Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria has an edge. It’s a mix of beauty, centuries of history, and emblematic monuments from Soviet rule. That was the first impression we got while walking the streets and listening to the tales of how the city was born.
Sofia is one of the oldest capitals in Europe and also home to one of the world’s oldest Christian churches. But for many years Bulgaria was relatively closed-off from the rest of the world, first during the Ottoman Empire (19th century), and later by the Soviet Union (post-WWII). Now Bulgaria has its doors open, waiting for travelers from all over the world to discover Sofia and beyond. And this was exactly what we did.
To learn about the city we took a Food Tasting and Cultural Walking Tour on our first day in Sofia–which proved to be the perfect introduction. We set out to spend three hours sampling Bulgarian cuisine and discovering the layers of this fascinating city. Our guide, Stoyan, greeted us in front of the National Gallery, where we began the journey through culture and food.
Churches are the best storytellers of Sofia. We started at the St. Sofia Basilica, built in the 6th century. Next, we passed the Church of St George , constructed by Emperor Constantine, the oldest church in Europe that is still in service. Then we arrived at the shiny, golden domes of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the newest church in Sofia.
The walk took us to the yellow brick streets, an upscale neighborhood with the most beautiful buildings in town. Our guide explained that all the Viennese and neo-baroque palaces were constructed between the Ottoman Empire and the Soviet invasion. During that period, Sofia was called “Vienna from the Balkans”–and when looking around, it was easy to picture the old, glamorous days.
Sofia is full of green squares and urban parks packed with retired citizens playing chess and young people drinking beer. You can join the group that suits you best! But at that moment, we decided to keep walking because our next stop was food tasting!
The Bulgarian architecture, religion, and food are full of historical influences. You can sense flavors borrowed from Greek, Turk and even Russian cuisines. Our first food stop was in a cafe beside an old mosque and museum, where we had a shopska salad–a refreshing mix of red tomatoes, crispy cucumber, red and green peppers topped with local cheese and olive oil. To wash it down, we were served a glass of Aryan, a drink made of yogurt, water and salt. While we had already tasted Aryan while traveling in Turkey, our guide made sure we knew that Bulgarians make it best.
With our stomachs full, we made our way to one of the most interesting squares in Sofia; Sveta Nedelya. This square is where the city was first settled thousands of years ago. Today, you can find a mixture of old and new–a 19th century church, a busy metro station, government buildings and big hotels, not to mention an array of religious buildings. There’s an Orthodox Church, a Muslim Mosque, a Catholic Church and a Jewish Synagogue, all representative of Sofia’s multi-faceted history and culture.
After such a striking example of history, we took a quick metro ride and arrived at a restaurant called “Pectopaht,” where we sampled the best of Bulgarian cuisine. Our guide explained the meat delicacies we were served, and they were delicious! Sausages, dried meat and local wine, and as the previous meal, this was included in the tour. Even the metro ride was paid for by our guide, so we didn’t have to worry about anything.
Finishing at the traditional Bulgarian restaurant was the best way to wrap up this culture and food walking tour of Sofia!
– Contributed by Natalie Deduck