From Romans to Communists + the nouveau riche
Thanks to cheap flights or business travel, for many foreigners Sofia is their first, and last, glimpse of this country. Many prefer to head elsewhere to avoid the heat (in summertime), the slush (in winter) and the pavements (year round), and for those who opt to stay in the city, the capital remains a blur of experiences: the potholes and the noise, but also the pleasingly affordable bars and restaurants, the odd glimpses of interesting buildings, usually the St Alexandr Nevskiy cathedral.
Whether you are a resident, a first-time or a returning visitor, here are some places in the capital that you should see and experience. They are best combined, as together they paint a comprehensive picture of the capital's rich past and controversial present.
Until 1943, downtown Sofia was a city that was quickly losing its Ottoman past and replacing it with modern, European infrastructure and buildings. The destruction caused by Allied bombing during the Second World War, when Bulgaria was an ally of Nazi Germany, put an end to this. Scores of buildings were lost forever. The rubble was fertile ground for the Communists, after they took over Bulgaria in 1944. They started construction on a grand scale that would make Sofia an exemplary Stalinist city, with vast open spaces and menacing brutalist buildings for the Party and the agencies of the state.
The Largo, built in 1949-1956, is the best example of this. Around a vast square, the Ministry of Heavy Industry, the Ministry of Electrification and the Communist Party headquarters were clustered. Larger than the other buildings and crowned with a red five-pointed star, the Party House indicated unambiguously where the real power was. Nearby was a luxury hotel, a department store and several more buildings in the same style.
The main agencies of today's Bulgaria continue to use the Stalinist Largo. The Party House is now used by the National Assembly while the Ministry of Electrification is the Office of the President. The Ministry of Heavy Industry turned into the Council of Ministers. The privatised Balkan Hotel and the Central Universal Store, or TsUM, still exist, but the Lenin monument is no more. It was removed in 1990, and in 2000 a statue of Sofia was erected in its place.
Ancient and medieval Largo
A good example of the continuity of habitation typical in most old cities, such as Sofia, is the Largo which stretches under the town's modern centre, displaying structures of the ancient and medieval predecessors of Sofia, Serdica and Sredets. The remains of ancient Roman streets and buildings, and of medieval churches may not be that impressive in their own right, but together they are a poignant reminder of the city's rich past.
Banya Bashi Mosque
Under the Ottomans, Sofia was an administrative and military centre. Few buildings have remained from this period, but the Banya Bashi mosque, next to the Largo, is one of those. It was built in the 16th century with funding from a local poet; the design is presumed to be by the famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan. The name of the mosque comes from the nearby hot mineral springs, which were piped by the Ottomans into a splendid bathhouse. In close proximity stood the main trading centre of the city, with the Salt Market and four inns which offered accommodation to travelling merchants. Today, the commercial facilities are no more, but the mosque is firmly on the itinerary of each visitor to Sofia.
Sofia Central Synagogue
Opposite the mosque is the place of worship of a community that once thrived in Sofia, but now is reduced to just a few thousand: the Jews. The Sofia Central Synagogue is the largest Sephardic synagogue in Europe. Its main prayer hall can accommodate up to 1,170 people, and its 31-metre high dome has a span of 20 metres. A 1,700-kilogram Vienna-manufactured brass chandelier, the largest in Bulgaria, hangs from it. When it was built, a community of 20,000-plus Jews used to call Sofia home.
The building, an amalgamation of Moorish and Viennese Secession styles, welcomed its first congregation on 9 September 1909. Bulgarian King Ferdinand, his wife and the government attended the inauguration.
The synagogue was shut down in 1943-1944, when most Sofia Jews were deported to the countryside. During the Allied bombings of Sofia a bomb fell on the roof and destroyed its library and some of its community's archives.
Under Communism, religious activity practically ceased.
The synagogue was given back to the Jewish community after the fall of Communism. In 2009, the synagogue celebrated its 100th anniversary with a major overhaul.
Central Railway Station
You do not need to have a train to catch to pay a visit to Sofia's Central Railway Station. With its damp, labyrinthine underground parts, seedy shops and echoing main hall it is simultaneously fascinating, overwhelming and slightly scary.
The building that you see today embodies Bulgaria's recent history. The first railway station here was built in 1888 and was a nice example of neo-Classical architecture. In 1974, it was demolished and replaced with a bigger, brutalist building that still handles passengers and trains today.
The railway station's brutalist architecture is contentious, but much of it was lost to changes that are even more controversial. Soon after Communism collapsed, the unkempt railway station and the underpasses around became a focal point for petty crime and drugs. In the late 1990s, ill-conceived efforts to make the whole area less hostile resulted in the creation of a market in front of the station and the erection of a sweeping canopy around the 1976 statue of a mother and child.
These quickly lost their cheap lustre. In 2016, a major overhaul of the railway station obliterated both the Communist and the post-Communist features. The mighty exposed concrete on the the facade, a distinctive element, was hidden behind fashionable metal panels. Inside the main hall, the Communist red star was removed from a large mosaic depicting Sofia's coat of arms. The sweeping canopy was removed. The underground part remains seedy and smelly.
One of Sofia's most distinct sites, Lions' Bridge, was built in 1889-1890, as part of a major public infrastructure project to connect the city centre with the brand new railway station. The bridge's location, on the Vladayska River, was hardly original. Before it, in this exact spot, there were an ancient Roman and Ottoman bridges that served the traffic on the busy diagonal route from the Bosporus to Central Europe.
The four lions on the bridge symbolise four Bulgarian rebels against the Ottomans, who were executed in 1876. The bronze statues were made in Vienna. The opening of the bridge was followed by a scandal: the construction costs was greatly inflated and the projected monument to the four rebels was never built.
The scandal was eventually forgotten and Lions' Bridge became an integral part of Sofia life. In the 1990s, the area began to go downhill. Traffic was busy, but the neighbourhood around began to deteriorate, attracting poorer migrants from Bulgaria and the Middle East. Casinos, striptease bars, money changers, secondhand clothes shops and street food hawkers took over. Grand old houses became cheap hotels. Pickpockets frequented the pavements by day, and prostitutes by night.
In the 2010s, the Sofia Municipality started a project to revitalise the neighbourhood. Today, only trams and pedestrians cross Lions' Bridge.
Until the mid-20th century, this neighbourhood was outside Sofia, the descendant of a village that residents of the capital eagerly colonised as it was close to the city but far from its polluted air, set amid lush greenery. Gradually, some of this nation's most prominent intellectuals settled in Lozenets, in romantic or modernist villas.
When Communism arrived, Lozenets did not lose its aura of prestige, only the people who basked in it changed. The construction of blocks of flats, often for members of the Party and state establishment, began. The neighbourhood itself expanded farther south, with new prefabricated blocks for less distinguished Sofianites.
Post-1989, Lozenets changed further – the nouveau riche started flocking in. Many old villas were demolished to make space for new, often ugly structures.
Despite these changes, lower Lozenets preserves the charm of old time Sofia, with verdant gardens, lazy cats and hip people navigating around the cars parked everywhere.
One site of importance is the Journalist Square, where there is a statue of the writer, Georgi Markov, who was assassinated in London by the Communists, in 1978. The case became known internationally as the Umbrella Murder.
National Palace of Culture
In Sofia, there is a place where you can see a representative sample of the capital's inhabitants. In the vast square of the National Palace of Culture, or NDK, teenagers skateboard, elderly people chat with friends and mothers stroll with their children, while buskers and ice cream sellers vie for custom. In the evening, people heading for some festival or concert at NDK's Hall No. 1 gather in front of the main entrance. The bars around are usually packed.
The fact that Sofianites managed to tame the NDK and to make it their own is surprising – the building, which reportedly contains more steel than the Eiffel Tower, is Communist propaganda on a grand scale, a place meant to impress, not to invite and make people feel welcome.
The idea for the construction of a national congress and concert hall in Sofia was proposed in 1977. The compound was to be ready in time for the celebrations of the 1,300th anniversary of the Bulgarian state and for the 12th Congress of the Communist Party, in 1981.
The project needed its worthy space. The government provided it by demolishing a whole neighbourhood beside Vitosha Boulevard, which included the remains of some old military barracks that had suffered heavily from the Allied bombing during the Second World War.
The People's Palace of Culture was inaugurated in March 1981, even though it had not been fully completed. At 51 metres high, with a total floor area of 123,000 sq.m, it commands a vast square with fountains and marble pavements that become perilously slippery in wintertime.
In the 1980s, NDK was mainly used as a place for party plenums and government-sanctioned events such as the Banner of Peace International Children's Assembly.
After the regime's collapse, the "People's" in the building's name was replaced with "National" – surprisingly easy as in Bulgarian both words start with an "N."The palace became a venue for cultural performances, election press conferences and events such as the 2006 NATO foreign ministers meeting, but also a shopping area with makeshift stalls. The sheen of Communist luxury began to wear off and the fountains dried up. At the beginning of the 21st century, a couple of controversial monuments to the victims of Communism appeared in the park in front of NDK.
In the 2010s, NDK tried to reinvent itself as a place for cultural and political events. The shops and stalls were removed, and a series of renovations began, but their quality was questionable. The most recent of these prepared the building for the Bulgarian presidency of the EU in 2018.
Bob Dylan has a concert in its Hall No. 1, in 2010.
St Alexandr Nevskiy Cathedral
The most recognisable symbol of Sofia, Bulgaria's largest cathedral is 53 metres tall, 73.5 metres long and 52 metres wide. Interestingly, it is not Bulgarian at all.
The very idea of its construction, which was generated as early as 1879 during the Constitutional Assembly, was to be a grand thank-you to Russia for its role in the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire. The architects of the project, led by Professor Aleksandr Pomerantsev, were all Russian. The inscriptions on two memorial columns proclaim Bulgaria's eternal gratitude for the liberation, and the main icons in the central nave are by the famous Russian artist Viktor Vasnetsov. Some of the most prominent painters of the time, including Ivan Mrkvicka and Anton Mitov, were commissioned for the frescoes and murals. The saint it was dedicated to is also Russian. St Alexandr Nevskiy was a medieval prince famed for his victory over the Teutonic knights.
In 1915, however, Bulgarians were so enraged by the Russian bombardment of Varna during the First World War that the cathedral was renamed to Ss Cyril and Methodius. It only kept that name for a few years and, when the building was finally consecrated, in 1924, it reverted to St Alexandr Nevskiy. Its domes were plated with gold. Its carved wooden doors were made in Vienna. Its exterior mosaic icons and sculpted ornaments add vivacity to the massive building while its interior of multicoloured marble, onyx and alabaster breathes power and lavishness. The lamps were manufactured in Munich, and the main chandelier weighs 2.5 tonnes. The altar, the patriarchal throne, the royal seat and the pulpit were all made of carved marble. The icons and the murals mix Byzantine traditions with realism and Secession. Its 12 bells were imported from Moscow, the largest of which weighs nearly 12 tonnes.
St Alexandr Nevskiy plays a central role in Bulgaria's national consciousness for reasons besides its dimensions, wealth and history. Owing to its symbolic standing, it was used by the pro-democracy movement for rallies and demonstrations in the 1990s. Sometimes concerts are held in front of it, and the solemn Christmas and Easter masses are broadcast on national TV.
Its crypt has for years served as a museum for Bulgarian Orthodox icons, by far the most comprehensive in the country. Do go if you want to see why Bulgarians rave about church icons.
The Russian Church
Colourful and gilt-domed, looking like a toy, the church of St Nicholas the Miracle-Worker is known to Bulgarians simply as the Russian Church. Originally serving as the chapel of the Russian Embassy, it was built in 1914, but this changed with the Russian Revolution of 1917. During and after the Russian Civil war the church became the meeting venue of a significant community of Russian exiles. It remained so until 1947, when Communist Bulgaria gave the property to the USSR. Today St Nicholas belongs to the official Russian Orthodox Church, and is known not only for its prominent architecture, but also for a supposedly miracle-working man buried in its crypt. He is Bishop Serafim Sobolev, the leader of the Russian Orthodox community in Bulgaria from 1920 to 1950. According to believers, anyone who prays at his grave and writes their requests on a piece of paper will have them fulfilled. In 2016, the Russian Orthodox Church canonised Bishop Sobolev.