One of the most beautiful buildings in the heart of Bulgaria’s capital is not an administrative building, a palace, an art gallery or a temple. It’s a public bath. Or at least it used to be.
The public bath’s story starts a long time ago with the mineral water spring on top of which it was built. Centuries ago, when these lands were part of the Roman Empire, Romans already knew of the mineral water’s healing properties. They used it for SPA procedures as well as for drinking. In fact, the Roman city of Serdica – Sofia’s old name – was well-known in Roman times for its healing mineral waters.
In the following centuries these precious territories became part of the Bulgarian states, but at the end of the 14th century everything was conquered by the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans also had ways of using the water and as a result a hamam was built on the same place, where the public bath sits today and it was very used by locals for quite a long time.
At the end of the 19th century Bulgaria reappeared on the map with Sofia as its capital city. The authorities wanted to “update” the old Ottoman building and entrusted the reconstruction of the public bath to one of the most distinguished Bulgarian architects of that time – Petko Momchilov. The construction of the new bath took 6 years and implemented various architectural elements in itself – Secession, Neo-Byzantine style and Oriental decorative elements.
Sofia did have several other public baths, but neither of them was located in the city center. The Central Public Bath was the place where the capital’s citizens met, socialized, relaxed, gossiped and discussed trendy events. There was one very important detail though – there were two wings – one for gentlemen and one for ladies. Why? Because everybody inside was naked! Women colored their hair, gossiped over sweets and coffee and had naps when tired of all that tension. There were different pools, SPA procedures and even “telyatsi”. These were people you paid to get your back scrubbed and exfoliated. It may sound a bit strange today, but back then it was the easiest, fastest and most common way for a full-body cleansing.
Unfortunately, the recent past of the building is less dignified. At the end of the 1980s, the public bath was abandoned due to poor management and loss of interest by the citizens. For about 25 years it was left to fall apart until a few years ago when its reconstruction finally began. An interesting fact is that for a while, one of the most distinguishable symbols of Communism – the huge red star from the top of the Communist Party’s Headquarters — was “preserved” in the back yard of the building.
How do we use the Sofia Public Bath today? As Sofia’ s new museum of history. Actually, there isn’t an “old” museum of history. It was destroyed during the bombings of WWII. The impressive building of the public bath now hosts more than 100 000 artifacts. And since 2015 it has be officially open to the public.
Sofia’s history museum takes up about 7000 m2 of the building. There is an ongoing debate on whether the rest of the building will one day become a SPA center, a concert hall or an event center. Hopefully, this will revive the best years of the public bath and recreate the atmosphere that was so essential for the capital city and its inhabitants in the past.
Sofia’s history museum is open every day from 10AM to 6PM. Enjoy almost 8000 years of history. The tickets cost 8 leva, children under 7 y.o. enter for free, and you have the option for a “family ticket” that costs 10 leva. Just keep in mind that the museum doesn’t work on Mondays during winter time (Nov to Apr)
Here’s Free Sofia Tour guide Alex with more information:
Last updated: July 2019