Area - 1310,8 sq. km
Population - 1 177 577
Average temperature - 10,4° C
Gone are the days when Sofia resembled a kind of communist Geneva, with fresh wreaths stacked against its monuments and a police force that one could imagine clubbing litterbugs and jaywalkers. The downtown streets and parks are still fairly spruce, but the emergence of free enterprise, with traders hawking goods from pavement stalls and privately owned cafes crammed into alleyways, has given the capital a new vigour. The mixture of chaos and decay which characterizes most of Sofia’s points of arrival makes it an unwelcoming city for first-time visitors, but once you’ve settled in and begun to explore, you’ll find it surprisingly laid-back for a capital city. Though it’s hardly a great European metropolis brimming with fine sights, the place comes into its own on fine spring and summer days, when the downtown streets and their pavement cafes begin to buzz with life. Urban pursuits can be combined with the outdoor recreational possibilities offered by verdant Mount Vitosha, an easily-accessible 12 km to the south. Despite occasional concerts and a few discos, entertainment still revolves around the evening promenade or korso, followed by a drink in one of the cafes, bars or beer halls.
The city was founded by a Thracian tribe some 3 000 years ago, and various Byzantine ruins attest to its zenith under Constantine (306–337). The Bulgars didn’t arrive on the scene until the ninth century, and with the notable exception of the thirteenth-century Boyana Church, their cultural monuments largely disappeared during the Turkish occupation (1381–1878), of which the sole visible legacy is a couple of stately mosques.
According to its motto, Sofia "grows but does not age" (raste no ne staree): a tribute to the mushrooming suburbs occupied by one-tenth of Bulgaria's population, and a cryptic reference to its ancient origins. Although various Byzantine ruins and a couple of mosques attest to a long and colourful history, little else in the city is of any real vintage. Sofia's finest architecture post-dates Bulgaria's liberation, when the capital of the infant state was laid out on a grid pattern in imitation of Western capitals – although the peeling stucco of its turn-of-the-century buildings lends an air of Balkan dilapidation to the capital's wide, tree-shaded boulevards.
The mixture of chaos and decay which characterizes most of Sofia's points of arrival makes it an unwelcoming city for first-time visitors. However once you've settled in and begun to explore, you'll find Sofia surprisingly laid back for a capital city. Hardly a great European metropolis brimming with fine sights, the place comes into its own on fine spring and summer days, when the downtown streets and their pavement cafés begin to buzz with life. The close historical relationship between Bulgaria and Russia reveals itself in the capital's public buildings, foremost of which is the Aleksandar Nevski church, a magnificent Byzantine–Muscovite confection. The neighbouring streets harbour a modest collection of museums and galleries – enough to justify a day or two's sightseeing. Urban pursuits can be easily combined with the outdoor recreational possibilities offered by verdant Mount Vitosha, just 12 km south of the centre. Also on the fringes of the city, the medieval frescos at the Boyana Church and Kremikovtsi monastery make essential viewing for anyone interested in Orthodox art. Sightseeing apart, things can seem low-key here for those with sophisticated cosmopolitan tastes: entertainment for many in Sofia still revolves around an evening promenade in one of the city's parks, followed by a coffee in a nearby café, and haute cuisine has never been one of Bulgaria's fortes. Nightlife is improving, however, with a host of new bars and clubs giving the city a raw, hedonistic edge on spring and summer nights – plus there's lots of drama and serious music, especially during the Sofia Music Weeks, which take place each June.
Sofia’s finest architecture postdates Bulgaria’s liberation: handsome public buildings and parks, and the magnificent Aleksandar Nevski Cathedral.