Sofia

Overview

Introduction

Most visitors begin their tour of Bulgaria in the capital of Sofia, a 2,200-year-old city. Sofia is so rich in history that Roman ruins are part of a downtown mall and the fourth-century St. George Rotunda (which also served as a Roman bath and a mosque) is located behind the courtyard of the Sheraton Sofia Hotel. Mount Vitosha can often be seen from downtown.

Plan on three nights in Sofia, making certain that one is a Sunday—Sofia's church choirs shouldn't be missed. If possible, attend services at splendid Alexander Nevski Memorial Church (easily recognized by its 12 gilded domes). Even if you're unable to attend services, be sure to visit the cathedral to examine its beautiful carved marble, friezes and icons (the basement houses a magnificent icon museum).

The main sights of the city are centrally located and easily seen on foot, though it would take at least two days to see it all. An alternative is to take the local streetcars—they offer an easy and cheap way around the city (an excellent street map, showing bus and trolley routes, is available from tourist offices).

If you want to take in the city's Ottoman heritage, you can visit several mosques—a favorite is Bashi. The archaeological museum is also housed in a former mosque.

Other religious sights include the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Nikolai and the Eastern Orthodox Church of St. Sofia. Museums in Sofia include the former Royal Palace, which now houses an art and ethnographic museum, the Earth and Man Museum, dedicated to minerals and gems, and the National Natural History Museum.

In Sofia, there are also a number of places to go in the evening to see theater, ballet or opera performances. Centers for these activities include Sofia National Opera and Ballet, the National Theater "Ivan Vazov" (which hosts works by prominent Bulgarians) and the Puppet Theater (for children). The National Palace of Culture may be worth a visit as well when it hosts fairs and other exhibitions.

Additional evening activities include visits to a casino (five are located throughout the city), or stopping by one of Sofia's jazz or night clubs. Also popular in Sofia are a variety of sports activities such as horse riding (and horse racing), swimming in local indoor centers and tennis.

From Sofia, a day trip can be made to the 13th-century Boyana Church, which is located in a presidential palace in Boyana. The church's medieval paintings are some of the best preserved in eastern Europe. Also nearby is the 14th-century Kremikovtsi Monastery, located 1.8 mi/3 km from Kremikovtsi. Other trips can be taken to Bankya, Hissar or the Rila Monastery.

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