Sofia 3-Day Travel Guide – What to See and Do in the Capital of Bulgaria

  • 19.02.2024 17:36
  • Bruno Arcos

Have a look at our Sofia 3-day travel guide and discover the best the city has to offer, including hotels, restaurants, tips to avoid tourist scams and even a detailed list with everything you must see and do in Sofia in 3 days.

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The biggest city in Bulgaria, one of the most recent nations to join the European Union and the Schengen Area, Sofia stands as one of the three oldest capitals in the Old Continent, only lagging behind the likes of Athens and Rome. While much of its historical heritage has faded over time, the truth is that visitors can still find countless archaeological sites all over the city. Furthermore, since Sofia is nestled at the foot of the Vitosha Mountain, this is actually the only European capital where you can go skiing.

Throughout its millennium-old history, Sofia has witnessed countless invasions by various tribes and empires, having most notably endured centuries of Ottoman rule which have left a mark on the city. As a result, Sofia boasts a pretty unique atmosphere, blending grand Orthodox cathedrals, ancient mosques, archaeological ruins and imposing brutalist buildings from the communist era, thus making it one of Europe’s most distinctive, yet overlooked capitals.

That being said, we invite you to have a look at our Sofia 3-day travel guide and discover the best the city has to offer, including hotels, restaurants, tips to avoid tourist scams and even a detailed list with everything you must see and do in Sofia in 3 days.

Sofia 3-Day Travel Guide

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How to get to Sofia – Flights from the UK

Considering this is the largest and most important city in Bulgaria, it comes as no surprise that the nation’s capital is served by the country’s biggest air hub: the Sofia International Airport.

As such, if you’re traveling from the UK, it is possible to fly directly to Sofia from London-Heathrow (British Airways and Bulgaria Air), London-Gatwick (Easyjet, TUI and Jet2), London-Stansted (Ryanair), London-Luton (Wizz Air), Manchester (Easyjet, TUI and Jet2), Bristol (Easyjet, Jet2 and Ryanair), Belfast–International (Jet2), East Midlands (Jet2), Newcastle upon Tyne (Jet2), Edinburgh (Ryanair), Birmingham (Ryanair and TUI) and Liverpool (Ryanair).

How many days do I need to visit Sofia?

While the highlights of Sofia can be comfortably explored in just 2 days, it’s highly recommended to add an extra day for the “mandatory” visit to the remarkable Rila Monastery, located a 2-hour drive away from the capital.

Moreover, and since you’ll be flying to the other side of the European continent anyway, it might be worth extending your stay and exploring other gems of Bulgaria, such as the ski resorts of the Vitosha Mountain and Bansko, the old-world charm of Plovdiv, the historic villages of Koprivshtitsa and Veliko Tarnovo, or, if your visit falls during the Summer months, the beaches along the Black Sea coast (Varna and Burgas) and its quaint tourist towns of Sozopol and Nessebar.

Sofia 3-day travel guide – Best time to visit the city

Considering the city is located in Eastern Europe, Spring, Summer and Fall are definitely the most sought-after months when it comes to booking a trip to Sofia, with the period between May and September standing out as the most researched. However, keep in mind Summers can be unbearably hot in Sofia, and the prices will be a tad higher when compared to the rest of the year (though still fairly affordable). As such, and unless you’re planning to visit the Black Sea coast as well, avoid July and August.

On the other hand, if you want to take advantage of the cold and set out on a cheap snow getaway, consider visiting during between December and March, when the ski slopes at Vitosha Mountain and nearby Bansko are usually covered in snow.

Last but not least, if extreme temperatures aren’t really your thing, then definitely go for the shoulder-seasons (Spring and Fall), when the weather tends to be pleasant and mild.

Documents needed for your trip to Sofia

Since Bulgaria is part of the EU, British citizens do not need a visa to visit. You’ll just need your passport, which must have been issued within the last 10 years and remain valid for at least 6 months from the date of your trip.

However, keep in mind that starting in 2024, British passengers will need to apply for ETIAS in order to enter any EU country.

Sofia 3-day travel guide – Withdrawals, banking fees and travel budget

With the Bulgarian Lev (BGN) as the country’s official currency, any withdrawal using a UK bank card might incur in the payment of several different fees. Besides the percentual fee referring to the currency conversion, some UK banks may also charge a flat commission for withdrawals made outside the UK. In some instances, you may well end up paying 5%-6% of your original withdrawal in banking fees.

On the other hand, exchanging money before your trip is not a viable solution either. Besides not being any cheaper, it’s also not safe or wise to carry so much money on you during your trip. As such, we recommend using the services of online banking fintech companies such as Revolut, N26 or Monzo.

Although each have their own limitations and fees, they allow you to withdraw a certain amount in foreign currency without any fees involved. And even after that threshold is reached, costs are much smaller when compared to traditional banks. Keep in mind, though, this does not apply to fees issued by local banks for withdrawals made with foreign cards. Unfortunately, pretty much every single Georgian bank charge a fee for those instances (usually 3 GEL per withdrawal). Be that as it may, a message will always pop up every time there is a fee per withdrawal, so you will never be caught unaware. Sign up for Revolut for free >> to get 3 months of Premium.

It’s also worth mentioning that, much like other EU capitals, electronic payments are the norm in Sofia, so you won’t have to worry too much about withdrawing money. Be that as it may, many small businesses still prefer cash, so always make sure to have at least some lev on you. Here are a few banks that currently do not charge any fees for withdrawals using foreign credit/debit cards (as per the day this post was published):

  • Unicredit Bulbank
  • DSK Bank
  • Fibank
  • Postbank
  • ProCredit Bank

On the other hand, if you prefer to take cash and exchange your money in Bulgaria, here are four exchange offices we can recommend in Sofia:

Sofia 3-day travel guide – Common scams and frauds

Despite the negative reputation the country acquired in the 90s, a period marked by the fall of the communist regime and the rise of local mafias, Bulgaria’s steady development over the past two decades has transformed it into one of the safest countries in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. In fact, currently, strolling through Sofia may even be safer and feel more comfortable than doing the same thing in some of Europe’s major destinations like Paris, Rome or Barcelona. While corruption levels remain high and former mafia members went on to become “legitimate” businessmen, the average tourist is unlikely to be affected by any of this.

However, and much like you would do in any other big city, using your common-sense is key. That means no taxis whose drivers refuse to start the meter, no accepting help from strangers when you’re using an ATM or trying to buy metro tickets and always keeping an eye out for your stuff when you’re walking through busy areas (especially around Central Station). To sum up: don’t do anything you wouldn’t feel comfortable doing anywhere else! Also regarding money, remember to always double-check the rates with multiple providers to make sure you’re getting a fair deal if you choose to exchange money in Sofia. Unfortunately, there have been many reports of dishonest currency exchange agencies in Bulgaria.

Finally, and despite the country’s enormous progress over the past generations, Bulgaria is still the poorest country in the European Union, so don’t be surprised to come across a relatively high number of beggars roaming the streets of the capital. While they may approach you, they are harmless.

Where to sleep in Sofia – Hotels and Accommodation

If you’re looking out for a place to stay on our Sofia 3-day travel guide then we got you covered!

Considered one of the cheapest capitals in all of Europe, Sofia is an affordable destination for most Western-European visitors. Although food and energy prices have been on the rise over the past couple of years – a global phenomenon – accommodation rates are still far away from the ludicrous heights they have reached in other places.

As for the best areas to stay in Sofia, our recommendation is pretty straightforward. Given the abundance of options and affordable prices, your best bet is to stay right in the heart of the city, close to its main attractions and to plenty of restaurants, cafes and bars. Plus, public transportation is great. On the other hand, if you prefer a quieter atmosphere, consider the quarter of Oborishte, a residential area near the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Lastly, if you’re flying by the seed of your pants, Zhenski Pazar – located between the Central Station and the city center – is home to many hostels and low-cost hotels.

That being said, here are a few hotel options which have passed our value-for-money test:

Sofia 3-Day Travel Guide – Transportation between Sofia Airport and the city centre

Located just 10 km away from the downtown area, the best way to travel between Sofia’s airport and the city center is by using line M4 (yellow) of the local metro system. The station is located under Terminal 2 (there’s a free shuttle if you land on Terminal 1) and the service runs between 05h30 and midnight, with a new vehicle leaving every 6 to 15 minutes, depending on the time of the day. This line runs its course in the outskirts of Sofia (Obelya), but it goes through the stations of Serdika, Vasil Levsky Stadium and Sv. Kliment Ohridski, which are all located in the city center. It takes about 25 minutes to get there. As for tickets, these cost 1.60 lev and can be bought from the automatic machines located inside the airport. Alternatively, you may simply scan your contactless bank card and the total amount will be automatically deducted from your balance.

It’s also worth mentioning that, in case you land in Sofia outside of the metro operating hours, you may always rely on a taxi. Although many cab drivers will certainly try to convince you to use their services, it’s better to visit a stand from OK Supertrans, the only licensed company authorized to operate in the airport’s premises. If you use them, then you know for sure the meter will be on. If you stay in the city center, expect to pay around 20 lev for the trip.

Sofia 3-Day Travel Guide – Public transportation

Although Sofia is a pretty spread-out city, the historic center is very compact, meaning you can walk everywhere. So, if your accommodation is located near the downtown area, chances are you won’t even need to use public transportation (aside from the airport transfers and the visit to the Vitosha Mountain).

Nevertheless, commuters in the Bulgarian capital can make use of its modern metro system and its vast network of buses and trams, so it’s worth gathering some key information about Sofia’s public transportation system.

Sofia Metro – Maps, Tickets and Times

Made up of 4 different lines, spread across over 40 stations/stops, the metro system in Sofia is essential to the city’s urban mobility, even if it’s not particularly useful from a tourist standpoint. Plus, the system is integrated into Google Maps, meaning the platform will provide you with real-time information on which line to take and where to catch it to reach your destination.

As for running times, the metro operates every day between 05h00 and midnight.

Regular tickets will set you back 1.60 lev and are valid for 30 minutes after the purchase, allowing you to do as many transfers as you like between different metro lines within that timeframe. Besides this traditional option, passengers (tourists included) may also choose two other kinds of single-use tickets: Ticket 30+, which allows you to transfer into different modes of transportation (as long as the transfer takes place within 30 minutes of the ticket’s initial validation), and Ticket 60+, which does exactly the same, but for a 60-minute period. While the former costs exactly the same as the regular single ticket, the latter is slightly more expensive (2 lev). As mentioned earlier, you can also scan your contactless bank card and use it as a ticket, with the fare getting automatically deducted from your account at the end of your journey.

That being said, if you plan on using public transportation frequently, it’s worth looking into the daily and multi-day options available:

  • 1-day Pass: 4 lev
  • 24-hour Pass: 6 lev*
  • 72-hour Pass: 15 lev

*valid for a non-stop period of 24 hours, meaning it can be technically used on two different days (hence why it’s more expensive than the 1-day pass).

Also, keep in mind that in order to purchase any of these passes, as well as the 30+ or 60+ tickets, you’ll need to get a Sofia City Card or an Ultralight Card (where the tickets/passes will be loaded). Besides the regular ticket prices, there’s a one-time fee for purchasing any of these cards, currently set at 3 lev and 0.80 lev, respectively. If you don’t want to bother with buying tickets and just wish to use your contactless bank card instead, the daily cap for the amount to be deducted from the same card will be 4 lev – precisely the price of the 1-day Pass. For that reason, you can’t share your contactless card for the same journey.

Sofia 3-day Travel Guide – Free walking tours

While in Sofia, you have the option to explore the city with a free walking tour. These tours, led by local guides or tour companies, offer guided visits to the historic center, sharing intriguing stories about each place and providing valuable cultural context. Even though these tours are technically free, it’s customary to show appreciation for the guide’s efforts by leaving a tip at the end. In Sofia, a reasonable minimum tip would be around 6 lev.

That being said, here are a few companies that run free walking tours in Sofia:

Sofia 3-day Travel Guide – Hidden Treasures

With 3 days in Sofia, and even if you count-out the day you’ll spend visiting the Rila Monastery, you’ll still have enough time to cover the city’s main highlights, while at the same time getting to check some lesser-known places – both in the city center and on the outskirts.

That being said, and because we believe a good traveler must always be able to explore beyond the obvious, we wanted to add a few more obscure places to your list of things to see and do in Sofia in 3 days:

Arena of Serdika: Hidden away in the lobby of a luxury hotel, this ancient Roman theater was built 1700 years ago, having been accidentally discovered in 2004 when the hotel was built. Since local regulations are quite strict when it comes to protecting archaeological findings, the management agreed to integrate the amphitheater into the hotel, creating one of the world’s most peculiar archaeological ruins.

Boyana Church: Although its interiors are regarded as some of the most striking in the Balkans, which led UNESCO to declare it a World Heritage Site, few foreign visitors actually make it here independently.

Zhenski Pazar: Translating to “Women’s Market”, this is the oldest and most authentic produce market in the city, located between the historic center and the Central Station. Perhaps because of the strong Ottoman influence, it sort of resembles a street bazaar.

Sofia Synagogue: The standing proof of the once thriving and vibrant local Jewish community, which practically disappeared by the end of WWII, this is the third largest synagogue in Europe. Remarkably, and unlike other nations whose acting governments were under Nazi control, Bulgaria was the only country that refused to surrender its Jewish citizens, with most of them (about 50.000 people) managing to escape to either Israel or the US.

Sofia 3-Day Travel Guide – What to See and Do in 72 Hours

Since Sofia’ essentials can be visited in just 2 days, I highly recommend taking the remaining 24 hours for a well-deserved day trip to the extraordinary Rila Monastery. That being said, you’ll get to explore Sofia’s city center, visit many of its archaeological findings, check out the imposing Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, climb up Vitosha Mountain and stuff your face with insane amounts of banitsa and shopska salad.

Without further ado, here’s what to see and do in Sofia in 3 days:

Sofia 3-Day Travel Guide – Day 1: The Historic Center

To kick off your adventure in Sofia, there’s no better way than spending the day exploring the historic center of the Bulgarian capital! While Sofia may not have that timeless charm one can find in most of Europe’s more renowned historic cities and towns, it is nonetheless a fascinating destination. Much like its rich history, Sofia is a melting pot of different Caucasian cultures and identities, with several quarters resembling a miniature version of Istanbul. With that in mind, we’ll start with a mouth-opener: no less that than the magnificent Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, arguably the city’s most iconic landmark. Completed in 1912 as a gesture of gratitude to Russia for its support during the struggle for independence from the Ottomans, the cathedral’s exteriors are some of the most impressive you’ll ever see. A little further ahead, hidden away in the lobby of a luxury hotel, it’s time to visit what remains of the Arena of Serdika. This ancient Roman theater was built 1700 years ago, having been accidentally discovered in 2004 when the hotel was built. Since local regulations are quite strict when it comes to protecting archaeological findings, the management agreed to integrate the amphitheater into the hotel, creating one of the world’s most peculiar archaeological ruins and Sofia’s best-kept secret. Heading north, you will break your fast with a traditional banitsa pastry from one of the stalls at Zhenski Pazar. Translating to “Women’s Market”, this is the oldest and most authentic produce market in the city, located between the historic center and the Central Station. Perhaps because of the strong Ottoman influence, it sort of resembles a street bazaar.

Given Sofia’s multicultural past, it comes as no surprise that visitors can find places of worship representing several different monotheistic faiths, particularly in the area known as the Triangle of Tolerance. In this super compact area, you’ll find the Church of Saint Nedelya, among the most important Orthodox temples in the country, the Banya Bashi Mosque, and the Sofia Synagogue (5 BGN).  The standing proof of the once thriving and vibrant local Jewish community, which practically disappeared by the end of WWII, the latter is the third largest synagogue in Europe. Remarkably, and unlike other nations whose acting governments were under Nazi control, Bulgaria was the only country that refused to surrender its Jewish citizens, with most of them (about 50.000 people) managing to escape to either Israel or the US. Right next to the mosque, you can also explore the Ancient Archaeological Ruins of Serdika, the name given to the ages-old city that preceded Sofia. In fact, this city is so ancient that archaeological findings are discovered pretty much every time any kind of renovation work or new construction is carried out in the city center, transforming the area into an open-air museum of sorts. As a matter of fact, the Rotunda of Saint George is a prime example of this common occurrence, since this orthodox church (originally a pagan temple) was unearthed and is now officially the oldest building in Sofia. To gain an even greater understanding of just how old the Bulgarian territory really is, we recommend visiting the National Archaeological Museum of Bulgaria (12 BGN).

As the day draws to a close, it’s still worth stopping by the Ivan Vazov National Theater (unfortunately, no guided tours are conducted) and taking a stroll along Vitosha Boulevard, Sofia’s most iconic thoroughfare. Connecting the Church of Saint Nedelya to the bizarre and brutalist National Palace of Culture, this bustling avenue is partially closed to car traffic, and is filled with shops, bars and restaurants. If you head south along the boulevard on a clear day, you can even be treated to breathtaking views of the snowy peaks of Vitosha Mountain.

First day wrap-up:

  • Alexandre Nevsky Cathedral
  • Arena of Serdika
  • Saint Nedelya Church
  • Sofia Synagogue
  • Banya Bashi Mosque
  • Ancient Serdika Archaeological Ruins
  • Rotunda of Saint George
  • National Archaeological Museum of Bulgaria
  • Ivan Vazov National Theater
  • Vitosha Boulevard

Where to eat in Sofia – Cheap restaurants in the city center:

Sofia 3-Day Travel Guide – Day 2: Vitosha Mountain

After exploring the downtown area, the second day of your itinerary will take you to the suburbs, more precisely to the majestic Vitosha Mountain. Curiously, there is no other European capital standing this close to the foothills of such a massive mountain, meaning visitors can hop on a public bus and indulge on activities such as skiing (in winter), trekking and even mountaineering. Considering the overwhelming number of trails and the vast expanse of the Vitosha Nature Park, covering all options in a single post would be downright impossible, so let’s focus on two possible choices.

That being said, if you visit Sofia during the months of December, January, February and March and you’re keen on trying some winter sports, then you’ll need to head towards the mountain peak. In order to do so, take bus 66 from the Vitosha metro station for just 2 lev (the price of a Ticket 60+) to reach Hotel Moreni, conveniently located a short walk away from the ski slopes. For a more scenic (albeit pricier) option, consider bus 123E departing from Geo Milev station. This route will take you to the Simeonovo Ski Lift (20 BGN round-trip), a cable car leading to the mountaintop. Upon arriving at the winter sports area, you can rent any piece of equipment you need before hitting the slopes. Granted this ain’t exactly premium skiing, but it’s nonetheless a cheap and no-frills way to give it a try! Plus, the views over the city are unmatched.

Alternatively, if winter sports aren’t really your cup of tea or you’re visiting when there’s no snow, we recommend checking out Boyana Church (10 lev). Although not nearly as high as the peak, this place is still located within the Vitosha Nature Park. Although its interiors are regarded as some of the most striking in the Balkans, which led UNESCO to declare it a World Heritage Site, few foreign visitors actually make it here independently. To get there, take bus 64 from the Ul. Todor Kableshkov tram station. While you’re there, take the chance and complete the trail to the Boyana Waterfall. Though the destination isn’t particularly striking, the 6km (return) route to get there is actually quite nice. Finally, if you wish to mix up both options and combine skiing on the mountain peak with a visit to the church on the same day, simply return to the spot where you boarded bus 66 (as explained in the previous paragraph) and wait for bus 64, heading to Boyana Church.

Second day wrap-up:

  • Vitosha Mountain (landscape and winter sports)
  • Boyana Church
  • Boyana Waterfall

Where to eat in Sofia – Cheap restaurants in the Vitosha Nature Park:

Sofia 3-Day Travel Guide – Day 3: Day Trip to Rila Monastery

As your adventure is nearing its end, you’ll wrap things up in Sofia with a visit to the unmissable Rila Monastery, perhaps the most iconic site in all of Bulgaria. Located approximately 120 km away from the capital, the monastery was originally founded almost 700 years ago, though its current visuals dates back to the 19th century. Deliberately adorned with many elements of traditional Bulgarian architecture, this revamp was chosen to reflect the site’s historical significance as one of the beacons of the country’s culture, traditions and language, particularly during Ottoman occupation. Today, it stands as a pilgrimage site and tourist attraction, and is regarded as one of the most beautiful monasteries on Earth, both for its breathtaking setting and exterior architecture but also for the intricately painted interiors. Long story short – visiting Rila is mandatory when in Sofia!

Unfortunately, reaching Rila independently is not possible unless you rent a car. Before the pandemic, a local company provided transfer services at a very reasonable cost (around 20-25 lev round-trip), but these services have been suspended and were never resumed. As such, your best option is to arrange a private tour, with local operators like Traventuria and Free Sofia Tour offering tours for 70 lev per person. All things considered, it’s better to explore options on platforms like Viator, which not only provide reliable customer support but also allow you to read actual tour reviews. With minimal effort, you can easily find tours offering the same as the Bulgarian companies at lower prices – like this one!

Third day wrap-up:

  • Rila Monastery

Got more than 3 days in Sofia? Then you might want to check out the best day trips from the city:

  • Seven Rila Lakes: Tucked away in the Rila Mountains, at an altitude of over 2000 meters, these lakes offer an excellent opportunity for those wishing to spend an extra day hiking in nature. After taking the cable car to the trail’s starting point, just follow the loop and you’ll get to see all seven lakes. In fact, if you want to include this visit in your regular 3-day itinerary, there are several tours that combine the lakes with a visit to the Rila Monastery on the same day.
  • Plovdiv: Recognized as the single oldest city in all of Europe (and one of the top 5 oldest cities in the world), Plovdiv is Bulgaria’s best destination for those seeking a more cultural experience. Aside from the many viewpoints scattered across the city’s seven hills and its picturesque Old Town, Plovdiv is also famous for the extraordinary Roman Theater of Philippopolis, one of the best-preserved in the Old Continent.
  • Koprivshtitsa: Located almost 100 km away from Sofia, this quaint village was once home to some of Bulgaria’s most prominent revolutionaries, playing a pivotal role in the popular uprising against Ottoman rule. Maybe that fiery nationalism is the reasoning behind the fact that most of the houses – although built in the 20th century – still follow the old traditional Bulgarian architectural style. It certainly makes Koprivshtitsa easy on the eye!
  • Belogradchik Fortress: Famous for its colossal rock formations, this fortress can be found a stone-throw away from the Serbian border. In fact, the entire construction was meticulously built to blend with the natural landscape. Unfortunately, if you plan to visit Belogradchik on a day trip, you’ll likely need to join a tour or rent a car, as public transportation options are limited.
  • Veliko Tarnovo: Despite its distance from Sofia (just over 3 hours each way), visiting the country’s medieval and historical capital on a day trip is still doable. Due to its imposing fortress, which once housed the rulers of the ancient empire, Veliko Tarnovo came to be known as the “City of the Tsars”, currently standing out as one of the country’s most picturesque destinations.
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