SOFIA, Bulgaria – For tourists traveling on a tight budget, many European destinations are quite pricey. A hotel room and a decent meal in London, Paris or Rome can cost the proverbial arm and a leg.
But not so in Sofia. Two-star hotels close to the city center offer rooms for 60 Bulgarian lev (about $40) a night. Wining and dining in Bulgaria’s capital is also affordable even to the most money-conscious travelers, and there is no need to skimp on the quality, quantity or diversity of local specialties. Bulgaria lies at the crossroads between Asia and Europe, so many traditional dishes are a combination of Turkish, Greek, Russian and Middle Eastern flavors.
A typical Bulgarian meal is simple but delicious, rich in locally grown produce. Among them are luytenitsa, a thick paste of roasted tomatoes and red peppers; kyopoolu, made from chopped and roasted eggplant and garlic; shopska salad, a combination of diced tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and peppers topped with grated brine cheese and parsley; and tarator, a yogurt-based soup of cucumbers, garlic, and dill. Served together, all these shareable dishes, accompanied by hot pita bread, cost the equivalent of $10 to $12, depending on how fancy the restaurant is.
Traditional meat dishes include roasted peppers stuffed with ground pork and rice, as well as shishche, a skewer of barbecued meat and vegetables, or kebabche, grilled minced meat seasoned with pepper and cumin. They too are delicious, costing between $5 and $9.
The Balkan nation may not yet be famous for its wines, but it grows plenty of grape varieties. A glass of a decent domestic red wine costs around $1, and a pint of local beer even less.
To get a sense of how inexpensive Sofia is, head to the Ladies’ Market – so called because in old days, only women used to shop there. The stalls are laden with a wide range of fresh seasonal fruit and vegetables, eggs, spices, local honey, and handicrafts. A pound of produce costs as little 30 cents.
But what else is there to do in Sofia besides eating and drinking on a shoestring?
Bulgaria has been slow in finding its feet since the fall of communism, so unlike the more polished and busier Eastern European capitals like Prague and Budapest, Sofia is more low-key.
The pace here is more relaxed, making it possible to get to know the city and its history without battling the crowds or elbowing through throngs of tourists to see main attractions.
That is not to say that there is no excitement to be found. In the centrally located shopping district, the pedestrian Vitosha Boulevard (named after a mountain that overlooks the city) is full of patio restaurants, outdoor cafes and bars that come alive after dark, creating a vibrant nightlife scene with live music and merrymaking.
Many of Sofia’s architectural landmarks are vestiges of its turbulent history. During several thousand years of its existence, this city had been occupied by foreign powers, including the Greek, Roman and Ottoman empires. Excavated ruins from these periods can be seen in several places throughout the town.
These foreign influences also spilled over to Sofia’s (and Bulgaria’s) religious life. Like its neighbors Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Romania, Bulgaria is predominantly Eastern Orthodox. A magnificent example of religious architecture is the gold-domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which straddles 34,100 square feet in the city’s center.
One of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world, its construction started in 1882 and was completed in 1912. The ornate interior features 200 icons, as well as numerous paintings and engravings dating from the 12th to 19th century, and its walls are decorated with Italian marble, Brazilian onyx, and alabaster.
Nearby stands the reminder of the Ottoman reign, which spanned nearly 500 years from the 14th to the 19th century. Built in 1576, the Banya Bashi mosque is the only one of 70 mosques still remaining in the city.
Like the Nevsky Cathedral, it can be visited outside prayer times to admire its interior walls covered with aquamarine tiles and ancient calligraphy.
The mosque’s name, Banya, means “bath” in Bulgarian. That’s because it is situated near the old Central Mineral Baths, a traditional Turkish bathhouse which opened in 1913 and closed in 1986. The refurbished building, which integrates a variety of styles and ornamental elements, now houses the Sofia History Museum but still has a fountain spewing warm mineral water good enough to drink.
Some traces of Bulgaria’s last occupant, the Soviet Union, which claimed Bulgaria in its sphere of influence from 1944 until 1990, are also present in Sofia. One is the Communist Party building, which served as headquarters of the party’s Central Committee. Angry crowds set it on fire after communism collapsed in 1990, toppling the massive red star sitting on the spire. The building is now used by Bulgaria’s National Assembly.
But another vestige of communism had been forcibly removed: The statue of Lenin in a central square was taken down and replaced in 2000 by that of the city’s patron saint, Sofia. The copper and bronze monument looks over Sofia’s past and present: a busy street on one side and Roman ruins on another.
With its rich history, architectural landmarks, laid-back vibe, and delicious food and drink that are among Europe’s cheapest, don’t hesitate if you get the opportunity to visit Sofia.
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