Hotel. The small brick church deserves 100 points for its charm - neither of the other contenders can compete. Another 100 for being so unique and dignified in age: You won't find another building in town that is so old, yet good-looking. Since 1998 the hoipoloi can visit it again, in order to enjoy small but interesting exhibits.
Museum of History
Romans, Greeks, Turks - each of its changing masters has left traces in Bulgaria that shaped the country. Those traces were gathered in a laborious effort and are now on display in the biggest museum of the country, 650,000 pieces altogether. Aside from the internationally renowned gold of the Thracians you can admire Bulgarian traditional dresses as well as arts and crafts and traditional pieces of work. Unfortunately the exposition only spans the time up until the lead-in to World War II, yet the sheer number of treasures make up for the missing parts of history. The museum was founded in 1973 and is today one of the biggest in the Balkans. Since you have already delved into Bulgarian every-day life, here you have a chance to get to know Bulgarian history.
EAT in Sofia:
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.
If you really want to get a taste of Bulgaria you should just order up and down the menu for once. The tavern is just as authentic as the food that's in the pots and later on your plates. Vegetarians can pick and choose among the starters, which consist of fresh vegetables and salad creations. Carnivors can look forward to pork in white wine sauce and grilled skewers. The interior is wonderfully traditional. Dark wook, old walls, wooden sculptures and natural materials. If you have seen the Dance of the Vampires a bit too often, you should refrain from eating here - the interior looks exactly how you imagine restaurants that should be avoided by women with a delicious looking neck. It almost seems surprising that the place is not from the Middle Ages but counts a youthful 80 years. Tip: Friday and Saturday evenings there is live violin music in the garden.
If you've come to Sofia overland, you might have been a guest in one or the other of the monasteries. Often you can experience arts and culture there, maybe even stay for the night. Yet the food is mostly reserved to the pious permanent residents of the monastery. But don't think luckily so. In the Manastirska magerniza, the monastery kitchen, you'll eat food cooked according to monastic recipes. Not only from the area of Sofia, but all over Bulgaria. The cuisine is simple but made from fresh ingredients and authentic. The hungry pilgrim is welcomed with bread and salt, thereby experiencing the traditional Bulgarian welcome greeting. If you come as a couple, you can try a telling wedding rite: Break the bread in two. The one who gets the bigger piece, wears the breeches in the relationship.
STAY in Sofia:
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.
In a historical building, in the centre of Sofia, you will find an extraordinarily charming hotel. Each room is different and named after varying metropolitan cities. Moreover, everything here is gay-friendly, however, open-minded heteros are just as welcome. The main thing is to be nice, it seems. The staff provides professional help around the clock, including tips on sightseeing and going out. In a way, you'll find everything you need or would want to see around the corner: shops, markets, and mineral baths. Another proof of the diversity: A synagogue, the famous mosque, and the Catholic cathedral are all within walking distance. Yes, all three. Doubles start at 80,- euros.
To sleep here introduces a flowery dimension to your stay in Sofia. The first eye-catcher is the mosaics in the entry-hall, which show giant flowers and petals. Kitsch? Certainly. Yet it's administered at the right doses. The hotel doesn't differ a lot from better-known places in town when it comes to luxury. But it does when it comes to size: Small and very nice, this is the motto. The hotel is located in the middle of the city, close to the Vitosha shopping street. The neighbourhood has just as much style as your room. Everything is said and done in a flowery way here, whether at the desk or on the big, cosy bed. When you are hungry you don't even need to go far, in order to gather the best aromas around you: The hotel restaurant Le Bouquet serves wonderful seafood with great wine. All non-smokers, who suffer from chronic coughing during their time in Bulgaria, will find a reprieve for their ailing lungs: The hotel is entirely smoke-free, from the roof down to the basement. Doubles start at about 110,- euros.
SHOPPING in Sofia:
Souvenir hunters will find their luck in the most varied corners of the city, but in the Maxido Shop everything is at one spot. Icons, bronze statues, paintings and crystal art - a little bit of kitsch doesn't hurt. Aside from that there is a good choice of newspapers, maps and postcards. Much of it is rather quirky, other stuff is charming, some rather helpful. Smell some of the rose oils, try Bulgarian natural cosmetics, admire traditional dolls? Rummage, find and buy. Tip: The shop is located directly inside the Hilton Hotel. If you feel like it you can also take a look into the KULT shop next door. It reminds one a bit of the wild mix of duty-free shops, yet it may harbour one or the other jewel.
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.
Central Sofia Market Hall is one of the most popular spots to go shopping in Sofia. Being situated directly in the city centre and opposite to the Banya Bashi Mosque it is also one of the most popular meeting points in general. It was erected 100 years ago. Back then in 1911 it was the city's most important trade centre. In 2000 the hall was refurbished in a neo-renaissance style. In the basement there are still traces of bygone times, i.e. remains of the Roman fortress Serdica. The market hall is divided into two levels: while the ground-floor houses mostly delicatessen stores, the first floor attracts with clothing boutiques and souvenir shops. Furthermore there are two stores that have specialised on rose oil and rose water. On the occasion of the centenary there will be a photo exhibition with pictures of the market hall from the beginning of the 20th century. By the way: the market hall is one of the architectural and cultural monuments of Sofia.