There are a number of reasons why one might prefer exploring the city on their own. And while we’re best at guiding walking tours in Sofia and Plovdiv we are also here to help you out if you’ve decided to do things at your own pace and time. If you prefer doing that here’s our suggestion for a self-guided Sofia tour that will take you around the city’s main landmarks. You should be able to cover the route in around two hours.
As with all our tours, the Palace of Justice is the perfect place to begin your journey. It is situated right next to the pedestrian part of Sofia’s main street – The Vitosha Boulevard. Look out for the two lion statues at the very front and you will never miss it. Apart from the countless shops, restaurants, bars and cafes around, the area is also really well connected by tram and metro. Nearest metro station is Serdika.
You should be able to see the green domes of this church if you are standing in front of the Palace of Justice. Sveta Nedelya Church is a typical Bulgarian Orthodox church which is the predominant religion in the country. It dates back to the 10th century but it has been through a lot. The last time it was destroyed was in 1925 when the biggest terrorist attack in Bulgarian history happened. An attempt to assassinate the Bulgarian King – Boris III during a funeral service, initiated by a far left wing of the Bulgarian Communist Party. Even though the king survived as he was late to the funeral, more than 200 people died and around 500 more were injured.
If you continue further in the same direction you will see a statue of a woman. That’s the statue of Sofia. Erected in 2000 as a new symbol for the new millenium. However, there is some controversy surrounding the statue as it was initially placed as the Statue of St Sofia – an early Christian martyr. However, she has nothing to do with our city. The city actually got it’s name from the church St Sophia (Hagia Sophia) that you’ll see later on on this self-guided tour. To this day even a lot of locals are confused about the origins of the city’s name.
By now you should be very close to the underpass of the Serdika metro station. Go downstairs and you will stumble upon an old and small church. That’s right, that’s the church St Petka of the Saddlers. It dates back to the 15th century when Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire. Churches built around that era are easily recognizable by their modest look. Believe it or not, this church has 2 floors as a large part of it is under the ground. If you are willing to learn more about this church make sure to check out our full St Petka Of The Saddlers article.
Right next to the church and the metro stations are the newly excavated roman ruins. They are now part of a large complex showcasing Sofia’s roman past. These are largely dating back to the 2nd to 6th centuries when Serdika (Sofia’s name at the time) was at its peak. A large part of the ruins are houses of people. However, you will also stumble upon ruins of an old bathhouse, pipe system and more. Part of this open-air museum is free of charge and you can walk freely around the ruins. If you want to explore further, you can enter the area under the Maria Louiza boulevard by paying a very small fee.
Right at the other end of the Roman ruins you see the Banya Bashi mosque – Sofia’s only functioning mosque at the moment. It dates back to the 16th century and is a perfect example of the city’s Ottoman heritage. It was recently renovated, so feel free to enter it and see it in its full glory.
Opposite the mosque you should see a building that looks like a train station. That’s Sofia’s old Central Covered Market – Halite. Right behind it you will see a building with a black dome. That’s the Sofia Synagogue! Replacing a few older synagogues in the area this is one of two functioning synagogues in Bulgaria – one in Sofia and one in Plovdiv. Dating back to 1908, this synagogue is also home to a great museum following the story of the Bulgarian jewish community culminating in the unique act of the saving of the local jewish community during WW2.
If you go back to where the mosque was, right behind it you will see a large and extremely beautiful building with a fountain in front. This one is a local favorite. That’s Sofia’s former public bath. A unique blend of architectural styles create this building’s unmistakable look. The bathhouse was closed in 1986 and after several decades of decay part of it is now housing Sofia’s History Museum. There are ongoing debates about the future of this building but a project to turn half of it back into a bath is gaining momentum. Fingers crossed.
At both sides of the former mineral baths you will see water fountains. However, we highly recommend you get to the left side of the building and cross the tram lines. You will find yourself among dozens of natural mineral water taps and locals filling in their empty bottles. The mineral waters really are one of Sofia’s main symbols, along with the Vitosha mountain. It’s the reason why the city existed in the first place and why the Romans made it and important center. Some also believe in the healing powers of these waters. Here’s our guide Alex with more information:
Going back to the previous stop and continuing in the direction of the imposing white building will find yourself in the middle of 3 huge buildings dating back to Sofia’s communist days. The area was heavily bombed during WW2 and most of the existing buildings were destroyed. This allowed the new communist power to completely reconceptualize the area after WW2 and comply with the new standards of socialist architecture. The 3 buildings are now referred to as the “triangle of power” housing the Council of Ministers, Parliament and Presidency. Here’s our guide Stefan with more information about the area and also a bit of context of everything you’ve seen so far:
Even though this is also part of the Largo we decided that it deserves its own paragraph. Out of the 3 imposing buildings this one (the middle one) is by far the most legendary one. Built as the headquarters of Bulgaria’s Communist Party it was full with many communist symbols that you could no longer see. Like for example, the red star that was at the very top. Today, it’s where the Bulgarian flag stands. As of September 2020 the building houses the Bulgarian Parliament. That’s right, after so many years the parliament was moved. Why that happened remains unclear. This building’s location and spaciousness are often pointed out as the key reasons.
To continue to the presidency you will need to go down the underpass where you will see more Roman ruins, most notably Serdika’s eastern gate – one of the entrances of the fortress. Continue right and you will be in front of the central entrance of the presidency. Right in front of it two guards in a classic late-19th century uniform would be standing. They are part of the Bulgarian National guard. They change every round hour and if you are lucky you might stumble upon one of the more impressive ceremonies.
What’s more valuable in the area is what’s hidden inside the yard of the Presidency. If you enter it from the left side of the central entrance you will see Sofia’s oldest building – the Rotunda of St George. Dating back to the 4th century this is truly a unique treasure as inside you will also be able to see century-old frescoes and more.
The city garden is Sofia’s oldest park, laid out during the Ottoman period. Then it was the king’s private garden. Today – one of the liveliest places in the city. During winter time it’s also the place to get festive in Sofia as it is home to the city’s traditional Christmas market.
The most famous landmark in the city garden is undoubtedly, The National Theater. In fact, it’s so significant that people refer to the park in front of it not as the “city garden” but as “The garden in front of the National Theater”. The teater is Bulgaria’s most prestigious stage for any performer. Performances are held only in Bulgarian.
At the northern end of the park you will find a beautiful yellow building. That’s our former royal palace! And while it might not be the most impressive royal palace you’ve seen it was once truly impressive on the inside. Today, it houses the National Art Gallery and National Ethnographic museum.
If you follow the path behind the National Gallery you will arrive at yet another church. This one however, looks very different from all the others you’ve seen so far. That’s the Russian church! Executed in a style that is uniquely Russian it is also known as the place that makes all your wishes come true. How so? Find out in our article dedicated to the Russian church.
By now you should be seeing huge golden domes in the distance. Continue in their direction. Right before you get to the big cathedral, to your left-hand side you will see a large red-brick building. That’s probably the most important building in Sofia. That’s the St Sophia (Hagia Sophia) basilica that gave the name to our city. Built in the 6th century it was outside of the city’s fortress walls. However, it was the biggest landmark that was close by. And eventually, people started calling the actual city like that. It became official around the 14th century. Hagia Sophia, translated from the Greek means Holy Wisdom or God’s wisdom. If you’re already confused about the name, make sure to check out our detailed explanation on why the city is called Sofia. If you have the time, make sure to visit the undreground museum of the church.
And of course, the grand finale! What you probably see on every single postcard of the city of Sofia – The Alexander Nevski Cathedral. It was built as a symbol of the establishment of the 3rd Bulgarian state, after the 500-year long Ottoman rule. It’s Bulgaria’s largest church and a true architectural masterpiece. Make sure to enter it not only through the main entrance but also through the small door on the left side of the central entrance. That’s where you’ll find a great icon museum with an incredible collection of Bulgarian icons.
While we hope you found this useful we must say that there’s no better way to explore Sofia than with an enthusiastic, funny, knowledgeable and entertaining local guide. Our free sightseeing walking tours are running every single day and over the past 10 years have proven to be the go-to option to explore Sofia’s city center. The tours run multiple times a day and you’ll be missing out on a really good time if you decide not to join. Free Sofia Tour is also ranked as TripAdvisor’s #1 tour in Sofia. We’ll be waiting for you in front of the Palace of Justice!
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